Argument

A Lesson for Netanyahu From a Real Holocaust Historian

A Lesson for Netanyahu From a Real Holocaust Historian

In recent decades, public consciousness of the Holocaust has increased exponentially. One unfortunate by-product of this otherwise salutary development has been the increased temptation for politicians to exploit references to Hitler, Nazism, and the Holocaust to stigmatize their opponents. Political exploitation of the Holocaust says much about the people who do it and their agendas, but very little about historical reality.

In one recent case, brain surgeon-turned-Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson alleged that without the Nazi gun law of 1938, German Jews would have been able to offer meaningful resistance against the Holocaust. This ignored the simple fact that the well-armed Polish and French armies were unable to resist German power. But moreover, it is absurd to think that a few more pistols or hunting guns in the hands of German Jews — by then a population predominately old and female — would have changed their fate.

As of this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has undertaken an even more blatantly mendacious attempt to exploit the Holocaust politically. In a speech to the World Zionist Congress, Netanyahu claimed that at the time of the meeting between Hitler and Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, on Nov. 28, 1941, the former was still in favor of expelling Jews and the latter opposed this because the expelled Jews would come to Palestine. Instead, according to Netanyahu’s version of history, the mufti urged Hitler to “burn” them, thus becoming the prime instigator of the Final Solution. The Netanyahu account of this meeting is an historical fabrication, or more simply a lie.

Hitler had opted for the total and systematic killing of Jews on Soviet territory in mid-July 1941, and German killing units on the eastern front began targeting the entire Jewish population — including women, children, and the elderly — beginning in late July and early August. The two-day massacre of over 33,000 Jews at Babi Yar outside Kiev took place in late September. Hitler approved the extension of the mass murder program to Jews west of Soviet territory in late October, and two death camps using poison gas were under construction at Belzec and Chelmno by early November. When Hitler met with Husseini, the fateful shift in Nazi Jewish policy from expulsion and decimation to systematic and total mass murder had already occurred.

There’s plenty more evidence contradicting Netanyahu’s account. Hitler’s interpreter, Paul Schmidt, recorded the meeting with the mufti, and his memorandum of the meeting has long been available in the official publication of German foreign-policy documents. According to Schmidt, it was Hitler who assured the mufti that he had no territorial ambitions in the Middle East. Germans would come as liberators: “Germany’s objective would then be solely the destruction of the Jewish element residing in the Arab sphere under the protection of British power.” Hitler conveniently and deceptively did not tell the Husseini that he deferred to Italy’s Benito Mussolini concerning the final disposition of Arab-populated territories in the Mediterranean region. As Hitler had done with Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Latvians, and others, he seemed to be playing upon the wishful thinking of the grand mufti, trying to give the impression that if Arabs helped in the murder of Jews, this would facilitate their own national independence. Husseini, rather, was not the instigator of the Final Solution but rather the target of Hitler’s attempted manipulations.

Netanyahu’s latest lie is part of a persistent campaign to portray the grand mufti as a major Holocaust perpetrator. It’s not true. During the 1930s, the Nazis ignored him entirely, as they gave priority to the emigration of German Jews to Palestine over the objections of Husseini or concerns about the Palestinians. During the war, the mufti was a useful but minor collaborator in disseminating Nazi propaganda in the Arab world. Late in the war, when he was no longer of any use, some in the Nazi regime wanted to cut off the subsidy that the mufti’s entourage in Berlin had been receiving for years. They were deterred from that by a Foreign Office expert who advised that open disregard of their Arab ally would signal defeatism by acknowledging that Germany had given up any hope of affecting Middle Eastern affairs.

There were many thousands of Holocaust perpetrators more historically significant than the grand mufti of Jerusalem, but for Netanyahu they have no useful political significance — which is to say they were not Palestinian. His extraordinary exaggeration of Husseini’s complicity, and by implication that of the entire Palestinian people, is a blatant attempt to stigmatize and delegitimize any sympathy or concern for Palestinian rights and statehood. Netanyahu’s shameful and indecent speech is a disservice to anyone — Jew and non-Jew — for whom research, teaching, and preservation of the historical truth of the Holocaust has value, meaning, and purpose.

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Correction, Oct. 23, 2015: Benjamin Netanyahu gave his speech to the World Zionist Congress; an earlier version of this article incorrectly said he gave the speech to the World Jewish Congress.