Once the laughter and groans have died down, the unorthodox version of Holocaust history offered by Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem the other day confronts us with a deeply unsettling question: What to make of the fact that the Jewish state, of all places, has a Holocaust revisionist for a prime minister?
Too harsh? Perhaps “Hitler apologist” would go down easier. What’s the proper term for a politician who stands before an international audience and declares that “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews,” but was talked into it by someone he’d just met?
That’s the thesis that Netanyahu laid out in his keynote address to the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem on October 20. According to the prime minister, the idea of killing the Jews was pitched to the fuehrer by the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, when the two met over tea in Berlin on November 28, 1941.
“Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time,” the prime minister said. “He wanted to expel the Jews. And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said: ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come here,’” meaning Palestine. Netanyahu continued: “’So what should I do with them?’ he asked. He said, ‘Burn them.’” (You can watch Netanyahu’s comments here on Ynet, here at Haaretz or here on CNN.)
The remark has prompted an international uproar, with barbs flying in every direction. Critics say Netanyahu “plays into those who would trivialize or understate Adolf Hitler’s role in orchestrating the Holocaust,” in the words of the Anti-Defamation League’s rookie national director Jonathan Greenblatt. Supporters are, predictably, supportive. The Simon Wiesenthal Center’s associate dean Abraham Cooper and in-house historian Harold Brackman, wrote in a Jewish Journal op-ed that the prime minister “went too far” in claiming that Hitler needed Husseini’s help thinking up mass murder, but was “right on” in his larger point, namely that the the accusation of Jews threatening the Al Aqsa mosque can be traced back to the Holocaust-supporting Husseini, way back in the 1920s.
The implication, apparently, is that the mosque accusation is a Nazi-style, genocidal delusion. The further implication is that when current-day Palestinians and other Muslims accuse Israelis of planning to impinge on Muslim religious hegemony over the Temple Mount, they’re merely carrying on the ravings of the mufti who dreamed up the Holocaust.
Netanyahu tried to walk back his statement the next day, saying he didn’t mean to absolve Hitler of responsibility, since Hitler was the one who “made the decision.” He doubled down on Husseini’s role, though, citing a German official’s testimony at the Nuremberg trials to the effect that Husseini had been deeply involved in the gestation. The German, Adolf Eichmann’s deputy Dieter Wisliceny, has been quoted as testifying that the mufti and Eichmann were “best friends” and that the mufti “constantly incited” Eichmann to “greater extermination measures.” The Wisliceny testimony helped inspire the urban legend, which has circulated for years among right-wing Israelis, that Husseini was in fact one of the architects of the Final Solution.
The legend is so deeply rooted, and the facts so tangled up in myths, high-intensity polemics and endless volumes of dry history, that many journalists reporting Bibi’s latest fuehrer furor have given up trying to find the truth. Numerous news accunts of the dustup simply report, like CNN’s Greg Botelho, that the facts can’t be nailed down. “There’s no video or audio, not even a transcript, that can definitively prove Netanyahu’s account of the conversation between Hitler and Husseini,” Botelho wrote.
Actually, there is a record — possibly two, in fact. Hitler’s translator, Paul Otto Schmidt, took notes at the meeting, and they’re readily available. (Find the English translation here or here.) Moreover, the mufti himself kept a diary. The common Internet version of what are said to be his notes from his Hitler powwow (here) tracks closely with Schmidt’s minutes.
What the records show is that the mufti did not pitch genocide to Hitler. Husseini did express support for Hitler’s plan to eliminate the Jews, which he had plainly heard about before the meeting. Hitler proceeded to describe the plan to him in general terms. Husseini said “the Arabs” supported Nazi Germany because they shared the same enemies, namely Great Britain, the Jews and the communists. Hitler told Husseini that he opposed the British-sponsored Jewish national home in Palestine. Husseini asked for a public statement from Hitler endorsing the “elimination” of the Jewish national home. Hitler turned him down.
Both documents make clear that Hitler was already engaged in his genocidal final solution, and that the mufti was an enthusiastic fan. (He would later become an active participant.) Hitler favored extermination because he believed the Jews were trying to take over the world through their domination of capitalist Great Britain and communist Russia. Husseini wanted Jews removed from the Arab world because they were trying to take over Palestine.
There’s also abundant public record documenting the substantial progress Hitler and his lieutenants had made in gearing up the final solution by the time of the November 28 Hitler-Husseini chat. The organized mass killing of Jews by the Nazis had begun in June 1941, immediately after the German invasion of the Soviet Union. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Hitler gave broad instructions to SS chief Heinrich Himmler to “physically eliminate” any perceived threats on July 17, 1941. On July 31, according to the museum, Hermann Goering, Hitler’s chief deputy and designated successor, “authorized SS General Reinhard Heydrich to make preparations for the implementation of a ‘complete solution of the Jewish question.’”
By the end of November, when Hitler met Husseini for the first and only time, planning was well underway for the Wansee Conference, which assembled various German government department heads in January 1942 to coordinate the immense bureaucratic blueprint for genocide that Heydrich had mapped out. Heydrich actually sent out the invitations to the conference on November 29, the day after the mufti met the fuehrer.
Netanyahu’s version of history is so demonstrably and utterly at odds with the historical record that it’s hard to fathom what could have driven him to offer it in a heavily watched keynote address to an international convention. The prime minister famously prides himself on his grasp of history. He makes frequent and facile use of the Holocaust as an object lesson for humanity. Even his harshest critics must have difficulty absorbing the realization that he can be so ignorant of the most basic facts of that history. There’s no lack of observers who disagree, often sharply, with his policies. But this goes to his competence.
There’s another, perhaps larger question raised by Netanyahu’s speech. It goes to the rapidly escalating level of vitriol that the prime minister is directing at Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. One of the clearly evident goals of the Zionist Congress speech was to draw a straight line between the Final Solution and today’s Palestinian national movementand its leader. At a time when Abbas has been peppering nearly every major speech with an appeal for a two-state solution, for a Palestinian state alongside Israel within defined borders, trying to paint him as an heir to the Nazis perverts the truth. Nor does the prime minister stop there. Just hours after the Zionist Congress speech, during a joint press conference with United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon, he said that Abbas had “joined” with Hamas and ISIS.
If Netanyahu’s goal is to pave the way to an eventual reconciliation and coexistence, as he so often claims, he’s picked a funny way of doing it. If his goal is, as he says it is, to discourage slander, demonization and incitement, practicing those very things is a bad first step.
J.J. Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward.
This story "Why Benjamin Netanyahu's Defense of Hitler Is So Wrong — and Matters So Much" was written by J.J. Goldberg.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).