JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stirred controversy by intimating the Holocaust may not have been Adolf Hitler’s idea, and that in fact, he had been led down the garden path by the then Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, a Palestinian.
Germany’s response: No, no, it was us.
“Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews and Hajj Amin al-Husseini went to him and said if you expel them they’ll all come here. So what should I do with them? He asked. Burn them, he said.” These were Netanyahu’s words before the World Zionist Congress on Tuesday night.
If such a sentence were uttered by anyone but the leader of the Jewish state, one might be tempted to call it Holocaust denying, or at least a radically revisionist narrative of what happened.
But, Holocaust experts say, the interaction the prime minister described is a fiction.
“This conversation never took place,” said Dr. David Motadel, a historian and author of "Islam and Nazi Germany's War."
"The mufti was not involved in the planning of the Holocaust."
"The Nazis had started to murder Jews on the eastern front in the late summer of 1941, long before the mufti arrived in Germany. The Holocaust had already started.”
The only time Mufti Husseini was received by Hitler was on Nov. 28 1941, Motadel points out, when the Holocaust was already underway. The dynamics were also different from those Netanyahu alluded to. “There was of course a power imbalance. Hitler did not accept the mufti as an equal. The Germans had in fact a very patronizing attitude toward Amin al-Husayni. They used him as a propaganda tool in the hope to win over the Muslim world. But his influence in Berlin was limited.”
The German government was equally adamant that Netanyahu was mistaken.
“We know that responsibility for this crime against humanity is German and very much our own,” said Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert when asked about the remarks. “This is taught in German schools for good reason, it must never be forgotten. And I see no reason to change our view of history in any way.”
This is not Netanyahu’s first such claim. During a 2012 Knesset speech he referred to Husseini as “one of the leading architects” of the Final Solution. Experts on the Holocaust disagree.
“Netanyahu said incorrect things,” said Dina Porat, a professor at the Department of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University and the chief historian of Yad Vashem, the Israeli memorial to victims of the Holocaust. “These things did not have to be said. I am waiting and calling on the Prime Minister to come and explain himself in an organized fashion, not to just toss out a sentence, and to clarify what he meant and to recant if he can, because his words can absolutely cause damage,” she said on Israeli army radio.
Others were even more blunt.
“I would prefer not to comment other than to say that he is as bad a historian as he is a politician,” said Tony Kushner, a professor of history at the University of Southampton and the author of a number of books on the Holocaust. “If there was any justice in the world, he would leave both professions alone and do something useful with his life.”
Netanyahu is not alone in seeking to use the history of the mufti's collaboration to connect Palestinians to the Nazis. Right-wing Israeli politician Avigdor Lieberman made a similar claim in 2009.
“The attempt to connect your political enemies to Nazism, the synonym for the ultimate evil, with the aim to defame and disqualify them, is not new,” said Motadel. “The entire debate about “Islamo-faschism” is part of this discourse.”
“These attempts are meant to defame Palestinians or Muslims more generally by connecting them to Nazism, as the synonym of ultimate evil.”
The incident comes in the middle of a wave of violence that has shaken the Holy Land in recent weeks. On the same evening that he spoke at the Congress, Netanyahu met with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who had come to Israel in hopes of calming the ongoing bloodshed. He said he understood Palestinian frustration but called on them to put down their weapons while saying to the Israelis that a crackdown will not end the bloodletting.
“The status quo is only making things worse. This conflict has gone on for far too long. We must, for the future of our children, turn back from this dangerous abyss, safeguard the two-state solution and lead people back onto the road towards peace,” said Secretary Ban on Tuesday.
Daniella Cheslow contributed reporting.