The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has attracted a storm of criticism for an incendiary speech in which he accused the second world war Palestinian grand mufti of Jerusalem of “inspiring the Holocaust”.
The comments in a speech to the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, in the context of the current violence between Israelis and Palestinians, were condemned as incorrect by historians and the Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog for trivialising the Holocaust.
On the Palestinian side, senior official Saeb Erekat described the remarks as absolving Adolf Hitler.
Defending his comments Netanyahu said: “I didn’t mean to absolve Hitler of responsibility, but to show that the father of the Palestinian nation wanted to destroy Jews even without occupation.”
Speaking before flying to Berlin to meet the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, Netanyahu said that he did not mean to diminish Hitler’s responsibility for the Holocaust. “He is responsible for the Final Solution, and he made the decision,” he said.
“It is also absurd to ignore the role played by the Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, who was a war criminal and encouraged Hitler to exterminate European Jewry.”
In his speech, Netanyahu purported to describe a meeting between Husseini and Hitler in November 1941. “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, 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 [to Palestine].’” According to Netanyahu, Hitler then asked: “What should I do with them?” and the mufti replied: “Burn them.”
Among those questioning Netanyahu’s interpretation of history was Prof Dan Michman, the head of the Institute of Holocaust Research at Bar-Ilan University and head of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem. He said that while Hitler did indeed meet the mufti, this happened after the Final Solution began.
Yad Vashem’s chief historian, Prof Dina Porat, told the Israeli news website Ynet that Netanyahu’s claims were incorrect: “You cannot say that it was the mufti who gave Hitler the idea to kill or burn Jews. It’s not true. Their meeting occurred after a series of events that point to this.”
Netanyahu made the claim – which he also made in 2012 – to illustrate what he said was the Palestinian history of using holy sites in Jerusalem as pretexts for committing acts of violence against Jews.
However, almost as soon as the transcript was released by his office, he was accused on social media and then by a raft of Israeli political figures of factual errors in his assertions.
The claim that Husseini – who met and supported Hitler – was the one to initiate the idea of the extermination of Europe’s Jews has been suggested by historians at the fringes of Holocaust research, but was rejected by most historians.
At the centre of the row is Netanyahu’s suggestion in his speech that Hitler had wanted to expel Jews and that it was Husseini who somehow persuaded him to “burn them” when the two men met in late November 1941.
In reality, the mass killings of Jews by SS mobile killing units – Einsatzgruppen – were already under way when the two men met face to face. The first was in Lithuania in July 1941, described by Yad Vashem on its website as the “beginning” of the Final Solution.
In September 1941, again before Husseini’s meeting with Hitler, Einsatzgruppen C, commanded by Otto Rasch, killed more than 34,000 Jews over two days in the Babi Yar ravine on the outskirts of Kiev, an act of mass murder ordered by the new Nazi military governor of Kiev, Maj Gen Kurt Eberhard.
Netanyahu’s incendiary comments come amid a rising death toll and accusations of incitement on both sides, with Israelis pointing to comments made by Palestinian officials and inflammatory material on social media, and Palestinians equally accusing Netanyahu’s government of fanning the flames and pointing to anti-Palestinian material also on social media.
Over the past month, 10 Israelis have been killed in Palestinian attacks, most of them stabbings. In that time, 46 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire, including 25 identified by Israel as attackers, and the rest in clashes with Israeli troops.
An Eritrean asylum seeker died after being shot by a security guard and beaten by a mob that mistakenly believed he was a Palestinian assailant during a deadly Arab attack at a bus station.
Herzog wrote on his Facebook page: “This is a dangerous historical distortion and I demand Netanyahu correct it immediately as it minimises the Holocaust, Nazism and … Hitler’s part in our people’s terrible disaster.”
He added that Netanyahu’s remarks played into the hands of Holocaust deniers.
“A historian’s son must be accurate about history,” Herzog wrote. “Netanyahu has forgotten that he’s not only the prime minister of Israel but the prime minister of the Jewish people’s government.” The grand mufti, added Herzog, “gave the order to kill my grandfather, Rabbi Herzog, and actively supported Hitler”.
Herzog’s fellow Zionist Union MP Itzik Shmuli called on Netanyahu to apologise to Holocaust victims. “This is a great shame, a prime minister of the Jewish state at the service of Holocaust-deniers – this is a first,” he said. “This isn’t the first time Netanyahu distorts historical facts, but a lie of this magnitude is the first.”
Denouncing Netanyahu’s comments, Erekat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator, also weighed into the row. “It is a sad day in history when the leader of the Israeli government hates his neighbour so much so that he is willing to absolve the most notorious war criminal in history, Adolf Hitler, of the murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust.”
Asked about the remarks in Berlin, Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said: “All Germans know the history of the murderous race mania of the Nazis that led to the break with civilisation that was the Holocaust. 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. We know that responsibility for this crime against humanity is German and very much our own.”
Seeking to defend Netanyahu, the defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon, told Army Radio that the idea for the Final Solution was Hitler’s and the mufti had joined him, and accused the Palestinian Authority of employing “incitement” that was “the legacy of the Nazis”.
“I don’t know what exactly the prime minister said. History is actually very, very clear,” said Ya’alon. “Hitler initiated it, Haj Amin al-Husseini joined him, and unfortunately the jihadist movements promote antisemitism to this day, including incitement in the Palestinian Authority that is based on the legacy of the Nazis.”
Netanyahu’s comments follow remarks made by the energy minister, Yuval Steinitz, at a recent conference in Washington, who accused the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, of “Nazi-like incitement”.
Steinitz – one of Netanyahu’s most loyal allies who often echoes the Israeli prime minister’s positions – labelled Abbas “the number one inciter in the world against Israel and the Jewish people” and compared his attacks against the Jewish state to Nazi propaganda.
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