In today’s incendiary social and political climate, where so-called hate preachers are arrested and speakers who incite hatred are roundly condemned, there would be universal outrage if anyone addressed a public meeting and declared, “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews…”
Cries of “anti-Semitism” and “Holocaust denier” would ring around the hall and rightly so. This, though, is exactly what happened in Jerusalem on Tuesday night when Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the 37th Zionist Congress. I’m not sure if anyone in the audience walked out and, as far as I can ascertain, no one shouted in protest, but the content of his speech did leave many feeling uncomfortable with its clear distortion of history.
Of course, Netanyahu rarely attacks anyone unless he has Palestine in the crosshairs and his remarks were designed to blame a Palestinian for planting the seed of the Holocaust in Hitler’s mind. Basically, he said that it was the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al-Husseini, who persuaded Hitler to carry out his vile extermination programme. History, however, tells us that Heinrich Himmler and the Nazi government started work on the “Final Solution” in June 1941, six months before the mufti even met Hitler.
For many, Netanyahu’s claim was a step too far. Zionist Union chair Isaac Herzog took to social media and said so. The prime minister, he insisted, had used “factual errors” in his speech.
“Even the son of a historian needs to get history right,” wrote Herzog on Facebook. “Yesterday, Netanyahu told the Zionist Congress that the Nazis didn’t want to exterminate the Jews, but instead were seeking to expel them, and that it was the mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who gave the tyrant Hitler the idea [to commit genocide].” Netanyahu’s speech, added Herzog, contained passages that were a “dangerous distortion” of history. “I demand that Netanyahu correct this immediately since he is trivialising the Holocaust.”
Some believe that by attempting to minimise the Nazis’ role in the Holocaust, the Israeli leader has scored an own goal and fuelled the arguments made by despicable Holocaust deniers. Zionists across the political spectrum were shocked. According to Zevaha Galon of Israel’s left-wing Meretz Party, Netanyahu’s remarks exposed “the depths to which this man has sunk.”
“This wasn’t a speech by [the late Austrian leader of the far-right Freedom Party] Jorg Haider,” Galon wrote. “This wasn’t a snippet of Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas’s doctoral thesis. This was an actual quote by the prime minister of the State of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, before the World Zionist Congress. It has to be seen to be believed.” She went to suggest that the corpses of the 33,771 Jews murdered in Babi Yar in September 1941, two months before the mufti and Hitler met, should be exhumed. “We can then bring them up to speed on the fact that the Nazis had no intention of destroying them.”
Observers say that Netanyahu addressed the congress with the intention of blaming the Jerusalem mufti for persuading Hitler not to expel Europe’s Jews as they would flood into Palestine, which was under British Mandatory rule at the time. The demonisation of the mufti’s role was an attempt by the Israeli leader to further demonise the Palestinians in order to justify the disproportionate use of violence meted out against them by the Israeli army and settlers in the occupied West Bank.
Shortly before the now infamous speech by the Israeli prime minister, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon flew to the Middle East on an unscheduled visit in an attempt to bring an end to the deadly spiral of violence. Mr Ban said that his visit “reflects the sense of global alarm” over a dangerous escalation in violence between Israelis and Palestinians. He told a news conference that he was there to support all efforts to “prevent the situation from spinning out of control.”
The UN chief has yet to comment on the content of Netanyahu’s speech, despite the fact that the prime minister not only attracted the derision of his critics but also the condemnation of the Zionists who gathered to hear it.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to rewrite history further diminishes his credibility as someone who can be taken seriously on the world stage. He will discover, as many right-wing, neo-fascists have, that trying to minimise Hitler’s role in the Holocaust is never a good idea. Especially not while speaking to the World Zionist Congress. And especially not in Israel.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.