Crude rewrite of history demonises Palestinians

No good can come of regarding the Palestinians as the embodiment of a Nazi-like existential threat to Jews, argue Hussein Ibish and David Myers

Benjamin Netanyahu's historical revisionism is reflective of the kind of archetypal thinking for which his historian father, Benzion Netanyanhu, a fiery revisionist zionist, was well known. Miriam May – Pool / Getty Images
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By Hussein Ibish and David N Myers

It's rare that a seemingly incontrovertible aspect of modern history suddenly gets a new interpretation. And it's even rarer when that comes from a major national leader. But Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has recently posited that Adolf Hitler wasn't primarily responsible for the Holocaust after all. The real culprit was, Mr Netanyahu claims, a Palestinian.

This is not just bad history. In a conflict in which false claims abound and drive incendiary rhetoric, it is a most unwelcome addition to the witches’ brew of incitement.

Before he met the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al Husseini, in Berlin in November 1941, according to Mr Netanyahu, Hitler was rather modest in his aspirations. Drawing on a claim already made in his 1993 book A Place about the Nations, Mr Netanyahu told the 37th World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem on October 20: “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time; he wanted to expel the Jews.” He asserts that it was Al Husseini who convinced Hitler to change his plans.

Apart from the fact that Hitler did meet Al Husseini, none of this is true. Not only had the mass killing of Jews commenced in the previous summer when Nazi forces invaded the Soviet Union, more importantly, it was not the Mufti of Jerusalem who brought Hitler and his henchmen to the decision to undertake a genocide against Jews. Hitler’s own fanatical anti-Semitism drove Nazi state officials to arrive at ever more lethal responses to the “Jewish Question”, culminating in the Final Solution.

Why then does Mr Netanyahu seek to exculpate Hitler and undermine an established historical premise? Simply put, he is rather cynically trying to reposition blame for the Holocaust on to the Palestinians.

Al Husseini was a reprehensible person and a terrible leader. He was also a Nazi sympathiser and a hater of the Jews. He saw Hitler as a foe of the British who had exiled him and of the Jews who were colonising Palestine, and he sought his support. Al Husseini does not appear to have gained much from his meeting with Hitler, and certainly not the public statement in support of Arab independence he wanted. Hitler probably took away even less from the meeting.

Blaming Al Husseini for the Holocaust is irresponsible and dangerous, as well as factually wrong. This marginal figure neither had the gravitas nor influence to persuade Hitler of the desirability of exterminating Jews, nor did Hitler need a push in that direction.

Following the war, Al Husseini was completely marginalised in Palestinian and Arab politics, owing to his miscalculations and delusions of grandeur. He died in relative obscurity, never having again reached a position of political influence. Far from being “revered” as Mr Netanyahu claims, he is generally ignored by Palestinians as an embarrassment and a failure. Even Hamas dismisses him in favour of his contemporary, Izzedine Al Qassam, whose memory they really do champion.

Mr Netanyahu’s historical revisionism is reflective of the kind of archetypal thinking for which his historian father, Benzion Netanyanhu, a fiery revisionist zionist, was well known. In every generation, to this mindset, there is an “Amalek” seeking to destroy the Jews. The “Amalek” of the moment, of course, are Palestinians, and linking them as strongly as possible, and however mistakenly, to the Holocaust serves that paranoid narrative.

This is not only bad history. It makes for dangerous policy.

Palestinian leaders are often accused of inciting their followers to hatred on the basis of false historical claims, sometimes even including their own versions of Holocaust denial, and more typically a refusal to acknowledge a deep Jewish connection to Palestine or to the Western Wall. This can and does descend into a kind of demonisation that encourages violence and persuades Israelis that Palestinians are not ready for peace.

But Mr Netanyahu’s attempts to pin the Holocaust on the mufti are a barely concealed attempt to shift the blame for this great historical crime on to the Palestinians of today. Just as some today whitewash the ignominious history of Christian anti-Semitism in favour of a facile Islamophobia, so Mr Netanyahu has in stunning fashion lifted the yoke of historical responsibility for the Holocaust from the Nazis and placed it on the Palestinians.

No good can come of regarding the Palestinians as the embodiment of a Nazi-like existential threat to Jews. A statement such as this will further poison the waters in the region, which is boiling over in violence as it is. It will seriously erode the confidence needed to return to negotiations, which Israel needs if it is to remain meaningfully either Jewish or democratic, and which Palestinians need if they are to gain their freedom and independence. And it does a profound disservice to future generations, who are placed at risk of growing up with dangerously mistaken views of the past on the basis of which they will be inclined to act.

Simply put, Mr Netanyahu’s crude attempt to rewrite history demonises Palestinians, who’ve already suffered enough, and undermines the prospects for peace on which the future of both peoples depends.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and David N Myers is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History at UCLA