‘The decision to move from a policy of deporting Jews to the Final Solution was made by the Nazis and was not dependent on outside influence,” Prime Minister Netanyahu clarified last Friday (October 30). This followed his erroneous and controversial claim, made 10 days earlier at the Zionist Congress, that “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time,” but that it was the exiled Mufti of Jerusalem who had given him the idea to simply “burn them.” The allegation created an uproar among opposition parties, the media, world Jewry, historians and in Berlin, where both coalition and opposition re-claimed full responsibility for the Holocaust.
So Netanyahu’s clarification was important and appropriate. But – there is always a “but” – Netanyahu emphasized that his “remarks were intended to illustrate the murderous approach of the Mufti to the Jews in his lengthy contacts with the Nazi leadership,” linking it to a general Palestinian approach, today and in essence.
There is no doubt among historians that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini, was a war criminal and anti-Semite. He was convicted of war crimes and was engaged in terrorist activity up until his death in 1974. But (and that is my own added “but”) is the mufti really “an iconic figure” for Palestinians today, as Netanyahu maintains? If so, that may “speak volumes about [the Palestinian] leadership’s real attitude toward Israel.”
It may also speak volumes, however, against those criticizing the right wing for allowing security to deteriorate, with weeks of sporadic daily stabbings, 14 months after the entire country was subjected to Kassam rocket fire for an entire summer. If Palestinians are merely successors of the Nazi regime whose violence and hate toward Jews is a fait accompli, why blame Netanyahu’s government for failing to keep security or make diplomatic progress with them? If a line is drawn between Husseini and contemporary Palestinian ideology, why take note of Israeli governments’ rejection of any peace plan that was ever put on the table – from the Peres-Hussein “London Agreement” in 1987, through president Clinton’s parameters in 2000 and the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, to France or New Zealand’s recent proposals to the United Nations Security Council, which Israel described as “destructive”? No one should expect Israel to repeat Chamberlain’s mistakes with Hitler.
The fact that Netanyahu’s argument has substantial consequences for the assessment of his own performance means that it must be taken with more than a grain of salt. Two key questions should be answered:
a) Do Palestinians know and value the mufti as an “iconic figure”? Is Amin Husseini to Palestinians what Washington, Adams and Jefferson are to American patriots or what Ben-Gurion, Jabotinsky and Herzl are to Zionists?
b) Assuming Palestinians are sympathetic to Husseini, is this informed by his own sympathy for Nazism and Fascism, after his appointment as mufti and subsequent exile by the British? The first question is essential to determine whether Netanyahu is right in attributing an iconic role to Husseini. The second is even more important: many Americans celebrate their Founding Fathers although they collaborated with the horrific system of slavery, discriminated against women and established the land of the free on piles of Indian bodies. Israelis are appreciative of Ben-Gurion although he held highly racist positions regarding Arabs and Jews from Arab countries in particular. Herzl is admired for his vision, but not for his confessed sexual attraction to a charming 13-year-old girl.
Similarly, Palestinians may uphold Husseini despite or regardless of his historical meeting with Hitler in 1941 (indeed, just as many streets are name after Avraham “Yair” Stern, despite his engagement in terrorism against the British, and regardless of his attempt to forge an alliance with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany during the war).
I have inquired with several dozen Palestinian friends regarding these two questions. Admittedly not a representative sample, but certainly of different age groups and hometowns, including those who graduated the Israeli-army controlled (pre-Oslo Accords) education system, and the younger ones who studied under the Palestinian Authority, including Palestinians who were brought up in Gaza, West Bank villages and cities such as Jenin, Nablus, Hebron, Ramallah and east Jerusalem, and including both Muslims and Christians.
Most of them never even heard about the mufti until they were adults. Of those who did hear about him or of his meeting with Hitler, none were aware of his deeply held Nazi convictions (at least until Netanyahu’s recent speech). None of them have ever studied in school about that mufti, although they did hear of the Husseini family. Some have studied him at university, albeit from a highly critical perspective due to his politically-motivated assassinations of members of the prominent Nashashibi family and his stubborn and uncompromising approach.
All of this does not mean that there is no anti-Semitism in Palestinian society. Sadly it is there, in political propaganda and in the minds of too many individuals.
It is often based on a distorted and misinformed knowledge of “world history” (Europe’s history) and particularly of the Holocaust. Until he described it in 2013 as the “worst crime in human history,” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas himself was tarnished with Holocaust denial via his PhD dissertation.
This leads some Palestinians to make outrageous and inexcusable comparisons between SS and IDF soldiers.
However, all of that does not make Palestinians the bearers of the Nazi doctrine. Moreover, the comparison between them is fundamentally flawed, because while Nazis did terrible things to the Jews motivated by pure racism, Palestinian wrongdoings are grounded in legitimate grievances with Israel.
Netanyahu’s notion that German National-Socialism and Palestinian nationalism are intertwined is highly consequential: most fundamentally, its validity would require getting accustomed to “forever live by the sword,” as Netanyahu recently promised. There is, after all, nothing but rejectionism to be expected from Hitler’s heirs. Refuting it, on the other hand, may allow some hope for peace. Furthermore, justifying Netanyahu puts the entire blame for the current round of violence with the Palestinians, while refuting it might mean we, Israelis, are also implicit and have a share in this deterioration.
In accordance with most of our life experience, and contrary to the way political propaganda works, there is no straight line connecting the past and the present. Such straight lines are usually drawn only in retrospect, never accurately and always in service of contemporary interests. Netanyahu’s imperfect reconstruction of history puts in question his broader agenda for constructing the present. More than revealing something about Palestinian national identity, it is telling of Netanyahu’s own ideological inclination to lead toward a better and peaceful future.
The author is a PhD student at the Goethe University in Frankfurt.