Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the official memorial ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the assassination of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the Mt. Herzl Cemetery in Jerusalem on Monday.
This Halloween I’ve again come to the conclusion that one doesn’t have to be a witch or warlock to demonize and scare people – one can as easily be a prime minister or a marginal academic to attempt to perpetrate fraud and panic upon the unsuspecting.
You just need the right mask.
This conclusion came to mind as I read Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent outrageous – and demonstrably false – charge: “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews,” said Netanyahu in an address to the World Zionist Congress. “And (Jerusalem’s Chief Mufti) 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.”
Netanyahu’s charge, masking his anti-Palestinian racism, was immediately rejected by nearly a nearly unanimous consensus of serious Holocaust scholars, most succinctly by the chief historian of Yad Vashem, professor Dina Porat, who called the charge “completely erroneous, on all counts.”
There’s no doubt that al-Husseini, a Palestinian nationalist opposed to Jewish settlement in Palestine, hated the British then occupying Mandatory Palestine and that he clearly sought an alliance – the enemy of my enemy is my friend – with Germany in order to expel Great Britain from the Middle East and to expel or eliminate Jews in Palestine who he believed were trying to take over Palestine.
There’s no doubt that the mufti, who never met Hitler until months after exterminations began, was a vicious anti-Semite and Judeo-phobic, but however extreme and abhorrent his political philosophy, it doesn’t justify Netanyahu’s attempt – including the fabrication of quotes – to link violence in Palestine today with the Holocaust through the use of an ahistorical fiction that is repulsive and dangerous.
Sadly, Netanyahu doesn’t stand alone. The controversy calls to mind an evening a few years ago when a friend and I drove to Manchester to hear St. Anselm’s Joseph Spoerl deliver a talk about Hamas sponsored by a group supportive of Israel.
Ominously, the tone was set well before Spoerl began to speak when the event organizers asked for signatures on a petition that called J Street “an existential threat to Israel.” I believe my friend and I were conspicuous by being the only two attendees who didn’t sign.
The gist of Spoel’s tendentious presentation, distinguished by both its manipulative intent and boring ordinariness, was that he believed Hamas to be a totalitarian political movement defined by a genocidal hatred for Jews – Islamic Nazis – directly related to al-Husseini’s Judeo-phobia and that Palestinians are Hitler’s “soul mates.”
Spoerl didn’t return to my radar screen until early 2015 when he published “Palestinians, Arabs and the Holocaust” for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, an Israeli right-wing think tank. Spoerl attempted, by relying upon a number of undistinguished fringe academic sources, to place responsibility for the Holocaust on the backs of the Palestinians – a thesis that many believe inspired Netanyahu’s speech to the World Zionist Congress.
That Netanyahu, Spoerl and their cohort of fringe Islamophobic supporters – all who seem to spend their time quoting each other – are attempting to portray an entire religion, Islam, and an entire people, the Palestinians, as Judeo-phobic based on the mufti’s actions and rhetoric is ignorant, racist, dangerous – and demonstrably wrong.
Unfortunately for Netanyahu and Spoerl, professor Michael Sells, Barrows Professor of Islamic History and Literature and professor of comparative literature at the University of Chicago, published on Oct. 21 a paper in the Journal of Religious Ethics titled “Holocaust Abuse: The Case of Hajj Muhammad Amin al-Husayni.”
“The essay uncovers the history of the Husayni narrative in question, the dramatic circumstances in which it emerged, its role in the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, and its rediscovery and misuse within American popular and political circles over the past two decades,” according to Sells. “Such misuse, it concludes, corrodes Holocaust recognition within American civil religion and demonstrates the need for a revision of the socially accepted ethical boundary for responsible Holocaust historiography.”
Sells’s documentation heavily relies on primary sources seemingly unexplored by Spoerl. Sells’s publisher, understanding that “Holocaust abuse” was both timely and important, removed its paywall and made the document universally available. As both documents are free, I urge readers to read Sells and Spoerl – and then decide.
Finally, the 2011 review of The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives by Gilbert Achcar, (a book unacknowledged in Spoerl’s footnotes) which appeared in the Jewish Review of Books by Derek J. Penslar concludes: “Despite the polemical tone of Achcar’s later chapters, his basic historical argument is sound. The Holocaust was a European crime, for which the Arab world was not culpable. Pro-German sentiment during World War II and even rabid anti-Semitism do not make Arabs co-conspirators in the genocide that took place thousands of miles from the Middle East. Arab Holocaust denial has developed out of the dynamics of the Arab-Israeli conflict in general and the dispossession of the Palestinians in particular.
“The Holocaust,” Penslar continues, “however central in Israeli collective memory, occurred in another place and was the work of other hands. Its stain upon humanity is dark and deep enough; it must not be allowed to poison the soil upon which peace between Israel and a Palestinian state may finally be attained. Gilbert Achcar has not succeeded at overcoming the ‘Arab-Israeli war of narratives,’ but he has taken an important step towards reframing it.”
Netanyahu, wearing the false mask of statesman, is attempting to exploit fear and ignorance of the Other in an attempt to brand all Palestinians as anti-Semites are rooted both in Islam and in the actions of Mufti Haj Amin. This craven attempt to try to divert attention away from Israel’s oppression of an occupied and disenfranchised people is dishonest and dishonorable.
Palestinians, Israelis, we all deserve better.
This column appeared originally in the Concord Monitor.