Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was pounded Wednesday with a barrage of condemnations after he claimed that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler only decided on the mass extermination of Europe’s Jews after receiving input on the matter from Jerusalem’s then-grand mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, a Palestinian nationalist widely acknowledged as a fervent Jew-hater.

Critics accused Netanyahu of “absolving” Hitler of responsibility for the Holocaust, a charge the prime minister later rejected, saying he had “no intention to absolve Hitler of responsibility for his diabolical destruction of European Jewry” but that it was “equally absurd to ignore the role played by the Mufti” in urging Nazi leaders “to exterminate European Jewry.”

During an address Tuesday to delegates at the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, Netanyahu posited that the Nazi fuehrer did not initially intend to annihilate the Jews, but rather sought to expel them from Europe. According to the prime minister’s version of the events, Hitler changed his mind after meeting with Husseini — who was grand mufti of Jerusalem from 1921 to 1948, and president of the Supreme Muslim Council from 1922 to 1937 — in Berlin near the end of 1941.

“Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time [of the meeting between the mufti and the Nazi leader]. He wanted to expel the Jews,” Netanyahu said. “And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come here [to mandatory Palestine],'” continued the prime minister.

“‘So what should I do with them?’ He [Hitler] asked,” according to Netanyahu. “He [Husseini] said, ‘Burn them.'”

Hitler hosts the Mufti, 1941 (photo credit: Heinrich Hoffmann Collection/Wikipedia)

Hitler hosts the Mufti, 1941 (photo credit: Heinrich Hoffmann Collection/Wikipedia)

Netanyahu was speaking in the context of enduring Palestinian accusations to the effect that Israel is seeking to take control of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem; the mufti was one of the first to peddle such allegations against Jews in Mandatory Palestine. The charges have been fueling a recent wave of attacks against Israelis in and around Jerusalem. Israel has repeatedly denied allegations that it wishes to change the status quo on the Mount, which houses the Al-Aqsa Mosque and is holy to both Jews and Muslims. As per the status quo, Jews may visit the Temple Mount but not pray there.

An overwhelming majority of Holocaust historians reject the notion that Husseini planted the idea of a “Final Solution” for Europe’s Jews in Hitler’s mind.

Tom Segev, a leading Israeli historian who has conducted extensive research on the Holocaust, told The Times of Israel Wednesday that the notion that Hitler needed to be convinced to exterminate the Jews was “entirely absurd.” He stressed that “one can surely say that [Husseini] was a war criminal, but one cannot say Hitler needed his advice.”

Segev, born in Jerusalem to parents who escaped Nazi Germany in 1933, further stressed that by the time Husseini and Hitler met in 1941, the annihilation of the Jews had already begun. In fact, hundreds of thousands of Jews had been killed by the Nazis and their collaborators by the time of the meeting.

“So the mufti told Hitler, ‘Burn them,’ and Hitler goes, ‘Oh, what a great idea,’” Segev added ironically.

Other commentators pointed out that Hitler had discussed the possible extermination of European Jewry as early as 1939, even before World War II began and certainly before he met with Husseini. The order to carry out a Final Solution against Jews was given in July 1941 — months ahead of the mufti and Hitler’s meeting — after which the infamous Wannsee Conference was called in order to finalize the logistics and details of the mass-murder operation.

The Wannsee Conference, held in on January 20, 1942, came after the meeting between Hitler and Husseini.

The theory that Husseini played a role in the origin of the plan to commit genocide against the Jews has been raised by a number of historians including David Dalin and John Rothmann, but the notion has been rejected by a vast majority of Holocaust scholars.

Netanyahu’s speech on Tuesday was not the first time the Israeli leader offered his alternate version concerning the mufti’s role in the perpetration of the Holocaust.

“Haj Amin al-Husseini was one of the leading architects of the Final Solution,” he said in 2012 during a speech at the Knesset. “He, more than anybody else, convinced [Hitler] to execute the Final Solution, and not let the Jews leave [Europe]. Because, God forbid, they would come here. Rather that they would be annihilated, burned, there.”

The prime minister was criticized across the political board Wednesday for his comments, which were described as inaccurate at best and, at worst, as a tailwind to Holocaust denial. Implying the mufti planted the idea for the Final Solution in Hitler’s mind was tantamount to some, to absolving Hitler and the Nazis, at least partially, for orchestrating the unprecedented, systematic genocide of the Jews.

“This is a dangerous distortion of history and I demand that Netanyahu correct it immediately because it trivializes the Holocaust, the Nazis, and the terrible dictator Adolf Hitler’s share in the terrible tragedy of our people in the Holocaust,” Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog said in a statement. “It falls like ripe fruit straight into the hands of Holocaust deniers, and involves them in the Palestinian conflict.

“Netanyahu has forgotten that he is not only the Israeli prime minister, he is also the prime minister of the Jewish people. No one will teach me what a hater of Israel the mufti was. He gave the order to kill my grandfather, Rabbi [Yitzhak HaLevi] Herzog, and actively supported Hitler,” Herzog added.

Zehava Galon, leader of the liberal Meretz party, was even more vituperative, asserting that she felt “ashamed” for Netanyahu.

“This is not a speech by [extreme right-wing Austrian politician] Jorg Haider. This is not part of the doctorate of [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas [which accused the Zionist movement of collaborating with Nazism and played down the extent of the Holocaust]. It is an absolutely accurate quote by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu… It’s unbelievable,” Galon said in a statement.

Meretz leader MK Zahava Galon, June 2013. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Meretz leader MK Zehava Galon, June 2013. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“Perhaps we should exhume the 33,771 Jews killed at Babi Yar in September 1941, two months before the mufti and Hitler ever met, and let them know that the Nazis didn’t intend to destroy them. Perhaps Netanyahu will tell that to my relatives in Lithuania murdered by the Nazis along with nearly 200,000 members of the Jewish community there, well before the mufti and Hitler met,” she continued.

“I am ashamed for you, Mr. Prime Minister,” Galon added.

Joint (Arab) List party leader Ayman Odeh accused Netanyahu of distorting history in order to incite against the Palestinian people.

“The victims of the Nazi monstrosity, among them millions of Jews, are converted into cheap political propaganda to assist the refusal of peace,” Odeh said. “Netanyahu proves every day how dangerous he is to the two nations, and how far he is willing to go to consolidate his power and justify his catastrophic policies.”

Echoing Odeh’s words, the Palestinian Authority’s former chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, asserted that “Netanyahu hates Palestinians so much that he is willing to absolve Hitler for the murder of 6 million Jews.” He added that “on behalf of the thousands of Palestinians that fought alongside the Allied troops in defense of international justice, the State of Palestine denounces [Netanyahu’s] morally indefensible and inflammatory statements.”

PA President Mahmoud Abbas accused Netanyahu of placing “responsibility on Haj Amin al-Husseini for the killing of Jews during the Holocaust.” He said that by implying that “Hitler was not responsible [for the Holocaust], Netanyahu wants to change history. He is changing the history of the Jews.” In a 1984 book based on his PhD dissertation, Abbas claimed that the Nazis had collaborated with the Zionists, who had also exaggerated the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust.

In a statement to reporters on Wednesday afternoon, as he prepared to head to Berlin, Netanyahu asserted that his comments had been misconstrued. “It is absurd. I had no intention to absolve Hitler of responsibility for his diabolical destruction of European Jewry. Hitler was responsible for the Final Solution to exterminate six million Jews. He made ​​the decision. It is equally absurd to ignore the role played by the Mufti, Haj Amin al -Husseini, a war criminal, for encouraging and urging Hitler, Ribbentropp, Himmler and others, to exterminate European Jewry. There is much evidence about this, including the testimony of Eichmann’s deputy at the Nuremberg trials, not now, but after World War II.”

Added Netanyahu, “The Mufti was instrumental in the decision to exterminate the Jews of Europe. The importance of his role must not be ignored. The Mufti repeatedly proposed to the authorities, primarily Hitler, Ribbentropp and Himmler, to exterminate the Jews of Europe. He considered it a suitable solution for the Palestinian question.” Netanyahu quoted Eichmann’s deputy, saying at the Nuremberg trials, “”The Mufti was one of the instigators of the systematic extermination of European Jewry and was a partner and adviser to Eichmann and Hitler for carrying out this plan’.”

The prime minister went on, “The attempt by certain scholars and people to be apologists for the key and important role of Haj Amin al-Husseini, is clear. Many other researchers cite this testimony and others regarding the role of Haj Amin al Husseini. My intention was not to absolve Hitler of his responsibility, but rather to show that the forefathers of the Palestinian nation, without a country and without the so-called ‘occupation’, without land and without settlements, even then aspired to systematic incitement to exterminate the Jews. Unfortunately, Haj Amin al-Husseini is still a revered figure in Palestinian society. He appears in textbooks and it is taught that he is one of the founding fathers of the nation, and this incitement that started then with him, inciting the murder of Jews – continues. Not in the same format, but in a different one, and this is the root of the problem. To stop the murders, it is necessary to stop the incitement. What is important is to recognize the historical facts and not ignore them, not then and not today.”