A New York Yiddish center finds Nazis lurking deep within Hamas’s ideology

Starting Feb. 26, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research sponsors a 3-part webinar with scholars countering the view that October 7 was ‘payback’ for Israel’s rule over the West Bank

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Haj Amin al-Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and Chairman of the Supreme Islamic Council, with German dictator Adolf Hitler in 1941. (German Federal Archive via Wikimedia Commons)
Haj Amin al-Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and Chairman of the Supreme Islamic Council, with German dictator Adolf Hitler in 1941. (German Federal Archive via Wikimedia Commons)

When in the aftermath of the Hamas October 7 attack on Israel, Jonathan Brent heard many people’s pro-Palestinian reactions — including those of some young Jews — it was obvious to him that they did not have a full understanding of why it happened.

Brent, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research executive director and CEO, felt his organization was in a position to try to educate about what motivated Hamas: The terror group’s radical, genocidal, and anti-Jewish Islamism emerged in the 1930s and 1940s when it was fed by an ideological connection with Hitler’s Nazism.

Brent invited historian of modern Germany Jeffrey Herf, who has studied the Hamas-Nazism link, to curate a three-part webinar series hosted by YIVO titled, “The Origins and Ideology of Hamas.”

“YIVO has the second largest collection of primary materials on the Holocaust. The subject of genocide against the Jews is central to our institute. It is well within the historical parameters of the YIVO to investigate an act of genocide against the Jews of this sort,” Brent said.

The free series begins on February 26 and features scholars whose work Brent and Herf believe does not get enough attention. This international group includes Israeli historian Benny Morris, German political scientist Matthias Küntzel, Israeli Middle East historian Meir Litvak, American Holocaust studies professor Norman Goda, German sociologist Karin Stögner, and British sociologist David Hirsh.

Brent told The Times of Israel that he hopes young progressives in particular will be willing to tune in and be open to information that they would likely never hear on their college campuses with the current pervasive anti-Israel political climate.

Jonathan Brent, executive director and CEO of YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (Courtesy of YIVO)

While Israel’s rule over the West Bank is most certainly a major controversy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Brent said he wants people to know that this is not the sole issue at play.

“The terrorists who savagely attacked Israel have been reared in a culture of genocidal hate that goes back eight decades and was integral to the formation of Hamas and its continued existence,” Brent said.

“This is a very powerful weapon against the Jewish people worldwide as we now see from the unbelievable growth of antisemitism around the globe today,” he said.

The historical context for Hamas

According to historian Herf, the overarching goal of the webinar series is to provide the historical context for Hamas as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, and for the ideology that led it to build an extensive tunnel system under Gaza, arm itself to the teeth, and commit mass murder and a myriad of atrocities against Israelis on October 7.

Prof. Jeffrey Herf (Sonya Michel)

The first session on February 26 will feature Herf in a discussion with  Küntzel.

“It will deal with the 1930s and 1940s and a very famous and important 1937 text by [Jerusalem Grand Mufti] Haj Amin al-Husseini titled, ‘Islam and the Jews.’ It’s one of those canonical texts of 20th-century intellectual cultural history that deserves much more attention,” Herf said.

“It is a founding text of Islamism and of the interpretation of Islam which interprets that religion as inherently anti-Jewish. This means it is hostile to Judaism, the Jewish people, and therefore, the State of Israel. So the anti-Zionism is a direct result of the antagonism,” he said.

The session will also cover the collaborations between the proponents of this anti-Jewish Islamism and the Nazi regime. Herf emphasized that there were already Islamist intellectuals writing and spreading their ideas in the Middle East and that it fused culturally with the antisemitic conspiracy theories spread through Nazi propaganda.

“This was all very famous at the time and not at all secret. If you were alive at the time and politically aware, you would have known about this,” Herf noted.

“But this has faded from memory and has not been sufficiently discussed since. Palestinian nationalists have come up with various excuses and apologia to obscure the depth and importance of those things,” he said.

An Arabic version of ‘Mein Kampf’ found on the body of a Hamas fighter in the Gaza Strip, displayed by President Isaac Herzog during an interview with the BBC, November 12, 2023. (President’s Residence)

According to Herf, Küntzel will talk about Israel’s War [of Independence] in 1948 and place it in this context. Herf said that Küntzel describes the war as “an aftershock” of the Nazi-Islamist alliance of World War II and sees it as a war of religion reminiscent of wars of religion in pre-modern times.

In the second session, on March 25, Herf will host Morris. The topic will be “Colonialism, Racism, and the Arab-Israeli War of 1948.” Herf will speak about the international context of the war, and Morris will elaborate on the main points of his 2008 book, “1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War.”

“He will examine the military history of the 1948 War and as a result the controversies about Palestinian refugees. That will challenge the argument that the 1948 War was a war of dispossession of the Palestinians, something called the Nakba [catastrophe],” Herf said.

Why the antisemitic responses to Oct. 7?

The third and final session on April 16 will examine responses to October 7. Hirsh, director of the London Center for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, will speak about the left and anti-Zionism in Britain.

“His organization emerged from members of the British Labor Party who were protesting the antisemitism in the party when Jeremy Corbyn was its leader,” Herf said.

An annotated copy of an Arabic translation of ‘Mein Kampf’ that President Isaac Herzog says was found by Israeli troops in a children’s room used as a terror base in the Gaza Strip, photo released on November 12, 2023 (President’s House)

Herf invited American Holocaust studies professor Goda to present his “astute and trenchant” insights about the International Court of Justice prompted by accusations of genocide brought by South Africa against Israel.

“Meir Litvak, perhaps Israel’s leading historian, and analyst of Islamism and Islamist antisemitism, will discuss the Islamization of the Palestinian movement as evidenced in Hamas,” Herf said.

“Finally, Stögner will talk about intersectionality, feminism, and the bizarre response of feminists in the United States and Europe to Islamist ideology,” he said.

Herf admitted that the full program is packed, but he hoped people would nonetheless consider it a worthwhile mini-course and register for all three sessions. According to YIVO, more than 1,200 people had signed up as of mid-February.

Karin Stögner, professor of Sociology at the University of Passau in Germany. (Courtesy of YIVO)

Brent said he hoped people of all ages would watch  and listen, especially young Jews who are well-meaning and want to work for justice but do not grasp that chanting catchy slogans like “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” is, in his opinion, dangerous for the global Jewish people

“The pervasiveness of the ideology of Palestinian liberation and of anti-Israel and antisemitic thinking that accompanies this ideology has much graver importance in the Jewish world than I think a lot of people really understand,” Brent said.

“The dangers are not only from without… There is an equally potent danger from within Jewish culture, particularly of the left that has over many decades — perhaps hundreds of years, even going back before the whole Israeli-Arab conflict — assimilated certain ideas that have caused them to turn against themselves,” he said.

A demonstrator displays a placard with ‘From the river to the sea’ during a rally in solidarity with Palestinians at Oranienplatz Square in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, Germany, on November 11, 2023. (Tobias Schwarz/ AFP)

Herf agreed and added that the threats from without are to be taken at face value. Having studied Nazi Germany and the Holocaust for much of his career, he feels a responsibility and obligation to make sure that what happened in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s does not happen again to anybody.

“When [Iran’s leaders] or [Hamas’s] Sinwar or whoever says they want to destroy the Jewish state, throw the Jews in the sea, or kill the Jew hiding behind the tree, I take them seriously. They’re not kidding,” Herf said.

Recordings of the webinar’s sessions will be available for viewing free of charge on YIVO’s website.

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