In Netanyahu’s mufti-Holocaust allegation, echoes of his father’s maverick approach to history

In Netanyahu’s mufti-Holocaust allegation, echoes of his father’s maverick approach to history

The PM is defending his incendiary claim that Haj Amin al-Husseini persuaded Hitler to ‘burn’ the Jews by citing sources most scholars reject. Benzion Netanyahu followed a similarly controversial approach regarding the Marranos. But he was an historian, not a prime minister

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Benjamin Netanyahu with his father, Professor Benzion Netanyahu, in his Jerusalem home (Photo credit: Nati Shohat/ Flash 90)
Benjamin Netanyahu with his father, Professor Benzion Netanyahu, in his Jerusalem home (Photo credit: Nati Shohat/ Flash 90)

Despite worldwide outrage, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is proving unwilling to walk back his controversial comments about Hitler and the World War II-era Palestinian mufti of Jerusalem, insisting that Haj Amin al-Husseini played a central role in encouraging the Nazis to exterminate the Jews.

Netanyahu bases his contentious assertion on historical sources, which — taken at face value — indeed support the claim that the mufti played an integral part in the fuhrer’s plan to annihilate the Jewish people. These sources are vehemently disputed by most serious scholars. But then, the prime minister is not the first member of his family to swim against the scholarly current.

In championing a maverick approach to history, Netanyahu is following in the footsteps of his late father, Benzion Netanyahu, whose views on Marranos, medieval Spanish Jews forced to convert to Christianity, were rejected by a majority of his colleagues.

Netanyahu sallied into the minefield of Holocaust blame during an address Tuesday to delegates at the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem. He posited that Hitler did not initially intend to annihilate the Jews, but rather sought to expel them from Europe, and only 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.'”

Defending his contentious remarks Wednesday as he made his way to Berlin, the prime minister said: “There is much evidence about this, including the testimony of [Adolf] Eichmann’s deputy at the Nuremberg trials — not now, but after World War II.”

Netanyahu then cited two statements attributed to SS-Hauptsturmführer Dieter Wisliceny, who served under Eichmann in the Jewish affairs department of the Reich Security Main Office and who from 1940 acted as adviser on Jewish affairs to the Slovakian government, participating in the deportation of Jews from Slovakia, Greece, and Hungary:

“In my opinion, the Grand Mufti, who has been in Berlin since 1941, played a role in the decision of the German government to exterminate the European Jews, the importance of which must not be disregarded. He has repeatedly suggested to the various authorities with whom he has been in contact, above all before Hitler, Ribbentrop and Himmler, the extermination of European Jewry. He considered this as a comfortable solution for the Palestine problem.”

That quote comes from the 1946 Nuremberg trials. Netanyahu also cited a sentence that Wisliceny is believed to have uttered in Bratislava while the Holocaust was raging, in 1944:

“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 attempt by certain scholars and people to be apologists for the key and important role of Haj Amin al-Husseini is clear,” an unrepentant Netanyahu said Wednesday. “Many other researchers cite this testimony and others regarding the role of Haj Amin al-Husseini.”

Dieter Wisliceny (Wikipedia)
Dieter Wisliceny (Wikipedia)

Netanyahu is not the first to cite the Wisliceny quotes. They feature, for instance, in a 2012 book, “Israel: The Will to Prevail,” by the man Netanyahu recently appointed as his ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon. But Danon acknowledges the problematics of the claim: “Some historians have cast doubt on al-Husseini’s involvement in the ‘final solution,’” he writes, “since it was already under way after [sic] al-Husseini’s arrival on the scene.”

In fact, it is not some, but rather most serious historians who doubt the veracity of Wisliceny’s account.

Yehuda Bauer, Israel’s preeminent Holocaust scholar, is a prominent case in point. “After the war, they caught him (Wisliceny) and tried him at Nuremberg, where he tried to eschew all responsibility, saying: ‘It wasn’t Hitler, it wasn’t me, it was the mufti,'” Bauer told The Times of Israel on Thursday. “I am not sure if Wisliceny ever met the mufti. I doubt it, but it’s doesn’t matter. It’s clear that his account is untrue: the Germans had started annihilating the Jews half a year before Hitler and the mufti met. Netanyahu’s story is entirely baseless.” (Wisliceny was executed for war crimes in 1948.)

Bauer, a professor emeritus of history and Holocaust Studies at Hebrew University and an academic advisor to Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, is far from alone among elite historians in rejecting Netanyahu’s reliance on Wisliceny’s testimony.

The “Wisliceny hearsay is not merely uncorroborated, but conflicts with everything else that is known about the origins of the Final Solution,” Rafael Medoff, the head of the Washington, DC-based David Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, wrote in a 1996 article for the Journal of Israeli History.

“There is no independent documentary confirmation of Wisliceny’s statements, and it seems unlikely that the Nazis needed any such additional encouragement from the outside,” historian Bernard Lewis, an eminent Islam scholar, wrote in 1997.

There are some scholars who are willing to believe Wisliceny’s testimony. David Dalin and John Rothmann, in their 2008 book “Icon of Evil: Hitler’s Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam,” wrote that by recruiting Muslims in Bosnia for the Waffen-SS, “al-Husseini played an important role in Hitler’s extermination of the Europe Jews. It was not, however, his only direct contribution to Hitler’s Final Solution. In other ways, the mufti contributed actively to the Holocaust.” In his review for The New York Times, however, Israeli historian Tom Segev dismissed the book as “of little scholarly value” due to the “lack of solid evidence” for its theories.

Last year, Barry Rubin and Wolfgang Schwanitz published “Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East,” in which they contend that during their 1941 meeting in Berlin, Hitler and al-Husseini “concluded the pact of Jewish genocide in Europe and the Middle East, and immediately afterward, Hitler gave the order to prepare for the Holocaust. The next day invitations went out to thirteen Nazis for the Wannsee Conference to begin organizing the logistics of this mass murder.” The assertion in that book, too, was rejected in reviews. “The claim that al-Husaini was the hidden hand behind Adolf Hitler is implausible, even silly,” the University of Houston’s David Mikics wrote in Tablet. “Rubin and Schwanitz are historians with a political agenda: They want to show that eliminationist anti-Semitism animates the Islamic Middle East, and so they paint al-Husaini as so devilishly anti-Semitic that he can contend with Hitler himself.”

Bauer, the Israeli Holocaust historian, echoed the critique that the book makes unconvincing assertions based on “unreliable sources.”

Undeterred, Schwanitz rode to Netanyahu’s defense on Wednesday, asserting as “historical fact” that the mufti’s “collaboration with Adolf Hitler played an important role in the Holocaust. He was the foremost extra-European adviser in the process to destroy the Jews of Europe.”

Hitler hosts Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini in 1941 in Germany. (Heinrich Hoffmann Collection/Wikipedia)
Hitler hosts Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini in 1941 in Germany. (Heinrich Hoffmann Collection/Wikipedia)

His historian father’s son

In insistently characterizing al-Husseini as a key player in bringing about the Holocaust, the prime minister is thus endorsing a controversial, minority view among historians — in the best Netanyahu family tradition. Benzion, an expert on the history of Spanish Jewry, argued that the Marranos — also known as bnei anusim or conversos — didn’t observe Jewish laws and rituals for long. Marranism, he argued against the prevailing scholarly opinion, is basically a myth.

Most historians of medieval Spain, drawing from Inquisition sources, believe that Marranos in 15th, 16th and 17th century Iberia were indeed “crypto-Jewish.” Despite having converted, they secretly lived a Jewish life — what scholars call Judaizing. They considered themselves Jewish and were considered Jewish by the hostile Christian environment as well.

The elder Netanyahu, however, relying primarily on rabbinic sources, denied the Jewish character of Marranos. He claimed that Judaizing died out in the first generation after the expulsion, and that what is commonly called Marranism was actually a fabrication by the Inquisition to persecute the hated “New Christians.” The Inquisition, in Benzion’s account, was not merely seeking to obliterate the practice of Judaism but to obliterate all traces of Jewish peoplehood.

The elder Netanyahu’s theory “failed to convince except a small minority,” Israeli philosopher and historian Yirmiyahu Yovel noted in his 2009 book “The Other Within: The Marranos.” “Today the revisionist thesis is widely seen as exaggerated. The large majority of scholars converge on the view that a certain degree of Judaizing had been a historical reality.”

A “tacit ideological (indeed, Zionist) agenda” can be ascribed to both views of Marranism, Yovel posits. Those who believe that Marranos actually Judaized provide “the modern national Jewish consciousness with heroes and martyrs.” Those like Benzion Netanyahu, by contrast, who deny that the forced converts secretly continued to be Jewish, added Yovel, suggest that “Jewish life in the Diaspora is fragile and prone to assimilation.”

One could argue that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s insistence on a narrative that blames a Palestinian leader for the Holocaust has a clear ideological underpinning as well. By virtue of being Israel’s political leader rather than an academic scholar, however, and by taking a maverick stance that some critics deem to represent a partial absolution of Hitler, Netanyahu the son has far outflanked Netanyahu the father in fomenting incendiary controversy.

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