Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu caused an uproar on Tuesday when he told the World Zionist Congress that a Palestinian leader from the mid-20th century bore responsibility for the Nazi Holocaust.
Netanyahu said the former grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, planted the idea to wipe out European Jews when he met Hitler in 1941 in Berlin.
"Hitler didn't want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews," he said. 'And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, 'If you expel them, they'll all come here.' 'So what should I do with them?' he asked. 'Burn them!'"
This version of events doesn't sit well with the world's leading scholars of the Holocaust, Netanyahu's political rivals, the mufti's own biographer, or for that matter the German government — which went out of it's way on Wednesday to claim sole responsibility for the extermination of Jews.
"We know that responsibility for this crime against humanity is German and very much our own," a spokesperson for Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel said. "This is taught in German schools for good reason; it must never be forgotten."
Netanyahu's speech puts Palestinians at the center of the Holocaust – a version of events that's completely unfamiliar to the world's leading historians of Nazi Germany.
VICE News called up three of the world's most renowned scholars of the period to get their reactions.
"I spent my life studying these things,' said Saul Friedländer, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945. ''I don't believe the prime minister's disgusting statement deserves a serious answer… it simply shows who he is: somebody ready to falsify our most tragic history, for political propaganda purposes."
Deborah Lipstadt, the Dorot professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University, said Netanyahu's account is "just not a factually accurate statement."
"If the prime minister wants to learn more about this, there's no dearth of books he could read." She suggested he check out Friedländer's book – which lays out how the Nazis planned and developed the final solution beginning in 1941. The mufti does not appear anywhere in the text.
It's true that between 1941 and 1946 the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem — a religious figure appointed by the British in Mandatory Palestine — lived in Berlin. He met Hitler in 1941, and the minutes of that meeting have been examined by historians.
"It's pretty simple, we have a transcript,' said Philip Mattar, the author of the first published biography of al-Husayni, The Mufti of Jerusalem. "There's no mention of exterminating the Jews."
The mufti was known for making anti-Jewish statements, and lobbying the Nazis to prevent Jewish migration to mandatory Palestine, even as the Nazis began to funnel millions of European Jews into death camps. In his speech, Netanyahu claimed that the mufti was "sought for war crimes in the Nuremberg trials." While al-Husayni's name did come up during the trials, he was never "sought" or prosecuted.
"The mufti was indeed quite callous," Mattar said. "But it's not like the Nazis needed encouragement to carry out the extermination of Jews. In fact, they regarded Arabs like the Mufti as very close to Jews and Gypsies in their status."
"Look, was the mufti upset that Jews were being killed? Probably not," she said. "But did he suggest doing it? There's no evidence of that."
But the mufti faded as a national figure after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, said Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of Arab studies at Columbia University.
"He was a totally forgotten figure, a completely new leadership emerged throughout the 1950s," he said.
The renewed emphasis on the mufti's links to the Nazis, Khalidi said, is the result of right-wing Israeli historians who are eager link the Palestinian movement with anti-Jewish sentiment.
"He did align himself with the Nazis," Khalidi said. "He thought the enemy of my enemy is my friend."
Joshua Zimmerman, the chair of Interdisciplinary Holocaust studies at the Yeshiva University in New York, said that Nazi's calculations leading up to the "Final Solution" are well documented by historians, and do not include the Palestinian leader at all. Zimmerman looked through the major academic histories of the Holocaust to find a reference to the mufti. He came up short.
"In a few Israeli texts he appears in the footnotes, at the peripheries,' he said. "That's it."
The extermination of the Jews was carried out, he said, in response to shifting realities on the ground Europe.
"Sometime in the last three months of 1941, Hitler decided to reject the idea of Jewish expulsion and move towards the Final Solution," he said. After the Russians pushed the Germans away from Moscow, the large tract of Siberian land Hitler planned to use as a Jewish ghetto fell out of his reach.
Then, as the Americans prepared to enter the war, Hitler shifted away from a policy of Jewish expulsion, to one of mass extermination.
"Hitler always wanted to rid Europe of Jews," Zimmerman explained. "When all these obstacles emerged to his plan of expulsion, he changed tactics — that's the scholarly consensus."
By the time Hitler met the mufti in 1941, the Nazis had already murdered as many as a million Jews. And Zimmerman noted that two years earlier, in 1939, Hitler voiced his willingness to "annihilate" the Jews of Europe in a major speech.
Netanyahu's comments were not received well in Israel. Dan Michman, the head of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, said the prime minister's claims were "not true." The leader of the Israeli opposition Isaac Herzog called Netanyahu's speech "a dangerous historical distortion."
On Wednesday Netanyahu appeared to walk back his statement slightly.
"[I] didn't mean to absolve Hitler of responsibility," he said. "But to show that the father of the Palestinian nation wanted to destroy the Jews even without territories, without occupation, and without settlements."
To back up the prime minister's statement, his spokesperson Mark Regev pointed reporters towards Netanyahu's own 1993 book, A Place Among the Nations. That book quotes testimony from Dieter Wisliceny, the deputy of SS officer Adolf Eichmann, whom Israel executed as the main architect of the Final Solution, who said: "The mufti was one of the initiators of the systematic extermination of European Jewry and had been a collaborator and adviser… in the execution of this plan"
"He was one of Eichmann's best friends and had constantly incited him to accelerate the extermination measures," Netanyahu wrote.
Matar, who's poured over all the available documents from the mufti's time in Berlin, said there was no evidence to back up that claim. "He possibly met Eichmann once,' he said. "They were not friends — it's just not true."
Both Lipstadt and Friedländer accuse the Israeli prime minister of distorting the historical record for his own political agenda. As violence between Israelis and Palestinians mounts, Netanyahu seems eager to place the blame on a mythical age-old Palestinian antipathy for Jews — as opposed to Palestinian frustration with over 60 years of Israeli occupation.
"You just don't use the Holocaust for political purposes," Lipstadt said.
Friedländer, for his part, thinks the prime minister is willfully distorting the record. "There's no way could he be so misinformed…he's read books, he has to know this is not true," he said. "He' can't be that ignorant about the Holocaust — he does mention it constantly.'
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