The commentariat is working overtime trying to shame Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for claiming, in a speech last week, that Adolf Hitler wasn’t behind the plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe. It was, Netanyahu says, a Palestinian, Haj Amin al-Husayni, who gave Hitler the idea. Al-Husayni was grand mufti of Jerusalem, a Muslim leader who’d been appointed by the British administration.
According to Netanyahu, “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time – he wanted to expel the Jews. And Haj Amin al-Husayni went to Hitler and said ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come here.’ ‘So what should I do with them?’ [Hitler] asked. [Al-Husayni] said ‘Burn them.’”
Not only is Netanyahu blaming a Palestinian leader for the Holocaust – he’s letting Hitler off the hook. Try all you want, Internet. I don’t think shaming will work on this man.
The suggestion that the Holocaust was a strategy to prevent mass Jewish immigration to Palestine seems calculated to not only reinforce the idea of the Jewish state’s being a form of reparations for the Holocaust, but to imply that it’s the Palestinians who owed it. And of course Netanyahu’s remarks are calibrated to the present moment, in which violence is ramping up on all sides. In lieu of practicable and just solutions, scapegoating is the top priority.
There’s nothing to suggest we’ll hear him recant. Stirring up ideations of vengeance with ahistoric libel is, in Netanyahu’s line of work, good for business. Inflammatory rhetoric has a way of precipitating more suspicion, more stabbings, more armed settlers out for blood, and, ultimately, more checkpoints, more land grabs, more of the same. The status quo that keeps Israel’s right-wing in power demands it; job security is the reward for cultivating a state of perpetual tension.
While Netanyahu’s account of the mufti-Hitler exchange has been swiftly and almost universally dismissed as fiction, there is one caveat: Though he didn’t mastermind the ‘Final Solution’, the mufti did align himself with axis leaders, including Hitler. In exchange for helping them fight the British, al-Husayni was hoping the axis would back him in opposing plans for a Jewish state in Palestine. On November 28, 1941, Hitler and al-Husayni met. There are multiple written accounts of the meeting, none of which contain anything close to Netanyahu’s imagined scenario.
As for a strategic alliance, al-Husayni and Hitler never hashed out a deal, though they did maintain an acquaintanceship. When it comes to Nazism, guilt by association goes a long way, and there’s no reason for history to be kind to al-Husayni. (Accurate would be nice, though.)
But guess who else reached out to the Nazis looking for a partnership? A group known as Lehi (or the ‘Stern Gang’), a Zionist militia which had split from the Irgun – itself a splinter of the main Jewish army, the Haganah – in 1940. (Each breakaway militia felt the tactics of its parent group weren’t aggressive enough.)
The Zionist militias were looking for help seizing Palestine from the British, so it made sense to align themselves with Hitler. They offered to help fight on Germany’s side, in exchange for the transfer of Europe’s Jews to Palestine and Hitler’s support of a ‘totalitarian’ Jewish state. As Tel Aviv University history professor Yaacov Shavit writes, when a Lehi representative met with a Nazi diplomat in Beirut in January 1941, “he proposed a political as well as military cooperation leading to the establishment of a Jewish state on a nationalist and totalitarian footing, that would be linked by a treaty to the German Reich.”
Hitler didn’t respond to the overtures – as Shavit explains, “All that Lehi could in effect have offered Germany as its contribution to the Nazi war effort, was to act as a fifth column and try to place obstacles in the way of the British in Palestine“ – and the deal stalled.
If you’ve heard of the Irgun and Lehi, chances are it’s because of the Deir Yassin massacre, which the two militia groups carried out jointly. The massacre, of a Palestinian village on the outskirts of Jerusalem, was a pivotal episode in the 1948 war, contributing greatly to the terror that helped facilitate Palestinian displacement.
Al-Husayni, of course, didn’t manage to stop the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. The State of Israel exists, and its leadership shows no interest in backing down from decades of occupation and settlement policy the international community considers illegal.
But what became of the Irgun and Lehi, these dissident militias? After the massacre, and the terrorist attacks (including the well-known King David Hotel bombing), and the flirtation with Nazism (not to mention a near-civil war with the Haganah), one might presume the dissidents were ultimately discredited, and shut out of Israel’s future leadership.
Not a chance. The militias were largely folded into the new Jewish state’s military and administration. Yitzhak Shamir, a leader of Lehi, went on to become the seventh Prime Minister of the State of Israel. The Irgun and Lehi each have a military honor named for them, and there is a museum for each in Tel Aviv. More streets and parks in Israel are named for Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of the Revisionist Zionist movement that Irgun and Lehi belonged to, than any other person in history.
Menachem Begin, leader of the Irgun, became Israel’s sixth Prime Minister. Begin, notably, was behind the bombing of the British administration headquarters at the King David Hotel, during which Irgun terrorists disguised themselves as Arabs. (That tradition of playing dress-up has endured; there are regular reports of the Israel Defense Forces sending agent provocateurs into peaceful protests as a pretext for crackdowns on Palestinian demonstrators).
Begin also founded the right-wing Herut party, which carried on the Revisionist Zionism mantle of the Irgun and Lehi. It later merged with several other parties and became Likud.
Likud . . . where have we heard that name before? Oh, right, Likud: the party of current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the guy who just accused a Palestinian of being behind the Holocaust.