The comments – made by Netanyahu in a speech to the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem in the context of the current violence between Israelis and Palestinians – were condemned as incorrect by historians and by Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog for trivialising the Holocaust.
On the Palestinian side senior official Saeb Erekat described the remarks as absolving Hitler.
In his speech Netanyahu purported to describe a meeting between Haj Amin al-Husseini and Hitler in November 1941.
“Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews. And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said: ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come here [to Palestine].’” According to Netanyahu, Hitler then asked: “What should I do with them?” and the mufti replied: “Burn them.”
Among those questioning Netanyahu’s interpretation of history was Prof Dan Michman, head of the Institute of Holocaust research at Bar-Ilan University and head of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem. He said while Hitler did indeed meet the mufti this only happened after the Final Solution began.
Yad Vashem’s chief historian, Prof Dina Porat, said Netanyahu’s claims were incorrect telling the Israeli news website Ynet: “You cannot say that it was the mufti who gave Hitler the idea to kill or burn Jews. It’s not true. Their meeting occurred after a series of events that point to this.”
Netanyahu made the claim – which he made before in 2012 – to illustrate what he said was the Palestinian history of using holy sites in Jerusalem as pretexts for committing acts of violence against Jews.
However, almost as soon as the transcript was released by his office, he was accused on social media and then by a raft of Israeli political figures of factual errors in his assertions.
The claim that Husseini – who met and supported Hitler – was the one to initiate the idea of the extermination of Europe’s Jews has been suggested byhistorians at the fringes of Holocaust research but was rejected by most historians.
Netanyahu’s incendiary comments come amid a rising death toll and accusations of incitement on both sides with Israelis pointing to comments made by Palestinian officials and inflammatory material on social media, while Palestinians have equally accused Netanyahu’s government of fanning the flames and pointing to anti-Palestinian material also on social media.
Over the past month, 10 Israelis have been killed in Palestinian attacks, most of them stabbings. In that time, 46 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire, including 25 identified by Israel as attackers, and the rest in clashes with Israeli troops. An Eritrean migrant died after being shot by a security guard and beaten by a mob that mistakenly believed he was a Palestinian assailant during a deadly Arab attack at a bus station.
“This is a dangerous historical distortion and I demand Netanyahu correct it immediately as it minimises the Holocaust, Nazism and … Hitler’s part in our people’s terrible disaster,” Herzog wrote on his Facebook page.
Herzog added that Netanyahu’s statement played into the hands of Holocaust deniers.
“A historian’s son must be accurate about history,” Herzog wrote. “Netanyahu has forgotten that he’s not only the prime minister of Israel but the prime minister of the Jewish people’s government. The grand mufti, added Herzog, “gave the order to kill my grandfather, Rabbi Herzog, and actively supported Hitler”.
Herzog’s fellow Zionist Union MP Itzik Shmuli called on Netanyahu to apologise to Holocaust victims.
“This is a great shame, a prime minister of the Jewish state at the service of Holocaust-deniers – this is a first,” he said. “This isn’t the first time Netanyahu distorts historical facts, but a lie of this magnitude is the first.”
Denouncing Netanyahu’s comments Erekat – the chief Palestinian peace negotiator also weighed into the row. “It is a sad day in history when the leader of the Israeli government hates his neighbour so much so that he is willing to absolve the most notorious war criminal in history, Adolf Hitler, of the murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust.”
Seeking to defend Netanyahu, defence minister Moshe Ya’alon told Army Radio that the idea for the Final Solution was Hitler’s, and that the mufti had joined him – accusing the Palestinian Authority of employing “incitement” that was “the legacy of the Nazis”.
“I don’t know what exactly the prime minister said. History is actually very, very clear,” said Ya’alon. “Hitler initiated it, Hajj Amin al-Husseini joined him, and unfortunately the jihadist movements promote antisemitism to this day, including incitement in the Palestinian Authority that is based on the legacy of the Nazis.”
Netanyahu’s comments follow remarks made by energy minister Yuval Steinitz in a recent conference in Washington, who accused the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, of “Nazi-like incitement”.
Steinitz – one of Netanyahu’s most loyal allies who often echoes the Israeli prime minister’s positions – accused Abbas of being “the number one inciter in the world against Israel and the Jewish people” and compared his attacks against the Jewish State to Nazi propaganda.