by Paul R. Pillar
Benjamin Netanyahu’s bit of revisionist history about the origins of the Holocaust certainly deserves the outraged response it got this week. One wonders why he chose to push this line given the well-established and easily cited historical fact—which many of his critics did cite—that the Nazi regime’s mass killing that would become known as the Holocaust was well under way before the meeting to which Netanyahu referred, between Adolf Hitler and the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. One further wonders why, given that if Netanyahu wanted to make a sharply negative comment about the mufti—who, as also has been well established, was a strongly anti-Jewish collaborator of the Nazis—he could have done so without adding his historically inaccurate twist about the significance of the meeting, and it would have been in order and unremarkable for him or any other prime minister of Israel to have done so.
Moving beyond denunciations of Netanyahu for playing fast and loose with history, this week’s rhetorical episode invites some other observations, one of which goes well beyond Netanyahu himself. The comment does involve a crass exploitation of the Holocaust to make a point about current issues, and such usage tends to demean and diminish the significance of the Holocaust itself. (Critics of Netanyahu are less justified in charging that he was relieving the Nazis of responsibility; what Hitler did would still have been horrendously evil even if the mufti really had given him such ideas.) But cheap comparative references to the Nazis have long been the most grossly and inappropriately used historical allusions in circulation. The problem goes far beyond Netanyahu, and also beyond Israel. The usage is prevalent in foreign policy debates in the United States. And the usage extends not just to issues involving Israel. All manner of foreign foes who aren’t at all equivalent to Hitler have been likened to him, and many policies and diplomatic transactions have been likened to Munich that aren’t at all like a parley over the Sudetenland. It is likely that some of those waving their fingers disapprovingly at Netanyahu for the controversial passage in his speech this week have themselves been crass users of allusions to the Nazis.
Anther observation involves the substance of the fanciful dialogue that supposedly took place at the meeting between the mufti and the führer. According to Netanyahu, the mufti in essence said, “If you have a problem with Jews, don’t foist the problem on us Palestinians.” That sounds a lot like the question that later Palestinians, with far greater innocence than can be attributed to the mufti, have asked of Western powers, “If you have a problem with what the Nazis did, why foist the problem on us Palestinians?” Today that question no longer should refer to the Zionist movement, given that Israel is an established and legitimate state. The question does refer appropriately to the continued plight of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Was a subtext of Netanyahu’s fictional vignette to cast aspersions on the asking of that question? Perhaps. In any case the question goes unanswered.
As for what the controversial passage in this week’s speech says about Netanyahu’s own methods and message, we can refer to his follow-up statement in which he did not back down from his assertion about what took place in the 1940s. Instead he spelled out more specifically what he was saying.He said his intention was “to show that the forefathers of the Palestinian nation, without a country and without the so-called occupation, without land and without settlements, even then aspired to systematic incitement to exterminate the Jews.” In other words, to enumerate his specific messages even more clearly: (1) occupation and settlements have nothing to do with Palestinians’ aspirations or any militant and unfriendly thoughts they may have, so stop bugging us about those things; and (2) Palestinians of today have intentions just as vile and lethal as that Nazi-loving mufti, so don’t expect us to make concessions or do business with people like that.
The first of those messages is a grossly inaccurate portrayal of why so many Palestinians feel the frustration and anger that they do, including those who today are feeling it to the point of conducting suicidal knife attacks on Jewish Israelis.
The equating, per the second message, of an entire ethnically or religiously defined people with the words or actions of an extreme few, and the further assumption that the negative qualities so attributed are innate and permanent, has become a standard Netanyahu technique. He has used it with more than one bête noire in the course of a political career built on fear-mongering. With Palestinians, it means that if one’s a terrorist, then supposedly they are all—well, if not terrorists, then either inciting terrorism, or supporting it, or having in their hearts the same kind of thoughts that terrorists have. With Iranians, it means that if so much as one Iranian leader makes some derogatory comment about Israel, then supposedly Iranians in general are determined to wipe Israel off the map—and it would be dangerous to have any dealings with Iran at all.
Netanyahu has applied in a slightly different way to his own community the technique of equating an entire ethnically or religiously defined people with something much narrower. He repeatedly tries to present himself and his government as leading and representing not only Israel but also world Jewry. Many non-Israeli Jews have begged to differ. In particular, many progressive-minded American Jews have made clear that the Israeli prime minister, or at least this prime minister, does not speak for them.
This particular attempt by Netanyahu at a false equation can have a deleterious effect that gets us back to Haj Amin al-Husseini and the Nazis. If the same Israeli leader who tells us that Palestinians today are just like the mufti also tells us that his government is acting on behalf of all Jews, it should not be surprising if some people who dislike with good reason that government’s policies transfer some of those negative feelings to all Jews. For some people that may mean a belief that Jews are racist oppressors. That prejudicial perception would be just as badly mistaken as a belief that all Palestinians have genocidal aspirations, but it is a thought process that naturally follows the rhetoric.
Yes, there has long been, and there still is, anti-Jewish sentiment that is based on the malign workings of biased minds and does not require a government’s policies or even its rhetoric to exist. And no, Israeli policies regarding the occupation and the territories are not the only reason for whatever hateful thoughts may exist in some Palestinian minds. But Benjamin Netanyahu’s shameless manipulation of fears and even historical facts can, in addition to his policies, only make the emotions that surround the unresolved conflict between his country and the Palestinians even worse.
This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright The National Interest.