Who am I to interpret the words of Benjamin Netanyahu? I am not his friend, although we do know each other, and I don’t often agree with his policies and sometimes find his rhetoric about Palestinians repulsive. Yet, behind his recent and widely condemned statement that it was a Palestinian who gave Hitler the idea for the Holocaust lurks an emotional truth. Netanyahu knew he was wrong. He felt, though, that he was right.
Under considerable pressure, Netanyahu has since retracted his statement, but just as he once pledged never to permit the establishment of a Palestinian state, he has shown us what is in his heart. Both times, he issued retractions. Both times, he meant what he said the first time.
A bit of context is in order. Netanyahu originally reached back to Haj Amin al-Husseini, a repellent figure who in 1921 was appointed Grand Mufti of Jerusalem by the British who governed what was then Palestine. Al-Husseini was a militant Palestinian nationalist, so opposed to the Jewish presence that he encouraged horrendous violence and terrorism.
During World War II, al-Husseini lived on the Nazi dole (50,000 marks per month), was put up in a villa in a leafy section of Berlin, urged Bosnian Muslims to join the SS and met with Hitler himself.
In his speech, Netanyahu said, “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.’ ‘So what should I do with them?’ he asked. He said, ‘Burn them.’ ”
By 1942 when the Mufti arrived in Berlin, the mass murder of Jews was already underway. Hitler hardly needed the Mufti to plant the idea in his head and he didn’t need his encouragement, either. Netanyahu was wrong on his facts. But he was not wrong in focusing on the importance of the Mufti and what he represented. The Mufti was not some isolated crackpot, but represented a deep vein of Jew-hatred that has festered in the Arab world since the Nazi era.
Nazi propaganda made great inroads in the Middle East before and during World War II. In some respects a nationalist tussle over land — Jews vs. Arabs — took on genocidal overtones with the acceptance of the Nazi message. Even so sophisticated a figure as Anwar Sadat, the future Egyptian leader, embraced some of that message. Sadat wound up making peace with Israel — and being assassinated as a result — but in 1953 he responded to a request from the magazine Al-Musawwar to write to Hitler as if he were still alive. “My Dear Hitler, I admire you from the bottom of my heart,” he began. He went on in that vein.
After the war, al-Husseini resumed his titular leadership of the Palestinian cause. He was not repudiated by his fellow Arabs — and his presence was countenanced by the wartime allies, some of whom considered him a war criminal, but a useful one. Al-Husseini took his seat in the Arab League, representing Palestinians until the Palestine Liberation Organization supplanted him. In the meantime, he despoiled the Palestinian cause with the odor of Jew hatred and he came to represent to some, Netanyahu clearly among them, that Israel’s struggle with the Arab world was not only about land or water, the West Bank or the Temple Mount, but about the right to live.
This is Netanyahu’s worldview. It explains why he has so doggedly insisted that Iran is an existential threat to Israel and why, with some historical justification, he sees today’s events in the context of yesterday’s horrors. He has likened Palestinians to Nazis, not by virtue of a common ideology, but by virtue of a supposedly common aim: elimination of the Jews.
I disagree with Netanyahu. I do not see the Arab world his way nor do I think Iran is determined to nuke Israel. But his words, as misguided as they were, are a rebuke to those who tolerate Arab anti-Semitism as if it’s some charming tribal custom and who think, somehow, that a round table and a reasonable plan is sufficient for peace.
Netanyahu is the son of a historian, a well-educated man himself (MIT, Harvard). For him, history is not an arid academic discipline, but a family album, and today is just yesterday all over again. One day the Mufti met with Hitler in Berlin. The next, he surfaced in Cairo. Both days, he was a Palestinian leader.
Richard Cohen is a nationally syndicated columnist.