Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not the first world leader to rhetorically align an enemy with Adolf Hitler. It’s a quick and dirty tactic, demanding little factual basis to assert that one’s political enemies are officially the Worst. It’s employed so often that it has a name: reductio ad Hitlerum.
Though often absurd, the comparison is far from harmless rhetoric. Invoking Hitler or the Nazis does more than express vast condemnation; it’s a war cry. The lesson of the 20th Century was, after all, never to turn a blind eye or to compromise with Nazis.
On Tuesday night at the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, Netanyahu went further than the average Nazi cheap shot. He said that the Palestinian Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini — not Adolf Hitler — came up with the idea of the Final Solution to exterminate the Jews. So if Hitler has been inscribed in our collective historical dictionary as the Worst, Netanyahu’s comments suggest that Palestinians are even worse still.
Censure has rained on the Israeli leader for his pernicious historical fiction — while a profound anti-Semite, al-Husseini was not the Final Solution’s creator. The Israeli opposition, Palestinian leaders and historians interpreted the comment as implying that Hitler be exonerated of blame for the Holocaust. “It is a sad day in history when the leader of the Israeli government hates his neighbor so much that he is willing to absolve the most notorious war criminal in history,” said Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
But the Israeli prime minister obviously had no intention of exculpating the Nazis; his aim was to posit anti-Semitism as foundational and inextricable from anti-Zionism and the Palestinian struggle. What could better serve than a fiction in which the mufti guides the Fuhrer? Netanyahu well knows that there’s no risk of Hitler being dethroned from historical position of archmonster. Netanyahu’s bellicose reasoning has little regard for the logic of superlatives — he would help Israel to as many ur-enemies as possible.
Netanyahu has not apologized for his remarks, even after Chancellor Angela Merkel was compelled to reassert German responsibility for the Holocaust — the sine qua non of modern German identity. When challenged by a reporter on his controversial statement, Netanyahu doubled down, but with a revealing twist: “Hitler was responsible for the Holocaust,” he said, adding “I think no one should deny … important testimony about the mufti of Jerusalem, that he told the Nazis to prevent the fleeing of Jews from Europe, and that he supported the Final Solution.”
A flurry of satirical responses on social media have riffed on Netanyahu’s distorted revisionism. “Not many people know this, but initially, Eve only wanted to sniff the apple. But then, during a meeting with the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, he convinced her to take a bite off of it,” wrote one Twitter user under the hashtag #MuftiSays. (The mufti no doubt also killed Kennedy and broke up the Beatles.) The meme rightly skewers the absurdity of Netanyahu’s historical fiction but misses the ideology underpinning it. The mufti Holocaust story is not just a pernicious but expedient fabrication to fuel hatred for Palestinians — and Netanyahu most likely wasn’t lying when he said it. He believes in the story, or at least, in the mythology of the story. Factual incorrectness is beside the point; it’s not difficult to find out that at least 33,000 Jews had been exterminated by SS mobile killing units before Hitler and the mufti met.
Dr. Jay Michaelson, writing in the Daily Beast, emphasized how Netanyahu’s speech revealed the right-wing narrative in which the Israel-Palestine conflict is only viewable as about anti-Semitism. Michaelson notes the important detail that the mufti story was recounted as an aside in Netanyahu’s speech. It wasn’t scripted. “It was an aside within an aside,” he wrote. “But precisely because it was off the cuff, it offers a valuable peek behind the curtain of Israeli nationalist ideology … rejectionist nationalism is blind to historical reality, preferring a mythic struggle between good and evil.”
Holocaust denial is the most pernicious and baseless reason to question the raison d’état of Israel. And while the myth of the mufti suggesting the Final Solution is politically expedient and has found currency among some Holocaust deniers, Netanyahu has not simply opened the door for a questioning of the Jewish colonial ethnocracy. His remarks actually reflect a view that incorporates fighting Palestine into Israel’s very purpose.
The hermetically sealed logic plays out thus: If the Holocaust proved the need for the Jewish state, and if Palestinians caused the Holocaust, Palestinians prove the need for the Jewish state. In such a world, diplomacy is doomed, as every Israeli action be (fatuously, dangerously) collapsed into the position of the existentially threatened Jew.
Netanyahu’s words exposed a faith-based belief system when it comes historical narrative (which has nothing to do with the Jewish religion, and everything to do with right wing mythologizing of Israel). Asking a religious Christian to fact check the Bible won’t necessarily diminish their belief in its teachings; similarly, Netanyahu believes the message of his myth — the essential and immutable threat of Palestine to Israel — with an ideological fervor above the historical record.
Indeed, he told the story with the cadence given to parables, in which all that is necessary for the universe to change is for one character to say something unto another character. Netanyahu used this folkloric frame, character quotations and all: “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.’”
Like any folk myth, the message is intended to transcend time. So it’s no wonder the precise details can be found exactly nowhere in recorded history.