With the uptick in recent violence between Israelis and Palestinians, Benjamin Netanyahu alleged a conversation between Adolf Hitler and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, might have been the impetus for Hitler’s decision to exterminate the Jews rather than expel them from Europe. On Friday, Al Jazeera reported a flood of mockery alleging the Israeli Prime Minister was trying to rewrite history.
By Wednesday, Netanyahu had already clarified his remarks:
“My intention was not to absolve Hitler of his responsibility but rather 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.
Hitler was responsible for the Final Solution to exterminate six million Jews; he made the decision. It is equally absurd to ignore the role played by the mufti, Haj Amin al -Husseini, a war criminal, for encouraging and urging Hitler.”
Despite the damage control, the flood of criticism ensued.
While there are distinctions between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, it is important to understand the history of the conflict. Early Zionists experiencing anti-Semitism in Europe desired to find a homeland for the Jews. Led by the ideas of Theodore Herzl and the commonplace immigration of Jews to the Holy Land, the efforts toward international community eventually led to the Balfour Declaration, when Great Britain began to look seriously at establishing a Jewish homeland in the region.
The idea had a mixed reception even among Jews at the time, for both religious and political reasons. Skeptics believed the Jews were best served in the diaspora, rather than creating both controversy and a target by concentrating in one area.
Thousands of Jews had been moving to the region as early as the 15th century, increasing to tens of thousands in the Second Aliyah by 1914. Prior to 1867, the Ottoman Empire hadn’t allowed any foreigners to purchase land in Palestine and also opposed the Jewish self-rule. In 1881 the Ottomans decreed Jews could immigrate to the Ottoman Empire except in Palestine and until their defeat in 1918, restricted Jewish immigration and land purchases in Palestine even if they were Ottoman citizens. Regardless, many successful land purchases were made through various organizations before and after the turn of the century.
In April 1920, violent rioting broke out in protest at the implementation of the Balfour Declaration which supported the establishment in Palestine of a homeland for the Jewish people. Al-Husseini, then a teacher in East Jerusalem, was charged with inciting the Arab crowds and sentenced to 10-years imprisonment but later pardoned and appointed to the position of Grand Mufti. From that influential position he became the father of regional anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and hard line Palestinian nationalism including violence against Jews.
Additional Aliyahs brought more Jews to the region as anti-Semitism was increasing across Europe. Legalized discrimination increased immediately after the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 and Jews were pressured to leave the country. After the invasion of Poland in 1939, the extermination began and the killings accelerated after the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.
But the original idea had been forced emigration. Known as the Madagascar Plan, the proposal involved shipping the Jews to Madagascar and was devised in 1938 and officially endorsed as Nazi policy in 1940. A year later, however, the Nazis were looking at other alternatives. In 1941, Hermann Göring, gave authorization to Reinhard Heydrich to submit a plan for a “total solution of the Jewish question” in territories under German control.
At the Wannsee Conference, Heydrich explained to government officials with various ministries how they would employ deportation to Poland, followed by extermination. At the time of the conference, units involved in the invasion of the Soviet Union had already been assigned to follow the army, rounding up and killing Jews. During this time period, the “Final Solution” became the code name for the annihilation of European Jews. At some still undetermined time in 1941, Hitler authorized the scheme for mass murder and at an undetermined time the same year, implementation became official policy. The Madagascar Plan was officially shelved in 1942.
Husseini became an ardent supporter of the Nazis and secured an audience with Hitler that Netanyahu alludes to. Scholars reflect have reflected on Husseini’s support of the Axis powers, alliance with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy as being motivated by virulent anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist sentiment. According to the British record, in his infamous meeting with Hitler he stated “the Arabs were Germany’s natural friends because they had the same enemies as had Germany, namely the English, the Jews, and the Communists,” and thanked Hitler for supporting “the elimination of the Jewish national home.”
There is nowhere in the record a suggestion that Husseini specifically gave Hitler the idea to exterminate Europe’s Jews and the timeline suggests while the meeting occurred two months before the Final Solution was formalized and the construction of extermination camps accelerated, the mass murder of Jews had already begun with over a million killed.
However, this was hardly the Mufti’s first encounter with the Nazis. Dieter Wisliceny, one of Adolf Eichmann’s deputies, stated in a signed official deposition to the Nuremberg tribunal:
“The Mufti [Amin al-Husseini] was one of the initiators of the systematic extermination of European Jewry and had been a collaborator and advisor of Eichmann and Himmler in the execution of this plan. . . “
In 1947, Drew Pearson, a well known American columnist, referred to Wisliceny’s testimony and also concluded Husseini “had repeatedly suggested to the various authorities with whom he had been in contact, above all before Hitler, Ribbentrop and Himmler, the extermination of European Jewry.”
Further, there is a long list of the rise of Nazi activity in the Middle East as early as 1933 and the first congratulatory letters about Hitler’s election as Reich Chancellor came from Arabs. In addition, Dutch investigative journalist Emerson Vermaat alleges Husseini met with Francois Genoud, later known as “Hitler’s Banker” in 1936 and that there exists a rare document about a possible visit by Al-Husseini to Yemen referring to him as “an envoy of Hitler.”
The Mufti later openly called for the murder of Jews as a matter of God, giving further license to modern-day Jihad. The takeaway is not to dwell on whether or not the Mufti was the primary impetus behind the change in Nazi policy but rather, regardless of how we feel about Israel’s policies today, it’s important to understand what fermented the original opposition to a Jewish state and how that legacy continues as an impediment to peace.