Painting Palestinians as Nazis, Netanyahu Incites Wave of Vigilante Violence


It is Springtime for Hitler. The genocidal dictator who presided over the murder of millions of Jews across Europe during World War II has been absolved of his most heinous crime by the elected leader of the self-proclaimed Jewish state. According to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the blame for the Final Solution lay not with Der Fuhrer, but with Hajj al-Amin Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who oversaw holy sites during the 1920s and '30s. In Netanyahu’s version of Holocaust history, Hitler was just following orders.

This seemingly surreal event occurred in Jerusalem at the World Zionist Congress, where the bigwigs of the pro-Israel world gathered amidst a spate of Palestinian stabbing attacks and brutal Israeli crackdowns. When he rose to address the crowd, Netanyahu was determined to project defiance. He would let no one accuse Israel of provoking violence with its brutal, half-century-long military occupation. His security forces were facing down a terror wave rooted in a culture of Arab anti-Semitism that pre-dated the country’s establishment, he insisted. Jewish citizens of Israel were being attacked as Jews, not as occupiers or settlers, and anyone who said otherwise was a liar.

In a long-winded disquisition peppered with tales of his grandfather’s close encounters with Arab “marauders,” Netanyahu painted the Palestinian national movement as a collection of irrational extremists united by a singular goal of exterminating the Jews. To illustrate his point, he summoned the ghost of the Mufti.

“Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews,” Netanyahu declared. “And Hajj Amin al-Husseini [the Mufti] 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.’ And he was sought in, during the Nuremberg trials for prosecution.”

Netanyahu had written feverishly on the Mufti’s collaboration with Nazi Germany in his 1993 book, A Durable Peace, citing dubious testimony by one of Adolph Eichmann’s underlings that the “Mufti was one of the initiators of the systematic extermination of European Jewry.” (In his 1961 trial in Jerusalem, Eichmann denied that Husseini played any such role or that he knew him well.) The long-dead Palestinian patriarch has been one of Netanyahu’s favorite boogeymen ever since, helping him implicate the Palestinians in crimes that had nothing to do with the occupation or settler-colonial domination. Back in 2012, in a speech before the Israeli Knesset, Netanyahu claimed the Mufti was “one of the leading architects of the Final Solution.” And a year later, at Bar Ilan University, Netanyahu attempted to draw a direct line between Nazi Germany and the Palestinian national struggle.

There is no evidence to support Netanyahu’s statements about the Mufti’s malignant influence over Hitler. According to a full readout of the Nov. 28, 1941 meeting between the two, the Mufti never urged Hitler to “burn [the Jews],” as Netanyahu alleged. Hitler’s discussion with the Mufti occurred months after the liquidation of nearly the entire Jewish population of Lithuania and weeks after the slaughter at Babi Yar, where over 34,000 Ukrainian Jews were killed in one of the worst massacres of World War II. Contrary to Netanyahu’s claims, the engines of genocide were roaring by the time the Mufti and Hitler met.

Almost every aspect of Netanyahu’s screed was false, down to his claim that Husseini died in Cairo before he could be summoned to testify at the Nuremberg Tribunal. (He died in Beirut in 1974.) In absolving Hitler of overseeing the Jewish genocide, Netanyahu dabbled in Holocaust denial, which is a crime in several European countries. The Holocaust revisionist David Irving lost his libel case against historian Deborah Lipstadt in part because he made the same false claim as Netanyahu: Irving wrote that Hitler was “inactive” in 1941, with no involvement at the time in the extermination of Germany’s Jews.

Unlike Irving, who eventually went to jail for Holocaust denial, Netanyahu has escaped with little more than a slap on the wrist. The New York Times reported his remarks and collected critical quotes by high-profile Holocaust scholars; however, it described his claims about Hitler and the Mufti as "disputed," the same language it uses to describe Palestinian territory illegally occupied by Israel. And the Anti-Defamation League, a pro-Israel organization that declares battling worldwide anti-Semitism as its mission, urged Netanyahu to “be careful in talking about the Holocaust” and thanked him for “his clarification on the point.” Yet Netanyahu only doubled down on his remarks, proclaiming “it is absurd to disregard the Mufti’s role in encouraging Hitler to exterminate the Jews.”

Over the course of his career, Netanyahu’s seemingly outlandish behavior has always been animated by a cynical logic. By projecting the phantasms of the Holocaust onto the stark tableau of the Arab Muslim world, he has expertly exploited the psychological vulnerabilities of Jewish Israelis. His perseverance is perhaps the best validation of the phenomenon known as Terror Management Theory, in which average people turn to militaristic and authoritarian political leadership to cope with frightening encounters with mortality.

Just over 20 years ago, Netanyahu addressed a right-wing rally in central Jerusalem, speaking from a balcony “in a Mussolinian posture,” as Akiva Eldar and Idith Zertal, the Israeli authors of Lords of the Land, recalled. After egging on settlers bearing portraits of Rabin dressed as a Nazi SS officer, Netanyahu marched alongside a mock coffin marked “Rabin.” Exactly one month later, Rabin was gunned down by a right-wing fanatic. And Netanyahu was on his way to winning a first term.

When he returned to the Prime Minister’s office in 2009, Netanyahu revamped his signature tactic, this time to brand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then the president of Iran, as a “modern Hitler” planning a second Holocaust. When he spoke in Washington before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in 2012, Netanyahu waved a 1944 letter from the US Department of War supposedly relaying America’s refusal to bomb the railways that carried Jews to their destruction at Auschwitz. Likening Iran’s nuclear facilities to the gas chambers of the Holocaust, Netanyahu roared, “My friends, 2012 is not 1944… Never again!” His message to the Obama administration was clear: Bomb Iran, or we will.

Netanyahu's titanic struggle had come to a sputtering end by the time he arrived at the UN General Assembly earlier this month. His humiliating failure to stop the Iran nuclear deal had deprived him of the external enemy — the “modern Hitler” — that had assured him international relevancy and domestic support. For a full 45 seconds, Netanyahu silently glowered at the room full of stone-faced diplomats as though they were impudent children. It was one of the most bizarre displays in United Nations history.

As he returned to Jerusalem, Netanyahu turned his sights away from the Iranian nuclear threat and trained them on Palestinian kids with potato peelers. “Anyone who tries to harm us, we cut off his arm,” he rumbled during a memorial ceremony for Rehavam Ze’evi, the late right-wing politician who helped popularize the idea of forcibly transferring the Palestinian population from the West Bank to Jordan.

Paranoia was spreading across the country, with commando units bursting into shopping malls during false alarms while Jews assaulted Jews who resembled Palestinians. As units of the Israeli army poured into Jerusalem for the first time since 1967, riot police took full advantage of authorization to shoot teenage stone-throwers with live bullets. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, an architect of the wave of evictions inflaming Palestinians in the east of the city, instructed all Jewish residents who owned weapons to stage armed vigilante patrols, and even embarked on one himself. “Don’t hesitate… If someone is brandishing a knife, shoot him,” urged Yair Lapid, the leader of the Yesh Atid Party.

As the violence intensified, a sub-genre of viral snuff films emerged. In one grainy clip, a settler draped a Palestinian corpse with pork as paramedics stood by impassively. Another showed an Israeli man taunting a Palestinian boy as blood poured from his head and he panted for breath after being shot during a stabbing attack. Perhaps the most gut-wrenching video captured crowds trouncing on the lifeless body of Haftom Zarhum, an Eritrean refugee who was riddled with bullets after being mistaken for a Palestinian gunman. "Break his head! Break his head! Son of a whore!” shouted one man as he abused Zarhum’s body.

By blaming a Palestinian for the Final Solution, Netanyahu has helped his countrymen adjust to the macabre reality. He reassured them that they were not settler overlords or vigilante brutes, but Inglourious Basterds curb-stomping SS officers in the woods outside Krakow. And he sent them the message that Palestinians lurking behind concrete walls and under siege in ghettoes were not an occupied, dispossessed people, but a new breed of Nazis hellbent on Jewish extermination. Netanyahu’s comments about the Mufti were much more than a hysterical lie; they were an invitation to act out a blood-soaked fantasy of righteous revenge.

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