In an October 20 speech to the World Zionist Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the "Mufti of Jerusalem," Haj Amin al-Husseini, gave Adolf Hitler the idea to exterminate Jews during WWII. Netanyahu has come under fierce criticism from politicians and historians for the statement. (YouTube/IsraeliPM)

On Oct. 20, speaking to the 37th Zionist Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rewrote the history of the Holocaust. According to this new interpretation, the genocide’s main culprit was not Adolf Hitler, but Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem and the Zionist movement’s key enemy.

According to the official transcript, Netanyahu said the mufti “flew to Berlin. 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 [to British Palestine].’ ‘So what should I do with them?’ [Hitler] asked. [Husseini] said, ‘Burn them.’”

These remarks came just a day before Netanyahu’s visit to Germany — and was followed by wall-to-wall criticism from the Israeli public and the rest of the world. Germany quickly reiterated its responsibility for the Holocaust. Israeli social media was abuzz with memes ridiculing Netanyahu.

This is not the first time that Israeli and Palestinian leaders have advanced controversial — to put it mildly — views of the Holocaust. Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, wrote a doctoral thesis that is often viewed as Holocaust denial. Comparisons between the Holocaust and the current situation of the Palestinians also are not uncommon.

But no one has previously claimed that a Palestinian leader was the mastermind of the Holocaust, persuading a reluctant Hitler to embark on the Final Solution.

Where does this argument come from, and does it have anything to do with the existing historical record?

Obviously, we do not know the exact origin of Netanyahu’s claim, but a reasonable guess can be made nonetheless. Arguments linking Husseini to the Holocaust have been around since right after World War II. But those focused on Husseini’s ardent support of and potential complicity in the Nazi crimes, and did not suggest that he had such a crucial role.

Here’s the exception: a 2014 book, Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by the late Israeli American historian Barry Rubin and his German American co-author Wolfgang Schwanitz, published by Yale University Press.

In an argument that strikingly resembles Netanyahu’s, Rubin and Schwanitz write that “Hitler might have been satisfied if Germany and the land it ruled — but not the world — would be cleansed of any Jewish presence. By closing this escape route for the Jews and discouraging any alternative strategy al-Husaini [sic] helped make the ‘Final Solution’ inevitable.” (p. 160) The book is Netanyahu’s most likely source.

Why would a Muslim cleric have such an impact on the key decision of one of history’s most notorious dictators?

Husseini, the highest Muslim authority in British-ruled Palestine, was a scion of a prominent Arab family. Charismatic, authoritarian and uncompromising, he became the Arab community’s undisputed leader by physically eliminating all internal opposition. He was virulently anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic and anti-British — and the key driving force behind anti-Jewish violence throughout the 1920-1930s and a major anti-British uprising in 1936-1939. Pursued by British authorities, Husseini escaped Palestine in 1937. He reached Berlin in November 1941, and spent the war years working for the Nazis’ propaganda arm and recruiting Muslim volunteers to fight for Germany.

[Thinking beyond the two-state solution]

Rubin and Schwanitz’s (and by extension, Netanyahu’s) argument focuses on a meeting Husseini had with Hitler shortly after his arrival to Berlin, on Nov. 28, 1941. In this meeting, the argument goes, Husseini pressed Hitler not to allow Jews to leave Europe for Palestine and passionately advocated for the genocide of the Jews wherever they are, including the Middle East.

According to Rubin and Schwanitz, in the immediate aftermath of the meeting “Hitler made a … decision that would end millions of lives.” He ordered a meeting “to prepare the ‘final solution of the Jewish question” (pp. 161-162). That meeting later became known as the Wannsee Conference.

Correlation is not causation.

But is Netanyahu correct? No. Temporal correlation is not causation, as Rubin and Schwanitz themselves recognize. “If al-Husaini … had not existed, the Nazis would probably have acted in a similar fashion,” they write (p. 160). If Husseini’s meeting with Hitler had any effect at all, it was on the scheduling of a conference devoted to formalizing the Final Solution policy. The meeting certainly did not prompt the policy or even the timing of its implementation.

Even this marginal impact is debatable. British historian David Motadel’s recent overview of Nazi-Muslim relations presents a quite different description of the Husseini-Hitler meeting. The “conversation was limited to an exchange of empty courtesies and the affirmation that they are fighting against common enemies—the British, Jews, and Bolshevism … Another request for a meeting with Hitler in 1943 was unsuccessful” (p. 42).

Husseini supported the Holocaust. That doesn’t mean he caused it. 

It’s true that a large body of evidence, including Husseini’s own writings, makes it clear that he was well aware of the Holocaust and fully supported it. But that hardly makes him the genocide’s mastermind.

While not an architect of the Holocaust, Husseini was involved in the Final Solution. He actively lobbied the Germans and their allies not to allow any Jewish immigration to Palestine — even while he knew perfectly well that for those Jews, staying put meant death.

[Israel and the Gaza strip]

In another well-known episode, the mufti did his best to stop the Germans from exchanging more than a thousand Jewish children from the Bialystok ghetto orphanage for German nationals held by the Allies. The children were later gassed at Auschwitz. But even with the Bialystok orphans, it’s not at all clear to which extent Husseini actually influenced the Germans’ decisions.

Hitler was slaughtering Jews before he met with the mufti. (Cf: Babi Yar.)

Netanyahu’s argument flies in the face of everything we know about the origins of the Final Solution. It is indeed true that Hitler’s initial plan was expulsion, not extermination. But British-ruled Palestine with its tight restrictions on Jewish immigration was not considered a likely dumping ground for Europe’s Jews. The Nazi government wanted but failed to have the Jews expelled to the Nisko area in Poland, to the island of Madagascar, and later to Siberia.

By the time of the Hitler-Husseini meeting, the Germans were already massacring Jews on a large scale. The Final Solution started with localized killings in Poland before Germany’s invasion of the USSR in June 1941. But it very quickly escalated to pogroms and the “Holocaust by bullets.” That began with mass shootings of Jewish males.

By August 1941, the Germans were already targeting Jewish women and children and wiping out entire communities. On Sept. 28, 1941, exactly two months before Hitler and Husseini met, the Nazis shot almost 34,000 people — the entire Jewish population of Ukraine’s capital, Kiev — at Babi Yar.

When and why did Hitler switch from mass slaughter to complete extermination?

In other words, Hitler was killing Jews in significant numbers before he met with the mufti. What is less clear, however, is when exactly he switched the policy to continent-wide extermination. Historian Christopher Browning argues that the decision was most likely reached by late October 1941, before Husseini’s attempt to influence Hitler. Other scholars, such as the political scientist Manus Midlarsky and the historian Timothy Snyder, while disagreeing on the exact cause, believe it came in the late fall and early winter of 1941.

But no matter the date or the exact cause, Rubin and Schwanitz are the only scholars who suggest that Husseini was involved in the decision.

Netanyahu’s claim will probably have two main consequences, both problematic. 

Let’s be clear: Netanyahu is drawing a direct causal link between Husseini and the Holocaust because of his political needs and desires, not because of historical reality. Doing so will most likely achieve two things. First, it gives a potential weapon to Hitler’s apologists. And second, it effectively prevents, for decades to come, a badly needed serious evaluation of Husseini’s ideology, actions and legacy in Palestinian society.

As the son of a prominent scholar of Jewish history, Netanyahu should have known better.

Evgeny Finkel is an assistant professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University.