JERUSALEM — There is no Israeli orator tougher and more pugnacious than Benjamin Netanyahu, but even his allies expressed bewilderment — and shock — Wednesday after the prime minister asserted that a Palestinian religious leader gave Adolf Hitler the idea to annihilate the Jews.
In a speech here Tuesday evening, Netanyahu sought to explain the surge in violence in Israel and the West Bank by reaching for historical antecedents. He said that Jews living in what was then British Palestine faced many attacks in 1920, 1921 and 1929 — all instigated by the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who allied himself with the Nazis during World War II.
Then Netanyahu dropped his bombshell. He 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.’ ”
Netanyahu, the son of a historian, said the mufti played “a central role in fomenting the Final Solution,” as the Nazis termed their plan to exterminate the Jews.
The remarks were made in a speech to the World Zionist Congress about “the 10 big lies” told by Palestinians and their backers.
As supporters of the Israeli leader wondered what he was doing, his critics said that his claims were outrageous enough to give cover to Holocaust deniers.
The controversy erupted on the eve of Netanyahu’s state visit to Germany, where Holocaust denial is a crime. The Germans pushed back, telling the Israeli leader — politely — that the Holocaust was their responsibility alone.
The speech was pure Netanyahu, delivered in his trademark blunt and conversational style. But what motivated his remarks on the mufti was not clear, though Palestinians deemed it classic incitement and historians of the Holocaust said he was wrong.
The mufti of Jerusalem “was a virulent anti-Semite. But we must always be careful in talking about the Holocaust,” Jonathan Greenblatt, national director of the Anti-Defamation League in the United States, warned on Twitter.
He added, “Even if unintended, the prime minister, by his words, plays into those who would trivialize or understate Adolf Hitler’s role in orchestrating the Final Solution,” which killed about 6 million Jews.
Netanyahu’s words drew sharp criticism across the political spectrum.
Zionist Union lawmaker Itzik Shmuli demanded that Netanyahu apologize to Holocaust victims, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
“This isn’t the first time Netanyahu distorts historical facts, but a lie of this magnitude is the first,” Shmuli said, adding that the prime minister’s remarks would embolden Holocaust deniers.
Even Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, a Netanyahu ally, said Hitler “initiated the Holocaust; the mufti joined him.”
Netanyahu, elected to a historic fourth term this year, has often claimed the mantle of leader of the Jewish people.
His remarks were intended to underline his contention that the root cause of Palestinian violence is not Israel’s 48-year-old military occupation of the West Bank, the building of Jewish settlements on lands that the Palestinians hope to make part of their future state, or the partial trade and travel blockade of the Gaza Strip, but old and intractable hatred of Jews.
In speeches in 2013 and this year, Netanyahu pointed to the mufti of Jerusalem as exemplifying deep Arab anti-Semitism. This time, the Israeli leader went further, claiming that the Palestinian religious leader gave Hitler the idea for the Final Solution.
Reaction in Israel — and across the Jewish world — came hard and fast. First, politicians were stunned. Then historians piled on. Then Netanyahu became fodder for social media memes and parodies.
Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog called Netanyahu’s charges “a dangerous historical distortion” that “minimizes the Holocaust, Nazism and Hitler’s part in our people’s terrible disaster.”
Herzog noted that the Holocaust had begun by the time the grand mufti met Hitler in November 1941.
“This wasn’t a speech by Jorg Haider,” Zehava Galon of the left-wing Meretz party wrote on her Facebook page, referring to the late leader of the far-right Freedom Party in Austria. “This wasn’t a snippet of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ doctoral thesis,” which questions whether 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. “This was an actual quote by the prime minister of the State of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, before the World Zionist Congress. It has to be seen to be believed.”
“Perhaps we should exhume the corpses of the 33,771 Jews murdered in Babi Yar in September 1941, two months before the Mufti and Hitler met, and bring them up to speed on the fact that the Nazis had no intention of destroying them,” Galon wrote.
Babi Yar was a site outside Ukraine’s capital where German troops carried out a mass killing of Jews and local collaborators.
Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian leader and former peace negotiator, said, “Netanyahu hates Palestinians so much that he is willing to absolve Hitler of the murder of 6 million Jews.”
Husseini was a religious and political leader of the Arab population in Palestine during the British Mandatory period between the two world wars. He fomented deadly riots over the Zionists coming to Palestine, opposed mass migration of Jews, and allied with Hitler and the Nazis during World War II, in part because of his opposition to British rule. The mufti spent the war in Berlin, broadcasting Arabic-language propaganda and incitement against Jews and the Allies.
Dina Porat, chief historian at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust center in Jerusalem, told Israeli Army Radio that Netanyahu’s statements were factually incorrect.
“You cannot say that it was the mufti who gave Hitler the idea to kill or burn Jews,” she said. “It’s not true. Their meeting occurred after a series of events that point to this.”
Meir Litvak, who teaches at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Middle Eastern and African History, told Israel’s Ynet news Web site: “Husseini supported the extermination of the Jews, he tried to prevent rescuing of Jews, he recruited Arabs for the SS. He was an abominable person, but this must not minimize the scale of Hitler’s guilt.”
As he boarded his plane to Germany on Wednesday, Netanyahu attempted damage control, saying he had been misunderstood.
“It is absurd. I had no intention to absolve Hitler of responsibility for his diabolical destruction of European Jewry,” he said. “Hitler was responsible for the Final Solution extermination of 6 million Jews. He made the decision.”
However, Netanyahu held firm to his characterization of Husseini: “The mufti was instrumental in the decision to exterminate the Jews. We must not ignore the importance of his role. The mufti repeatedly suggested that the Jews should be exterminated. He considered it an appropriate solution to the Palestinian question.”
Steffen Seibert, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said, “All Germans know the history of the murderous race mania of the Nazis that led to the break with civilization that was the Holocaust,” the Reuters news agency reported.
“This is taught in German schools for good reason; it must never be forgotten,” Seibert said. “And I see no reason to change our view of history in any way. We know that responsibility for this crime against humanity is German and very much our own.”
The mufti died of cancer in Beirut in 1974.