Although no respectable Jewish politician has ever gone as far as Benjamin Netanyahu in downplaying Adolf Hitler’s malice aforethought towards the Jews, the effort to implicate the World War II Mufti of Jerusalem as one of the Fuehrer’s key partners in history’s greatest crime dates back to pre-State days. 70 years ago, in fact, Zionist leaders launched a worldwide campaign to depict Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini as a crucial lynchpin in the Final Solution. Coincidentally or not, the prime minister’s own father, Benzion Netanyahu, played an active role in that campaign.
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According to a 2012 article by Holocaust historian Rafael Medoff, the elder Netanyahu, then a Revisionist leader in New York, published several newspaper ads in 1946 headlined “The Mufti must be brought to trial”, featuring the infamous photograph of the November 28, 1941 Berlin meeting between Hitler and Haj Amin al-Husseini that his son Benjamin referred to in his controversial speech to the World Zionist Congress last week. The mufti was described in these and many other ads and articles published at the time as a major Nazi war criminal escaping justice.
Echoing an article written by New Hampshire Philosophy Professor Joseph Spoerls and published in March 2015 by the Adelson-linked Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Netanyahu sparked an international outcry last week by claiming that Hitler had only wanted to expel the Jews, but was convinced by the mufti’s call to “burn them.”
But unlike his son in 2015, the elder Netanyahu was neither alone in his efforts against the mufti nor was he engaging in the kind of renegade campaign that often characterized the relations between mainstream Zionist leadership and breakaway Revisionists. Rather, the campaign against the mufti encompassed the entire post-war American-Zionist leadership and many of the movement’s liberal supporters in the press. In an October 6, 1946 New York Times article, national Jewish leader Stephen Wise, the arch-enemy of the Revisionists who often stands accused of kowtowing to Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, described the mufti as “a major war criminal” who “played a prominent role in the extermination of six million of my fellow Jews in Europe.” The renowned leftist journalist I. F. Stone, then an ardent Zionist, wrote in the Nation that “the former Grand Mufti was responsible in large part for the Nazi program of extermination of the Jews.”
Professor of Islamic History and Literature Michael Sells of the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, however, has coined a new phrase to describe such efforts, then and now: “Holocaust abuse”. In an article published in the Journal of Religious Ethics a day or two before Netanyahu’s speech, Sells describes the 70-year old campaign to magnify the mufti’s role in the destruction of European Jewry as deviating from the accepted norms of Holocaust historiography. Sells does not dispute the mufti’s hatred of Jews, wartime collaboration with the Nazis or opposition to Jewish emigration to Palestine; rather, his article dissects and questions the meager evidence supporting the claim that the mufti actually influenced decisions made by Nazi leaders concerning the Jews, which was based on one SS officer’s testimony, and the political motivations that led to the public campaigns to prove it.
‘Newman’ and ‘Willy’
Based, among other things, on Central Zionist Archives files, Sells recounts the contacts between one of Adolf Eichmann’s deputies in the SS, Dieter Wisliceny, the only true source for the charges against the mufti, and then Zionist intelligence operative and later Israeli Foreign Minister director general Gideon Rafael. While he was ostensibly assisting the Allies to collect evidence against Nazi war criminals on trial at Nuremberg, Rafael, then Ruffer, met with Wisliceny in his prison cell in Nuremberg where he was testifying and communicated with him in his Bratislava jail where he was standing trial for war crimes.
In later years Rafael would say that his main goal was to extract information about Eichmann’s whereabouts, a claim repeated at Eichmann’s 1961 trial in Jerusalem. Renowned Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal’s thought otherwise: “What seems to have interested Ruffer most was the cooperation between Eichmann and the Grand Mufti of Palestine, Haj Amin el-Husseini,” Wiesenthal wrote in his autobiography.
In his cables to the Zionist leadership in Jerusalem, Rafael referred to Wisliceny by his code name “Willy” and to the mufti as “Newman.” Sells recounts how the contents of Rafael’s cables were conveyed by officials in Jerusalem to Jewish Agency offices and to “sympathetic journalists” in Europe and the U.S. It can hardly be a coincidence that among those working with Rafael on war documentation at the time was future Israeli army spokesman Moshe Pearlman, who wrote Mufti of Jerusalem, the first book purporting to expose the Palestinian leader’s undue influence on Nazi leaders, as well as Eliahu Epstein, later Elath, subsequently Israel’s first ambassador to the U.S., who portrayed the mufti as a pivotal Holocaust figure in a February 1946 article in The Nation.
The campaign against the mufti was run from Jerusalem by the head of the Jewish Agency’s political department, Moshe Sharett and his aides. Traumatized by emerging reports of the scale of the Jewish destruction in Europe, the Zionist leadership at the time had good cause to fear the mufti’s negative influence on Palestinian Arabs and to do their utmost to paint him as a war criminal in order to keep him from returning from Europe to the Middle East. After the mufti’s controversial “escape” from French custody via a TWA flight to Cairo in May 1946, American Zionists spearheaded the campaign to implicate Husseini. They hoped to discredit the Arab claim to Palestine in the eyes of the victorious Allies by equating it with Nazism and to exert pressure on the Truman administration to support post-war Jewish emigration to Palestine and the establishment of an independent Jewish state.
Some writers have maintained that the American Jewish zeal to participate in the public indictment of the Palestinian Nazi/mufti was a reaction to their guilt over their perceived silence during the Holocaust itself. According to one contemporary report, they certainly convinced American Jews: The report says that local Jewish leaders in Philadelphia did not follow the specific proceedings at the Nuremberg trials and could not differentiate between the various senior Nazis being prosecuted there. “The only war criminal in the minds of the Philadelphia leadership was the Mufti,” it states. Medoff writes that the criticism against Truman and the Democrats generated by the mufti affair was one of the factors that contributed to Republican electoral gains in both the 1946 and 1948 Congressional elections.
The ubiquitous Captain Wisliceny
Though largely forgotten today, the man who provided the incriminating testimony that underpinned the global campaign against the mufti, Prussian-born SS-Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Dieter Wisliceny, was a wily war criminal who played a major personal role in the extermination of the Jews. Among other things, Wisliceny oversaw the deportation of the Jewish communities of Slovakia, Salonika and Hungary to Nazi death camps. More pertinently, he was also a pivotal figure in the controversial Zionist and non-Zionist efforts to “buy” the release of European Jews. In his epic book "The Years of Extermination," Holocaust historian Saul Friedlander rightly describes Wisliceny as “ubiquitous.”
Wisliceny took bribes to stop the deportations of Slovakia’s Jews and was an intermediary in SS chief Heinrich Himmler’s aborted Europa Plan that was supposed to stop the executions of Jews throughout Europe. He was also a key player in Yisrael/Rudolf Kastner’s better-known contacts with Eichmann on the rescue of Hungarian Jewry that ultimately led to the famous Kastner libel trial and his subsequent murder in 1957. Like Eichmann, Wisliceny developed warped though sometimes close ties with his Jewish interlocutors.
In his memoirs, Eichmann’s prosecutor Gideon Hausner credits Wisliceny’s testimony at Nuremberg on January 3, 1946 as being the first to inform a shocked world about the scope and premeditation of the Final Solution. Wisliceny’s oft-cited testimony about the mufti’s role, however, wasn’t given on the witness stand at Nuremberg but rather cited in separate sworn affidavits submitted by Kastner and Andre Steiner, a Czechoslovak-born Jew who was involved in the Slovakia negotiations. Several weeks later, Wisliceny confirmed that he had been quoted correctly by Kastner and Steiner as saying that “the Mufti was one of the initiators of the systematic extermination of European Jewry and adviser of Eichmann and Himmler in execution of the plan.”
As more than one historian has pointed out, in the final analysis the only witness to claim that the mufti played such a crucial role was Wisliceny himself. Though there is ample evidence of the mufti's collaboration with the Germans, no other document or testimony portrays the Jerusalem-born Muslim cleric as the kind of Nazi mastermind, that the father and son Netanyahu and many others have described. Sells and others have noted that by inflating the mufti’s role, Wisliceny gave himself a convenient alibi for having taken tens of thousands of dollars from the so-called Jewish “Working Group” in Bratislava without providing the halt in Jewish deportations promised in return: He repeatedly cites Eichmann as saying that sending Jews to Palestine was out of the question because of the mufti’s objections.
Though it has never been documented, Wisliceny could conceivably have been promised or might at least have hoped for Zionist help in exchange for his testimonies. Rafael claimed that he told Wisliceny that the only help he would get was a rope around his neck, but Kastner, at least, did lodge an appeal with the court in Bratislava where Wisliceny was standing trial and also beseeched the Americans, with whom he was affiliated, to take his SS acquaintance back in their custody. Unlike his widely-condemned testimony that helped secure the release of SS Colonel Kurt Becher, who negotiated with him on the famous “Kastner Train” that rescued 1684 Hungarian Jews in late 1944, Kastner’s intervention did not help Wisliceny. He was sentenced to death in February 1948 and executed on May 4, 1948, ten days before Israel’s independence was announced.
Abuse, not denial
Wisliceny’s testimony about Husseini was to reemerge at the Eichmann trial: David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir had insisted that the mufti’s genocidal tendencies become part of the trial’s enduring legacy. The mufti-Nazi connection was also pressed home for American audiences at the time in the iconic movie Exodus, where the mufti’s forces are commanded by the fictional SS officer Von Storch (played, by the way, by Marius Goring, a British actor with no connection to the Nazi general) who heads a unit of “80 storm troopers.” Exodus author Leon Uris had been contacted to write a separate book about the mufti’s Nazi ties as well, but the project fell through.
The Arabs as Nazis bent on extermination of Jews, which Sells describes as the “Perish Judea” narrative, reached a peak of sorts during the fretful days before the Six Day War but dissipated in the ensuing years after Israel’s resounding victory. Sells, who wrote his article before Netanyahu’s latest Hitler-mufti brouhaha, credits the prime minister’s 1993 book “A Place Among the Nations” with resuscitating the mufti/Nazi link in the United States.
Both Netanyahu and the disciples that took their cue from him were now using the claims against al-Husseini to tar Yasser Arafat, who once served as his assistant, in order to undermine Palestinian statehood and the Oslo Accords, which they opposed. In his Zionist Congress speech last week, Netanyahu linked the mufti with Mahmoud Abbas for much the same reasons. And the mufti-Nazi alliance was also highlighted in the film “Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West” which was distributed in 28 million copies during the 2008 presidential campaign by the mysterious Clarion Fund in an effort to deter voters from choosing Barack Obama.
“The post-1993 Perish Judea literature transgresses or ignores the recognized standards of Holocaust historiography,” Sells writes. “Because these standards have been associated primarily, if not exclusively, with the problem of Holocaust denial, if finds itself unencumbered by them. Indeed, it presents itself as an expression of genuine Holocaust recognition and a voice of righteous judgment.”
Like Spoerl, whose article for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs seems to be the only basis for Netanyahu’s claim that the mufti actually persuaded Hitler to annihilate the Jews, Sells is not a professional Holocaust historian, though his article seems better grounded in original historical documents.
I asked Sells, who rose to national prominence in the U.S. in 2002 when Christian Evangelicals tried and failed to legally prevent him from teaching the Koran at the University of North Carolina, what had induced him to research the mufti case. He said he had no sympathy for the mufti, who served as “a Nazi agent” during the war, but was interested in tracing the sources of “what has become an important story in American culture and politics.” He studies “religious violence”, he added, and was researching the ways in which “the memorialization of the Holocaust has sometimes been militarized.”
It is also a tool, one can add, to belittle the occupation, delegitimize Palestinian demands for independence, whip up Jewish fear and suspicion of Arabs and Muslims and generate support for the powers that be, from pre-State days and, apparently, for years to come.