While the world heaped on commentary, criticism and Internet memes after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid blame for the extermination of European Jewry at the feet of the Palestinian mufti of Jerusalem, rather than at Hitler’s, American Holocaust-related organizations were curiously silent.
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All of the leading American Holocaust organizations and most of the mainstream Jewish groups had little to say on the record — with one exception — when asked for their response to Netanyahu’s alteration of history. None would respond to questions about what the impact may be and why they didn’t issue statements about it.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, tried to explain what he is certain Netanyahu meant to say. “The prime minister of Israel knows very well that Adolph Hitler was the person responsible” for the Holocaust, he told Haaretz.
“Maybe he didn’t phrase it the right way, but what he was trying to say is that he had many assistants enthusiastic about this idea,” including Jerusalem Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini. “Maybe he should have phrased it more clearly, but his intention was to say that ‘let’s not forget that before there was a State of Israel, when there were no settlements, there was a grand mufti who thought they should get rid of the Jews.’"
“The Palestinians’ arguments [against Israel] begin with the settlements and with the occupation, but none of that applied” when Hitler met with the grand mufti of Jerusalem and the Muslim leader spoke of his interest in ridding the world of Jews," Hier said. “The Palestinians have to own that point. They must admit that point.”
The Anti-Defamation League's new CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, chastised Netanyahu on Twitter Wednesday, writing: “even if unintended, the PM’s words trivialize Hitler’s rolewe must always be careful in talking about the Holocaustat a time when there is hateful incitement against Jews spreading across the Internet, it’s important to stay focused on the issues at hand today.”
Representatives of other prominent Holocaust museums had little to say. Their leaders, like Holocaust historians around the world, just wanted to set the historical record straight.
“I join the chorus of historians throughout the world in clarifying the facts,” wrote David Marwell, Director of New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, in an email response to an interview request. “By the time the Grand Mufti met with Hitler at the end of November 1941, the Germans were already engaged in mass murder of the Jews.”
The Museum declined to make him or anyone else available for additional questions.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. issued this statement in response to Haaretz’s inquiry: "Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, was an anti-Semite and willing Nazi collaborator. While actively supportive of Nazi Germany's efforts to annihilate world Jewry — he sought to inspire Muslim men to serve in Axis military and auxiliary units and advocated the murder of Jews — the 'Final Solution' would have occurred with or without his complicity.”
A museum spokesman declined to make anyone available to answer questions.
Most scholars of the Holocaust and smaller museums around the country did not respond at all to requests, made by phone and email, for interviews.
“I’m not sure I can add anything new to the discussion,” wrote Elizabeth Gelman, executive director of The Florida Holocaust Museum, in St. Petersburg. “As my colleagues have been widely quoted, the statement that Prime Minister Netanyahu made was factually incorrect. Germany itself has reaffirmed its responsibility for the Holocaust.” Gelman did not reply to follow-up questions.
Rafael Medoff, director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington D.C., used the opportunity to write Haaretz that the entirety of the mufti’s role in the Holocaust, “aside from the many anti-Jewish speeches he broadcast to the Arab world from Germany, will not be known until the relevant Arab archives are opened.”
Why the reluctance to say much directly about the impact of Netanyahu’s misstatement?
“Israel has a lot of tsuris,” said Hier, of the Wiesenthal Center, using the Yiddish word for “problems.”
Holocaust groups are “really upset and yet don’t want to criticize Netanyahu publicly — particularly at a moment when Israel needs support. Israel is under attack from terrorists and they want to stand together with Israel, not criticize, ” said the head of another major Jewish organization, who asked not to be named.
“As the Germans put it, Netanyahu has instrumentalized the Holocaust for current political purposes. That’s a horrible thing to do,” he said. The prime minister “has now tried to use the Holocaust as another tool in his political quiver.”
But one leading Holocaust scholar, Deborah Lipstadt, spoke more freely.
The implications of Netanyahu’s statement “are very bad,” said Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta. “The situation [in Israel] is terrible,” but “you don’t have to revise history to make that point.”
His revision of long-accepted historical fact “certainly suggests that Jews play with the facts,” Lipstadt told Haaretz. “It was a big mistake on his part. He really went too far this time.”