Why U.S. Jews Are Giving Netanyahu a Pass on His Hitler-Mufti Remark

The Israeli PM's remark was secular Zionism’s worst nightmare. Yet rather than confront it, Jewish groups are praying it disappears.

The German Federal Archive

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a man of many things, but no one could ever say he is boring. Indeed, just this week, in front of the 525 delegates of the World Zionist Congress, Bibi suggested that the Final Solution was not the brainchild of Hitler and his ignominious retinue, but of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem.

Israeli and American scholars pounced on the prime minister’s unseemly flirtation with Holocaust revisionism. Opposition leader Isaac Herzog strained to be polite and professional, but brimmed with indignation. “This is a dangerous distortion of history and I demand Netanyahu correct it immediately,” the Labor Party leader said Wednesday in a Facebook post.

Conspicuously absent, however, from the harsh chorus of denunciations were the voices of American-Jewish groups. When asked by Haaretz about Netanyahu’s alteration of history, all but one of the leading American Holocaust organizations (the Simon Wiesenthal Center in L.A.) and most of the mainstream Jewish groups had little to say on the record. Furthermore, "none would respond to questions about what the impact may be and why they didn’t issue statements about it.”

Even the Anti-Defamation League, the tireless advocate of Holocaust education in America, was uncharacteristically meek. “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,” said ADL national director Jonathan Greenblatt in a tweet.

Just compare that cautious diplomacy to the earful the ADL gave Mike Huckabee after he dragged the Holocaust through the mud of politics: “Mike Huckabee suggesting the president is leading Israel to another Holocaust are completely out of line and unacceptable.” Huckabee had said that U.S. President Barack Obama’s Iran deal would “take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.” Huckabee’s remark was inappropriate and provocative. But it’s tough to see how it was more offensive than declaring, in a rehearsed comment surely motivated by political expedience, that the Holocaust was merely an afterthought.  

So the question stands: why are Jewish organizations so accommodating here? They definitely would not have stayed so collected were an American politician to put forward such an elastic history of Hitlerism.

Their hesitation can be pinned on a few motives.   

For one, Jewish groups must worry that lacing into Netanyahu shows disunity within the tribe. And disunity is a cardinal sin. They are afraid of opening a chasm between Israel and the Diaspora. One of the popular tropes of anti-Israel agitation is that Israel is not the legitimate nation-state of world Jewry. What better evidence to the claim that Israel and the Jews are separable than a Diaspora rift with Israel’s leader over the historical trauma central to the establishment of the Jewish State? It’s secular Zionism’s worst nightmare, and American-Jewish leaders hope to put it behind them as quickly as possible. Ignoring it is easier than confronting it.

For if the Jews cannot even rely on Israel to honor the sacredness of the Holocaust, what is the Jewish state good for? Israel was founded three years after the end of World War II and became the heir to the heritage of European Jewry that disappeared between 1941 and 1945. For the prime minister of Israel to profane the Holocaust’s memory is to tug at the historical and ideological scaffoldings of the state. It drives a wedge between the modern incarnation of Israel and its secular raison d’etre.  The whole business is discomforting — to everyone.

Organizational structure could have a hand here, too. As Haaretz columnist Peter Beinart showed in his 2012 book "The Crisis of Zionism," American-Jewish organizations have to stay on good terms with the Israeli government. These days, Beinart adds, effective political activity is impossible without a large fortune, and that means donors must be persuaded to cough up vast sums of money. Beinart explains that contributors expect political access to influential figures in the Israeli government. It follows that Jewish organizations are reluctant to burn goodwill with Bibi and his inner circle, especially since it looks like the House of Netanyahu will continue to be enthroned for some time.

Lastly, it is a matter of loyalty. J.K. Rowling wrote in "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone" that it is hard to stand up to one’s enemies, but even harder to stand up to one’s friends. Jewish organizations cannot help but have policy disputes with one Israeli government or another, but to stand up to the prime minister — the elected leader of the world’s only Jewish country — and teach him about Jewish history is just too much. As Israel’s political situation deteriorates, Jewish leaders believe that this is the time for unqualified solidarity with Israel, not trifling fights over indiscretion.   

They figure it’s just easier to just let it go, and pray it won’t happen again.

Jared Samilow is a student at Brown University and a member of Brown Students for Israel. He is a graduate of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs' fellowship program in Israel-Arab studies and of Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi, Jerusalem.