I’ve always loved the fact that the first Zionist Congress in 1897 was held at a casino. Where better to take such a massive gamble on the Jewish future? And who could have imagined that a bunch of dreamers — with no support from any of the great Jewish money men and panjandrums of the age, and who represented a small minority of a scattered Diaspora which refused to conceive of a return to the ancient homeland — would win their bet. What grand discussions and disputes they were to have in the next decades in those congresses: Did the perilous situation of Jews in the Czarist empire warrant finding a temporary sanctuary, perhaps in Uganda? Should statehood come through discreet diplomatic lobbying of the Western powers or was a more activist approach called for? Would bourgeoisie businessmen of the Diaspora or the hardy socialist pioneers who were already building the first kibbutzim have the upper hand?
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Then there was the nadir, the 21st Congress in August 1939 where Chaim Weizmann told delegates that no country in the world would allow Jewish refugees entry and how “in this solemn hour I am reluctantly compelled to say that faith has been broken with us.” The delegates, many of whom would never attend another congress, left a week before the outbreak of the World War II, with the heavy feeling that at the Jews' darkest moment Zionism had failed in its ultimate task of building a safe haven. Adolf Hitler had promised in a speech seven months earlier that a war would result “in the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.” By that stage, with the Wehrmacht massed on the borders of Poland, most of them believed he meant to try and feared rightly they were too late to save many. Could any of them have imagined that nine years later, despite the destruction, their vision would be realized and the independent State of Israel a reality?
If it hadn’t been for Benjamin Netanyahu’s “Mufti speech” few Israelis would even have been aware that the Zionist Congress still exists and that it was held for the 37th time this week in Jerusalem. It was no coincidence that this pointless talking shop was the venue for that speech. There can be few events with less relevance to life in Israel or in the Jewish Diaspora, for that matter. Not one of the resolutions passed at the congress changes a thing or matters to anyone, beyond the faceless flunkies appointed to well-paid jobs in superfluous bodies. Some PR flack came up with the wheeze of labelling this congress “Non-Stop Zionism,” but non-stop Zionism is what ordinary Israelis were doing outside the congress center, going about their day’s work, looking over their shoulders for a knife — who has time for three days of empty talk?
The Israeli media totally ignored the proceedings; it has enough real news to deal with. They were so uninterested in this mega non-event that it took them long hours to wake up and realize that Netanyahu had just accused the father of the Palestinian national movement of coming up with the idea for the Final Solution.
Since this belated realization, so much has already been said about the absurdity of Netanyahu’s historical narrative and I hope by now there is no need for me to point out that the protocol of Haj Amin al-Husseini’s meeting with Hitler in November 1941 bears no resemblance to the version mentioned by Netanyahu. And yes, the Grand Mufti — still revered by Palestinians today — was a vicious anti-Semite who envisioned exterminating the Jews in Palestine in the same way that Germany dealt with the Jews of Europe, but no serious historian believes he had any real influence on the Nazis who had already murdered a million Jews by the time al-Husseini met his patron in Berlin. I’m much more concerned with why Netanyahu actually included that in his speech. I have no way of knowing for certain if he actually believes this theory, contradicted by verified facts, which is based largely on the widely discredited testimony of a mid-level SS officer who had no inside knowledge of Hitler’s thinking anyway. But whether or not Netanyahu believes it himself, he certainly wants us to believe it. Even after the most eminent Israeli historians lined up to assail his speech, he continued to maintain that al-Husseini, who was then a powerless exile, had a pivotal role, reiterating this both in his remarks before leaving for Berlin on Wednesday and later in a joint press conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The obvious reason is that Netanyahu, who has focused on current Palestinian incitement as the core motivation in the latest wave of Palestinian attacks on Israeli Jews, has gone overboard as he is wont to do, by linking it to the Nazi sympathies of a man who died 41 years ago and had lost any real influence, even among Palestinians, decades earlier. He has done the same for years with the Iranian nuclear issue, and there is nothing surprising about it. He is not unique.
The Nazi era is regularly invoked by all manner of politicians across the world; it is used and abused even more frequently by the Russian government to justify its actions against Ukraine. But Netanyahu’s habitual employment of the Holocaust in his rhetoric, which is characteristic of a specific brand of insecurity peculiar to Zionism, makes Israeli leaders harken back to the Holocaust. Menachem Begin suffered from the same delusion when he justified sending the Israeli army into Beirut in 1982 by likening the cowering Yasser Arafat to “Hitler in the bunker." Because if you are facing Hitler and his followers, then there’s no room for self-doubt. Hitler is ultimate evil, he is threatening us with total annihilation and we can’t be asking ourselves questions while under existential threat.
The Zionist organizations should have been respectfully disbanded following independence. Just like the Jewish underground defense groups were, their roles subsumed by the departments of a new democratic government. For Israeli politicians, from 1948 onwards, preserving the “national institutions” of the Zionist movement, the Congress, the World Zionist Movement, the Jewish National Fund (KKL) and the United Jewish Appeal (Keren Hayesod) was a way to preserve lucrative sinecures for the party faithful, preserve slush funds and subcontract sensitive functions such as land allocation and fundraising from the Diaspora to non-accountable opaque organizations. But on a deeper level, the decision to keep these organizations running was a result of the chronic insecurity which won’t allow them to admit that they had served their purpose once Israel won independence. The corrupt and bloated bureaucracy was allowed to remain because it is the institutional embodiment of the pathology described in the Talmud as “the owner of a miracle not recognizing it.” They are part of the excuse for not acting like a proper state but as a work-in-progress and a nation in perpetual mortal struggle with Hitler and the Mufti. So don’t bother us with injustices and inequalities, don’t you know there’s a war on?
Zionism is no abstract ideology and it certainly isn’t a movement which evolves in congresses. It is a living reality for the millions of citizens of the state. And like every state, it has to address the flaws and excesses of its government and society. The Mufti thought Hitler would help him remove the Jews from Palestine and lost, dying a broken man in Beirut. The Zionists took a crazy gamble on the Jewish future, and won. Some critics accused Netanyahu this week of “Holocaust denial,” but this is of course an unfair exaggeration; if anything, he is a denier of the success of Zionism.