The Holocaust has become a political football.
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In the past few weeks we have seen politicians and activists of all stripes rely on the history of the Holocaust to score political points. Mike Huckabee, in expressing his opposition to the Iran nuclear agreement, argued that it was akin to taking “the Israelis and marching them to the door of the oven.” There were grounds to oppose the agreement and consider it misguided and even dangerous, but this kind of analogy distorts historical reality.
Ben Carson proclaimed – wrongly, as historian Alan Steinweis demonstrated in the New York Times – that if Jews in Nazi Germany had guns, the Holocaust’s death toll would have been far lower. Let’s recall that the Soviets had guns, tanks and an array of other weapons; nonetheless they lost seven million soldiers in their efforts to defeat the Nazis.
But this reliance on the Holocaust to further one’s cause is not something new. At pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel protests, it is common to see participants carrying placards accusing Israelis of carrying out a Holocaust and describing the current prime minister as the equivalent of Hitler or even his “clone.” One might totally disagree with Israel’s policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians. But to speak of a Holocaust or Hitler bears no relation to historical or contemporary reality.
It's possible to argue that since neither Huckabee nor Carson are well versed in the history of the annihilation of European Jewry, they should not be too roundly condemned for these cheap analogies. Similarly, one could say that anti-Israel protestors are so infused with hatred and anger that they too have lost sight of any historical reality. But what can one say when the leader of the Jewish state relies on this tactic?
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Netanyahu told the World Zionist Congress that the idea for murdering the Jews was the brainchild of Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. According to Netanyahu, when Hitler and the mufti met in November 1941, Hitler had not yet thought of exterminating the Jews but simply wished to expel them. When Husseini complained that expelled Jews would all come to Palestine, according to Netanyahu, a perplexed Hitler asked, “So what should I do with them?” The mufti supposedly responded, “Burn them.” And so the Holocaust ensued.
This claim doesn’t make sense. The murder of the Jews began in the summer of 1941, five months before this meeting. By the time Hitler and the mufti had their tete-a-tete, hundreds of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children had been shot. At Babi Yar alone, the Germans murdered 34,000 Jews in September 1941, over two months prior to the meeting, without any encouragement from the mufti. Gas wagons were already in use prior to this meeting. Someone who wishes to only expel a people does not rely on mass shootings and gas wagons.
This is not the first time Netanyahu has made this assertion. In 2012 the prime minister claimed in the Knesset that the mufti “more than anyone else convinced [Hitler] to execute the Final Solution.” Some of the prime minister’s critics used this opportunity to brand him a Holocaust denier. He’s not – but he is a revisionist. And he is doing so to score political points.
Let me be clear. The mufti was no innocent, and enthusiastically supported Hitler. As historian Jeffrey Herf records, it was this support that earned him a prominent seat in December 1941, when Hitler gave his speech declaring war on the United States.
Al-Husseini unambiguously encouraged his audiences to murder Jews. In December 1942, at the opening of the Islamic Institute in Berlin, he declared that the war, which had been “engineered by the Jews,” gave Muslims a “unique” opportunity to “get rid of their enemies.” In a March 1944 radio address he exhorted Muslims to “kill the Jews wherever you find them.” He assisted the Nazis in organizing Bosnian Muslims into a unit of the Waffen-SS. While historians may differ on the degree of influence he wielded among Nazi leaders, they do not question his delight that Jews were being annihilated.
Netanyahu, however, did not paint him as a supporter of this genocide. He credited him with coming up with the idea. There is a vast difference between the two. Historians continue to debate who originated the idea of the Final Solution. No serious historian, however, has ever laid the decision at the feet of the mufti.
These are scary days in Israel. Arabs, some of whom have been incited to act by religious and political leaders, have stabbed, hacked, and stoned Jews. Others have mowed them down with cars. This inexcusable barbarism does not, however, legitimate rewriting of the past.
The Holocaust was a crucial moment in history. Forgetting would be a tragedy; twisting and revising what happened to fulfill ancillary goals, equally so.
Deborah Lipstadt is the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. She is the author of "Denying the Holocaust," for which she was sued for libel by historian David Irving. Upon her victory in 2000, the Times wrote “History has had its day in court and scored a crushing victory. “‘