If there is one place where the facts of the Holocaust are rarely contested, it is Israel. On Wednesday, however, public debate raged over comments by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who claimed that a key Palestinian cleric was a driving force behind Adolf Hitler's attempt to exterminate the Jews.
Addressing the World Jewish Congress in Jerusalem on Tuesday, on the eve of his departure for a trip to Germany, Netanyahu said that Haj Amin Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, had planted the seed of the Holocaust during a meeting with the Fuehrer.
"Hitler didn't want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews," Netanyahu said. "And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, 'If you expel them, they'll all come here.' 'So what should I do with them?'" he asked. He said, 'Burn them.'"
Netanyahu referred to a meeting that took place in November 1941 between Hitler and Husseini, a fierce Palestinian nationalist and Nazi sympathizer.
Husseini, said Netanyahu, had a "central role in fomenting the Final Solution," the policy finalized at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 to exterminate the Jews of Europe.
The comments caused an uproar Wednesday morning, infuriating both Israelis and Palestinians, who charged Netanyahu with rewriting history and exploiting the Holocaust for political gain.
"Also the son of an historian must state facts accurately," opposition leader Isaac Herzog said, in a reference to the prime minister's late father, a prominent historian.
Herzog demanded that Netanyahu immediately correct what he called a "dangerous distortion of history" that reduced Hitler's responsibility for Israel's tragedy. Herzog warned that Netanyahu's words "fall into the hands of Holocaust deniers like a ripe fruit," and muddy Israel's conflict with the Palestinians.
"Hitler did not need Husseini to order the killing of Jews," Herzog added.
"Maybe Netanyahu wants to tell this to my relatives and another 200,000 Jews murdered in Lithuania before the mufti and Hitler met?" left-wing lawmaker Zehava Galon wrote on Facebook.
"I am ashamed for you," added Galon, who said Netanyahu disgraced Israel by "dragging through the mud" the memory of the Jewish victims of Nazi atrocity. The lawmaker, a frequent critic of what she sees as government recalcitrance on the peace process, said "all that's left for those who can't work to change the future is to rewrite the past."
Another opposition lawmaker, Dov Khenin, demanded that the prime minister retract his words and apologize for what he called a "distortion of history that joins the murky wave of Holocaust denial." The lawmaker, who leads a parliamentary lobby for Holocaust survivors, said Netanyahu crossed all red lines in his efforts to "blame the Arabs for all injustices of the world and history."
Palestinians too were incensed.
"It is a sad day in history when the leader of the Israeli government hates his neighbor so much … to absolve the most notorious war criminal in history," said Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, urging Netanyahu to stop "using this human tragedy to score points for his political end."
Palestine Liberation Organization official Hanan Ashrawi said Israel's leader "plummets new depths in fabricating blatant falsehoods" about both past and present. "Such a disconnect from the real world is indeed alarming," said her statement.
Historian Tom Segev told Israel Radio that Netanyahu's assertion was absurd. Segev said that the cleric was undoubtedly a "war criminal whose support of the Final Solution stains Palestinian history," but that it was "simply baseless" to say he contributed to the decision in any way.
"We thought there would be no more of this after the Iran deal," added Segev, referring to Netanyahu's repeated references, in speeches against the nuclear accord, to the Holocaust and Iranian threats to annihilate Israel.
"Al-Husseini would be laughing in his grave today," Mahdi Abdul Hadi of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs told Israeli media. He too charged Netanyahu with creating a new narrative.
Alongside serious outrage, irreverent black-humor memes and "Hitler rants" poking fun at Netanyahu circulated on social media throughout the day, many viewed more widely than Netanyahu's original comments.
The controversy came at a sensitive time, as the country is engulfed in renewed clashes between Israelis and Palestinians, and Netanyahu heads to Germany for talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel as the two countries mark 50 years of diplomatic relations.
The Holocaust "is taught in German schools for good reason, it must never be forgotten," Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert was quoted as saying in response to Netanyahu's comments. "And I see no reason to change our view of history in any way. We know that responsibility for this crime against humanity is German and very much our own."
Before leaving, Netanyahu dismissed as "absurd" accusations that he absolved Hitler for the "diabolical destruction" of European Jewry. "Hitler was responsible for the Final Solution. He made the decision," he said, but added that it was "equally absurd" to ignore Husseini's role in encouraging the Nazi leadership to exterminate the Jews.
On Thursday, Netanyahu is expected to meet with Secretary of State John F. Kerry to discuss ways of calming the weeks-long violence. Netanyahu said he would ask Kerry to demand that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas "cease the incitement" that, he said, was driving Palestinian attacks on Israelis. Kerry is set to meet Abbas in Jordan on Friday.
Abbas met with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Wednesday and urged international protection of the Palestinians.
"Our young people do not want violence," Abbas said, explaining the current outbreak as a "rebellion" against conditions of political and economic despair, and humiliation. "Don't make us desperate."
The Palestinian leader also stressed the dangers of religious conflict, charging that Israel had violated Muslim holy places. "We do not want it and we warn against its consequences," he said.
Responding to Netanyahu's comments about the Holocaust, Abbas said the Israeli leader had made an "appalling and degenerate" attempt to change history in order to attack the Palestinian position.
Reports of fresh violence continued: One victim is an Israeli soldier, a 19-year-old woman who was critically wounded. According to the army, she was approached by two Palestinians while on duty on a West Bank road near the settlement of Geva Binyamin, northeast of Jerusalem, and was stabbed in the neck.
One of her attackers was shot dead by another soldier on the scene and another man was apprehended by the army, officials said. The second man was later cleared of wrongdoing and released.
Clashes were reported elsewhere in the West Bank, where Palestinian students held protests around Ramallah and Nablus. In Hebron, Wednesday was declared a day of rage and general strike after the deaths of two teenagers Tuesday night.
According to Israel's military, the 15- and 17-year-olds had approached an army post in Hebron and one pulled out a knife and stabbed a soldier, lightly injuring him. Both teens were shot dead.
Also late Wednesday, five soldiers were injured, one seriously, when a Palestinian driver rammed into them with a car as they came to assist another military vehicle that had been pelted with rocks in the West Bank, the army reported. The driver was shot by soldiers and critically injured.
Sobelman is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.
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