Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in remarks in Jerusalem at the World Zionist Conference, blamed the former mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, for putting Hitler up to the Holocaust. Netanyahu is, of course, wrong on the history. But the real intent of his outrageous assertion is to create a blood libel that all Palestinians bear responsibility for the killing of 6 million Jews by the National Socialist state. He asserted that al-Husseini’s animus was rooted simply in irrational Jew-hatred, which he alleged characterized the Palestinian masses then and now, without regard to the issues of the Jewish ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians or of occupation.

In other words, Palestinians, in his view, are genetically disposed to want Jews dead regardless of context. This essentialization of Palestinians as mass murderers mirrors the false mythology of medieval and early modern European Christianity that Jews stole Christian babies and used their blood in their rites — a myth that lay in part behind the Holocaust.

Netanyahu said:

And this attack and other attacks on the Jewish community in 1920, 1921, 1929, were instigated by a call of the mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini, who was later sought for war crimes in the Nuremberg trials because he had a central role in fomenting the final solution. He flew to Berlin. Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time; he wanted to expel the Jews. 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 [Hitler] asked. He [al-Husseini] said, “Burn them.” And he was sought in, during the Nuremberg trials for prosecution. He escaped it and later died of cancer, after the war, died of cancer in Cairo. But this is what Haj Amin al-Husseini said. He said, “The Jews seek to destroy the Temple Mount.” My grandfather in 1920 seeks to destroy… ? Sorry, the al-Aqsa Mosque.

Amin al-Husseini was a bitter man and a Nazi collaborator, and there are no excuses for his evil. But he did have a historical context. In 1917 in the infamous Balfour Declaration, the British colonialists pledged to give geographical Palestine, with its own indigenous population of nearly a million, away to Jewish settlers for their “national home.” The British conquered Palestine, and under the terms of the Versailles peace conference, created it as a “class A Mandate.” Unlike the other mandates, such as British Iraq and French Syria, the charter for the Palestine Mandate did not focus on British responsibility to stand up a Palestinian government to which the territory could eventually be turned over. Rather, it was all about facilitating Jewish settler colonialism.

By 1930, some 200,000 Jews had settled with British blessings and help. The Jewish National Fund ultimately bought up some 6 percent of Palestinian land and made a proviso that once bought by Jews, this land could never again be sold to Palestinians. This policy resembled the “covenants” that American whites put into their mortgages forbidding resale to African-Americans or Japanese-Americans.

Palestine, like much of the Middle East, was in the midst of a population explosion. Because in Muslim practice all children inherit property, Palestinian farms were becoming smaller and smaller in each generation. It was an agrarian society with little industry and little absorptive capacity for the newcomers. Alienating a significant further percentage of the land from these farmers was bound to cause tensions, and it did. Mandate populations often rose up, as in Iraq in 1920 and Syria in the late 1930s, against the colonial overlords. The uprising in Palestine was complicated by the condition of dual colonialism — the administrative colonialism of Britain, which pushed Palestinians around, and the settler colonialism of Zionist Jews, which encroached on their resources. In 1936-39 the Palestinians, fed up, launched a major uprising against the British, in which some targeted Jews as well, an uprising that was brutally crushed by the British colonial army.

Al-Husseini, originally a British appointee as Muslim jurisconsult or mufti of Jerusalem, supported the uprising, was defeated and had to flee. He found refuge in Nazi Germany and helped organize a unit of Bosnian Muslims, then being targeted by Serbian Chetnik death squads, to fight on the German side. He lobbied against allowing European Jews to immigrate to Palestine, lest his homeland be overwhelmed. In the 1930s, an additional 200,000 Jews had successfully fled the rising Jew-hating fascists of Europe to Palestine, making them about a third of the population. Al-Husseini’s attempt to prevent further such flight was a great evil in the circumstances.

But al-Husseini did not put Hitler up to the Holocaust. In a careful journal article, University of Chicago scholar Michael Sells laid out the story from the archives of how this urban legend got started. There is no historical evidence that al-Husseini toured concentration camps or tutored Adolf Hitler (who had a low opinion of Arabs and would hardly have taken his cues from one) in killing Jews. Al-Husseini did meet Hitler, but their encounter was not that important, and the state murder of the Jews had already begun by that time.

Al-Husseini’s collaboration with the Nazis, moreover, was atypical for Arabs and Palestinians of that era. Israel Gershoni and James Jankowski have demonstrated that the Egyptian political elite tended toward liberalism and roundly condemned Hitler and his ideas. In my book “Engaging the Muslim World,” I showed that even the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, strongly condemned Hitler and Nazism because of their racism, despite his own hatred of the Zionist movement. I have also debunked the allegation of widespread Iraqi sympathy for the Axis in the 1930s and early 1940s, an allegation that comes in part out of British wartime propaganda. The British ambassador in Baghdad wrote back to London in 1939 that the Iraqis were appalled at the German invasion of Poland and saw Germany as a new colonialist.

Likewise, Hitler’s alliance with Mussolini dismayed most Arabs, given their hatred of Italian colonialism in Libya and Mussolini’s known plans to expand the Italian empire at Arab expense. Obviously, some Arab politicians were attracted to Hitler’s Germany as an offset to British power, but they seldom had any real notion of Nazi ideology or of plans for extermination of Jews. They were a small minority, and there is no evidence at all for popularity of Nazism among the masses. The Egyptian masses were positively in terror of the joint German and Italian assault on their country from Libya, which was stopped at al-Alamein. Some Egyptian pilots and the Egyptian navy actively joined in the war effort against the Germans.

Netanyahu is attempting to paint the Palestinians as congenital Jew-haters, an attitude he blames on their “medieval Islam,” and to reconfigure the Holocaust as a Palestinian crime supported by all Palestinians. It is a monstrous blood libel. It inflicts serious injury on history. But its greatest harm lies in the future, since Netanyahu clearly means to use this libel to cavalierly rob the Palestinians of their lives, livelihoods and what is left of their land.

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