Cannibalizing the past

I really don’t have much to say about Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest kerfuffle, the one where he intimated that (an apparently reluctant) Adolf Hitler was talked into exterminating the Jews (all he wanted to do was expel them from Europe) by Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem during the 1920s and most of the 1930s. In fact, as soon as this story hit my Twitter feed I had one of those “maybe I should crawl into a hole and hibernate for the next couple of weeks” moments that I often get when somebody like Netanyahu says or does something so extraordinarily stupid. It’s not like you can make Netanyahu look any sillier than he’s already made himself look; I mean, my God, the guy even has the German government contradicting him, saying “no, no, that was on us.” You have to be pretty cartoonishly wrong about something to get the German government to remind the rest of the world that, “hey, we did that whole Holocaust thing, in case you were wondering.”

"Yeah, so, about that Hitler guy..."
“Yeah, so, about that Hitler guy…”
Berlin’s comments were only the tip of the iceberg; people came out of the woodwork to denounce Netanyahu’s statement, including Holocaust experts at Yad Vashem and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and at many other places as well. The director of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, Collette Avital, criticized Netanyahu. Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog accused him of giving fodder to Holocaust deniers. Netanyahu’s own Defense Minister, Moshe Yaalon, said “history is actually very, very clear,” and he wasn’t saying that in Netanyahu’s defense. Netanyahu later had to say that “I had no intention to absolve Hitler of responsibility for his diabolical destruction of European Jewry,” and while that might be true, if you find yourself in a position where you have to utter the phrase “I had no intention to absolve Hitler,” you’re probably having a bad day. To sum up, he was wrong. Very, very wrong.

Let me just say these couple of things, then. First, and this is in no way meant to defend Netanyahu, but let’s be totally honest and acknowledge that Haj Amin al-Husseini seems to have been a pretty terrible guy. As TPM’s Josh Marshall points out, al-Husseini stands out even in a 1930s Arabian context in which Nazi sympathy wasn’t exactly unheard of (although we should also be totally honest and note that there were a whole lot of Arabs who fought against the Nazis in the Middle East theater during World War II). Most Arabs who had any Nazi sympathies had them primarily because the Nazis were the enemy of their enemies, Britain and France, which together controlled much of the Arab world at that point. They largely forgave Germany for having been allied with the Ottomans during World War I, because they saw Germany (via the unequal terms of the Versailles Treaty) as a victim of the same European powers (France and Britain) that had moved in to colonize the Middle East after the war ended.

Haj Amin al-Husseini (Wikimedia)
Al-Husseini, on the other hand, certainly supported the Nazi fight against the British (he had a more complicated relationship with the French), but his attraction to Hitler was largely driven by Husseini’s own deep-seated antisemitism. He worked to recruit Muslim fighters in Bosnia and Albania on Hitler’s behalf. He clearly saw the Nazi project as a model for how the Arabs could deal with their own “Jewish question” in Palestine. So yeah, not a good guy. He may well have encouraged Hitler to implement the Final Solution, if Hitler had needed any encouragement. But the historical facts tell us that the Nazis embarked on the plan to exterminate, rather then expel, the Jews before the 1941 meeting where Netanyahu tells us that Husseini thought up the Final Solution and, with his apparent Svengali powers, then talked Hitler into implementing it.

The second thing I want to say about Netanyahu is that, while this particular case was so over the top that it drew widespread criticism and some well-deserved ridicule, it’s not like he was breaking new ground in trying to cannibalize history in order to feed a deeply unflattering narrative about the Palestinians. Which is really all this was, an attempt to gain some moral high ground in the current Jerusalem flare-up by painting the Palestinians as morally irredeemable on a historic level. They were the ones who were really behind the Holocaust, you’re supposed to think, so how could you possibly expect us Israelis to negotiate with them today? Don’t blame us, don’t blame the settlements; the Palestinians have been obsessed with destroying the Jews since long before there was an Israel or any Occupied Territories.

Netanyahu isn’t even the only person to attempt an argument like that in the past week. Last Friday, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg rolled out a more sophisticated argument designed to deliver the same message (and including a reference to Husseini, to boot):

The spiritual leader of Palestine’s Muslims, the mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini, incited Arabs in Palestine against their Jewish neighbors by arguing that Islam itself was under threat. (Husseini would later become one of Hitler’s most important Muslim allies.) Jews in British-occupied Palestine responded to Muslim invective by demanding more access to the Wall, sometimes holding demonstrations at the holy site. By the next year, violence directed against Jews by their neighbors had become more common: Arab rioters took the lives of 133 Jews that summer; British forces killed 116 Arabs in their attempt to subdue the riots. In Hebron, a devastating pogrom was launched against the city’s ancient Jewish community after Muslim officials distributed fabricated photographs of a damaged Dome of the Rock, and spread the rumor that Jews had attacked the shrine.

The current “stabbing Intifada” now taking place in Israel—a quasi-uprising in which young Palestinians have been trying, and occasionally succeeding, to kill Jews with knives—is prompted in good part by the same set of manipulated emotions that sparked the anti-Jewish riots of the 1920s: a deeply felt desire on the part of Palestinians to “protect” the Temple Mount from Jews.

Goldberg isn’t touching the Holocaust, for obvious reasons, and he does criticize (a bit) the radical Jewish groups who keep taking provocative action to change the religious status quo at al-Aqsa, but he’s still working off of the same script. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain (which in this case is decades of displacement, dehumanization, and injustice), Goldberg is telling you, These Palestinians have always hated the Jews and have no interest in making peace with Israel, ever. He effectively says this later in the piece:

One of the tragedies of the settlement movement is that it obscures what might be the actual root cause of the Middle East conflict: the unwillingness of many Muslim Palestinians to accept the notion that Jews are a people who are indigenous to the land Palestinians believe to be exclusively their own, and that the third-holiest site in Islam is also the holiest site of another religion, one whose adherents reject the notion of Muslim supersessionism. The status quo on the Temple Mount is prudent and must remain in place. It saves lives, lives fundamentalist Jewish radicals would risk in order to advance their millennial dreams. But it is the byproduct of the intolerance of Jerusalem’s Muslim leadership.

There’s no arguing with the historical record: Palestinians resisted Zionism, resisted Jewish migration to Israel-Palestine, resisted the creation of the state of Israel, and many still to this day reject the notion that there should be any Jewish state there at all. Palestinian leadership over the decades since 1948 (and, really, going back before that) has ranged from outright dangerous to only mildly toxic and totally incompetent, and you can’t avoid the basic fact that Palestinian leaders have routinely failed the cause of peace and failed to nurture the basic needs of their own people, even taking into account the restrictions that the Israelis have placed on their ability to do that.

But the idea that this is all rooted in some unchangeable historical stasis, The Eternal Intolerance Of Palestinians, is not only historically ignorant, not only (willfully) ignorant of the current state of affairs in Israel and the Occupied Territories, but it’s also yet another attempt, in a subtle way so as to be acceptable in polite society, to dehumanize the Palestinians themselves. Palestinians are no more locked into the mindset of the 1920s than Jews are locked into the mindset of the Book of Joshua, which you may recall took a pretty dim view of any non-Jews living in that same plot of land. To say that all the things that have gone on between Jews and Palestinians since 1948 play no role in formulating the attitudes of Palestinians in 2015 is ridiculous, and it reduces the Palestinians to the role of unchanging automatons. And to say that a historical process that looks like this:

is reflective of a Palestinian desire to drive the Jews out of their shared space is, I’m sorry, just pure weapons-grade bullshit. I know Goldberg doesn’t support the settler movement, but he’s quite eager to pretend it doesn’t exist, or to hand-wave its impact away, when he wants to blame the Palestinians for something.

At the risk of just turning this whole blog over to him, Josh Marshall’s response to Goldberg was pretty on the mark:

So to Jeff, I would say yes. Of course this is true. But what are we going to do about it now? Should Israel really try to keep ruling these people forever if they have this toxic and irreconcilable worldview? That’s nuts. And to the extent that Palestinian public opinion has ebbed and flowed between various forms of accommodationism and rejectionist supremacism, do we really think on-going settlement and making an independent Palestinian state more and more hard to imagine is going to mollify those views? I mean, of course not. This is obvious. Maximalist and eliminationist attitudes breed under oppressed people.

The window for implementing a two-state solution has probably already closed, but it’s closed because of what’s happening in that map you see above, not because the Palestinians are somehow fundamentally opposed to peace. Goldberg and Netanyahu want you to believe them rather than your lying eyes, but don’t fall for it.

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