No, Netanyahu did not 'exonerate' Hitler

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Speaking at a conference, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a false statement:

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 asked. He 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."

Al-Husseini, leader of the Palestinian national movement, was a thoroughgoing anti-Semite, incited the murder of Jews in Mandatory Palestine, Israel and in Nazi-conquered territories, did have a friendly meeting with Hitler before the Holocaust started in earnest (transcript here), was a guest of Hitler throughout the Holocaust, ordered the murder of those willing to negotiate with the Zionist movement and probably bears more responsibility than any other single individual for Palestinian Arabs' unwillingness to reach, at any time since the 1920s, any sort of compromise with Jews seeking a homeland in what was Mandatory Palestine. He also, as Netanyahu later pointed out, inaugurated the strategy of inflaming Arab passions by claiming that "the Jews" or "the Zionists" were plotting to destroy the Al-Aqsa mosque and replace it with a new temple, a strategy that recent events have proven still to be effective 90 years later. But Al-Husseini, despite his own genocidal urges, did not, however, put the idea of genocide into Hitler's head.

That said, criticism of Netanyahu has been as inaccurate as Netanyahu's original statement, as the critics, including Jeet Heer and Tony Greenstein, have claimed that Netanyahu exculpated or exonerated Hitler (Netanyahu has explicitly denied any such intent). Never one to be outdone for rhetorical excess divorced from reality, Glenn Greenwald tweeted that Netanyahu actually praised Hitler, while Josh Marshall claimed that Netanyahu was "defending" Hitler.

Look, Netanyahu shouldn't exaggerate al-Husseini's vileness to make a point, nor did he need to; the truth about al-Husseini, his pro-Nazi role and his long-term effect on Palestinian politics and culture is bad enough. But all Netanyahu did was suggest that al-Husseini helped persuade Hitler to shift from a policy of expulsion to a policy of extermination. If that were true, it would not reduce Hitler's moral responsibility for the Holocaust. Nor, for that matter, does the fact that someone helped persuade a murderer to murder make the murderer any less legally responsible for the murder. There were, in fact, other Germans (and other Europeans) who urged Hitler to kill the Jews. Does stating that fact somehow exonerate Hitler from a moral or legal perspective? How?

Put another way, Netanyahu is guilty of vastly overstating al-Husseini's role in the Holocaust. He's not guilty of understating Hitler's responsibility for it, as there is nothing in his remarks to suggest that Hitler wasn't fully responsible for ordering and implementing the Holocaust. It's a sign of the pathological hatred many have for Netanyahu that so many commentators can't simply (and justly) criticize him for misusing Holocaust history for political purposes, but must also try to make him into a Hitler apologist.

It seems as if many of Netanyahu's critics are less upset that he misstated facts about the Holocaust for political reasons and more upset that he accurately traced current Palestinian violence back to its source. And I'd take these critics more seriously if they had ever publicly bemoaned the fact that the Palestinian Authority is led by a man who places substantial blame for the Holocaust (more than Netanyahu placed on al-Husseini, who was in fact a Nazi collaborator) on his fantasy of Zionist collaboration with the Nazis.