Why Holocaust historians decry analogies by Netanyahu, Carson

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu solidified his membership in the ‘questionable history’ club by linking a Palestinian leader to the Final Solution.

Gil Cohen Magen/ Reuters
Visitors in the Hall of Names, at the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem, walk under pictures of Jews killed in the Holocaust in this 2010 file photo.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earned immediate criticism Wednesday for remarks he made at the World Zionist Congress, telling Jewish leaders that a Palestinian leader who died in 1974 was responsible for the Holocaust.

"Hitler didn't want to exterminate the Jews [in 1941], he wanted to expel the Jews," Mr. Netanyahu said on Tuesday, according to The Associated Press. "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.'"

Although al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem at the time, was a Nazi sympathizer who supported the Final Solution, and fought unsuccessfully throughout his life to prevent a Jewish homeland in the Middle East, historians strongly rebutted Netanyahu's claim, saying evidence of the Third Reich's genocidal intent was in place well before Hitler met with al-Husseini. 

Tel Aviv University professor Meir Litvak, for instance, told Israel's Ynetnews that plans for the Holocaust were put in place by 1939. Al-Husseini "was an abominable person," Dr. Litvak said, "but this must not minimize the scale of Hitler's guilt."

"We know that responsibility for this crime against humanity is German and very much our own," a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Ynet's Ahiya Raved. 

It's not the first time Netanyahu has come under attack for using questionable Holocaust references. In 2012, he drew controversial parallels between the threats posed by Iran's nuclear program and Nazi Germany's concentration camps.  

When the Israeli Knesset was debating a bill to limit the use of the word "Nazi" in non-historical or educational contexts, hoping to cut down on "trivializing" political and popular usages alike, a column by former CIA analyst Paul Pillar wryly noted that the Prime Minister himself "is one of the worst abusers." 

But throwing out inaccurate, if sincerely felt, comparisons between contemporary political dilemmas and the murder of more than 10 million people, or the conditions leading up to it, is a global phenomenon. 

As the Anti-Defamation League has documented, Arab publications frequently depict aggression against Palestinians through Holocaust-related terms and imagery

In the United States, many politicians, including Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson, also rely on the Holocaust for rhetorical purposes.

"Like many other political autodidacts, Ben Carson has an odd obsession with Nazi Germany," Peter Wehner, a former adviser to President Reagan and both President Bushes, wrote in a New York Times op-ed:

On several occasions, the pediatric-neurosurgeon-turned-Republican-presidential-candidate has compared the United States to the Third Reich. Mr. Carson has warned that a Hitler-like figure could rise in America. To understand what is happening in the Obama era, he recommended that people read “Mein Kampf.” And he won’t let go of the myth that the Holocaust would have been “greatly diminished” if Jews in Nazi Germany had been allowed to possess guns.

Apart from criticizing such claims for their "staggering ignorance," Mr. Wehner also objected on political grounds. To see Republican candidates repeatedly voicing ahistorical arguments is "intellectually discrediting, politically self-defeating and unworthy of those who are citizens of a great republic," he rebuked.

In an interview with Hopes & Fears, Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust expert and the first director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, says Dr. Carson's "statements on the Nazis and guns have no relationship with historical fact," pointing out that fully equipped armies couldn't stop Hitler's land grab. 

So why do such comparisons persist?

"We have established the Holocaust as a negative absolute," Mr. Berenbaum told David Grossman.

We don’t know what’s good, we don’t know what’s bad, but we do know that the Holocaust was the Olympics of Evil. When people want to speak about something terrible and want to call attention to it, almost by lack of imagination they make Nazi analogies, whether or not it makes sense.

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