During his speech at the 37th Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued that Israel is not changing the status quo at the Al Aqsa mosque and that the current Palestinian revolt is the repetition of a long history of murderous attacks against Jews. In his historical interpretation of recent events, Netanyahu claimed that the attacks “on the Jewish community in 1920, 1921 and 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.”
“Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time,” Netanyahu explained. “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.’” According to Netanyahu, Hitler then asked: “‘So what should I do with them?’ And the Mufti responded, ‘Burn them.'”
Netanyahu’s revisionist historical narrative provoked harsh criticism by Israelis, Palestinians and Holocaust scholars. Fearing that the premier’s mystifying claim might be interpreted as the denial of Germany’s leading role in the Holocaust, a German government spokesperson reiterated that Amin al-Husseini was not behind the Final Solution. “The responsibility is ours,” he said. “There is no need to change the view on that.”
Netanyahu’s statement may have caught the international community by surprise, but actually his recent spin is just part of a longer history of mobilization of the Holocaust in order to legitimize settler colonial violence and repression. In fact, Netanyahu’s statement is part of a Zionist discourse used since the 1950s whereby the genocidal threat of the past is projected both spatially and temporarily into Israel/Palestine’s present.
The objective is to equate the Nazis with the Arab populations of the Middle East. This is the twofold nature of what we define in our book The Human Right to Dominate as the re-territorialization of the threat, whereby the Arab states in the region as well as the Palestinians who were displaced as a result of Israel’s establishment were progressively identified with the perpetrators of the Final Solution.
Half a century before Netanyahu, former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and other political leaders had already carried out a fundamental discursive operation that Idith Zertal characterized as the “nazification of the enemy.” The connection between the Holocaust and the Arabs was produced through the latter’s transformation into an existential threat, reinforcing the idea of Israel as an entity in a permanent state of emergency.
During and after the 1967 War, the Israeli conquest of new Palestinian and Arab territories was constructed as an answer to this state of permanent emergency. When in 1969 Abba Eban, Israel’s Foreign Minister at that time, defined the return to the pre-1967 borders as “something of a memory of Auschwitz,” he was evoking the temporal persistence of the Holocaust into the present. In this way, through the metaphor of “Auschwitz lines” — a metaphor that was later re-mobilized by other Israeli political actors — he re-territorialized the threat in the context of Israel’s conquests.
A withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967 would have corresponded, according to Abba Eban’s logic, to the return of history: the potential repetition, in a new temporal and spatial setting, of the horrific events that triggered the creation of the contemporary international human rights regime. The crimes against humanity committed in Europe served, in other words, to rationalize and justify the rights-abusive expansionist process of Israeli national statecraft in the Middle East.
Thus, the spatial and temporal displacement of the Holocaust into the Palestinian Middle East helped justify practices of forced relocation and dispossession of the area’s indigenous population; it helped legitimize settler colonial practices (in the territories occupied in 1967), because it enabled Israel to evoke the past in order to provide the domination of the present with moral justification. Conquest and colonization were normalized and legitimized as a sort of pre-emptive measure against the re-materialization of Auschwitz.
Netanyahu’s new “historical revelation” is a repetition of this discourse of permanent emergency. His goal is to ensure that the Palestinians continue to be considered the ultimate threat, while Israeli Jews maintain their status as the perpetual victims of human rights violations.