Last Wednesday, a spat between Israeli Education Minister Yoav Kisch and Yad Vashem chairman Dani Dayan caused an international uproar.
Dayan was appointed by the Bennett-Lapid government. He is a member of Gideon Sa’ar’s party of former Likudniks and an outspoken hater of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It might thus have been expected that when Kisch sent a letter to Dayan on Wednesday listing a series of allegations of mismanagement of Yad Vashem that have been leveled against Dayan, the opposition would respond that Kisch was waging a political witch hunt against their guy.
Harder to explain was the letter from several dozen Holocaust researchers affiliated with the left who voiced their support for Dayan. Why would they side with a man with no background in Holocaust scholarship and against whom multiple, apparently substantive allegations of mismanagement and incompetence have been submitted?
And it’s much harder to understand why the Biden administration’s State Department and the European Union both issued statements of support for Dayan. What’s it to them if a political apparatchik stays or goes?
To begin to understand what is actually happening, we need to turn our attention to Ramallah.
On Aug. 24, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas gave a virulently anti-Semitic speech at a Fatah conference that was broadcast on the P.A.’s television station. Among other things, Abbas blamed the Jews for the Holocaust.
“They say that Hitler killed the Jews for being Jews, and that Europe hated the Jews because they were Jews,” he began. “Not true. It was clearly explained that [the Europeans] fought [the Jews] because of their social role, and not their religion… The [Europeans] fought against these people because of their role in society, which had to do with usury, money, and so on and so forth.
“Hitler… said he fought the Jews because they were dealing with usury and money. In his view, they were engaged in sabotage, and this is why he hated them. We just want to make this point clear. This was not about Semitism and antisemitism.”
Abbas said as well that the Nazis weren’t anti-Semites because “Ashkenazi Jews aren’t Semites.” Indeed, he explained, “There are those that say that they aren’t Jews.”
Abbas went on to say that it was David Ben-Gurion, in cahoots with Winston Churchill, who was responsible for anti-Jewish violence in Iraq, Egypt and Morocco. “The Jews” of those lands, he insisted, “did not want to emigrate, but they were forced to do so by means of pressure, coercion and murder.”
Abbas attacked the United States and the British. “America was a partner to the Balfour Declaration. Who invented that [Jewish] state? It was Britain and America—not just Britain,” he said. “I am saying this,” he explained, “so that we know who we should accuse of being our enemy, who has harmed us and took our homeland away, and gave it to the Israelis or the Jews.”
Abbas’s appalling statements weren’t novel. He has made similar anti-Jewish diatribes throughout his career. Indeed, Holocaust denial, Holocaust projection, conspiracy theories, Nazi apologetics, Islamic jihadist anti-Jewish epithets, denial and appropriation of Jewish history and Soviet anti-Semitic gaslighting have all been major features of his long career as a Palestinian terrorist and political warrior against the Jewish state.
Abbas’s statements make him an anti-Semite. But they also make him a faithful disciple of the founder of the Palestinian national movement and the Arab war against the Jewish state, the Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin el Husseini, a Nazi agent whom Abbas has praised as a “pioneer.”
Husseini was a pioneer, in the war against the Jews.
Beginning in the 1920s, Husseini began fusing European race-based anti-Semitism with Islamic Jew hatred when he translated into Arabic and published “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Husseini, like his friend Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, was an early supporter of the Nazis. Through Nazi funding, in 1936 he launched the Arab terror war against the British and the Jews of pre-state Israel which continued until 1939.
In June 1941 Husseini incited a pro-Nazi coup in Baghdad, and the Farhud, a massive pogrom against Iraqi Jewry, in the city. Ahead of a pursuing British force, Husseini made his way to Berlin, where he met with Hitler in November 1941 and set up shop. Husseini was an active supporter of and participant in the annihilation of European Jewry. He blocked the rescue of thousands of Jewish children in Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. He drafted thousands European Muslims to an SS division that engaged in the annihilation of Yugoslavian Jewry. He was a close associate of Adolf Eichmann and other top Nazis.
Just as significantly, Husseini operated a short-wave radio station that broadcast throughout the Arab world from Berlin. Husseini’s broadcasts fused Islamic Jew hatred with Nazi anti-Semitism to create a hybrid form of genocidal Jew hatred directed at the Jews of the Islamic world, including especially, the Zionist Jews in pre-state Israel.
Husseini was arrested as a war criminal after the war and held in France, pending trial at Nuremberg. But the French allowed him to escape to Egypt in 1946, thus enabling him to start a new chapter in his war against the Jews.
Here we come to another important aspect of Husseini’s legacy. Before becoming a Nazi agent, Husseini sometimes worked with the British and the French.
In Mandatory Palestine, Husseini’s allies were the often anti-Semitic British officers who dominated Britain’s military government. It was at the urging of these officers that the Zionist but feckless High Commissioner Herbert Samuel appointed Husseini to serve as the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and enabled him to become the sole leader of the Arabs of the Palestine Mandate.
Husseini was able to work with all sides because key figures on all sides shared his Jew hatred, which Husseini knew how to tailor to their specific prejudices. In this manner, both before, during and after the Holocaust, Husseini was able to use his fervent hatred of Jews to develop Western opposition to Zionism.
In part because the British and French enabled Husseini to escape justice, the Arabs never had to morally reckon with his crimes. Instead, in 1946 he was given a hero’s welcome in Cairo by al-Banna, who made explicit then what later was deliberately hidden. In the eyes of the Muslim world, the Arab struggle against the Jews of Israel was the continuation of Hitler’s war against the Jews of Europe.
As al-Banna wrote of him, “This hero challenged an empire and fought Zionism, with the help of Hitler and Germany. Germany and Hitler are gone, but Amin al-Husseini will continue the struggle.”
This brief history in hand, we return to the rapid transformation of a management dispute between Israeli politicians into an international story.
Immediately after the war, the left in Europe was pro-Zionist, and therefore willing to tell the history of Husseini’s collaboration with the Nazis. This began to change in 1949. It was that year when the Soviet Union turned against the Jewish state and began relabeling Jews as “Zionists” in order to legitimize continued hatred of them under the banner of “anti-imperialism.”
To advance this new position, it became necessary to hide Husseini’s Nazi past. And so, as Jeffrey Herf documented, the research on it was largely hidden in the decades following the war.
In recent decades, in part to promote their goal of persuading Israel to withdraw from Judea and Samaria and unified Jerusalem, the Israeli left joined the effort to hide or minimize the importance of Husseini’s role in the Holocaust and the Nazi power structure.
Scholars and public figures, including Netanyahu, who mention that Husseini was a Nazi are attacked for “politicizing” or “distorting” Holocaust history. Yad Vashem has taken the revisionist side of this argument as well. A minority of Zionist scholars and intellectuals have insisted on maintaining allegiance to the historical record.
This issue came to a head in 2019, when the left ran an all-out campaign to block the previous Netanyahu government’s plan to appoint former National Religious Party leader Effi Eitam to serve as Yad Vashem director.
In his first interview after taking up his position as director, Dayan weighed in on the issue. The Haaretz article ran on the eve of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, under the headline, “We will be vigilant about the truth even if it doesn’t advance Israel’s interest.”
Dayan complained in the interview that since taking up his duties, he had been subjected to “a wild assault” from forces on the right who demanded that he post the photograph of Hitler with the Husseini in Yad Vashem’s museum.
“I won’t put this photograph up. I won’t cave to the pressures. Anyone who wants me to put it up doesn’t really care about the mufti’s role in the Holocaust, which was anyway limited. He’s interested in harming the Palestinians’ image today,” he said.
Dayan added, “The mufti was an antisemite, but even though I hold him in contempt, I won’t turn Yad Vashem into a tool that serves goals that aren’t connected directly to Holocaust research and remembrance.”
Dayan’s statement was absurd even by its own standards. As the premier Holocaust research center in the world, and Israel’s most important Holocaust museum, even if Husseini had but a “limited” role in the Holocaust, it is Yad Vashem’s duty to document and teach the public about that role.
And of course, Husseini’s role was expansive, not limited, which was why he was set to be tried as a Nazi war criminal in the Nuremberg tribunal. Moreover, his role had everything to do with the Palestinian national movement, and for that matter with the “Palestinian image.”
This brings us to the reason the Biden administration and the European Union are circling the wagons on Dayan. The Biden administration has two main pillars of its Middle East policy—hostility towards the Netanyahu government and unflinching support for the Palestinians. Any change in Yad Vashem’s policy of hiding Husseini’s role in the Holocaust, and its direct relationship to the Arab war against Israel, will discredit the administration’s adamant and unqualified support for the Palestinians.
As for the Europeans, in 2003, German historian Matthias Kuntzel explained their impetus for protecting the mufti in his book “Jihad and Jew Hatred: On the New Anti-Jewish War.” In it, Kuntzel wrote that the German left’s reflexive comparisons of Israel to the Nazis is related to the “German need for identification and projection.”
The Nazi analogy to Israel, he explained, fulfilled an “unconscious wish for unburdening” of the German past.
“Knowledge of the connection, embodied in the Mufti between the Palestinian national movement and National Socialism would complicate the identification with the Palestinians as well as the projection of the German policy of extermination onto Israel.”
And as a consequence, the Germans—and subsequently, the French, the British and everyone else, including the Israeli left—buried the history.
Abbas’s speech was nothing out of the ordinary. Nazi imagery and propaganda is a regular feature in all areas of Palestinian society. But it serves as a reminder of what is actually at stake with Dayan’s continued tenure at Yad Vashem. It also shows why it is vital that Kisch fire him.