Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that the Holocaust was not the result of any deliberate plan on the part of Nazi Germany, nor a result of what historians have called unthinking ‘cumulative radicalisation’. Instead, Netanyahu declared the mass-murdering of the Jewish population of Europe only took place at the insistence of a Palestinian. Contrary to academic consensus, he argued thatAdolf Hitler had been persuaded to carry out the ‘Final Solution’ by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini.
Not only does this fly in the face of historical evidence and academic consensus, but it represents a bizarre and troubling intervention by a head of state against a background of deep international tension. Thankfully, Angela Merkel refused to accept Netanyahu’s claims, and dismissed them as historically illiterate. The German Chancellor reiterated the fact that responsibility for the Shoah rested firmly at Germany’s door, and not with this Middle Eastern leader.
The Israeli leader’s attempt to re-interpret history for his own political ends – that of vilifying the Palestinians as a collective race – reeks of opportunism. Regrettably, however, Netanyahu’s comments are in keeping with growing trends in Western democracies to use and abuse the Holocaust for political ends, and it is through this lens that we should analyze the Israeli PM’s cheap falsehoods.
The UK observes Holocaust Memorial Day to campaign against all sorts of societal ills, from contemporary homophobia to the refugee crisis. German-speaking countries infamously ban Holocaust denial under hate-speech laws. The list of instances where the Holocaust is deployed as a moral historical allegory loaded with ‘lessons’ about how we should behave today seems so comprehensive that it covers countries that barely lost any Jews in the Holocaust, like Ireland. All kinds of politicians, police officers and celebrities get in on the game every year, looking to boost their own authority through paying lip-service to some ritualised pronouncements of moral virtues.
Netanyahu’s calculated revisionism of the Holocaust is distasteful and distracting. It also makes for a puerile and dishonest way of veiwing history. It’s true, of course, that through the history of memory, recollected experiences from witnesses can impart lessons of caution in the present. But that does not hold for second-hand memories, which are only figuratively and spuriously ‘our’ memories.
Constructed memories are susceptible to deliberate shaping or exploitation, where people seek to selectively emphasise whatever best suits their political goals. That is precisely what happened last week with Netanyahu. In his attempt to politicise memory and to misrepresent historical testimony, Netanyahu tried to discredit modern-day Palestinians in the name of promoting Israeli interests. This time round, many Israelis have rightly called him out on it, and lined up with the German government to give Netanyahu a lesson in hard historical fact.
We would be better off trying to understand the historical past, instead of dubiously and ominously trying to misrepresent the past for the sake of the present or future. Netanyahu’s tampering with historical consensus reflects a tendency to either vilify the past or to anachronistically mesh it into our present political landscape to suit our own pre-existing political vantage-point. We would be better off studying history as historians, and leave the politicising to our present world.
Image credit: IsraelinUSA