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Fabricating Palestinian Responsibility for the Nazi Genocide

How Benjamin Netanyahu could come to claim, and later retract, that the former mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Muhammad Amin al-Husayni, led Hitler to the Final Solution

Michael Sells
November 04, 2015
Ullstein Bild via Getty Images
Amin Al-Husayni, the former grand mufti of Jerusalem, living in Nazi Germany from 1939 to 1945, at the opening of the Islamic Central Institute in Berlin, Germany. World War II, German army photograph, December 19, 1942.Ullstein Bild via Getty Images
Ullstein Bild via Getty Images
Amin Al-Husayni, the former grand mufti of Jerusalem, living in Nazi Germany from 1939 to 1945, at the opening of the Islamic Central Institute in Berlin, Germany. World War II, German army photograph, December 19, 1942.Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

Among the abuses of the Holocaust, one in particular, Holocaust denial, has been given a name. More than a dozen countries in Europe have criminalized it, and many societies have viewed it as a serious moral breach. The historian Omer Bartov emphasizes the distinction between “the wholly objectionable politics of denial and the fully legitimate scholarly revision of previously accepted conventional interpretations of any historical event, including the Holocaust.” There exists an increasingly influential variety of Holocaust revisionism that, although it is not a form of denial, transgresses the standards of legitimate scholarship, and because those standards have been associated primarily, if not exclusively, with the problem of Holocaust denial, it finds itself unencumbered by them. Indeed, it presents itself as an expression of genuine Holocaust recognition and a voice of righteous judgment.

The case at issue concerns the widespread claim—which was most recently aired and then retracted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—that Hajj Muhammad Amin al-Husayni, the former mufti of Jerusalem, was an instigator, promoter, or “driving spirit” of the Nazi genocide against Jews and the associated suggestions of wider Arab and Muslim complicity. Some basic facts about al-Husayni’s life and his Nazi sympathies are not in any significant dispute among scholars. With the backing of the British Mandate High Commission in Palestine, al-Husayni rose to become the mufti of Jerusalem, leveraged that position to gain control over the waqf, the endowment for the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, and went on to become a leader of the Arab revolt against Britain in the late 1930s and head of both the Arab Higher Committee and the Supreme Islamic Council in Palestine. In 1937, Husayni fled to Lebanon to avoid arrest by British authorities and then moved on to Iraq, where he supported an Axis-leaning nationalist coup and propagandized against Jews. After the fall of the short-lived Iraqi revolutionary regime, he escaped to Iran, then Italy, and finally to Berlin. Adolf Hitler offered him an audience, during which Husayni proposed to rally Arabs and Muslims to the Axis cause in return for Axis support for his claim to leadership over the Arab world. Germany provided him with a lucrative stipend and an administrative office in Berlin, the Bureau of the “Grand Mufti,” and encouraged him to believe that the Third Reich would recognize him as the leader of Arabs and even of Muslims worldwide.

Husayni, for his part, spoke on radio programs broadcast to Arab nations, calling on his listeners to support the Axis in defeating common enemies: Britain, Communists, and Zionists or Jews (two groups he conflated as often as not). He enlisted Arab students and prisoners of war in Germany into a special Wehrmacht military unit that fought under the motto “Free Arabia.” He arranged parachute drops and sabotage missions against British targets in Syria, Iraq, and Palestine. He called on anti-Soviet Muslims from the Crimea and Caucasus regions to join the German war effort. And, in response to Britain’s authorization of a special Jewish legion to fight with the Allies, he urged German support for an Arab pro-Axis legion. He helped SS chief Heinrich Himmler form a Bosnian Muslim unit of the Waffen SS; and to that end he told Bosnian recruits that Nazism and Islam shared four key concepts (family, order, the leader, and faith). He also told them that Germany had not colonized Muslim peoples, in contrast to Britain and Russia, which were also at that moment supporting the Serb royalists whose militias, known as Chetniks, were carrying out mass killings against the Muslim populations of southern and eastern Bosnia. He protested against proposals to secure Axis permission for groups of Jewish children and adults to leave Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary for safety in Palestine—even though he would have been aware that they faced grave danger in Eastern Europe, even certain death.

The most incriminating document regarding Husayni’s role in World War II may be one written by Husayni himself: his memoirs (Mudhakkirat), which was first published in serial form in Arab periodicals in the 1960s and 1970s. Husayni wrote with a retrospective view of the ruinous consequences of Nazi rule but nevertheless expressed his continued admiration of Himmler, who had hosted him once a year during the war and who impressed him as a profound philosopher of history, complained to him about the perfidy of Jews, and, Husayni claims, shared secret information with him in 1943, including news of Germany’s nuclear program and the number of European Jews (3 million) who had perished since the outbreak of the war.

The judeophobia of Husayni’s memoirs is robust. It includes scriptural phobia—the selective use of the Quran, hadith, and sira, as well as the Bible and Talmudic literature, to portray Jews as enemies of God and humanity; the conspiratorial phobia that sees the hidden hand of Jewish power behind the world’s ills; and the ritual phobia of the blood accusation—the calumny that Jews, in obedience to their religious obligations, kidnap and murder non-Christians and use their blood in Passover matzos and Purim pastries. Husayni also approvingly recalled Himmler’s remark that during the deportations of Dutch Jews, only Jews responded to Nazi offers to pay for information on Jews in hiding.

The man who wrote these memoirs was embittered over the Arab defeats of 1948 and 1967 and his own marginalization within Palestinian and Arab politics. He was both defensive and defiant about his wartime support of and service to Nazi Germany. Even so, the memoirs demonstrate with verifiable detail that, at least from the time he settled in Berlin, he admired Himmler in particular and Nazism in general, shared or came to share Himmler’s hatred and fear of Jews, and did everything in his power to promote the Axis cause among Arabs and Muslims. That his efforts produced little of military or geopolitical consequence was not due to any lack of zeal on his part.


The contemporary historical narrative in question here, however, presents Husayni not simply as a supporter and agent of Nazi Germany, but as an instigator or “driving spirit” behind the Nazi extermination of European Jewry, a close friend of Adolf Eichmann, and an exacting inspector of death-camp operations. Many of its more recent iterations link Husayni’s allegedly instrumental role in the Holocaust to claims about Arabs or Muslims more widely. Because the story of the development of this narrative has not been fully told and because the use to which it is being employed bears upon the core ethic of Holocaust historiography, I trace it here with as much precision as possible.

Its primary source was SS Col. Dieter Wisliceny, who had been at different times Eichmann’s superior, rival, and subordinate. Wisliceny played an important role in the deportation of Slovakian Jewry and headed the Special Command for Jewish Affairs in Greece in 1943, which organized the ghettoization of Jews in advance of their deportation to death camps at Auschwitz and Treblinka. He also became known for extracting funds from Jewish communities in exchange for his promises to end or slow the deportation process in Eastern Europe. After Germany’s surrender he was arrested in Austria on suspicion of war crimes. He testified for the prosecution at Nuremberg, providing the major exposé of Eichmann’s role in the Holocaust. He also produced extensive accounts before, during, and after his Jan. 3, 1946, testimony before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg but, with the three exceptions discussed below, made no mention of Husayni playing an important role in the Nazi genocide.

In early 1946, Israel Rudolf (Rezsö) Kastner and Andre Steiner—two Zionist activists who had dedicated themselves to rescuing Jews of wartime Hungary and Slovakia from deportations—submitted affidavits to Nuremberg war-crimes investigators. Kastner’s affidavit (hereafter referred to as K-W, for Kastner-Wisliceny) stated that during World War II, Wisliceny told him that Eichmann had declared that, in deference to Husayni, German officials would not allow Jews to depart for Palestine, at least openly; a claim that aligns well with Husayni’s well-established protests against any Jewish emigration toward Palestine. The affidavit then turned sensational. Wisliceny is quoted as having told Kastner that:

According to my opinion, the Grand Mufti, who has been in Berlin since 1941, played a role in the decision of the German Government to exterminate the European Jews, the importance of which must not be disregarded. He had repeatedly suggested to the various authorities with whom he has been in contact, above all before Hitler, Ribbentrop and Himmler, the extermination of European Jewry. He considered this as a comfortable solution of the Palestine problem. In his messages broadcast from Berlin, he surpassed us in anti-Jewish attacks. He was one of Eichmann’s best friends and has constantly incited him to accelerate the extermination measures. I heard say that, accompanied by Eichmann, he has visited incognito the gas chamber at Auschwitz.

The Steiner-Wislicency affidavit (hereafter S-W) presents a nearly identical scenario. “The Mufti was a bitter arch-enemy of the Jews and had always been the protagonist of the idea of their annihilation,” Steiner recalls Wisliceny telling him. According to Steiner, Wisliceny then stated: “The Mufti was also one of the initiators of the systematic extermination of European Jewry by the Germans and had been the permanent collaborator and adviser of Eichmann and Himmler in the execution of the plan.” Wisliceny would later be shown the Steiner affidavit and would sign it, attesting that, with some minor exceptions, it accurately reflected what he had told Steiner during the war. In addition to his acceptance of the reconstruction of these purported wartime conversations, Wisliceny would write a statement in July 1946 (hereafter referred to as Map Room), recounting a conversation he claimed to have had with Eichmann in January 1942. In the course of that conversation, Eichmann purportedly told Wisliceny that Husayni had visited him in his (Eichmann’s) office suite in Berlin; that he had taken Husayni into his special Kartenzimmer (map room or card room) and proceeded to lay out for him the plans for the destruction of European Jewry. K-W, S-W, and Map Room were soon followed by Simon Wiesenthal’s 1947 unsourced allegation that Husayni had inspected Auschwitz and Majdanek in the company of Eichmann, observed the crematoria operations, and singled out the hardest workers for praise.

An early version of the accusations against Husayni, based on the Kastner and Wisliceny affidavits, was featured in a March 1946 article in The Nation by Eliahu Epstein (later Elath). In 1947, the widely syndicated journalist Drew Pearson published a graphic version of the Husayni story, tied Husayni’s alleged extermination program to Arabs and Muslims more generally, and used it to denounce the Arab position at postwar deliberations over Palestine.

The same year, the Jewish Agency activist Maurice (Moshe) Pearlman published a much longer and more detailed version of the story with large parts of the two affidavits quoted verbatim. Pearlman’s account appears in a chapter titled “Perish Judea” in his book Mufti of Jerusalem. “Perish Judea” types of accounts were also sent by the Jewish Agency’s Jerusalem office to the British foreign ministry and circulated within American Zionist circles led by Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver. A particularly vivid version was featured in Behind the Silken Curtain, by Bartley Crum, a supporter of the American Christian Palestine Committee and Truman appointee to the Anglo-American Joint Commission of Inquiry on Palestine. In what follows I use the term “Perish-Judea” to refer to portrayals of Husayni as originator, architect, or driving spirit of the Holocaust that are based on K-W, S-W, and Map Room.

Kastner never explained or defended the allegations in K-W, and he ignored them completely within the dozens of other reports, affidavits, and testimonies he authored on his dealings with Eichmann, Wisliceny, and other Nazi officials—including a comprehensive 300- page report he drafted on behalf of the Budapest rescue group and presented to the World Jewish Congress in 1946. Andre Steiner maintained a decades-long public silence on his experiences with the Bratislava rescue group and the interactions he had with Wisliceny or other Nazi officials. And although Husayni’s opposition to Jewish emigration to Palestine during the war was well-known, none of those presenting Husayni as Holocaust architect offered any evidence at the time—and none has been brought forward since—that he objected to or interfered with proposals or active programs to bring Jews to safety into areas outside of the Middle East, such as Switzerland, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Japan, China, or the Western Hemisphere.


I have drawn on archival sources, primarily those of the Central Zionist Archive in Jerusalem, in putting together the following account of the conditions under which the Perish-Judea narrative was produced and disseminated. The lead role was played by Gideon Ruffer (Rafael), an operative with the Jewish Agency in Palestine, who would go on to become an Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom and a director-general of the Israeli foreign office. Ruffer worked closely with Bedrich (Friedrich) Steiner, a former colleague of Andre Steiner within the wartime Bratislava Jewish rescue group, who had started a war-crimes documentation effort in Bratislava in the aftermath of Germany’s defeat.

Those who worked with Ruffer and Steiner on war-crimes documentation operations included the above-mentioned Moshe Pearlman, who would go on to become an Israeli military spokesman and chief of Israel’s broadcasting service, and Eliahu Epstein (Elath), chief of the Jewish Agency’s Arab Department and a future Israeli ambassador to the United States. Other major figures were Teddy Kollek, future head of the office of Israel’s prime minister and later mayor of Jerusalem, and Arthur Pier (Asher Ben-Natan), future director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Defense. In their war-crimes documentation activities, they also cooperated with Tuvia Friedman, a Polish Holocaust survivor who began his own documentation effort in Vienna, and, warily, with Simon Wiesenthal, who had set up a war-crimes documentation operation in Linz, Austria, and whom they viewed with suspicion as a supporter of their rivals, the Revisionist Zionists, led by future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

On Jan. 3, 1946, the day Wisliceny was testifying in Nuremberg before the International Criminal Tribunal, Rudolf Kastner was in Geneva, Ruffer’s base of operations, writing K-W and having it notarized. K-W was sent to the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem, which sent it on in turn to the British Foreign Office, with requests that Britain consider war-crimes charges against Husayni. In early February, Ruffer traveled from Geneva to Bratislava and, in the words of Freidrich Steiner, passed on a directive setting out the “tasks and aims” for the Bratislava war-crimes documentation operation.

On Feb. 6, Andre Steiner drew up S-W and had it signed by several Bratislava colleagues in the presence of a notary. He then sent it to Ruffer, who forwarded copies to Moshe Shertok (Sharett), director of the political department of the Jewish Agency. Ruffer, Pier, and the Jewish Agency’s Jerusalem office were soon cabling scoops on the story and facsimiles of S-W and K-W to Jewish Agency offices in Europe and New York, to sympathetic journalists in Europe and North America, to European and American government agencies, and to Allied war court offices.

“I beg to submit to you the following information concerning the activities of the Mufti of Jerusalem during his stay in Germany,” wrote Pier to Bartley Crum as early as Feb. 17. “From most reliable friends I received affidavits which contain information about the Mufti’s connection with the notorious Eichmann, head of the Gestapo Jewish Department. The source of this information is Hauptsturmfuhrer SS. Dieter v. Wisliceni, deputy of Eichmann.” Pier added that, according to Wisliceny, “the Mufti was the driving spirit behind the mass extermination of the Jews” and “had returned from a visit to Auschwitz Konzentrationslager very much impressed about the German efficiency to solve the Jewish problem.”

Wisliceny, however, had not yet signaled his agreement to these allegations by signing S-W. On March 5, Ruffer obtained permission from American authorities to carry out his own private interrogation of Wisliceny, in the course of which he obtained Wisliceny’s signature on S-W. He then cabled Moshe Shertok, referring to Wisliceny as “Willy” and to Husayni as “Newman”: “re steiner affidavit concerning newman sent recently by myself have interrogated at nurnberg [sic] source willy who fully endorsed affidavit signing german copy quote have read this affidavit its content correct unquote will forward original first opportunity stop.”

The next day, Ruffer reported to a colleague in London on his group’s success in using the affidavit to influence Parliament. “You certainly remember the interpellation in parliament last week, where it was mentioned that evidence about the Mufti’s role as instigator for the extermination of the Jews in Europe is available in Nuremberg,” he wrote. “Well, the basis for this interpellation was the information which Wisliceny gave during the war to our friends in Bratislava and Budapest. I requested our friends to make out affidavits and considered it essential to get the contents of this affidavits [sic] confirmed by Wisliceny himself.” Ruffer’s team kept track of newspaper articles reflecting successful interpellations in both Parliament and the American Congress.

Andre Steiner was in the dark on the latest developments. In April, Ruffer responded to an earlier memo from Steiner titled “Angelegenheit W. Newman” (the Wisliceny-Husayni matter), in which Steiner asked if it was true that someone had managed to carry out a personal interrogation of Wisliceny. “The man who had interrogated Wisliceny at Nuernberg was myself,” Ruffer replied. “You can imagine it was a strange feeling to be confronted with the man who had helped to do so much evil.” In the same letter, Ruffer broached five critical issues: the hunt for Eichmann, the circumstance of Wisliceny’s signature on S-W, the impending transfer of Wisliceny from American custody in Nuremberg to Czechoslovakian custody, his impending war-crimes trial in Bratislava, and his personal condition:

I got from him [Wisliceny] very interesting information on the probable hiding place of Eichmann which we just now are checking up. Furthermore he signed the German translation of your affidavit [regarding Husayni] and confirmed that the contents are true with the exception that Eichmann was not born in Palestine. You understand how important this signature is for us. Now I would like to know from you details about the Czecoslovakian [sic] extradition request and when he actually will be transferred to your country. It would be valuable, if W. would reaffirm the matter of Newman at his trial, but it is nowhere worthwhile to urge for it. By the way W. was very pleased to hear that you all are well. He has lost his belly and looks rather shabby. I must say he is a highly intelligent criminal and certainly will fight for his life with much skill.

The situation in Bratislava, where Bedrˇich Steiner’s group had strong influence with the war-crimes court, an influence of which Wisliceny was certainly aware, puts into perspective Ruffer’s comment on Wisliceny’s cunning, intelligence, and determination to survive. The activists reporting to Ruffer had persuaded American and Czechoslovakian officials to grant them access to Wisliceny, whom they visited in prison repeatedly and from whom they coaxed numerous written and oral statements either directly or by passing on questions through the prosecution teams. Concerned that the Americans would release Wisliceny, they worked to have him moved from American to Czechoslovakian custody. Later, fearful that he would be executed in Czechoslovakia before he could provide them with information or testimony regarding Eichmann or Husayni, they appealed to the Americans to re-assume custody. It is likely that Wisliceny would have heard or been apprised that Rudolf Kastner was testifying on behalf of other Nazi officials, including Kurt Becher and Hermann Krumey, who worked with Eichmann and were implicated in the Nazi extermination program, and who had escaped prosecution in large part as a result of Kastner’s intervention. As a desperate and crafty criminal, Wisliceny would likely have gathered or attempted to infer what kinds of information the Zionist activists might find of interest.

Only 10 weeks after Ruffer sent his letter to Bedrich Steiner, Wisliceny wrote out his four-page Map Room statement and handed it personally to Jewish Agency activists during another visit from them to his prison cell. The Map Room begins with Wisliceny relating that Husayni had visited Eichmann at Eichmann’s office in late 1941 or early 1942.

By chance I was with Eichmann in Berlin a few days later, when he told me in detail about this visit. Eichmann lectured to the Grand Mufti in his Map Room [Kartenzimmer], where he had collected statistical accounts of the Jewish population of various European countries—he lectured in detail about the solution of the Jewish question in Europe. The Grand Mufti, according to him [Eichmann] was most impressed and said to Eichmann that he already asked Himmler and had in fact secured Himmler’s consent on this point, that a representative of Eichmann should come to Jerusalem as his personal adviser when he, the Grand Mufti, would go back after the victory of the Axis Powers.

Wisliceny adds that Eichmann offered him the position of special adviser to Husayni but that he refused the offer. He then proceeds to present himself as a dedicated opponent to the killings of Jews whose effort to support mass emigration from Reich-controlled Europe was thwarted, ultimately, by Husayni.

It would be anachronistic to hold the Jewish Agency activists led by Ruffer or the former Zionist rescue workers of Budapest and Bratislava to the standards of historiographical representation that should apply to later versions of the Newman story. These men were not acting as historians but as activists working in a war-torn Europe and in the wake of a catastrophe that had not yet been conceptualized as the Holocaust. Ruffer and Pier teamed with other Jewish Agency operatives who had been dispatched to postwar Europe to coordinate illegal immigration (referred to on the European end as Briha and on the Palestinian end as Aliyah Bet), war-crimes documentation, and in some cases arms smuggling. They loathed Husayni as a Nazi collaborator and viewed his possible return to leadership in Palestine as a threat. They lamented the allied preoccupation with the emerging Cold War that was eclipsing interest in pursuing Nazi criminals. As experienced covert operatives with strong connections to American and European intelligence agencies, they were no doubt aware that Western and Soviet bloc governments as well as governments in the Middle East and Latin America were competing with one another to find and employ former Nazis and Nazi collaborators who could be useful in intelligence gathering, propaganda efforts, and chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile technology; however, they would not likely have known or imagined the full extent of the various programs to recruit war criminals, cleanse their records, and put them to work for their new sponsors. They saw that their only chance of having Husayni arrested and prosecuted lay in making a case that he had played a critical role in the conception, planning, organization, and execution of the extermination policy. They lacked a nation-state to give them a voice in the investigation and prosecution of war criminals and had been frustrated in their attempt to convince war-crimes courts to appoint a Jewish adviser to bring more legal and prosecutorial attention to the Nazi judeocide. Finally, they were also in the midst of an intensive PR effort on behalf of the establishment of a Jewish state in British Mandate Palestine and in opposition to Arab lobbyists like Samir Shammai, who argued that the destruction of European Jewry was committed by European powers and that it was Europe that should make a place for the survivors or grant them a state on its territory, not the Palestinians. For all of these reasons, they prioritized their war-crimes documentation efforts on the hunt for Eichmann, the manager of the extermination policy, and on the case against Husayni.


With the U.N. vote to establish Israel, the Arab defeat of 1948, and the resulting marginalization of Husayni within Palestinian and Arab politics, the Newman story would fade from view for a time as attention shifted instead to one of Husayni’s accusers, Israel Rudolf Kastner. Kastner had gone on to become a spokesman for Israel’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry when, in 1952, his past turned against him. Malchiel Gruenwald, a member of the Revisionist Zionist movement, accused Kastner of betrayal. Instead of warning Hungarian Jews not to get on trains bound for what was supposed to be a work camp, Gruenwald charged that Kastner, who knew the trains were bound for Auschwitz and what would happen to the passengers on arrival, remained silent, even as he arranged with Nazi officials one actual rescue train (that came to be known as “The Kastner Train”) for a chosen few Hungarian Jews, many of whom were from his hometown and some of whom were members of his own family.

The government of Israel responded by suing Gruenwald for libel against a state employee. At trial, however, Gruenwald’s attorney Shmuel Tamir turned the tables, putting the plaintiffs—Kastner and the Socialist labor (Mapai)-led government—on the defensive. The trial unleashed Revisionist resentments against Mapai over a number of issues: the Haavara or transfer program of 1933–39 that brought Jews from Germany to Palestine in exchange for the purchase of German-produced goods; contending priorities and strategies regarding Jewish rescue during the war; and Jewish Agency opposition to the armed revolts waged by Revisionists against British rule in Palestine during and after the war. At the trial, Kastner found himself inarticulate in justifying his decisions during the war and was caught lying when he denied having helped Eichmann’s associate Kurt Becher escape war-crimes prosecution. The presiding judge dismissed most of the libel charges against Gruenwald and then, departing from his judicial role, issued the memorable metaphysical judgment that in his negotiations with Nazis, Kastner had “sold his soul to the devil.”

Kastner’s defenders have pointed out that he would not have been allowed by the Nazis to travel among Jewish communities in Hungary sounding the alarm about Auschwitz. Even if he had spread warnings by other means, Hungarian Jews were unarmed, hemmed in by Hungarian gendarmes, and had nowhere to flee. Kastner was not a traitor, they argue, but a rescuer who put his life at constant risk to save those he could. Such developments came too late for Kastner personally; he was assassinated in 1957 by veterans from the pre-state right-wing militia group Lehi.

When Adolf Eichmann was captured and brought from Argentina to Israel in 1960, the government of David Ben-Gurion saw the chance to put a major perpetrator on trial before the people who had been victimized and in whose name the state of Israel would claim the right and responsibility to sit in judgment, the controversy surrounding Israel’s legal stature in the case notwithstanding. Germany and Austria showed little interest in trying Nazi criminals at that time and, in the event that Eichmann was extradited to either nation, there was the possibility he would be released or, if convicted, given a minimal sentence. Only when Israel put Eichmann on trial was Germany jolted, finally, into removing some of the more notorious Nazi criminals from government positions and prosecuting others who had been living openly under their own names over the past decade. The Eichmann trial also served to purge Israeli society of some of the lingering recriminations from the Kastner Affair and redirect Holocaust-related emotions to other areas, especially the Arab-Israeli dispute.

As the trial was in preparation, the American writer Quentin Reynolds produced a book on Eichmann that included a most colorful scene. “The Mufti accompanied Eichmann on his inspection tours of the concentration camps,” wrote Reynolds. “His green turban was seen many times in Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Majdanek,” he continued, thereby adding Treblinka to the camps inspected by Husayni. The detail-oriented Husayni asked Eichmann “how the crematoria worked, how the mass murders were executed, and also the capacity of the crematories,” and Husayni’s “appetite for transports” exceeded even that of Eichmann. Reynolds offered no evidence beyond the assurance that he had been shown “incontrovertible” documents by Avi Aldouby, a member of the team that captured Eichmann. Foreign Minister Golda Meir insisted that the Husayni matter be brought into the trial in order to demonstrate a link between the Arab national movement and the judeocide directed by Eichmann.

Once the trial was under way, the prosecution successfully moved to have Wisliceny’s Map Room statement and S-W entered into the record, over repeated objections regarding the relevance and reliability of the claims those documents contained.19 The S-W motion, which came during testimony by Bedřich Steiner, led to an unusual exchange. After learning that the Steiner who authored S-W (Andre) was the not the same Steiner who was testifying (Bedřich/Friedrich), the presiding judge asked whether Andre Steiner, the affidavit’s author, was still living. “Steiner is in the United States,” replied the state attorney. But the court did not ask the prosecutor if Andre Steiner had revealed the circumstances under which he wrote the affidavit, whether he had information that would corroborate or contradict it, or whether he would be willing to testify, in person or by writing, in regard to such questions. Instead, the presiding judge ordered S-W entered into evidence, and the trial moved directly on to other matters.

The Holocaust is the most investigated crime in history, as has often been pointed out in response to deniers. Eichmann may be that crime’s most investigated criminal. Yet neither the intense effort of Eichmann-hunters to track down and gather every possible clue regarding Eichmann’s life, nor Eichmann’s multiple accounts of his role in the Holocaust, nor the interrogations of Eichmann between his capture and his arrival in Israel, nor the investigations by Bureau 06 established in Israel to prepare the Eichmann case for the prosecution, nor the testimony at the trial, nor the investigative journalism and historical studies that followed, have uncovered evidence that Husayni was a close collaborator of Eichmann, influenced his decisions, or inspected death camps with him. Gideon Hausner, who had led the prosecution of Eichmann and aggressively pursued the Newman angle during the proceedings, wrote his own book on the trial, which contained only one page on Husayni and left out any mention of S-W.

Historian Peter Novick has noted that Husayni was given “a starring role” in the four-volume Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, published by Yad Vashem in 1990: “The article on the Mufti is more than twice as long as the articles on Goebbels and Goering, longer than the articles on Himmler and Heydrich combined, longer than the article on Eichmann—of all the biographical articles, it is exceeded in length, but only slightly, by the entry for Hitler.” Yet although it could hardly be accused of minimizing Husayni’s role, the encyclopedia made no mention of Husayni’s alleged instigation of extermination policy, collaboration with Eichmann, or inspection of death camps.


The revival of Perish-Judea narratives in the United States began in 1993 with Benjamin Netanyahu’s book A Place Among the Nations. In it, Netanyahu addresses the American public, urging rejection of the Oslo peace process and arguing that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its chairman Yasser Arafat should not be accepted as negotiating partners. Netanyahu’s Perish-Judea narrative appears in a chapter titled “Trojan Horse.” After presenting Husayni as one of the masterminds and most dedicated supporters of the Nazi extermination program, he goes on to portray Arafat and the PLO as willing heirs of Husayni’s alleged exterminationist Nazism.

In the wake of the violent collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian talks and the shock of the 9/11 terror attacks that followed the next year, Perish-Judea accounts have proliferated. They include at least nine books published in the United States, as well as numerous articles, films, and websites directed toward American audiences. The authors and producers are of diverse professional, political, and religious backgrounds, and the publishers include religious, politically conservative, commercial, and academic presses. The Perish-Judea sections of these works, like that of Netanyahu’s, are based almost exclusively on K-W, S-W, Map Room, and Wiesenthal 47, usually taken second-hand. The new accounts also link the alleged exterminationist Nazism of Husayni to alleged heirs of his Nazi legacy: Arafat, the PLO, Arab and Islamic radicalism, jihadism; or to purported affinities between Nazism and Islamism. Husayni has also featured in three films as an iconic figure for the Nazi or worse-than-Nazi nature of radical Islam or Islam itself. More than 20 million DVD copies of one of these films, Obsession, were distributed to registered voters during the U.S. 2008 presidential campaign.

The popularity of the Perish-Judea story received further stimulus with the 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency of Iran and his subsequent inflammatory statements regarding the Holocaust. “Today, they have created a myth in the name of Holocaust and consider it to be above God, religion, and the prophets,” he was quoted as saying to an audience in the Iranian city of Zahedan in December 2005. He reprised his argument in a 2009 interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News in the form of two questions:

My first question was, if the Holocaust happened, where did it take place? In Europe. Why should they make amends in Palestine? The Palestinian people had no role to play in the Holocaust. They had no role, for that matter, in the Second World War. Racism happened in Europe, the amends are made in Palestine? My second question about the Holocaust, if this is indeed a historical event: why do they want to turn it into a holy thing? And nobody should be allowed to ask any questions about that? Nobody study it, research it [sic].

Like the suggestion that Israel be moved to Europe, the proclaimed defense of Holocaust research was tendentious, to say the least. The Holocaust conference he hosted in Tehran offered a forum for those who challenged the historicity of the Holocaust (including former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke) without concern for basic standards of research. Here again, beneath the tendentiousness, was an argument: You in the West criticize us for criminalizing blasphemy against things we consider holy and project yourselves as defenders of freedom of expression, but in the case of your own holy thing, you criminalize or anathematize those who question it.

One Perish-Judea narrative addressed Ahmadinejad’s argument in a particularly explicit fashion. The Iranian president was wrong in saying that Palestinians had “nothing to do” with the Holocaust, Alan Dershowitz wrote. On the contrary, Dershowitz maintained, “Palestinian leadership and masses” actively supported a genocidal war and continued to revere Husayni even after the war “despite—more likely, because his active role [sic] in the genocide against the Jewish people.”

Among those who have indicted Arabs as a group for alleged eagerness to participate in a Husayni-led extermination of the Jews of the Middle East are two German authors, Klaus-Michael Mallmann and Martin Cüppers, whose book has been translated into English as Nazi Palestine and co-published by the American Holocaust Memorial Museum and Enigma Books. In it, they write that the “Middle East’s open admiration for National Socialism is historiographically proven,” that Nazi plans to exterminate Jews in the Middle East “would have received widespread and active support from the Arabs,” and that it is imperative today to reach a verdict on the role of “the Arabs” in the Holocaust. The evidence put forth for mass Arab support of Nazism consists of the formation of a Nazi group led by SS Col. Walter Rauff that was to lead the destruction of Jewry in the event of Nazi victory in the Middle East and that recruited a number of Arabs—a point they document, but that indicates nothing about popular Arab admiration for National Socialism or collective guilt for the Holocaust. To bolster their broader claim, they present self-congratulatory reports by Nazi officials who were propagandizing among Arabs and non-Arab Muslims. These reports boast of the support of the masses for Nazism and their religious veneration of Hitler, as well as the alleged readiness of the Arab and Muslim masses worldwide to stand with the Axis. Most of the reports, written by officials with every reason to claim to their supervisors that they were succeeding in their mission, are presented at face value, as are selective statements by a few Western travelers or Arab writers, with no explanation of why such mass Arab and Muslim support for the Nazi cause failed to manifest itself in North Africa, the Middle East, or India in any significant way.

The specter of a “Nazi Palestine” in the hypothetical event of Axis victory in the war has been shaped for an American readership: The Perish-Judea literature remains steadfastly silent on the depth and prevalence of prewar and wartime American judeophobia as well as the immovable public resistance to providing haven or temporary refuge for European Jews beyond the restrictive quotas established in 1924. Nor do such allegations of past or present Arab and Muslim Nazi proclivities adequately identify and locate the very real phenomenon of judeophobic discourse within some Arabic and Muslim communities today. It is important in this regard to distinguish the prejudice against national groups brought about through war identity—a popular, generalized enmity or prejudice toward those associated with an enemy nation-state—from phobic discourse. In the wake of the Israel-Palestine dispute, the distinction between national groups as defined by nation-states as opposed to groups defined by larger ethnic or religious associations has been particularly fragile.

Phobic discourse, by contrast, intensifies and fixes prejudice beyond any particular conflict even as it renders specific conflicts more intractable. Judeophobic discourse in the post-1945 Middle East includes several elements: self-scripturalist (with decontextualized use of Christian or Islamic traditions to dehumanize or vilify Jews); enemy-scripturalist (decontextualized use of real and fabricated Jewish traditions to present Jews as inhuman or evil); conspiracy-obsessive; and ritual (such as the anti-Talmudic and blood-libel literature). Those elements existed in the Middle East prior to the rise of Nazism. As for racial phobia with its denial of the possibility of Jewish conversion and its pseudo-science of evolution and genetics—there is little evidence that it has found traction within Christian or Muslim Arab societies.

More generally, the American publications in question here demonstrate a self-reinforcing field of authority and certitude. On the question of death-camp inspections, for example, David G. Dalin and John F. Rothmann write in Icon of Evil: Hitler’s Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam that “As Peter Malkin and Harry Stein have documented, in 1943 and 1944, accompanied by Eichmann, he [the mufti] had secretly inspected Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz, closely questioning the guides on the workings of the facilities.” Peter Malkin and Harry Stein offered in fact no citations, sources, time frames, or testimonies whatsoever for their claim, although their language suggests that their account is in fact a slightly less colorful version of Reynolds’, which was equally lacking in documentation. Dershowitz then draws on the authority of Dalin and Rothmann’s “ ‘well documented’ account of Husayni’s role in the Holocaust.” David Patterson relies on the authority of historian Serge Trifkovic for his own claims that Husayni badgered Nazi officials “to complete the extermination of Jews” even as he praises Trifkovic for “convincingly” demonstrating that the most potent heirs of Nazism today “are schools, religious leaders, and mainstream intellectuals in the Muslim, meaning primarily Arab, world.” Readers of Trifkovic will find scant evidence for such claims, though they will read that “Islam is a collective psychosis seeking to become global, and any attempt to compromise with such madness is to become part of the madness itself.”

The new Perish-Judea literature adds one notable new accusation: that the Waffen SS (Handschar) division Husayni helped establish took an important role in the destruction of Croatian and Bosnian Jewry, with some accounts stating that 90 percent of Bosnian Jews perished at the hands of the Handschars. These authors did not check the established chronology of the Holocaust in the Balkans. At the onset of the war, 40,000 Jews lived in the Fascist Independent State of Croatia (NDH), which included what are now the independent nations of Croatia and Bosnia. On June 26, 1941, Croatian dictator Ante Pavelić ordered the mass detention of Jews throughout the NDH. Pavelić’s fascist units, known as the Ustashe, began the roundups in Croatia proper and then moved on to Bosnia. By November 1941, they had completed the detention of Jews in Sarajevo. By the end of 1941, two-thirds of the Jews in the NDH had been imprisoned in concentration camps, where thousands were murdered, starved to death, or died from disease. In early 1942, Nazi officials ordered the transfer of surviving NDH Jews to Auschwitz and other death camps outside of the NDH. After the last large deportation in May 1943, only a remnant of the Jewish population survived within the NDH, concentrated in Zagreb. All of this occurred before the Handschar division was deployed.

In one revealing passage, Dalin and Rothmann trace the inspiration of their work to their 1968 visit to the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem and, in particular, to the enlarged picture of Adolf Hitler and Hajj Amin al-Husseini they came upon there. They also pay tribute to Eliahu (Epstein) Elath, “who first encouraged us to write a book about the life and legacy of the mufti, his role in the Holocaust and in the rise of radical Islam” and who “continued to urge us to write such a book that would document the mufti’s unholy legacy, a story that Eliahu Elath believed needed to be more widely known and better understood.” The two maintained a correspondence with Elath, who provided them with a copy of a study of Husayni he had written for the Jewish Agency in 1937 and who continued to encourage them in their endeavor. Yet there is no indication in their writings that they asked for, or that Elath volunteered, any information on Husayni post-1937 or, most important, on the three documents on which Perish-Judea is based; whether Wisliceny’s story in this matter (as opposed to his many other, far more detailed testimonies on Eichmann and the Holocaust) has any credibility; and how it was that those three documents were obtained and disseminated—though Elath, one of the original promoters of the Perish-Judea narrative, would have likely had information on precisely those questions.

The new Perish-Judea literature presents Husayni, an Arab fugitive with no state, army, or organized constituency, as intervening in high Nazi circles, persuading or helping persuade Hitler to commit to the policy of extermination; receiving Himmler’s promise for a special adviser from Eichmann’s staff; receiving and approving lectures from Eichmann on the details of the final solution; actually instructing Eichmann on how to carry out the policy; and with or without his green turban and with or without his coterie, not only visiting Nazi camps, but entering into their most sensitive and highly guarded areas or even singling out the best crematoria workers for praise. In regard to “ethical standards in taking testimony from witnesses and survivors,” no significant testimony from survivors or from witnesses other than Wisliceny has been cited in support of the core Perish-Judea narrative. Overall, the post-1993 Perish-Judea literature published in the United States has been marked by a progressive increase in the certitude with which the narrative is presented, the academic prominence of the presses that publish it, and obfuscation in regard to the sources of the story, even as that story has been tied to claims or insinuations about the beliefs and actions of Arabs and Muslims before, during, or after the Holocaust.


This essay is adapted from “Holocaust Abuse: The Case of Hajj Amin al-Husayni,” which first appeared in the December 2015 issue of Journal of Religious Ethics (Vol. 43). It is reprinted with permission.

Michael Sells is Barrows Professor of the History and Literature of Islam and Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago.