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On Responsibility: Letters to the Editor

Comments from our readers on the Mufti and the Final Solution, the adults of Yale University, and more

November 13, 2015

Editor’s Note: On Fridays we publish a selection of letters our readers have sent to us regarding articles and podcasts published the week prior on Tablet.

This week, the first pair of letters consists of a comment from Jeffrey Herf, a professor of history at the University of Maryland in College Park, about Michael Sells’s article “Fabricating Palestinian Responsibility for the Nazi Genocide,” followed by a response from its author.

I will not comment on Michael Sells’s research into the early years of Israeli responses to Husseini [as described]. I do protest at what I regard is Sells impugning the good name and integrity of two excellent German historians, Martin Cuppers and Klaus Michael Mallmann. In “Fabricating Palestinian Responsibility for the Nazi Genocide,” Sells includes them as part of “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.” As Sells attacks others for transgressing standards, I note the following errors Sells makes regarding well known and widely published facts about the role of Haj Amin al-Husseini in Nazi policy in the Middle East.

1) Sells writes that “Husayni, for his part, spoke on radio programs broadcast to Arab nations, calling on his listeners to support the Axis in defeating common enemies: British, communist, and Zionists or Jews (two groups he conflated as often as not).” As I documented in my 2009 study, Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, Husseini did far more than that on the radio. He and the other Arab exiles working with the German Foreign Ministry broadcasters, called on listeners to “kill the Jews” in the Middle East.

2) Sells writes that the most incriminating document regarding Husseini’s role in World War II may be one written by himself” in his memoirs of the 1960s and 1970s in which he expressed his admiration for Himmler. In fact, the Allies had a mountain of incriminating evidence about Husseini in the form of his radio broadcasts alone. Otto Dietrich, the Reich Press Chief was indicted and convicted for his role in German press and radio propaganda. If Husseini had been brought to trial, the record of his propaganda activities in support of Nazi policy in the Middle East alone matched or exceeded Dietrich’s. He should have been indicted but pressure from the Arab oil sheiks and concerns about antagonizing Arabs and Muslims in the early Cold War prevented a trial that would have brought forth much evidence of his collaboration.

3) Sells writes that “the judeophobia of Husayni’s memoirs is robust.” Indeed it was, as the Israeli historian Zvi Elpeleg pointed out in his biography of the Mufti. Yet the evidence of Husseini’s hatred of the Jews and the Islamic theological foundation he gave to it was “robust” in his much earlier statements. They include his canonical speech of 1937, “Islam and the Jews” and his speeches and broadcasts from Nazi Berlin between 1941 to 1945. There one finds the citations of the Koran and the Hadith to legitimate Jew-hatred that he made part of the Islamist tradition.

4) In my own work on these matters, I have been careful not to exaggerate the role of Husseini in the Holocaust in Europe. The same is true of Mallmann and Cuppers and their study, Nazi Palestine, the English title of a work published in Germany as Crescent and Swastika: The Third Reich, the Arabs and Palestine (Halbmond und Hakenkreuz: Das Dritte Reich, die Araber und Palastina.) Sells writes that the evidence the authors put forward for their assertions about Arab support for Nazism “consists of the formation of a Nazi group led by SS Col. Walter Rauff that was to lead to the destruction of Jewry in the event of a Nazi victory in the Middle East and that recruited a number of Arabs…” No, that is not the primary evidence they offer. It did constitute a major historical discovery of the operational plans—not ideological aspirations alone but actual operational plans—to send an SS battalion to Egypt with the purpose of carrying out Einsatzgruppen type mass killings of Jews similar to what had happened in Eastern Europe in 1941 and 1942. Mallmann and Cuppers’s evidence regarding likely Arab support for such actions came from the files of German intelligence services. The Nazis expected that they would receive the same level of support in the Middle East for their anti-Jewish policies that they had received from pro-Nazi elements in Eastern Europe. Such expectations were shared by American and British intelligence services who had no reason, as Sells writes of the Germans, “to claim to their supervisors that they were succeeding in their mission.” The Allied intelligence files, as I documented in Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World were also full of reports of sympathy for the Nazis on the part of some, not all but some Arab political groups.

5) Sells ignores the evidence that Cuppers and Mallmann present, and does not discuss the evidence that I present regarding wartime support for the Nazis coming from the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Arab nationalists, such as the young Anwar Sadat. We draw attention to the importance of the Battle of Al Alamein in summer and fall 1942. Had the Nazis won that battle and moved on to Cairo and Palestine, American and British diplomats in the region believed then that the Germans would have found significant support from selected politically active groups, such as the Brotherhood. That explanation has long been in the scholarship but Sells ignores it.

It is regrettable that Tablet decided to lend its pages to a previously published article that, in effect, accuses these two very serious, very careful historians of transgressing “the standards of legitimate scholarship” because they committed the sin of offering us details about Nazi Germany’s fortunately unsuccessful efforts to extend the Final Solution from Europe to the Jews of the Middle East. It is a bitter irony that you published Sells’s essay in the same weeks in which Palestinians repeated lies about Israel’s supposed effort to infringe on Arab access to the Al Aksa Mosque. As I pointed out recently in The Times of Israel, it was Haj Amin al-Husseini, first in the 1930s and then on Nazi radio, who spread the lie that the Zionists were intent on destroying the Al Aksa Mosque and destroying Islam in the Middle East.

— Jeffrey Herf, College Park, MD

And Michael Sells’s reply:

In responding to Jeffrey Herf, I note that although my essay appeared at about the same time as Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial address, it was in press long before that. Nothing in it was written in hindsight. Herf directs us to his October 22 blog wherein he writes that “having spent many years working on the history of modern Germany and on the period of Nazism and the Holocaust,” he was surprised by Netanyahu’s claims that Amin al-Husayni, the fugitive mufti of Jerusalem, instigated the Holocaust. “I’ve never seen these comments cited before in the vast literature on the subject,” he adds. Yet Netanyahu’s remarks were but an incremental extension of the “perish Judea” claims he made in his 1993 book A Place among the Nations (pp. 192-193). I demonstrated that since the early 1990s, the Perish Judea narrative—that Husayni instigated the Holocaust, inspected death camp operations, or was an active proponent or “driving spirit” of the extermination of Jews in Europe—has increased in recklessness even as it has gained an increased following.

If Herf seeks a debate with a defender of Amin al-Husayni, he will have to look elsewhere. Herf writes, as if correcting me for suggesting the contrary, that Husayni had demonstrated his judeophobia well before he wrote his memoirs and that his record as a propagandist for Nazi Germany would have merited investigation and trial after the war. I wrote that “at least from the time he settled in Berlin, [Husayni] 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.” What is it here that Herf did not understand?

My intent was not to rehearse the details of Husayni’s activities in that regard, such as the report of his radio address calling on his listeners in the Middle East to “kill the Jews.” The essay set out to explain the origin, history, revival, and abuse of the “perish Judea” narrative. I have no interest in arguing the negative: indeed, if credible evidence is found to confirm any element of the “perish Judea” story or the more recent additions to it—such as the alleged role of the Husayni-backed Bosnian SS division in the destruction of Bosnian and Croatian Jewry—such evidence should be presented responsibly and considered seriously.

Readers will find that my criticisms of Mallman and Cüppers’ Nazi Palestine have nothing to do with their “offering us details about Nazi Germany’s fortunately unsuccessful efforts to extend the Final Solution to the Middle East.” My first criticism concerns the exploitation of two sources for the “perish Judea” narrative—the Steiner-Wisliceny (S-W) affidavit and Wisliceny’s July 26, 1946 “Map Room” statement—to portray Husayni as an active proponent of the complete destruction of European Jewry (Nazi Palestine, pp. 98-101). I also object to the book’s sweeping characterizations of Arabs and Muslims: the alleged “great esteem” for Hitler “in the Arab world, and in the Islamic world as a whole” (pp. 30-31); the “Muslim affinity for the Third Reich” (p. 216); the “Middle East’s open admiration for Nazi Socialism” (p. 215); and the “Arab world’s affinity for National Socialism” (p. 211). In the last case mentioned, a handful of comments quoted from secondary sources are brought forth to characterize the beliefs and character of millions of human beings over a period of more than half a century. Nothing in their book justifies such grotesque generalizations.

Each successive compromise of responsibility in representing the Holocaust—even when those compromises are made in the name of Holocaust recognition—corrodes our shared ethic of recognition. The danger is that we accept and pass on to others a skewed understanding of the Holocaust, because it is what has been passed on to us and because it has become, in our own mind, too perfect an explanation not to be true. In this regard, we urgently need to extend the ethics of responsible historiographical representation, first articulated in response to Holocaust denial, to other forms of Holocaust abuse. Until then, comments like those made by Netanyahu should not surprise us. Here is a preview. The day after Netanyahu’s address, an article appeared expressing the following ‘truth’: “The Grand Mufti also helped organize a Muslim Waffen SS Battalion, known as the Hanjars, that slaughtered ninety percent of Bosnia’s Jews.” It was co-authored by Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an influential and internationally recognized institution in the area of Holocaust education (see Abraham Cooper and Harold Brackman, “The truth about Jerusalem’s grand mufti, Hitler and the Holocaust,” from the Jewish Journal).

As for Herf’s comment regarding the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, inflammatory words or provocative actions regarding it are dangerous indeed. The Temple/Haram question is, along with the Holocaust, one of the world’s most explosive issues. For a sobering exploration of the Temple/Haram controversies as well as the provocations by influential Palestinians, Israelis, and Americans surrounding that most perilous site of contention, see Gershom Gorenberg’s The End of Days (Oxford University Press, 2000). In the 15 years since that book’s publication, inflammatory words and actions, by many of the same parties or their successors, have continued, disastrously.

Michael Sells, Chicago, IL
In Ayelet Shaked’s interview with Liel Leibovitz today, she referred to her party, Jewish Home, as “the second largest party in Israel, after the Likud.” Judging by Knesset seats, Shaked is emphatically wrong, as Jewish Home has eight seats, the sixth most in the Knesset after Likud (30), Zionist Union (24), the Joint List (13), Yesh Atid (11), and Kulanu (10). Jewish Home isn’t even the second largest party in the governing coalition, as it is smaller than both Likud and Kulanu.

Perhaps Shaked was using some other measure of size, or maybe something was lost in translation? Otherwise, she stated a factual inaccuracy that went unchallenged by her interviewer and uncorrected by Tablet’s editors.

Aryeh Mellman, St. Louis, MO

On James Kirchick’s “Growing Up at Yale”:

I’m afraid it’s the administrators, specifically the Silliman Master and Associate Master, who are the ones who behaved like children.

A little background: Like Mr. Kirchick, I too went to Yale, although I finished about ten years before he started. And I too experienced some offensive guest speakers there. Mr. Kirchick rightfully condemns Amiri Baraka’s anti-Israel and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about 9/11. I also grew up, like Mr. Kirchick, with little directly experienced anti-Semitism in Portland, Oregon.

But like Mr. Kirchick, while Mr. Baraka’s visit is certainly in line with ideas about free expression, he and I both know that Mr. Baraka will be gone the next day and is not a regular part of the Yale community. I say let him come and say his offensive ideas and let the community debate and discuss them. And then let him go. But this is a far cry from fellow students dressing in blackface or other offensive costumes who live in the same dorm or residential college. Imagine if Mr. Kirchick found a member of his residential college dressing in historically anti-Semitic caricature of Jews promoted by the Nazis? We are all familiar with those images. Would he feel differently? What about if the residential college he lived in was named for a well-known anti-Semite or Nazi party member as Calhoun College is named after a well-known slave owner. Would he feel quite so welcome or comfortable in the hallowed halls of Yale?

If Mr. Baraka’s screed was Mr. Kirchick’s most disturbing experience in his young life then I would say he is tremendously lucky. I imagine that it might be helpful for him to put himself in someone else’s shoes, perhaps some of the young students of color at Yale now. While a “shared history of oppression” is worthy of discussion and a way to connect across lines of race, ethnicity, class, and culture, the history of oppression in this country, between Jews and African-Americans, is really not comparable. What if a great percentage of Jewish men were incarcerated and facing disproportionate sentences for equal crimes (crack v. cocaine use/dealing), as one example? Or if he grew up in a city with the only choice of school being a highly underfunded, overcrowded public school, or if the unemployment rate in his community were double the national average and had been for decades? If there were redlining and housing discrimiation? Or if an unrelenting flow of racist imagery and attack were directed at our first Jewish president? What if his parents had to sit him down when he was a young boy, say 10 years old, and tell him to be careful around the police. Because the police, whom he thought were there to protect him and his community, were actually dangerous and could kill him and blame him for his own death and not suffer any consequences? I am confident that most American Jews have not experienced these situations. And I am also confident that no Jews have ever had to have this talk with their children in this country in the last 75 years. Yet this is a conversation that goes on in a great number of African-American households to this day. Has Mr. Kirchick put himself in the shoes of people who have experienced this?

So while Mr. Kirchick is right to point out the childish behavior of some of the Yale activists, perhaps Mr. Kirchick could step out of his own shoes for a moment, again, where a slight ribbing was the most anti-Semitic act he experienced as a child. Their behavior might be childish but they are still children, or young people, who have been confronting these issues far more regularly than he has.

The Master and Associate Master of Silliman College, however, are adults, in positions of leadership and power; they are, for many people at Yale, considered to be parent-like figures in the college and community. As such, isn’t it strange (and childish) that they privilege the feelings, history, situations of some of their children and their youthful “offensiveness” (and potentially racist behavior like blackface) within their house rather than figure out a way to both respect the idea of freedom of expression and foster a supportive and welcome community for all of their charges? That seems like the adult thing to do.

Sam Zalutsky, New York, NY

On Debbie Nathan’s “A Very Jewish Civil War”:

In Debbie Nathan’s fascinating article concerning the Shapell Manuscript Foundation’s collaboration with the National Archives to identify all of the Jewish soldiers in the Civil War, attention is drawn to the career of Cherrie Moise Levy, son-in-law of Rabbi Morris Raphall, who “ended up being prosecuted by a military court and dismissed from service.” In Lincoln and the Jews: A History, a book I co-authored with Benjamin Shapell, we recount the full story of this Orthodox soldier. In fact, Cherrie Levy—known among Jews as “Chemi,” short for Nehemiah—was simply obeying orders when he withheld half of a clerk’s paycheck to prevent the man from squandering his salary on alcohol. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln forgave Levy and reappointed him as Assistant Quartermaster with the rank of Captain. Congress confirmed the appointment. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton blocked the reappointment, and it took until February 18, 1869 for Levy’s disability to, at last, be formally removed. He deserves better than to be remembered, so many years later, “for not so gallant service.”

Jonathan D. Sarna, Waltham, MA