The Problem With Netanyahu’s ‘Never Forget’ Speech

The media has been jumping all over a speech in which Netanyahu invoked Holocaust history and its solemn, though often misused and abused, talismanic phrase: “Never Forget.”

The duty to “Never Forget” is one that’s drilled into the heads of Jewish children who go to Hebrew School (the Judaic equivalent of Sunday school) — and for good reason. Let’s be explicit: the meaning of this phrase is that you should never forget the predisposition of human beings to obey ideological incitements to commit genocide.

Our responsibility (as humans, not just as Jews) to never forget the extermination programs in Eastern Europe during World War II, the Belgian Congo, Bosnia, Sudan etc. — their implications about the worst potentialities of human nature and the dangers associated with the natural tendency to repress or ignore these potentialities — is a solemn, important, and metaphysically freighted task.

The seriousness and urgency of this responsibility is the reason it is so infuriating and demoralizing when the phrase is misused. For example, I find the tendency to invoke the words “Never Forget” in relation to September 11 irritating and disheartening in the extreme — although I admit its deployment as a patriotic meme is one that was utterly predictable.

Most school-aged American kids these days probably don’t even know that the phrase was originally coined as a shorthand to invoke both memory of and responsibility to victims of the Nazi concentration camps and Einsatzgruppen. They’ve only experienced it as a phrase occasionally thrown out there by politicians — and their media organizations, populist supporters, etc. — to justify ongoing imperialist adventures in oil-rich geopolitical regions that have been perennially destabilized by Western corporate and political coalitions over the past century or so. And that is a state of affairs both sad and dangerous.

With that said, let’s focus in on the speech that Netanyahu gave last week. As a matter of fact, Netanyahu did not use the phrase “never forget” at any point. The thing that people are freaking out about is that — so it is claimed — Netanyahu sought to shift the blame for the Holocaust from Hitler to the Grand Mufti of Jersualem, who was a leader and cultural hero to Palestinians during World War II. Netanyahu does no such thing in his speech.

Here’s full text of the portion of the speech that was controversial. I’m including one full section of the speech so that the paragraph under scrutiny appears in context. You can read the entire speech here. I’ve bolded the paragraph that is most controversial.

“So here’s the first big lie: Israel is trying to change the status quo on the Temple Mount. No, we’re not. We haven’t changed the status quo on the Temple Mount in years. There’s a simple arrangement: Muslims visit the Temple Mount and they pray there. Others, Jews, Christians and other denominations, secular people, they come – secular people pray too by the way – they visit the Temple Mount but they don’t. Sunday to Thursday, 7:00 to 11:00, the non-Muslims visit. Muslims visit the rest of the time. How many Muslims have visited and prayed on the Temple Mount, on average, last year? Anybody know? No, not 300,000, three and a half million. Eighty thousand Christians and other denominations and 12,000 Jews. That hasn’t changed.

“Though the Temple Mount is our holiest site – it was built there by King Solomon 3,000 years ago, 1,500 years before the birth of Islam – though we’ve been attached to it for three millennia, we in no way deny the sacred sites or the rights or the free access for other denominations, and Israel has not and will not change the status quo. This is one huge lie.

“So this lie is about a hundred years old. It fomented many, many attacks. The Temple Mount stands. The al-Aqsa Mosque stands. But the lie stands too, persists.

“[Another lie being told in the media about my regime ] is not only that we seek to change the prayer arrangements on the Temple Mount and the non-prayer arrangements on the Temple Mount, which we don’t, is that we seek to destroy the al-Aqsa Mosque. Now this is particularly farcical. It would be farcical if it weren’t tragic. My grandfather came to this land in 1920 and he landed in Jaffa, and very shortly after he landed he went to the immigration office in Jaffa. And a few months later it was burned down by marauders. These attackers, Arab attackers, murdered several Jews, including our celebrated writer Brenner.

“And this attack and other attacks on the Jewish community in 1920, 1921, 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. He flew to Berlin. Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews. And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come [to Palestine].’ ‘So what should I do with them?’ [Hitler] asked. [The Mufti] said, ‘Burn them.’

“And he was sought in, during the Nuremberg trials for prosecution. He escaped it and later died of cancer, after the war, died of cancer in Cairo. But this is what Haj Amin al-Husseini said. He said, ‘The Jews seek to destroy the Temple Mount.’ My grandfather in 1920 seeks to destroy…? Sorry, the al-Aqsa Mosque.”

First lie: Israel seeks to change the status quo – false. Second lie: Israel seeks to destroy the al-Aqsa Mosque – false. It’s particularly onerous because Israel is the only country that protects the holy sites in the Middle East. You see Muslims, the militant Shi’ites and the militant Sunnis, blowing each other’s mosques to smithereens across Iraq, Syria, you name it, churches – of course, synagogues – don’t even talk about it. And ancient shrines of great world heritage – blown up. The only place where the holy shrines of all are absolutely guaranteed is in Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty and of course in the rest of Israel.

Before I analyze this text I want to disclose that I am not a supporter of the Netanyahu regime. Far from being an apologist, I am usually a critic of the regime. I went into this exercise expecting to find some reason to berate Netanyahu, but could find none. None of the historical facts that he brings up in the section of the speech that he has been so roundly criticized for are controversial. There is only one word-choice that is questionable which I will put into context below. Here are the facts:

1. It was indeed the public-facing “intention” of the Nazi regime to deport the European Jewish community to Israel (or to some other location) and many or most Nazis, even up to the very high-ranking ones — even some of those who were specifically tasked with “taking care of the Jewish problem”–probably actually believed this early on, even after the beginning of the war. The Final Solution was not circulated as a policy until the Wannsee Conference in January of 1942, and various aspects of the policy were concealed from the public until the end. This is not to discount or to minimize the many thousands of Jews and other persecuted people who had died in ghettoes, concentration camps and in mass-shootings prior to this date–Nazi anti-semitism and general bigotry had been lethal to many since the Nazi party’s coup in 1933, and occasionally even before that. But it was not the explicit policy of the Third Reich to exterminate the European Jewry prior to January of 1942. This is in no way absolves anyone of anything, it’s just a fact.

2. The conversation that Netanyahu is quoting is multiply corroborated and the way Netanyahu quotes the conversation is entirely plausible and probably factual in every detail that he cites.

3. He did not say that the Mufti convinced Hitler to exterminate the Jews. He said that they had a conversation about deportation, and that the Mufti was against deportation or “resettlement” and encouraged Hitler to pursue extermination. There is ZERO chance that this was actually the sole, decisive component informing the Third Reich’s decision to enact the Final Solution, but it was a factor in the ultimate outcome. There was effectively nowhere for the Nazis to deport the Jews to even if they had decided to allocate the resources that would have been necessary to effect the deportation. The ingrained anti-semitism of Nazi regime and the logistical difficulties of deportation — which were compounded both by the rabid antisemitism of Middle-Eastern contacts with whom the Reich maintained diplomatic relations throughout the war, and whose concerns and preferences the Reich privileged over and above the concerns and preferences of British Zionists, and by the callous refusal of Allied countries to receive large numbers of Jewish refugees etc.–were the major determining factors behind the impetus to turn many of the concentration camps into full-blown death camps. The conversation did happen more or less as Netanyahu reports it and at the time of the conversation the public-facing policy of the Reich was indeed “deportation.” Very soon after the conversation, the internal policy of the Nazi regime changed from their notional, politically expedient commitment to deportation to outright extermination.

4. There is only one word from this section of the speech that is at all problematic. That word is “Hitler” in the third sentence of paragraph 5. Instead of saying Hitler it would have been better for Netanyahu to say “The Third Reich” in that that instance.

5. The Third Reich was, functionally speaking, an absolute dictatorship — meaning that the will of the state and the will of it’s “leader” or its “Fuhrer” were one and the same. Netanyahu, in the context of this speech, was using the word “Hitler” as a metonym.

6. This would have been really problematic if Netanyahu had been talking to a room full of elementary school children in the American Midwest. He was not. He was talking to the 37th World Zionist Congress. Every person in that audience knew — just as Netanyahu knows very well — that Hitler had been vocalizing a desire to exterminate the European Jewry for decades by the time he sat down to have that conversation with the Mufti.

It’s not as if Netanyahu’s invocation of the historically genocidal sentiment of Palestinian politicians is irrelevant to the situation in Israel. Hamas, an organization that calls for the genocide of Jews in its charter (check out Articles 7 & 15 for incitements to genocide) — has been the most prominent political party in Palestinian territories for many years, though it is occasionally dismantled or goes into hiding for a while.

This is one of the few times I’ve actually been disturbed by tactical misrepresentation or oversimplification of Netanyahu in the media that has been cultivated by elements of the press sympathetic to Palestinian victims of Israel’s program of ethnic displacement. The Fox News contingent has distorted the real data about Netanyahu often enough. Stooping to their level in this case damages the credibility of organized efforts to call the Israeli government to account for its human rights violations.

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