If there is no God in heaven, Netanyahu has really done rather well

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses his supporters after first exit poll results for Israeli elections in Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, March 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty via Jewish News)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses his supporters after first exit poll results for Israeli elections in Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, March 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty via Jewish News)

Pope Urban VIII Baberini was known for many things in his lifetime – nepotism, greed – ‘what the barbarians left the Baberinis have plundered’ – and as a patron of the arts. Since his death, however, he is remembered for two things only.

He was the Pope who despite being a mathematician himself condemned Galileo as a heretic for saying that the earth went round the sun and for his obituary on Cardinal Richelieu. When he heard of the Cardinal’s death he is reported to have thundered: ‘If there is a god in heaven Richelieu will pay for his crimes… but if there isn’t he has really done rather well.’

I’m often reminded of this when thinking of the career of the man who has been Israel’s longest serving prime minister. His lies, ruthless manipulations and indifference to the suffering of so many people will constitute a formidable charge sheet against him, if there is a final reckoning. But if there isn’t, then think of the free cigars and ice cream, he and his wife have enjoyed, the hundreds of thousands of miles of first class travel and the meetings with so many even more morally dubious people in luxury hotels round the world.

I am sure Netanyahu passionately wanted these things and hope he has enjoyed them.

Most politicians have told the odd lie, even ones of the pants on fire variety. Netanyahu has probably told more than his fair share, but in my mind one stands out. At the World Zionist Congress in September 2015 he told the assembled that, before Hitler met the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem in November 1941, he had not decided to kill the Jews he just wanted to drive them out of Germany. It was the Mufti who gave him the idea of the Holocaust saying that if you drive them out they will come over here. Netanyahu has Hitler asking the Mufti what he should do with them. Burn them was the Mufti’s reply.

The story, of course, is nonsense. The extermination programme had started well before November 1941. The mass killing of Soviet Jews began immediately after Barbarossa was launched in June1941. By November invitations to the Wannsee conference had already been prepared, work had begun on, Belzec, the first extermination camp and Heydrich had already been advised to prepare for the Final Solution. Besides, with all due respect to the Mufti, Hitler was not even that interested in meeting him, let alone taking his advice on something as serious as the Holocaust.

In any case, we know what was said at the meeting as a record of it was published among other German foreign policy documents in 1964. These reveal the Mufti’s concerns. He wanted Hitler to confirm his opposition to Zionism, which he did willingly, and to support another Arab revolt, which he did not. He thought it would be doomed to failure and would damage the Axis cause.

There is no question that had the Axis won, and at the time of the interview this seemed very likely, the fate of the Jews of Israel would have been no different from those of Europe – so much for the slanders of Ken Livingstone and others. The Mufti did not, however, raise with Hitler the fate of Jews already under Nazi control.

The reaction to Netanyahu’s words was predictable. Academics round the world condemned them as a misrepresentation of history. The German government were not interested in this attempt to mitigate their nation’s guilt for the Holocaust saying immediately that the Holocaust was made in Germany; demonstrating an integrity in dramatic contrast to Netanyahu’s.

On the other hand, members of his fan club, of whom there were too many round the world, endorsed his comments – don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.

The interesting question was why he made these remarks. It is extremely likely he knew they were false. It does not take much knowledge to know when the Holocaust began, particularly from the self-styled leader of the Jewish people. It is also likely he knew of the record of the meeting. If he didn’t then on what basis was he presuming to give any account at all of the conversation?

It is certain that he did not have any grounds for believing what he said was true. As a master tactician, this was  irrelevant to him. What mattered was the effect. The academic reaction he could dismiss. Scholars, like intellectuals generally, are not his kind of people. Simplistic fans are.

And the ultimate aim? The Mufti was evil enough. He approved of the Holocaust even if he was not instrumental in its execution. Why does one need to exaggerate the case against him? One can only speculate but if one can pin the blame for the Holocaust on the Palestinians or at least on one of their leaders it might help demonise them. This is in turn might justify a policy of complete indifference to their interests.

It is interesting also to watch the remarks being delivered. You can do so on YouTube. You can see the shifty conman assessing his audience. The tragedy is that he was so good at it and has shown such longevity as a politician. Nor is he without influence. The Encyclopaedia of the Holocaust, a scholarly work, gives the Mufti more prominence than anyone else other than Hitler. His entry is as long as that of the two architects of the Holocaust, Himmler and Eichmann, combined.

The Holocaust is an immensely tragic and significant event. It is cheapened when a dodgy politician uses it for his own squalid ends. We don’t need lies to make our case. The truth is much more eloquent.

About the Author
I studied at Yeshivat Kerem Beyavneh in Israel and then at Cambridge University. After practising as a commercial lawyer I became active in communal affairs. I was Co-Chair of British Friends of Peace Now and the New Israel Fund. I was President of the Board of Deputies and then took a Masters at UCL in Jewish History and am now doing graduate research there.
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