Guest post: Why comparing Israel to the Nazis is always anti-Semitic

Guest post: Why comparing Israel to the Nazis is always anti-Semitic


A guest-post from one of my predecessors as Bagehot:

THE borders between criticism of Israel, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are, like Israel’s borders, disputed. Some people believe that denying Israel’s right to exist, alone among the world’s states, or boycotting Israeli goods while neglecting other human-rights abusers, are themselves straightforwardly anti-Semitic; others consider those legitimate political positions untainted by prejudice. Wherever you draw this line, though, one particular feature of Israel-bashing should fall on the wrong side of it. That is the tendency of some to compare Israel to the Nazis, or the Holocaust to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, a manoeuvre that is sometimes called “Holocaust inversion”. With his crackpot notion that Hitler was a Zionist, Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London, indirectly revived this trope today, leading to his chaotic but eventual suspension by the Labour Party (already discredited by a rash of anti-Semitic outbursts). Elsewhere it is deployed in depictions of Israeli soldiers as heirs to the SS, elisions of the Star of David with swastikas and poisonous diatribes in the Arab world, and, these days, across the West.

There are three main reasons why introducing Hitler into debates about Israel should be considered anti-Semitic. First, and most obviously, even in the worst possible interpretation of what Israel has done to the Palestinians, it does not remotely resemble what the Nazis did to the Jews. The scale and purpose are incomparably different, in ways so glaring that they ought not to need spelling out. Israel’s abuses against the Palestinians occur within a territorial and political conflict, albeit one in which, unquestionably, great and indefensible wrongs have been done; the Holocaust was an attempt at ethnic annihilation in which 6m people were murdered. I once heard a well-educated man who should have known better lament the fact that, after what happened to them during the second world war, the Jews have gone on more or less to do the same thing to the Palestinians, “only without all the killing.” The industrialised killing, however, was not an incidental part of it. To pretend an equivalence grotesquely exaggerates Israel’s guilt and renders the crimes of Nazism routine.

This being so—and since there are other, much more appropriate historical comparators for Israeli policy—it is reasonable to assume that the likes of Mr Livingstone choose this one at least partly because it is hurtful. After all, while it lacks all merit as a tool of analysis, its capacity to offend is immense. Anyone who struggles to understand why this is so should ponder how they would feel if acquaintances constantly likened their mishaps to the worst thing that ever happened to them. My bad day in the office—it’s just like when your mum died in agony, isn’t it? Why would someone make such a comparison? Remember that the vast majority of Jews in the world have relatives who were killed in the Holocaust, and often, for older Jews, fairly close relatives. For them it is not some abstract talking point or rhetorical crutch.

Last, and most important, the comparison is inexcusable because it suggests some sort of cosmic karma. “The Jews”, the thinking often goes, have failed to learn the moral lesson of Nazism and so are uniquely deficient. More than that, though, in an irrational, retrospective sense—since the Jews who were killed by the Nazis died before Israel even existed—the motif implies that the Holocaust was almost a form of rough justice. Yes, yes, the Jews had a bad time under the Nazis, runs the twisted, unspoken argument, but look what they have done to the Palestinians. So, you know, history and the Jews are sort of quits. Right?

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