Why Nazi comparisons are (almost) completely useless

Activists and journalists are up at arms about a Knesset attempt to outlaw comparisons to Nazism. The law is an atrocious attack on freedom of speech, but Nazi comparisons in any political debate are both counterproductive and morally flawed. Maybe with one exception. 

The Knesset, in a preposterously self-conscious move (one hopes), is planning to ban all comparisons of contemporary individuals and policies to Nazism. Beyond the fact even Hipster Hitler could not have planned it better, our lawmakers charitably provide us with an opportunity to reflect on how useful the comparison in the first place. Make no mistake – I don’t support outlawing it by any means; but as GK Chesterton once put it, to have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it. Nazis – what are they good for, anyway?

In my limited experience, the temptation to tar someone with the Nazi slur in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is usually motivated by at least one of the following three: A desire to insult, offend and incense the object of the comparison; if the comparison’s target happens to be Jewish, to confront them with the fact a policy or an opinion they support bears suspicious resemblance to Nazi practices; or, if the object of the comparison is Arab and/or progressive, to insult them, to confront them with said resemblance, and to warn the audience – hear ye, hear ye, a relic from the camps and the ghettos is loose upon our streets, planning our destruction.

However much the motives may vary, the effect of the comparison is identical in nine cases out of ten: Instantly relegating the entire debate to the realm of the absurd. The accused party will start fretting about, trying to prove they’re actually much better than the Nazis – a preposterous position to put yourself in in the first place; the accusing party will try to prove the accused is a Nazi born-and-bred – a ludicrous claim, not least because in popular imagination Nazis equal gas chambers with no intermediary stages whatsoever. The original topic of discussion, meanwhile, will sulk over to a corner and promptly shoot itself, recognising it won’t be required again for the remainder of the evening.

By way of an example, here’s a short script familiar to many of us. A left-winger calls a right-winger a Nazi. The right-winger get riled up, brings up the fact half his parents’ families died in the Holocaust, embarks upon a detailed explanation of all the perfectly factual points of difference between Israeli and Nazi policies, usually emphasising Israel does not use gas chambers (“Israel: Nicer than the Nazis. No gas chambers!” – here’s a hasbara campaign for Yuli Edelstein to consider). The offended rightist is also likely to point out the Jews, unlike the Palestinians, didn’t shoot rockets at the Germans (meaning, one gathers, that if there had been armed Jewish resistance the Holocaust would be justified); and call the offending lefty an anti-Semite because he accused a Jew of Nazism (how this particular slur, offensive though it is, falls under the category of anti-Semitism is quite beyond me).

Apart from instant and often irrevocable derailing of the discussion, the comparison to Nazism is also morally flawed. Not because Jews, Palestinians or left-wingers are immune to developing the many unsavoury qualities of the Nazi movement – the brutality, the radical militarism, the belief in the idea of inherent ethnic and/or class superiority, demonisation of some Other and the other’s scapegoating to the point where his death is perceived as inconsequential. Rather, the comparison is morally flawed because its use immediately deveins the argument of any moral standards and invites us to judge the morality of a phenomenon using a scale of resemblance to anything occurring in Europe in the 1930s and early 40s; and if no complete identity is proved, why, then, the phenomenon in question must be moral, or at least tolerable.

It seems to me we would be better off utterly rejecting the flaws in the phenomena we discuss without checking their moral value against historic precedent. The Occupation is wrong not because it resembles the Nazi occupation in Europe and not because it inevitably leads to the gas chambers (which I don’t believe it does); it’s wrong in and of itself, and would be wrong if Nazism never happened. Calls for (yet another) transfer of Palestinians or fantasies about a Palestinian struggle winning along the lines of FLN in Algeria is inherently wrong (can someone please do a sequel to the Battle of Algiers showing the ethnic cleansing, military dictatorship and decades of civil wars that ensued after that cult film’s happy ending?), and not simply because both scenarios bring to mind something uniformed speaking English with a heavy German accent in a Spielberg movie.

Here’s a suggestion: So long as you’re trying to persuade someone, it’s never, ever, ever useful to compare anything and anyone to Nazism. Not even a positive comparison – next time you’re at your in-laws, try telling them their taste in visual art is a vast improvement on Hitler’s. We can and should discuss the Nazis’ toxic contribution to our present state. It’s perfectly reasonable to say one of the main reasons many Israeli Jews are adamantly against sharing sovereignty with anyone is the trauma of the Holocaust, and it’s perfectly fair to point out the Palestinians didn’t cause the Holocaust (the Mufti hopping Hitler’s leg notwithstanding) and shouldn’t be paying the price for the Nazis’ crimes. But we – progressive or conservative – would do best to overcome the urge to compare ideological opponents to the Nazis.  It won’t help our cause (whatever it may be), it won’t open their eyes and it would damage any much better-grounded argument we are making.

And what if someone else uses the comparison? In my opinion, it’s best to let it slide and not to get drawn into it. Earlier this month I took part in a debate in which one of the participants thundered from the podium that Gaza was the new Warsaw ghetto. None of the other panelists, myself included, thought it was worthy of the discussion’s valuable time to get into an argument on points of difference between the IDF and the Wehrmacht, precisely because any position we’ll take on the matter – moralist or factual – will sound inevitably stupid and the entire debate will be completely inconsequential and absurd. The audience, which seemed to represent quite a nice spectrum of opinion, apparently agreed, also preferring not to challenge the speaker on his comparison but to focus on the much more essential questions of the day.

We, should, however, set aside one exception to the rule I just described. The only context in which we not only can, but must compare each and every little thing to Nazism is that of the aforementioned Knesset bill. If the bill passes into law, it will become our sacred duty to compare each and every little thing, beginning with the bill’s Rt. Hon. sponsor, to the jolly 1930s. The bill is Nazi, the MKs slowly raising their right hand to vote for it are Nazis, the neighbours upstairs are Nazis, the public transport – well, goes without saying; the exams are a bloody Holocaust, the weather is as Nazi as it gets, and the alarm clock is a fucking Obersturmführer with three Iron Crosses and Tourette’s. We should be making these comparisons not because they are valid, true or do justice to the horrors of the Holocaust, but because a law that is so irredeemably stupid and cuts so deeply into freedom of speech deserves to be broken repeatedly, persistently and creatively, until it becomes completely unenforceable. Nazis.