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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.


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    1. Carl

      I’m with you there Dimi. The other one that gets me at the minute is ‘genocide’. As in ‘the Israeli genocide of the Palestinians’. I’m not explaining why because if anyone doesn’t know, I’m not buying them a dictionary.
      With the Nazi example though, it’s got the added problem where genuine comparisons can’t be made any more. If you want to understand how countries can slip into dictatorship and institutionalised racism, then 30’s Germany is probably your starting point. Due to how much the term ‘Nazi’ has been abused though, you might as well just hand a signed affidavit over saying that you accept you lost the argument.

      Reply to Comment
    2. There’re two good reasons to use “Nazi” or “Apartheid” or “totalitarian” or “conservative” or “liberal” or “progressive” or “reactionary” or “socialist” (and the like) in political speech.

      One is to VENT, and “Nazi” is very good for venting. Used so, it is a “swear word”, and many people use swear words to let other people know how strongly they feel. And it works!

      The other word is as a shorthand. One picture-word may be worth a thousand non-picture-words.

      Consider the direction of Israeli legislation recently. One may describe it emotionally as “xxxxx-ish”.

      Or one may say, roughly:

      I very, very, very strongly deplore and abominate
      the recent legislation and in particular the following recently passed laws:
      [1] the law which effectively forbids incitement to boycott settlements and so on within Israel;
      [2] the law which forbids non-resident spouses to become residents of Israel if they such spouses are Palestinian Arabs;
      [3] etc.,
      [4] etc.,

      Now such a list makes a dandy term paper for a Political Science or Current History course.

      But it makes for rather long-winded communication in a conversation. A SHORT-HAND for such long-winded-ness is an obvious benefit.

      If such laws had been enacted in my country, which is not Israel, I would simply refer to the “recent spate of totalitarian laws” or “Nxxx laws”and people would know how I feel and also what I mean.

      Reply to Comment
    3. sh

      Pabelmont, do everyone a favor and use Nozi instead. It’s an anagram of Zion and clears anyone using it of suspicion of infringing upcoming NAtionalist ZIonist legislation.

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    4. Richard Witty

      Truly a useless comparison.

      And, no, you are not obliged to then compare anything to “nazi” if the law passes, or in the process.

      If you do, then you give up control over your own communication.

      The moral control and the message, same as you criticize.

      You wouldn’t believe how frequently the nazi comparison is invoked, and by people that you likely respect deeply.

      Reply to Comment
    5. directrob

      I think comparisons with the Nazis can be very valid. How else can we learn from history (especially the way a democratic state became a fascist state). There is however no need to call people or states Nazis. They never are.

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    6. AYLA

      thanks, Dimi, for highlighting the dangers both in the law and in the comparisons. Or maybe I’m the one suggesting that the comparison is not only useless but also dangerous, as it waters down the weight of the Holocaust and also, due to incongruity, often makes mute an important argument.
      I think that if we omit the labels and direct comparisons, we can evoke haunting references. How, for example, can a country built by survivors and refugees stomach building a detention camp for Africans who risked their lives to journey to the first safe place? Etc. (not that this example is full of subtle nuance, mind you–I wish it were). Still, if you say it’s like pre-Nazi Germany, which it isn’t, then you derail a direct and honest look at the horrors of what is actually happening, here.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Dimi, that’s absurd.
      The ability “to confront [someone] with the fact a policy or an opinion they support bears suspicious resemblance to Nazi practice” is really important, and does not “instantly relegate the entire debate to the realm of the absurd”. Quite the contrary.

      Treating Nazism as an absurd term is just wrong. Genocide and ethnic cleansing are a dominant part of human history. One should be allowed to dissect it in order to understand it. Setting Nazism apart (or disallowing it from conversation) is wrong and dangerous.

      The Nazi genocide and ethos was a culmination of colonial concepts, emerging technology (that allowed near total liquidation – tallying, transporting, killing an entire population with relative ease), and aesthetics.

      It is a peak in history that allows us to see this process with greater clarity. Comparing a situation to this peak is not “morally flawed”, it is morally necessary – so as to try and avoid moving in that direction again. “Never again”, right?

      In order to ensure the promise of “never again” one needs the ability to dissect, discuss, pull-apart, water-down the Nazi concept and history. There simply is no other way then to allow comparisons to Nazis in conversation and discussion. Disallowing words from discussion is Orwellian NewSpeak by definition – with ALL of the original implications.

      The script you proposed as an example of the right-winger and left-winger arguing is a prime example of the dissection needed and made possible by using the term Nazi. Understanding Nazism (and its implications for ALL humans) cannot happen otherwise.

      If you, Dimi, cannot see beyond the demonizing aspect of a comparison to Nazis, then YOU should refrain from engaging in such discussions (your piece above being a case in point). Others should be allowed (and encouraged) to examine and pull apart the implications. Not everyone who speaks of Nazis, speaks of inhuman demons. Some understand that the human psyche is very complex, and that no one (and no society) is immune to becoming Nazi. As Nazi Germany shows us, societies don’t even realize in time when they are moving down that path.

      And by no means should one be encouraged to call EVERYTHING Nazi (as you suggested in your last paragraph) thus rendering the term useless. That, Dimi, is the point of that bill – to make the term Nazi unusable in discussion.
      Sadly and ironically, it is also the point you are making.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Mikesailor

      There is an old saying..:If the shoe fits, then wear it’. While I agree that using the term ‘Nazi’ is usually stupidly used, historical analogies of present day Israel to 1930’s Israel are valid. The ideal of ethnic supremacy for instance. Is the idea of ‘Aryan’ supremacy analogous to the present idea of ‘Jewish’ supremacy embedded within Zionism? Is present day Israeli legislation analogous to the Nuremberg laws? Is the idea of ‘Lebensraum’ analogous to West Bank settlement, or even the ethos of Israel’s founding?
      I agree that there are other analogies as valid. The idea of a ‘land without a people’ for instance could be analogized to the entire Western colonial project subjugating the Americas. Yet times have changed, and what was excusable, or even laudable, in the 1800’s is not seen as justifiable today. I do agree that the term is loaded. That often it is used as a slur to defuse all possibility of debate, yet other terms are often used the same way. The use of the term ‘antisemitic’ for instance. Often it is used as a deliberate appellation to avoid engaging in any real debate. As such, it is a favorite ploy of ‘hasbaristas’ to avoid explaining any investigation or debate of Jewish actions, particularly involving Israel. Therefore, it is losing the ‘sting’ it once engaged and forces people to look behind the ‘ad hominem’ attack to find the truth of the arguments. Calling someone a Nazi or antisemitic therefore contains the same problem. Using it as shorthand to avoid debate over concrete actions is despicable, yet the words themselves are not to blame. Merely the cynical use of them to persuade the already biased, or ignorant, to not ‘look behind the curtain’ and see the wizard is a lie.

      Reply to Comment
    9. I heard someone say once that the daily routine of the occupation, the attitude it creates among those with force–“it must be so”–would ultimately seep into Israel proper. The boycott law and Nazi bill strike me as evidence for this view. One (well, some) know what we should be thinking, doing, and we must be told what that is, with penalties upon deviation. IF one knows what a “good” occupied Palestinian is, how far off is knowledge of the “good” Israeli, first Arab, later Jew? The Nazi bill is extremely absurd precisely because it suggests a view of correct life which should, naturally, be held by all. I think occupation seepage is well underway, and I think the small proportion of leftists out there is more an excuse than reason for establishing such laws. That is, I think the apparatus of the State and those parties supporting it think the logic of occupation is universal. A weaker form of this occuries in natural social policing during war, as I can well recall during the first years of the Iraq war.

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    10. David

      When it comes to Israel, comparisons to Nazis is inappropriate. Nazis practiced their own version of fascism. Israel should be matter of factly described as a “fascist state” not only because of its expansion by force of arms, belligerent/illegal and brutal occupations, its ethnic-cleansing, etc., but because its existence stems from Zionism, which like the Aryan myth used by the Nazis, is an ideology that in effect says that Jews have a unique right to expel, dispossess and oppress Palestinians and other Arab Muslims and Christians.

      Reply to Comment
    11. RichardL

      “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?”

      Des Dieux et des Hommes is a compelling story of these times. Highly recommended if you know enough French.

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    12. Haim

      Rubbish. Palestinian “uprising” (which was encouraged by Germany) caused Britain to panic and seal the Palestine to Jewish immigration. They ARE guilty.

      Reply to Comment