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Bad Enough by Itself


Antisemitism and the War in Gaza

According to The Guardian, federal records show the Anti-Defamation League has increased its lobbying expenditures by an estimated 1600%.

Palestinian solidarity protestor. Salone del Libro, Torino.

The goals of these bigger buys are twofold: to push back against pro-Palestinian critics of Israel’s campaign in Gaza and, unsurprisingly, to expand American acceptance of the IHRA’s Working Definition of Antisemitism.

Nothing new here. The ADL has always supported Israeli actions against the Palestinians.

Likewise, broader acceptance of the IHRA’s version of Antisemitism is uncontroversially consonant with that goal. It follows the logic of premises openly espoused and long established.

For right-wing Zionists, acceptance of the IHRA’s definition constitutes a valuable and effective tool in rebutting criticism of Israel.

This is not to say that the ADL’s (or anyone else’s) espousing of it is purely instrumental. Nonetheless, it does have a specific target.

The charge of Antisemitism has a great deal of symbolic power. It’s intensely disturbing to anyone with a grasp of 20th-century history and those concerned with human decency.

There is also a subset of people for whom the charge carries no weight.

For example, white nationalists at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville openly chanted, “The Jews will not replace us!” Clearly, they didn’t care.

It was definitely not a concern for Donald Trump, who wanted “guys with yarmulkas” counting his money and included the Charlotteville marchers among the “good people” he said were on both sides.

It was also not an issue for most of Trump’s legislative partisans. Many Republican lawmakers were critical of the marchers’ racist views. But not enough to punish them.

All of which is to say that not all charges of Antisemitism are alike. What is clear is that it carries far greater weight on the left than on the right.

By the same token, charges of fascism and Nazism get the same traction and have similar power.

And it is for this reason that we find among the IHRA’s definitional statements, “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” This certainly raises a variety of fraught issues.

Accusations of Nazism are the most powerful political pejoratives of the post-World War II world.

Originally the province of progressives, like most of the left’s possessions, such rhetoric has been appropriated by the right in the last two decades.

One of the peculiarities of contemporary politics has been the emergence of “liberal fascism” as a term of abuse, one that would have been unrecognisable to the generation that lived under Hitler and Mussolini.

As with many of the propositions in the IHRA Working Definition, the stricture on comparisons to Nazism has an element of reason that obscures a more important fallacy.

To be clear, comparisons of the current Israeli government and its policies towards Palestinians, and the actions of the Nazis don’t hold water. But that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t.

Just because a people have been victims of genocide, there is no intrinsic reason they couldn’t commit such crimes in the future.

But, brutal as the campaign in Gaza has been, it does not rise to the level displayed by Nazi campaigns in Western Europe, much less in Nazism’s war for race and space in the East.

One question raised by all of this is that of historical comparison more generally. Not all comparisons between historical events in different contexts lack value.

Still, social sciences often fail to take significant differences into consideration. The case of Nazism and the Holocaust is an excellent example.

Comparisons of events or actions to Nazism are often based on a profound lack of knowledge of the policies undertaken by Hitler’s government and the historical context in which they occurred.

This is a sword that can cut both ways, particularly under present circumstances.

When Donald Trump was accused of building concentration camps for migrants at the Mexican border, many conservatives claimed the comparison was wrong since Hitler’s camps were mass killing sites. Which was true.

It is also true that the term “concentration camp” arose in the context of British actions against Boer civilians in the Second Anglo-Boer War, not during the Nazi genocide. Their purpose was the concentration of a hostile population.

In this respect, the charges against Trump’s policies were legitimate. But it was the Nazi example most had in mind, because of the hegemony of the German version in American history and politics.

Is this a useful discussion? Nazism was bad. In many respects, it was definitionally bad, at least regarding things arising on the political right.

However, using the term “concentration camps” allowed Trump supporters to involve critics of the policy in a sterile historical debate rather than discussing the inhumanity of the border camps themselves.

It was a perfect diversion from the crisis at hand.

What has to be remembered about comparing things to Nazism, as with historical comparison generally, is that they have to do work.

By ‘work’, we mean pointing out a similarity between two disparate cases that is specific. This is perhaps the greatest failing of most comparisons involving Nazism.

At the root of this is the failure of those who want to use Nazism as an epithet to distinguish National Socialism or fascism from right-wing authoritarianism more generally.

As a result, one often sees comparisons between modern political phenomena and fascism or Nazism which are valid (in the sense that Nazism/fascism evinced the relevant traits), but empty because those same traits apply to a variety of other non-fascist (or not-obviously-fascist) regimes.

Locking up one’s opponents, killing them, defining your state by race, and many other characteristics have been shared by a range of authoritarian regimes and, sadly enough, by a number of nominally liberal ones, too.

Comparing Israel or its government to the Nazis or fascism is, in a certain sense, emotionally satisfying. Settler colonialism certainly invites such comparisons.

Whether they do actual conceptual work or not, this permits us to say something profoundly hurtful toward people and institutions over which civil society has limited power.

As such, most contemporary comparisons between Israel and Nazism are an expression of futility as much as of intellectual or conceptual limits.

Still, the campaign in Gaza has been grossly disproportionate to Hamas’s actions on 7 October, repugnant as they were. 35,000 dead Palestinians versus 1219 Israelis is hard to compare.

It is the worst of both worlds in the sense that it has involved war crimes while not having the slightest chance of achieving its goal of destroying the Palestinian militant organisation.

 

Legally speaking, Israel might even have crossed the threshold of genocide, depending on what the signatories to the UN Genocide Convention eventually decide.

Since such a verdict would require real action, UN member states will likely be reluctant to concede that the Convention’s understanding of the crime applies.

The IHRA’s Working Definition of Antisemitism claims that comparisons between Israel and the Nazism are intrinsically Antisemitic is, like much of the rest of the document, extremely problematic.

But there are excellent reasons not to blithely engage in such comparisons that have nothing to do with the IHRA’s tortured and expansive reasoning.

When things are bad, it is essential to let them be bad in their own way. Failure to do this is to invite the kind of sterile arguments that prove our powerlessness.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.