Over on Daily Kos, I encountered someone proclaiming officially that it is anti-semitism to conflate the actions of Israel with the actions of nazis. I’d like to noodle around that idea a bit, because it makes me quite uncomfortable.
The word “conflate” there may be improperly used. Or … maybe not. The thing is that “conflation” is (according to a dictionary) combining two ideas into one. I think a more effective (and accurate) formulation would be “it is anti-semitism to equate the actions of Israel with the actions of nazis.” I.e.: to treat them as the same in quantity or value. In that formulation, it seems pretty strong – it’s wrong to say that what Israel did/does is the same as the various nazi crimes against humanity, because in fact the nazis were breaking new grounds in crimes against humanity and that was recognized at Nuremberg, resulting in most of the surviving nazi leadership being hanged. To me, that seems the crux of the issue, saying that Israel did/does the same things as the Third Reich, invites a question, namely, why aren’t the leaders of Israel in the dock at The Hague?
I think I already answered that, but let me be explicit: it’s a question of degree. “Conflation” implies combining the idea of Nazi war crimes and Israeli war crimes, blurring the distinction between them and saying, in effect, “war crimes be war crimes” which invites a closer look at what crimes and how many victims. This is where it gets ugly and confusing, and makes me begin to reject the logic of the claim that “it is anti-semitism to conflate or equate the actions of Israel with the actions of nazis” because in a court of law, it’s not an acceptable argument to say “my client should be freed because while they only killed 3 people, Genghis Khan killed millions and thereby my client is a piker who was practically a philanthropist in comparison!” The answer, of course, is “3 is 3 too many, stop trying to minimize your clients’ actions.”
I’ve grappled with this argument before and the way I like to unpack it is as: when you’re talking about area bombing noncombatants, you’re in moral jeopardy. Sure, everybody does it [isn’t it absolutely disgusting that I have to say that?] but like other forms of murder, it’s wrong. Now we can talk about all the various people who area bomb noncombatants and it would, I assume, raise an eyebrow if someone specifically called out the nazis. That would be suspicious. The key point, to me, is that nobody wants to be on the same moral playing field as Ghengis Khan, the nazis, Henry Kissinger, Vladimir Putin, and Pol Pot. If we establish that as our moral playing field, I’m going to leave it to others to argue “who was worse?” because, really, I don’t think anyone should be comfortable, there. That’s partly what worries me about the people who make the “it is anti-semitism to conflate the actions of Israel with the actions of nazis” argument in the first place – methinks they are less concerned with human rights violations than they are interested in downplaying certain human rights violations, or counter-attacking a person who does place human rights violations on the same moral playing field.
As a matter of law, it seems to be fairly simple to analyze the issue: you’re just as much a murderer if you kill 3 people as 3 million. It’s just that you’ll go down in history as a horrific mass murderer if you run up a Third Reich-style score. But, in effect, we should stop telling Palestinians that they’re being anti-semitic for complaining that Israel murdered grandma, if they complain about that murder as a war crime. Where it gets tricky is if the nazis are specifically brought up in that context, as opposed to, say, Vladimir Putin or Henry Kissinger, or the United States in Cambodia, etc. If specific nazi things are brought into the conversation, then I’d say – yeah – we’re treading on the border of anti-semitism. As one does not want to be on the same moral plane as the nazis, one does not want to – if only by implication – point that out without keeping it a generic moral complaint. Mass murders be mass murders, and nobody wants to be a mass murderer who drops high explosive into packed urban areas full of noncombatants, be it Dresden, Hanoi, Grozny, or Gaza. In my mind, that’s where the “it is anti-semitism to conflate the actions of Israel with the actions of nazis” response often comes from – it stings more than a little bit when your side is placed on the same moral plane as Vladimir Putin and Henry Kissinger.
And why is that? Now, I have to choose my words very carefully because I don’t want to be accused of various forms of racism or bigotry: we humans seem to expect people to have far more empathy than they appear to do. We seem to expect that someone who has experienced the horrors of genocide will be reluctant to commit unto others what was committed upon the self. On the contrary, though, human history seems to point out that the people on one side of a genocide are often doing it because they feel they are avenging prior abuses by the victim. I don’t hold much stock in human empathy, or sympathy, after reading as much 20th-century history as I have. Unless someone is an actual anti-semite, and is looking for another issue to put the boot in over, there really is no point in expecting that the people of Israel were somehow morally purified by their experiences of European anti-semitism. Some have been, some haven’t. But we have no reason to expect anyone to try to do more than prove, once again, that two wrongs don’t make a right. And, that’s the sad part. We should no more be anti-semites and assume that there’s something wrong with Jews because of their experiences with anti-semitism, than we should assume that they came out of those experiences somehow saintly.
Nelson Mandela comes to mind. We see a man who was unjustly imprisoned in conditions that were on the same moral playing field as outright torture, who came out of the experience desiring peace and reconciliation instead of bloody revenge. Or Ghandi, often referred to as a peacenik, who once said that he chose the path of peaceful resistance because his people were hopeless, militarily. We venerate those people, instead of Henry Kissinger, because they are seen to have searched for a more complex path out of the violence of revenge. But, if you actually look closely at what was happening, they were an alternative to violence and often not much of one. India was going to get its independence one Britain became “the sick man of Europe” [forgive me] – it was a question as to whether that would happen with a lot of loss of life, or a little. The same in South Africa: the colonial government was going to collapse, it was a question of whether it was going to be a Rwanda-like collapse or not. And let’s not forget the obvious, unfortunate, fact that white Europeans would have intervened in force if it looked like there was going to be a genocidal overthrow of the government. Am I sure of that? Not entirely, but does anyone want to bet that there wouldn’t have been campaigns of saving the white people? Maybe not couched in those terms, but we saw the same thing in the fall of South Vietnam: you had to fight for a place in the boat if you were Vietnamese but if you were white/European you got priority seating on the helicopters out.
We seem to expect that people who have been exposed to the downside of irrational racism (that’s redundant – all racism is irrational) to be more sensitive about not being racist, themselves. Which, is … pretty ahistoric. It seems to me that some people who are not anti-semitic are maybe guilty of hoping for better from Israel and the Israelis. And, I chose my words carefully, there: it is Israelis who have elected Netanyahu and Likud, over and over again. If we want to think about this using the language of democracy, Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians and Gaza is not an invention of Netanyahu, personally – he enjoys broad support and Israel’s policy toward territorial expansion goes back to the planning for the founding of the state. I am not going to re-read O Jerusalem just to cherry pick some quotes for a blog posting, but there are adequate statements from the founders of Israel that the plan, all along, was Eretz Israel and it is not a coincidence at all that every time the Arabs lose some land, they never get it back. Should we expect better from Israel? I’m still tormented by that question. Obviously, anyone who has had their friends blown to bits, or shot or gassed, ought to feel empathy toward someone else feeling the same thing, and be reluctant to inflict it. But that reluctance seems to me to be mostly in my imagination. And that, friends, is why “it is anti-semitism to conflate the actions of Israel with the actions of nazis” rings hollow to me. It’s not anti-semitism, it’s cynicism. It’s the world-weary awareness that humans are nasty pieces of work and even if they won’t say it we all know that revenge is a dish best served with pine nuts and lobster bisque.
Now that that’s said, I think I’ve covered the difficult points. There’s one more detail: “it is anti-semitism to conflate the actions of Israel with the actions of nazis” has an embedded complication that it is putting a democratic state and a dictatorship on the same moral playing field. In democratic theory, the state of Israel is acting with the approval of its constituents – whoever keeps putting Netanyahu in power. Their responsibility for that is diffused, in the same way that not all Americans are to blame for voting in George W Bush, and approving his illegal and hugely destructive war in Iraq. When I encounter a fellow American who admits to supporting Bush’s wars, I look at them side-eye, because they are at best fools and, at worst racist colonialist fascists. I’m not interested in probing where on that scale they are – it’s just a scale I don’t want anything to do with, and they are not my friends.
This is not an episode of Argument Clinic [stderr] because I do not want to gamify this topic, but in Argument Clinic terms, I always seem to recommend “go meta” – question the question behind the question – and that’s what I recommend in this case. When someone says “it is anti-semitism to conflate the actions of Israel with the actions of nazis” I ask them whether their concern is identifying possible anti-semitism, or downplaying the moral crimes of Israel. Don’t just run right up on them and ask them that, but ask questions around it, and be sensitive to the possibility (a large one!) that they may be quite right. If someone specifically is equating Israel’s actions to the actions of the Third Reich and no other state sponsors of war crimes get a mention, then that is a troubling point. We need to avoid “who was worse: Hitler or Genghis Khan?” debates, but I’m going to get suspicious if someone who’s talking to a Jew or an Israeli keeps dropping Hitler and the nazis. Putin and Bush are good substitutes if you want to talk about people who ordered the bombing of cities full of noncombatants. The US hid its classified drone warfare as morally neutral claiming that there was a presidential approval process before someone was judicially murdered – thereby placing Bush, Obama, and Trump in the defendant’s box in The Hague, if the US had any respect for international law.
Let me conclude here with a tangential point: Biden as a pseudo-progressive. Like most US politicians, he’s a christian (and therefore implicitly anti-semitic) whose response to Hamas’ attack on Israel was to ship a bunch more ammunition to Israel, then try to paper it over by meeting with a bunch of people for a public hand-wringing session. Here, let me inject the mandatory, “well, duh, what Hamas did was a horrific war crime and I think they shouldn’t have” that these events require. Slaughtering noncombatants is not a good moral plane to be on, OK? But imagine if Biden’s reaction to Russia’s attack on Ukraine was to … ship Russia more ammo. Ridiculous, right? No, not really. Recently I saw some hand-wringing in the press about Israel using white phosphorus in Gaza – well, that places Israel on the same moral plane as the US, when it used white phosphorus in Raqqa. I chose my words carefully, since the usual formulation is required to be “… used white phosphorus against Hamas” or “… used white phosphorus against ISIL” except that there are pictures of those white phosphorus rounds hitting a hospital. I don’t actually expect Biden to be a progressive, and I certainly don’t expect a president of the USA to be anti-war. But, it would be nice if we could manage to elect an anti-war president, or two. But here’s what I think Biden could/should do: he should tell the Israelis that if they don’t stop bombing Gaza right this fucking moment the US is going to sign on to the Hague Conventions and stop holding itself above international humanitarian law. That move would have the advantage of causing the republicans to freak the fuck out, and then they’d have to come up with some sophisticated rationalization why the hell not. Rub some salt in the wounds and say “don’t worry, George W Bush is safe.” But here’s the problem: we can’t do that, because the US is on a moral plane that nobody wants to talk about.
There is a bottom line to all of this, which is another point I like to make whenever the “it is anti-semitism to conflate the actions of Israel with the actions of nazis” and that’s that there’s too much high explosive being dropped on too many noncombatants, in any circumstances, in any quantity, regardless of the excuse. It’s a cracking good point. It’s as good as the “nobody can justify Hamas’ attack.” Well, duh, no nobody can. Everybody remember that “they did it first” as a defense against a war crimes tribunal is an affirmative defense – i.e.: not a good defense at all.