Who Can Use Nazi Comparisons?

Israeli lawmakers are debating a bill to criminalize the careless use of the word Nazi, but face a problem since Prime Minister Netanyahu is one of the worst abusers when denouncing Iran and comparing a deal on its nuclear program to Munich, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

This week the Israeli Knesset took the first step toward enactment of a bill that poses difficult questions for the legislators because it to some degree abridges free speech but does so for benign purposes.

The bill would criminalize derogatory use of the word Nazi or related terms as applied to people other than the real Nazis, or to use symbols related to the Holocaust for purposes other than educational ones. Penalties for violation would include fines and up to six months imprisonment.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

One objective of the legislation is to place Israel on stronger ground when urging other countries to take action to curb the rise of neo-Nazi movements. But another important purpose is to check the widespread tendency, observed not just in Israel but also elsewhere, to use comparisons with Nazis so loosely and indiscriminately that the usage debases the historical currency.

The trivial use of Nazi-related comparisons and imagery threatens to trivialize the real thing. When comparisons with the Nazi regime keep getting applied to matters that come nowhere close to the horrors associated with that regime, this risks degrading understanding of how horrifying that regime was, as well as constituting an insult to its victims. Combating this tendency is a worthwhile objective.

The tension between this objective and the value of free speech is reflected in a thoughtful letter to the New York Times from Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League. Foxman says he has “conflicting emotions” about the action in the Knesset. On one hand, he writes, “if there is any country in the world that needs to make sure that the events of World War II and the Holocaust are not trivialized, it should be Israel.” But on the other hand, a civil libertarian ought to be troubled by the prospect that “language, even if it is an ugly epithet that cheapens the historical meaning of the Holocaust, can be punished by the law as a criminal act.”

While this letter is reasonable, coming from Foxman it invites further comment about the standards he uses in taking positions and whether he is consistent in doing so. Some of the most prominent positions he has taken on behalf of his organization have had very little to do with countering defamation.

There has been, for example, his opposition to construction of a mosque in Manhattan near the World Trade Center site, opposition that struck many as disguised bigotry. There also was his resistance to any formal condemnation of the century-old genocide against Armenians, resistance that continued as long as Turkey still had good relations with Israel.

That last example reflects what appears to be the overriding standard that Foxman does consistently apply, which is to support whatever is in line with the policies of the Israeli government and to oppose whatever is contrary to those policies. This is the respect in which Foxman’s positions stray farthest from anti-defamation. In fact, he seems to be just fine with defamation when the person being defamed is a critic of Israeli policies.

This is all pertinent to that bill before the Knesset, because one of the most prominent practitioners of invoking Nazi Germany comparisons is the current Israeli prime minister. Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly applies this comparison as part of his unrelenting effort to demonize Iran and kill any accommodation with it.

The comparison is as baseless as most other loose applications of the Nazi simile. There is no equivalent to Adolf Hitler in the Iranian leadership, Iran is not trying to conquer the rest of its region and has no ability to do so, and an agreement with the Iranian government to restrict its nuclear program has nothing in common with the carving up of a European country and handing part of it over to Hitler.

A member of the Knesset who opposes the bill did ask in this week’s debate whether passage of the bill would mean that Netanyahu would be jailed for comparing former Iranian president Mahmud Admedinejad to Hitler. Admedinejad is now out of office, and perhaps as long as Netanyahu does not use the word Nazi or start drawing swastikas on pictures of current Iranian leaders he would not be subject to prosecution even if the bill becomes law.

But his repeated comparisons with the Munich agreement and events of the 1930s associated with Germany have the same purpose and cause the same damage, damage that the pending legislation is designed to reduce.

That leads to this question for Abraham Foxman: since you share, quite understandably and appropriately, a concern about how carelessly using Nazi Germany similes cheapens the historical meaning of World War II and the Holocaust, when are you going to start criticizing Benjamin Netanyahu for doing so?

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

3 comments for “Who Can Use Nazi Comparisons?

  1. delia ruhe
    January 29, 2014 at 01:46

    There is also the question of “ownership”:

    ‘On one hand, he writes, “if there is any country in the world that needs to make sure that the events of World War II and the Holocaust are not trivialized, it should be Israel.” ‘

    Israel does not “own” Nazi history, nor does it even own the holocaust. Nor do all Jews own them. Yet they make rules — official and unofficial — about who can speak about them, and what they can say about them. That is an arrogant think, given that they don’t even think to consult with Germans before they lay down those laws.

    Sixty million people died in WWII, one tenth of them those Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. Every nation represented in the other nine-tenths should be heard if they wish to speak about it. If Israel wants to critique anything said about the Nazis or the holocaust, they’re free to do so. But they are not free to deny that freedom for everyone else.

    January 26, 2014 at 13:19

    The use of the term, while certainly overused by some in the political-ideological spectrum, is certainly legitimate, and attempts to outlaw or banish words (or thought) is both nonsensical and obscene.
    Those who support nazism and Nazi’s are correctly deemed nazis. This would include far too many of so-called ‘democracies’ and our own establishment, including government, corporate/finance and the law, and continues to this day.

  3. Opium
    January 20, 2014 at 14:56

    The words “nazi”, “shoah”,” auschwitz”, among others is in the every daily language of Israeli Jews and Jews all over the world.
    I am going to give but just a few examples.

    1) A bad soup is worse than “Auschwitz”.
    2) Young Israeli-Jews call a messy kitchen or bad relationship a “shoah” ( holocaust).
    3) Anyone empathizing/defending Palestinian Christians and Palestinian Muslims are “nazis”.
    4) Ultra-Orthodox Jews (men and little boys) dressed up as Nazi concentration camp inmates protested in the neighborhood of Mea She’Arim, Israel. These Jews wore the Star of David patch and uniform similar to those the Nazis had the Jews wearing.
    5) Murdered Israeli Prime Minister Rabin was called a “nazi” by Israeli Jews
    6) Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu called former president Ahmadinejad “nazi”.
    7) Same Netanyahu warns of another “holocaust” from Iran.
    8) How about the 1,000 Israeli- Jews that took to the streets yelling “Blacks out,” and attacked Black Africans on the street and broke windows of stores belonging to these Black immigrants and any Jew defending these Blacks from the blatant racist abuse of these other Israeli Jews were also called “nazis” and were horribly and violently verbally abused in other ways as well.

    It is not mentally healthy nor normal to be constantly thinking “nazi”,”nazi”, “nazi” in 2014 and of Death always around you.
    This is narcissistic psychosis that is passed down from generation to generation by indoctrination.

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