Paul Pillar

De-Trivializing the Nazis

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.

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. He and some of the other members of his government have continued to apply it as a preliminary agreement on limiting Iran's nuclar program was being reached last fall.  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 Ahmedinejad to Hitler. Ahmedinejad 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.  References to European diplomacy in the 1930s are meaningless to today's audiences except in the context of the nature of the Nazi regime and the war and genocide that ensued. 

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