Using Nazi analogies to criticise Israel and Zionism is offensive, but should it be banned, criminalised or branded as antisemitic? Comment is free itself has a policy on this, according to which moderators generally rule Nazi comparisons out of order for being provocative, abusive and doing nothing to promote better understanding of the Israel-Palestine conflict; a distinction is made, however, when actual historical connections between Zionists (or Arab nationalists) and the Nazis are a legitimate topic under discussion.
The authors of a new report, Understanding and Addressing the “Nazi Card”: Intervening Against Antisemitic Discourse, from the European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism (EISCA), take a different line. The chairman of EISCA is Denis MacShane, and the report carries a strong endorsement from Shahid Malik, minister for communities and local government, the government department that gave a £20,000 grant to EISCA to produce the report.
Researchers Paul Iganski and Abe Sweiry are concerned about what they see as the increasing normalisation of the use of what they call the “Nazi card” against Jews and Israel. They say this is often antisemitic; but in relation to the first three of four uses of the “Nazi card” that they consider – abuse against Jews, as in swastika daubings on Jewish gravestones; abuse of the collective memory of the Holocaust, as in Holocaust denial; and casting Jews as conspirators and collaborators with the Nazis – almost always so.
Their principal concern, however, is use of the “Nazi card” in modes of criticism of Israel. Here, they acknowledge that it’s hard to decide when using Nazi analogies is or is not a manifestation of antisemitism. So much so, they argue, that “labelling the playing of the Nazi card against Israel and Zionism as antisemitic, even though it is perceived to be so by many, leads to a discursive dead-end”. What really matters is the consequences of this use of the “Nazi card”, whether it’s offensive, hurtful or harmful. On this, “more people would be more certain”. The authors write: “although the playing of the Nazi card is not always antisemitic, it unquestionably always harms”. As a result, where this occurs, it could already be defined as a criminal act, and if not, Iganski and Sweiry say, consideration should be given to changing the law so that it would be. In other words, if you said “the way the IDF operated in Gaza was like the way the SS acted in Poland”, and a Jew found this offensive, hurtful or harmful, you could, in theory, go to jail.
I also believe that there should be no place for Nazi analogies in public debate, but in my view, the argumentation and recommendations in this report are deeply flawed. And when you dig deeper into the reasoning, it seems confused, muddled and contradictory.
While the principle that freedom of speech is not absolute is accepted in English law, not all offensive speech is criminalised. So, merely showing that comparing Israeli behaviour to the Nazis is offensive is no reason to outlaw such discourse. The authors try to get round this by arguing that such comparisons are especially offensive to Jews, because of their history. They say: “Most people would accept that it’s completely unacceptable to call a Jewish person a Nazi.” The implication here – that it may, therefore, be acceptable in some circumstances to call a non-Jew a Nazi – is unfortunate to say the least. If one is against the use of Nazi comparisons in public debate, it’s unacceptable to call anyone a Nazi. In which case, the argument of exceptional offensiveness for Jews doesn’t hold.
The authors then argue that, where Jews are concerned, “the playing of the Nazi card … unquestionably always harms”. But the dictionary defines “harm” as “damage or injury; physical, mental, or moral impairment or deterioration”. Surely, few Jews would go so far as to say that they have been offended to such a degree. The report goes on to say that Nazi analogies “potentially incite violence against Jews”: “Calling Israel a Nazi state calls for destruction not dialogue”. This is an abusive and hyperbolic statement, but it could be an extreme way of calling for Israel to change its ways.
It may well be that arguments about whether Nazi comparisons are antisemitic can seem sterile and repetitive, but to abandon that discussion as if it simply doesn’t matter is perverse. It’s tantamount to an admission that the term “antisemitism” has been rendered useless. In fact, Iganski and Sweiry don’t abandon the term at all. Instead, to support their argument, they urge on all and sundry the adoption of the so-called “Working Definition of Antisemitism” produced by the former European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC), now recast as the Federal Rights Agency (FRA). I write “so-called” because the definition is rapidly becoming the new orthodoxy.
While much of the definition is unexceptionable, it cites five ways in which antisemitism could be seen to “manifest itself with regard to the state of Israel taking into account the overall context”. One of these – “using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism… to characterise Israel or Israelis” – is fully justified. The other four are contentious: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination”; “Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation”; “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis”; “Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel”. None of these four are self-evidently antisemitic. But all could be used to justify labelling legitimate criticism of Israel as antisemitic. So the authors’ approval of them makes their claim that “Drawing attention to the consequent harms in [playing the Nazi card against Israel] should not be intended, or taken, in any way as an attempt to suppress criticism of Israel and its military practices” both naïve and flimsy.
Iganski has laboured hard and conscientiously in the field of hate crime, so it is unfortunate that he has taken this path towards criminalising something best dealt with by setting standards of public discourse that are voluntarily adopted. As associate editor of the Times Daniel Finkelstein writes in the Jewish Chronicle of a Nazi analogy such as the Warsaw Ghetto for Israeli military action in Gaza:
I find this a nasty, obtuse point to make, one that lacks all sense of proportion and knowledge of history. I think less of those who make it. I do not, however, regard the insult as racist.
But it is more than merely a question of casting the playing of the “Nazi card” as automatically antisemitic. People will use this report to justify demonising severe criticism of Israel (even though it actually also suggests some non-criminalising ways of tackling the problem of Nazi analogies). I don’t believe that Iganski will welcome that.
Part of the fault here lies with the ethos of the body that commissioned the report. EISCA was officially launched in a packed House of Commons committee room in July 2008. The then Europe minister Jim Murphy gave the inaugural lecture, “Antisemitism: A Hate that Outlives All Others” – a nonsensical title taken from an equally nonsensical sentence in the lecture: “what is different about antisemitism is that it has both predated and outlived many, if not all, other reactionary instincts”. Its new chair, Denis MacShane, is second to none when it comes to exaggerating antisemitism: “There is no greater intolerance today than neo-antisemitism in all its open and disguised, witting and unwitting forms” he wrote in Globalising Hatred. Given the tone of these remarks, the weaknesses of the “Nazi card” report are not surprising.
Had this report been commissioned by a university or a serious thinktank with proven expertise in this area, I’m a sure something more useful would have been produced. But the fact that the government can spend £20,000 in this way, backing a dubious body with no track record, is indicative of the sad politicising and devaluing of the entire field of contemporary antisemitism studies.
Anthony Lerman, the former director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.