Ali Abunimah – defending the right to compare Israelis to Nazis

I’ve had half an eye out for attempts to defend the right to compare Israel to Nazis, apartheid and so on. Unsurprisingly one came from the Electronic Intifada and Ali Abunimah.  It is no good.

In Israel, “Every threat or grievance of major or minor importance is dealt with automatically by raising the biggest argument of them all — the Shoah,” former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg has written using the Hebrew word normally reserved for the Nazi Holocaust, “and from that moment onward, every discussion is disrupted.

Such use of the Holocaust by Israelis rarely attracts attention or opprobrium outside the country. By contrast Palestinians must always be careful about breaking the taboo of likening any of Israel’s actions with those of Nazis. Even their allies usually tell them, “don’t go there.”

Palestinians, however, do not have the luxury of simply ignoring the Holocaust’s presence in their lives, dispossession and deaths. This is because the continual insistence by Israel, and especially its supporters in the US, that nothing Israel does to Palestinians can ever be compared to any Nazi crimes also serves to implicitly legitimize Israel’s persecution and massacres of Palestinians.”

Israelis are often framed for massacre and murder in cold blood and it’s bad of Abunimah to sling the term around without substantiation. But his main point is that Israelis and their supporters (Jews) are hypocrites – they impose a taboo against comparing situations to the Holocaust which they freely break among themselves. The taboo is therefore spurious – a convenient way of waving Israel on in its putative atrocities. Personally I get very frustrated with conversational or rhetorical Holocaust analogies but considered explorations can be helpful.  For example, Charles Patterson attempts, in Eternal Treblinka, to link human violence against humans and human violence against animals with reference to the emotional detachment, rationalisation, denial and euphemism we collectively use to justify the violence and industrialisation of our relationship with animals and, earlier, slaves. He argues with careful reference to the technologies and methods employed, including eugenics and the slaughterhouse, and subsequent experiments with rendering the corpses. The crux, from the Borderlands review:

The humanist will say “Stop treating humans like animals: respect the human and violence will not be possible.” But there is alternative line of thinking that responds in an apparently oblique way to the humanist: “Stop treating animals like we treat animals; then it will not be possible to treat humans like animals.”

So far I find Patterson’s extended comparison more convincing than I expected, and principally concerned about the victims of the Holocaust. It is over-hard on the US – despite the pioneering Union Stockyards there was no Holocaust in Chicago. Why continental Europe and not the US? I’m part-way through but I don’t think the book deals with this  important question and its implications. The final three chapters are dedicated to people whose experience of the Holocaust prompted them to work in the area of animal rights. In Israel, as Abunimah notes, there are others whose experience of the Holocaust goad them to speak out on behalf of Palestinians. And there are others who take a proselytising project of embittered anti-Zionism as their personal lesson from the Holocaust.

Returning to Abunimah’s piece, then, you have to be slightly dense not to understand why such a taboo against Holocaust analogies may be defended by some Israelis at the same time as it is broken by others. A Holocaust analogy from somebody who wants to needle Israel’s collective conscience about Palestinians is one thing.  A Holocaust analogy from somebody whose project is to dismantle Israel is another. His other inadvertant point is that, in their advocacy work, he and others  find themselves at a loss  if invoking the Holocaust is off the agenda. Without it they view themselves as helpless against Israel’s legitimisation of its policies towards Palestinians. I find this utterly unconvincing.

“…and most “decent” people outside who have the power to act choose instead to do nothing if they are not condoning Israel’s actions as “self-defense” by a people still haunted by Holocaust fears.”

At this point would have been good to mention the Hamas Charter as well as the promulgation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (translated into German from automobile manufacturer Henry Ford’s much-admired redux ‘The International Jew‘, and circulated to millions by Hitler in the 1930s as a precursor to genocide) by Iran and Syria. If this “people” is “still haunted” (and I think there are plenty of non-paranoid reasons to seal your own borders with Gaza under its present regime – ask non-Islamist Egyptians) then you can understand why.

Let me be clear: these “Auschwitz borders” do not literally enclose a Nazi-style death camp and Israelis are not Nazis.”

This is where it should have ended but it trundled rustily on for quite some time before concluding that Auschwitz for Palestinians was only a matter of time.

“Gazans are resisting and not primarily through armed struggle. Last January, hundreds of thousands broke through the border wall with Egypt, briefly freeing themselves before Egypt, in collusion with Israel and the US-backed puppet Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, restored the blockade. Palestinians’ steadfast refusal to submit is their greatest act of resistance, but they cannot prevail alone.”

To be fair,  the ‘help’  of their with-friends-like-these boycotting comrades on the extreme left is probably a liability Gazans could do without. And also to be fair, there is no need for Abunimah to exaggerate what is going on in Gaza as he does. Containment, dependency, living hand-to-mouth, and power cuts which prevent people doing many things they should be able to take for granted and threaten the lives of the most vulnerable – these things are more than enough. Hamas is responsible. Israel is responsible. You might suppose that Israel holds more cards, but I think Hamas is prepared to sacrifice more life. Nevertheless, Gazans were pictured after blockade was breached returning to Gaza in masses with refrigerators, carpets, toilet roll and things to stockpile.  So I find it strange when Abunimah talks of  “brief” freedom just after he talks about utter dehumanisation and just before he talks of the threat of genocide. The tiny fragment which escaped the Warsaw Ghetto certainly didn’t return, and family ties were severed without a second thought when there was a chance to save the life of a loved one.  I take from this that Gaza’s population doesn’t fear genocide, however insufferable the situation. I really resent Abunimah persisting with this.

The Holocaust lesson that I learned at school is that we are obliged not to wait until things are as bad as Auschwitz before we speak out and act.”

Which is to say that if we “wait”, it’s only a matter of time before Israelis conduct a genocide of Palestinians. It might be plausible to conclude this if the hemming in of Gazans were happening out of the blue. If all you ever read was Electronic Intifada you might be forgiven for thinking it did. Hamas ghosted out. Hesbollah whitewashed. Iran, nowhere to be seen. Destabilising conflict between the Islamists and Fatah, only mentioned in condemnation of Fatah. Bloody typical. For Abunimah Israel must always be the only villain.

His intifada may be electronic but as a wise man* once wrote, “The paths to destruction are often indirect, but ideas can be agents as sure as guns and bombs.”

* Stephen Jay Gould (1981) The Mismeasure of Man, New York: Norton. p263

Update: good analogies are specific and thought-out.


One thought on “Ali Abunimah – defending the right to compare Israelis to Nazis

  1. I think there’s also 2 ways in which the use of the Nazi analogy (distinct from other demonizing analogies) is problematic. First, it’s an appropriation -a claim to ownership- of the Jewish experience. It makes a lot of sense that Jews should have some leeway to describe antisemitism (and Nazi antisemitism as a particular case) that others should not be able to coopt. Second, there are times when it’s consciously chosen as a way of picking at an open wound in the Jewish psyche. These depend on where you sit in relation to the Jewish community – whether you are Jewish is an important part of the context that affects the meaning and interpretation. In other words, even if there is a double standard, that doesn’t mean it’s hypocritical. (A similar case might be the use of the n-word among whites and blacks.)

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