Keith Kahn-Harris writes: It’s happening increasingly often: a prominent public figure makes a vituperative criticism of Israel, accusations of antisemitism follow and then come emphatic denials. This time it’s Roger Waters, the Pink Floyd vocalist, who has fanned the constantly glowing embers of controversy. Among other things, he has claimed that the “parallels [between Israel’s actions against the Palestinians] with what went on in the 1930s in Germany are so crushingly obvious”, that the Israeli rabbinate views Palestinians as “sub-humans”, and that the “Jewish lobby” is “extraordinarily powerful”. This comes on the back of Waters’ long history of pro-Palestinian activity, including supporting a cultural boycott of Israel.
In response, Waters has been accused of antisemitism by firebrands such as Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and more measured voices such as Karen Pollock of the Holocaust Educational Trust. Waters vociferously denies antisemitism, complaining that defenders of Israel “routinely drag the critic into a public arena and accuse them of being an antisemite”.
So who is right? Is Waters guilty of antisemitism?
The problem with viewing the Waters controversy through the lens of the antisemitism debate is that it becomes a zero-sum game: whether his words were antisemitic or not. If they were not, then the assumption is that they would be acceptable.
Yet there are other ways to analyse discourse on Israel. What would happen if one temporarily (and, yes, artificially) removes the question of antisemitism and looks at Waters’ remarks the way one might look at other forms of political discourse? This leads to other questions: was Waters’ intervention useful? Were his words proportionate and reasonable? Should we take what he says seriously?
Accusations that Israel is behaving in a Nazi-like manner are hardly novel. In fact they are something of a cliche not just in the controversy over Israel but in a wide range of other debates. Godwin’s Law draws attention to the wearisome regularity with which Nazi Germany is invoked; for some, its corollary is that in any debate the first one to mention the Nazis has lost.
Not only is comparing Israel to Nazi Germany predictable, even the harshest reading of Israel’s actions shows that the analogy is completely over the top. Israel can arguably be accused of subtle and not-so-subtle forms of discrimination and even ethnic cleansing of Palestinians over its history, but it has never committed systematic mass murder and the existence of Palestinian citizens of Israel (albeit often marginalised) is something that no genuinely neo-Nazi regime could tolerate. [Continue reading…]
I suspect that part of the reason Waters and others grab the Nazi analogy is that breaking this kind of taboo is a kind of act of defiance through which someone can feel they are demonstrating an unswerving commitment to truth. It’s a way of attempting to say: I will speak the truth, whatever the consequences.
As Kahn-Harris points out, however, this particular choice of analogy is cliched — it also has the appearance (intentionally or not) of serving as a form of baiting.
There are numerous other “crushingly obvious” parallels Waters could have pointed to, such as the treatment of Native Americans by European settlers who asserted a God-given right to claim this continent as their own.
Then there are parallels that most observers in the West would apparently rather ignore, namely, those in Syria where after the Palestinian occupied territories, Israel, and Jordan, the largest exiled Palestinian population resides.
By whatever metric one chooses to use, the scale of destruction wrought by the Assad regime over the last two years dwarfs the crimes of the Israelis over the last 65 years, yet so many of those who express outrage over massacres in Gaza, appear unmoved when the aggressors are not Zionists.
Israelis have been fittingly scorned for professing a humanitarian sensibility as they “shoot and cry” (Yorim u’Vochim), but among Israel’s critics who are willing to hold up a mirror there may be visible a similarly flimsy humanitarian impulse.
We often seem more concerned about who fired the gun and who manufactured the bullet than who got killed.