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.
The analogy is very apt. Waters compared the situation to the 30s not the 40s. That there are not mass murders in captivity was only a temporal variation.
There would not be Palestinian targets in Syria were it not for Israeli actions to displace them. Not that this absolves the Syrian regime which is wholly despicable and should be taken out frankly, but the treatment of displaced Jews from Germany in the thirties shows many parallels. Calling on Godwin’s law is a construct that is used to deflect from the analogy power, and it might work for some, but to me its sophism. Waters may be courting controversy, but I doubt its for show. I too prefer the analogy of the native American populations plight against the late nineteenth century US government policies. Both cases however were effective attempts at genocide. The only difference was the speed and the presentation.
There are innumerable reasons why the Nazi analogy ends being counterproductive, not the least of which is that once the comparison is shown to be a wild stretch, the treatment of Palestinians (or whatever else is being compared to Nazi actions) ends up paling in the comparison.
Both Israelis and Israel’s critics so readily grab the Nazi analogy (watch this one for a farcical example: “Iran’s Nuremberg Rally“), that the slogan “never forget” often seems to mean “no one remembers”. By the end of World War Two, the cascade of slaughter that the Nazis had set in motion had resulted in 60 million deaths.
If an analogy is going to serve a constructive purpose, then it won’t provoke an argument about the analogy itself — rather, the analogy will open people’s minds and allow them to see connections that they might have otherwise overlooked.
James Traub writes about the way in which Israel’s founding shines a light on America’s creation:
The analogy serves well for another reason.
The brutal treatment of America’s indigenous population was occurring at the same time that colonial powers around the world were engaged in similar forms of oppression. But what European governments and populations could get away with in the nineteenth century had become inexcusable by the middle of the twentieth century. The Zionist colonial enterprise began 50 or 100 years too late for it to be able to take full advantage of the power and ruthlessness of white supremacy.
“If a people who so recently experienced on its own flesh such unspeakable inhumanities cannot muster the moral imagination to understand the injustice and suffering its territorial ambitions—and even its legitimate security concerns—are inflicting on another people, what hope is there for the rest of us?” Henry Siegman
Walters has merely been carefully & and quite deliberately led to the edge of the same trap as the rest of us. He just happened to fall in. Israel cannot survive without an antisemitic world. Otherwise there would be no more immigration. Every time Hamas lobs one of their firecrackers-on-steroids over their prison walls, Israelis scream “holocaust!”, and Bibi is sure to lace his rhetoric with images of the imminent destruction of Israel. How can people not think that ridiculous inversion of the David-and-Goliath story through? It seems that Waters might have, and then made the mistake of opening his mouth, giving the Bibis of the world an opportunity to cry “antisemitism!”
First of all, while people debate minor points which signify nothing. The immediate situation is the Palestinian’s suffering from a brutal military occupation denying them safe food, water, shelter and peace to build their lives. Action is needed to free these human beings, restore their Natural Rights and Liberty, all the sound and furry over some spoken words only serves to continue distracting attention from this barbaric evil reality..
what can we do ?
a lot pain in this world
all brought upon ourselves/others
and to think, it could all stop tomorrow
if we just got together and decided to, ‘make it so’
if that sounds naive, think about a headlong rush to war
and what it will involve, this time, way more than we can imagine