Playing the Nazi card
14 July 2009
The European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism - EISCA - has published a new report today, on Understanding and Addressing the 'Nazi card'. Any student of antisemitism is familiar with the way that swastika daubings or Hitler salutes - the discourse of Nazism - are used to abuse Jews. More recent observers will also have noticed how such language is increasingly thrown back at Jews, via anti-Israel discourse. This report looks at both uses of Nazi discourse and the hurt that they cause.
Reproduced below in full is the foreword to the report, written by EISCA Chairman Denis MacShane MP.
For over 60 years, antisemitism - the hatred and abuse of Jews - has been guided by the legacy of the Holocaust. The Nazi salute and swastika daubing have become staples of racist thugs everywhere. There is nothing complicated about this; it is the most immediate form of anti-Jewish insults, and is easily applied by anyone who wants to hurt Jewish sensibilities.
A little more subtly, as neo-Nazi movements spread across Europe, there emerged from the shadows in the 1980s and 1990s a more sophisticated way to play this Nazi card against the Jews; not to remind them of the Holocaust, but rather to deny that it ever happened.
Now, from elsewhere in the political spectrum comes a new variation: a strand of discourse that uses the memory of the Holocaust as a means of vilification. Nazi Germany, we are told, has been reborn in Israel. The Holocaust is happening again - only this time it is being perpetrated by Jews, in Gaza.
Given this phenomenon, this report confronts one of the most pressing questions in the analysis of 21st century antisemitism: why is such stress placed on making an association between the eliminationist ideology of Nazism and Jews who either support Israel, refuse to denounce it or fail to reject Zionism?
There is an entire dictionary of alternative condemnatory nouns, adjectives and metaphors that can be used to critique Israel and its policies since 1967, including its occupation of land won by conquest or presiding over people who do not wish to live under Israeli control.
Critics of Israel are entitled to express their views as trenchantly as they wish. But when particular words are used they bring particular responsibilities. The notion that any comparison with Nazism and the Holocaust can be honestly made constitutes a systematic attempt to denigrate Jews, and to straightjacket them into the category of citizens without legitimacy or the right to respect. The Nazi comparison scratches deep wounds that are not yet healed - something that should be blindly obvious to anyone.
Those who claim rights for people who have been displaced do not make their case well by calling their opponents Nazis. The voice of Palestinians is heard worldwide. They have the attention of the media, supporters in Parliament and in the press, and the opportunity to take their cause to the Israeli judiciary, often winning against government policy. To say they live in the same conditions as Jews in the Warsaw ghetto for whom the only way out was a gas chamber is to distort all meaning in language. It is a travesty of history and inflicts great hurt.
Nazism was an exterminationist, eliminationist ideology. To draw a comparison between Jews and Hitlers policy of systematic mass murder is a grotesque anti-Jewish - and hence antisemitic - speech act.
In his novel, Davids Revenge, the German writer Hans Werner Kettenbach portrays a schoolteacher who leads his class of students through German and European history. A scandal ensues when a boy paints a swastika on the set of a school play as a protest. They had been my pupils long enough to know what a swastika means: it is the emblem of terror and inhumanity, writes the German novelist via his character. That is why German law forbids the use of the swastika in the public space.
In Britain, we would not easily allow the promulgation of pre-1939 imagery of the hook-nosed, child-devouring Jew. Most of us would also disparage the classic stereotype of the Jew as perpetual outsider, locked into a global network secretly conspiring to control the world. Despite Britains trademark liberalism and tolerance of free expression, since 1945 a line has been drawn in depicting Jews in the kind of pre-WWII language and imagery that helped shape antisemitism.
Yet it is now considered acceptable by some newspapers, cartoonists and commentators - to brand Jews as Nazis and to allow the swastika to be used as an image that stirs up hate against Israel and the Jews, no matter where they may reside. This is modern antisemitism.
It is important and necessary to assert the legitimacy of criticising Israel with all the vocabulary available in the modern political lexicon. But to play the Nazi card is to play an antisemitic card. The hurt it causes Jews is no less when it is played against Israel today than when it was used in its previous incarnations. And this time it is not simply Nazis or neo-Nazi thugs who are playing it.
Britain is unlikely to follow the lead of European countries that were directly vicitimised by Hitlers policies by banning Nazi symbols outright. But just because a law cannot be written does not mean that the antisemitism of using Nazi comparisons to attack Jews, their affiliations and their history should be tolerated. Antisemitism is a form of racism and there are laws to combat racist expression.
In particular, there needs to be vigilance on university campuses. The problem of Jewish students who are branded directly or by association as Nazis for supporting Israels right to protect its citizens from terrorist attacks needs to be exposed - and action taken - to counter this new form of antisemitism.
The government and all the main parties are aware of this problem of the Nazi card. Finding a right way to tackle it requires careful thought and analysis, grounded in strict factuality. This report is an important contribution to that process.