The definition has been rightly criticized for conflating criticism of a state and its political ideology with anti-Jewish bigotry. What has received less scrutiny is how it would also brand as anti-Semitic critiques of Zionism and Israeli policy expressed by Jews, including Israelis, for decades.
This definition of anti-Semitism, adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), provides what it says are 11 examples of anti-Semitism.
One of the examples – “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” – implicitly condemns as anti-Semitic the statements of Jewish critics, especially Jewish Israelis, who have made precisely that comparison.
One of the most famous of these comparisons came as early as 1948 when Jewish Americans, among them the scientist Albert Einstein and scholars such as Hannah Arendt, Sidney Hook and Seymour Melman, published a letter in The New York Times protesting the planned visit of Menachem Begin, then the leader of Israel’s Freedom Party, to the US.
The opening paragraph of the letter describes the Freedom Party as “closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.” The authors note that Begin’s party “was formed out of the membership and following of the former Irgun Zvai Leumi, a terrorist, right-wing, chauvinist organization in Palestine.”
They cite the role of the Irgun in the Deir Yassin massacre as exemplifying “the character and actions of the Freedom Party.”
The writers further link the party to fascism by noting that:
“Within the Jewish community, they have preached an admixture of ultranationalism, religious mysticism and racial superiority.”
Reports of atrocities during the 1948 expulsion of an estimated 750,000 Palestinians also recalled the Nazis for some Jewish Israelis, as cited by Israeli historian Tom Segev in his book 1949: The First Israelis.
Segev recounts that during a November 1948 cabinet meeting, Israel’s minister of agriculture Aharon Cizling described the atrocities being reported:
“I often disagreed when the term Nazi was applied to the British. I wouldn’t like to use the term, even though the British committed Nazi crimes. But now Jews too have behaved like Nazis and my entire being has been shaken.”
Similarly, as Israel imposed emergency regulations in 1948 on the Palestinians who managed to remain within Israel after the Nakba, Yaakov Shimson Shapira, a future Israeli attorney general and minister of justice, decried the imposition of martial law.
He described the new regulations being applied to Palestinians as “without precedent in a civilized country.” Shapira noted that “Even Nazi Germany had no such laws,” but that like the Nazi rulers in occupied Oslo, Norway, Palestinians were being assured “that no harm would come to any citizen who minded his own business.”
Israeli war crimes often led to comparisons with Nazis. In the award-winning film Waltz with Bashir (2008), screenwriter and director Ari Folman depicts an Israeli soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and memory loss following his role in the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
The soldier was assigned to guard the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut where Israeli forces allowed Phalangist fascists to murder hundreds of men, women and children. As his memories slowly return to him, a friend tells him: “You felt guilty at the age of 19. Unwillingly, you took on the role of the Nazi.”
In the 1990s, one of Israel’s leading intellectuals, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, coined the term “Judeo-Nazi” to describe what he was witnessing in the country. A committed Zionist, the holder of eight doctorates who was once described as “the conscience of Israel,” Leibowitz declared in a 1991 speech in Haifa: “A Nazi-like mentality also exists in our country. That is a fact.”
Leibowitz was responding to an Israeli high court decision allowing the domestic spy agency Shin Bet to torture Palestinian prisoners. Later that year Leibowitz compared an elite Israeli army unit, the Sayeret Matkal, to the Nazi SS, describing it as “Judeo-Nazis” who like their German counterparts were “just following orders.”
The comparisons continue into the 21st century. In the aftermath of the 2009 elections, Amnon Dankner, a former editor at the Israeli newspaper Maariv, condemned what he called “neo-Nazi expressions” in Israel’s parliament. Meanwhile, David Landau, former editor-in-chief of the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz, cited a “wave of fascism that has engulfed the Zionist project.”
More recently, in May 2017, Daniel Blatman, a professor of Holocaust studies at Hebrew University and a fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, compared the values of Bezalel Smotrich, a member of Israel’s parliament, to “those of the German SS.” Smotrich, who now leads the Religious Zionist Party, part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed governing coalition, threatened this month that Arabs who do not recognize Jewish rule over the Land of Israel “will not remain here.”
Boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns in the US and elsewhere typically reject any comparisons of Israeli policies and actions with Nazism.
The reality of Israeli apartheid and ethnic cleansing is awful enough, and Nazi analogies interfere with building broad solidarity with Palestinian liberation. It’s not unusual for BDS campaigners to ask people holding signs comparing Israel to the Nazis to put such messaging away or leave protests, although a little education on why is also in order.
Israeli government officials and supporters, however, have directed accusations of Nazism or plans for a “second Holocaust” at Palestinians, Arab governments and the government of Iran.
On the eve of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Prime Minister Menachem Begin invoked the Holocaust and told parliament that “the alternative to this is Treblinka,” the notorious Nazi death camp. Similarly, Netanyahu frequently warned of a “second Holocaust” if Iran was allowed to obtain nuclear weapons.
The image of the Palestinian as terrorist or anti-Semite is frequently invoked in civil society.
Nazi Palestine: The Plans for the Extermination of the Jews in Palestine (2010) is the provocative title of a book that was published in conjunction with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and was sold in its shop before going out of print. It focuses on the role of the unelected mufti of Jerusalem who supported the Nazis, even though thousands of Palestinians at the same time were joining the British army to fight against them.
Even Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, reportedly told a close friend that the Palestinians were not motivated by anti-Semitism.
“Why should the Arabs make peace?” he asked, following the Nakba and the establishment of Israel, according to the 1978 memoir of Nahum Goldmann, founder of the World Jewish Congress.
“If I were an Arab leader, I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country. … There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we came here and stole their country. Why should they accept that.”
This was the same Ben-Gurion who also acknowledged that in the early 1930s, the Arab Executive Committee, which oversaw the Palestinian resistance to British colonialism, issued orders that violent attacks should only be made on British colonialist soldiers and not against Jews. These orders were largely obeyed, including during the Arab revolt in the mid-1930s.
Israeli historian Tom Segev maintains that because the Palestinians were disciplined and didn’t engage in pogroms against Jewish settlers, Ben-Gurion became convinced that the Palestinians were “national liberation fighters facing off against a foreign government.”
Extermination vs. expulsion and elimination
Palestinian resistance to the Zionist military takeover of Palestine never contemplated the extermination of the Jewish people, as Nazism did in Germany and in every country occupied by its forces, including France, Hungary, Italy, Poland and vast swathes of the Soviet Union, such as the Baltic republics and Ukraine.
And unlike Nazism, the original formulation of political Zionism did not envision the extermination of the Palestinians, though “transfer” was a frequently used euphemism for their expulsion.
Nazism evolved as a unique blend of fascism and Social Darwinist racial purity theories. The Nazis eventually murdered not only millions of Jews but also hundreds of thousands of mentally ill and cognitively disabled people, Roma, Slavs, homosexuals and anyone deemed likely to dilute the allegedly superior Aryan gene pool.
Also uniquely, the Nazis carried out this mass slaughter on an industrial scale, although that may merely reflect the fact that previous genocides in human history occurred in places that had not yet been industrialized.
Despite this aspect of political Zionism disdaining to uniformly promote a superior race theory, it cannot be said that Israeli policies have never revealed a Social Darwinist component.
Consider a staff report on the fate of Palestinian refugees written by the Israeli foreign ministry shortly after the Nakba. It predicted that among the refugees:
“The most adaptable and best survivors would manage by a process of natural selection, and the others will waste away. Some will die but most will turn into human debris and social outcasts and probably join the poorest classes in the Arab countries.”
More recently, in August 2018, Netanyahu tweeted a classic Social Darwinist trope: “The weak crumble, are slaughtered and are erased from history while the strong, for good or for ill, survive. The strong are respected, and alliances are made with the strong, and in the end peace is made with the strong.”
Zionist use of the Palestinians-as-Nazis trope is yet another example of trying to turn the victim into the criminal and the criminal into the victim.
So what is to be made of the many Jewish Israelis who have drawn an analogy between Israeli and Nazi behavior?
All have undoubtedly been aware of the differences in the historical record – that is, the Nazis were exterminationists whereas political Zionism is eliminationist and exclusivist – and yet they still make the analogy.
What is striking about most of the comparisons is that they are articulated as warnings that Israeli society is becoming or evolving into Nazism.
Robert O. Paxton’s classic study The Anatomy of Fascism (2004) establishes that Nazism arrived at the “final solution” of the Holocaust not all at once but in stages.
He describes a consensus among scholars that Nazism’s aggressive abuse of human rights advanced incrementally. Each time it succeeded in breaching democratic or humanitarian norms, it was emboldened to take even harsher steps.
It began with the emergency regulations of 1933, following the Reichstag Fire, which enabled the Nazis to rule as an openly terroristic dictatorship, and later proceeded to the Wannsee Conference in 1942, where most historians believe the Holocaust was carefully planned.
A type of religious fascism is conceivable, Paxton warns: “If religious fascisms are possible, one must address the potential – supreme irony – for fascism in Israel.”
He writes: “By 2002, it was possible to hear language within the right wing of the Likud Party and some of the small religious parties that comes close to a functional equivalent to fascism.”
The examples furnished in the IHRA definition not only fail to call out fascism but also ignore white nationalism, which resulted in the worst anti-Semitic incident in US history when a xenophobic, anti-immigrant hater massacred 11 Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018.
Ultimately, the IHRA definition fails to provide a framework to combat anti-Semitism in much the same way that political Zionism capitulates to anti-Semitism by maintaining that it is a permanent feature that Jews will always encounter by living among gentiles.
Political Zionists have long maintained that anti-Semitism can only be resolved by living in a Jewish state. Rather than recommending resistance to an outburst of anti-Semitic attacks in France in 2015, for example, Netanyahu called on Jewish citizens of that country to immigrate to Israel.
By virtue of the Israeli example, Zionist ideology holds up a mirror that reflects a profound violation of human rights, human life and liberty.
This example denies that safety rests in an ethos of human solidarity and diversity, misplacing it in the settler-colonial methods of repressive and racist state power and conquest of the land.
Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He lives in Portland, Oregon.