Friday, June 13 was certainly an unlucky day for our local “Women in Black."
Like many activist groups, the Women in Black attract the predictable mixture of benevolent civic-minded souls, misguided idealists, and myopic, mean-spirited dogmatists. These days, the latter two categories seem to predominate. Their recent demonstration revealed their complicity in the bigoted behavior that is becoming dismayingly common, in Amherst and elsewhere, among the supposed “left” in general and the pseudo-“peace” movements in particular.
Fridays at midday, the Women station themselves in front of the hideous Bank of America building opposite the Amherst Town Hall and Common and hold up signs calling attention to their causes of the moment.
This was the sight that greeted me as I left the bank, where I had stopped in preparation for a trip to Europe on academic business:
Taken aback, I explained that I was a professional historian and asked whether I could help them with their problem: The sign was deeply offensive and inappropriate. Were they incredibly insensitive, I inquired—or just really, really stupid?
They did not get it.
Still no neurons fired.
Since my attempt to point out the moral and political bankruptcy of the slogan had fallen flat, I tried to begin again more simply. I asked Mary Wentworth, who was not only the holder of the sign, but also the leader of the local group, whether she understood that the analogy was, well, rather problematic from a simple factual point of view.
I: “Well, why not?”
She: “It is a concentration camp because people cannot leave.”
I: “Inmates of the Hampshire County Jail are not allowed to leave, but that does not make it a concentration camp.”
She: “Well, uh, that’s different. But people in Gaza are not free to leave.”
I: “My daughter is not free to leave Amherst Regional High School at will during the day. That is not a concentration camp, either.”
She: “Well, uh. . .”
I: “Well, then why do you insist on using a comparison that has no validity?!”
She: “I think it is perfectly valid.”
I: “Do you have any idea what a concentration camp is?!”
I explained that, for a combination of personal and professional reasons, I had a rather good sense of what a concentration camp was. In fact, as I further explained, I was about to depart for Europe, where one of my duties would be to set up an overseas study program that included visits to Holocaust sites in Poland and the Czech Republic.
She insisted that she knew a lot, as well.
I begged to differ, and there we left it.
* * * * * * * *
So much for the encounter. To return to the substance of the issue:
Simply put: To equate residents of the Jewish national home and the policies of its government with the murderous regime that attempted to exterminate the Jewish people is not only obnoxious on a moral and emotional level. It is also a thinly-veiled attempt to delegitimize their society and very existence. As such, it crosses a red line.
I cannot imagine that anyone in Amherst would respond with equanimity to any comparable form of bigotry. For example, the University of Massachusetts and Edinburgh University, after steadily mounting protests, finally woke up (more than two decades later) to the fact that Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is a cruel dictator—his campaign against a minority ethnic group killed 20,000 civilians in 1982-1984 alone—and rescinded the honorary degrees that they had awarded him. One of Mugabe’s policies has been a campaign to force white farmers off their lands. What if a demonstrator held up a sign accusing him of “Ku Klux Klan” terror tactics? Regardless of Mugabe’s undeniable failings, would we not be entitled—indeed, obligated—to challenge the demonstrator’s use of this vile comparison?
My points about the use of the words, “concentration camp,” are therefore very simple:
1) The analogy is completely inappropriate.
2) The analogy is deeply offensive.
3) The analogy is insidious.
because, as I tell my students, almost nothing and no one are, ultimately, like the Nazis and what they did. That is why that regime stands out so sharply in our histories and our consciousness. The casual use of terms associated with Fascism and Nazism in modern political argument is intellectually lazy and morally reprehensible. It devalues language and humanity in the same breath.
I study and teach modern German and European history (including the Holocaust) as a profession and am therefore quite qualified to determine just what is or is not like a concentration camp. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as tragic as it may be and as large as it looms in the concerns of the world, is in essence a national and political struggle over a very small territory. The Holocaust was state-sponsored, industrialized genocide on a continental scale and epochal plane. The Nazi regime created its concentration camp system for the sole purpose of tormenting and killing its social and racial enemies. There is no parallel here. I am sorry: This is not debatable.
(2) Deeply offensive (does one really have to spell this out?):
The Nazis represent the closest thing to the incarnation of absolute evil in human history. Because the Jews were their principal victims, the comparison is deeply wounding, and indeed, doubly insulting. It mocks the dead and defames the living. It deprives Jews of their own history, which lies at the heart of the collective psyche and the need for a sovereign state.
That is not all.
The analogy in effect allows Palestinians to usurp the place of the Jews as the quintessential victims of the quintessential evil—strikingly akin, I might add, to the anti-Judaic supersessionism according to which the Church traditionally claimed to have replaced the Jews as the “New Israel.” Christians—for there are many religious people among the “peace” activists—ought to be especially wary of this ideological pitfall.
This is a singularly nasty rhetorical sleight of hand, which implies that the Jews are in fact worse than the Nazis: As the victims, they should have “learned” from their experience and behaved “better.” To equate Israelis with Nazis is therefore to dehumanize Israelis and render them beyond the moral pale: Israeli actions can have no justification, can merit no understanding or sympathy. The smear adds modern insult to historical injury, thereby closing off dialogue altogether.
The Nazi analogy is thus one of the most noticeable warning signs on the boundary between legitimate criticism of Israel and antisemitism.
The official British Report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry Into Antisemitism (2006) states:
Examples of the ways in which antisemitism manifests itself with regard to the state of Israel taking into account the overall context could include:It is in several ways ironic that the demonstrator focused her attention and the Nazi analogy on Gaza, given that it has been controlled by Hamas for over a year. Although a new debate on the respective indigenous-Islamic versus Nazi roots of Jihadist ideology and antisemitism has emerged in some western circles, the fact remains that the Hamas Covenant (how many Americans have actually read it?) is a racist document, filled with paranoid antisemitic fantasies borrowed wholesale from the Third Reich. It condemns the Jews as a sinister group who use their wealth and control of the press to enslave the world, holding them responsible for (among other things); Freemasonry, the French Revolution, Communism, European colonialism, World Wars I and II, the United Nations, all wars everywhere in the world, and the Rotary and Lions Clubs.
• Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.
• Applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
• Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis
Small wonder that former PLO representative Sari Nusseibeh—whom I greatly admire as a courageous Palestinian voice for peace—has said the Covenant "sounds as if it were copied from the pages of Der Stürmer.”
Ironically, the Covenant, despite its wholesale adoption of Nazi ideas, refers to the Israelis as engaging in “Nazi treatment” of Palestinans. Is this the moral and intellectual company that one wishes to keep?
* * * * * * * * * * *
To criticize the demonstrators’ signs is therefore not to deny them the right to voice their views. It is to call upon them to clarify their thinking and choose their words with greater care.
The issue here is not Israel’s policies, per se, but how one evaluates and debates them. Had the demonstrators taken the trouble to think for a moment, they could have held up a sign that more concretely described just what it was that they were protesting, and just what concrete action they demanded—and would have engaged rather than merely confronted passers-by. They might have said, for example, “end the blockade of Gaza,” which, by focusing on a policy, could have opened the way to a productive dialogue concerning the tragic situation, its causes, and its solution.
Sadly, they instead took the easy route of defamation rather than debate. The only sadder thing would be if otherwise decent people, out of a misguided sense of “evenhandedness,” lacked the intellectual integrity or simple backbone to condemn it.
The Women in Black claim that they are “committed to peace with justice.” Hold them accountable. Tell them that neither peace nor justice is compatible with the hate-mongering displayed here. Demand that they adhere to their own professed ideals.
The Women in Black website provides the following information for Amherst:
Every Friday 12-1 pm, S. Pleasant & Amity Sts