If you really want to make someone look good, just call everyone else a Nazi

Originally published at The Times of Israel.

Via xkcd
Via xkcd

Sometimes things so apparent don’t seem apparent at first.” This hackneyed statement is what Richard Friedman wants us to believe when it comes to Canadian PM Stephen Harper and his relationship with Israel. What is apparent for Mr. Friedman, is that powerful forces of Hitlerian evil are still out to get the Jews, there is an international antisemitic conspiracy that has targeted Israel, and that Stephen Harper has apparently distinguished himself as a sort of courageous moral truth-teller who can save the Jews.

In an opinion piece here at the Times of Israel, riddled with dark allusions to Nazi Europe and the international quest to eradicate Jews, Friedman wants us to believe that the world is teetering on the edge of a neo-Holocaust, and that only the Canadian Prime Minister can save the Jews, comparing him to Danish King Christian X. Out of this worldview, Friedman has this to say:

What happened in Denmark proved that the Holocaust could have been prevented. If more European leaders had been courageous enough to stand up on behalf of their country’s Jews, it’s likely substantially fewer Jews would have been murdered.”

This may be historically true, though we can never know. That said, it holds no water as a precedent for a modern foreign policy. In this framework, Canada is supposedly Denmark, Harper is King Christian – the vanguard of the Jews – and the world has regressed to the dark depths of the 1930s. Jews are about to be murdered, and only Canada can save us.

While much can be said about Stephen Harper’s pro-Israel agenda, there is a peculiarity lurking in Mr. Friedman’s recent article. Previously, he has written that Jewish professionals in North America should “refrain from suggesting what Israel should or shouldn’t do,” and instead become what amounts to international Hasbara agents, “helping the media, general public, and… Jewish communities understand the context and rationale behind Israel’s decisions and actions.

Because Friedman isn’t willing to be openly critical of Israel and its policies, he instead turns his focus to the international sphere, praising or critiquing what others have to say about Israel. In his attempts to shelter Israel from any constructive criticism, he builds an association fallacy – essentially a reverse Reductio ad Hiterlum – where he refutes his imaginary opponents’ views by comparing them to views that would be held by Hitler, arguing:

There are powerful forces on the planet who would gladly continue Hitler’s work.”

Can we please talk about the Holocaust with a little more depth and less hyperbole? In the world of internet journalism, there is nothing easier than succumbing to Godwin’s Law when you’re really grasping at straws. Don’t like what someone has to say but can’t come up with any constructive critique? You can always call them a Nazi!

Apparently the opposite also holds true for Friedman. If you really like someone (for example, the Prime Minister of Canada) and want to make them look good, just call everyone else a Nazi. Because Friedman is among those who consider it verboten to say anything negative about Israel in the public sphere, it is much simpler for him to paint a picture of a world where there are evil Nazis out to get us, and lob anyone who disagrees with his view into that group.

But the hazards of doing this are exactly what Dr. Mike Godwin was pleading against when he formulated the law that bears his name. A few years ago, Godwin explained the origin of the now famous principle:

I wanted folks who glibly compared someone else to Hitler or to Nazis to think a bit harder about the Holocaust.”

Admittedly, Friedman isn’t labeling any one person a Nazi or comparing any specific person to Hitler. But his article is riddled with naive overtones of a battle against the evil forces of the Nazis and the redemptive forces of the Allies. His comparison simply doesn’t honor the complexities of Israel and international relations, nor the memory of the Holocaust as a catastrophic event without comparison. Friedman presents a crudely simplistic understanding of the Holocaust and antisemtism that doesn’t do justice to the reality of Israel’s place in the modern world. Does he really believe that Israel in 2014 – with its advanced army and unprecedented regional strength, not to mention its backing by the USA – can be compared to the state of Eastern European Jews before the Holocaust?

It is certainly true that antisemitism exists today, and in many places significantly so, but this is not 1938 Europe, and any attempts to define the world in this manner are quite simply unrealistic and ignorant. Just this week, Anshell Pfeffer – Haaretz’s military, international and Jewish affairs journalist – lucidly noted that the most pernicious form of antisemitism today does not come from some international cabal, but rather from deep within ourselves:

Anti-Semitism exists today on the furthest margins of Western society, in obscure sinecures, on the Internet, but perhaps most prevalently in our feverish imaginations.”

Pfeffer goes on to argue how antisemitism has transformed in the 21st century from the external injustices of “persecution and open vilification of Jews,” to something of an internal psychosis: “something we define ourselves, something we discover and too often invent where it isn’t at all clear it even exists.”

Perhaps Pfeffer’s argument is also somewhat naive and simplistic in areas, ignoring cases where antisemitism represents a true danger. But he is spot on in his assertion that when it comes to Israel, any notion of the “scourge of antisemitism” is no longer about something others are doing to us that we have no control over. Jews today have the ability to define our own lives – both in Israel and abroad. Any suggestion that there is an international threat to Jewish existence is not only shameful in its simplicity, but also in its implications for the discourse surrounding Israel and Jewish life. Pfeffer notes:

Our fear of anti-Semitism has begun to mirror the hatred itself in its irrationality and in the ways it hinders any serious debate.”

At this point, it should be noted that none of this critique of Friedman’s paradigm has even addressed whether Stephen Harper and Canada are deserving of his praiseful comparison to King Christian and Denmark. So just a few words in this respect:

Friedman argues that Harper is deserving of praise due “to the simple fact that supporting Israel… is right and just” simple fact, indeed. Friedman doesn’t define what he means by support. Is it just being a cheerleader on the international stage? Is it towing the line of whatever the Knesset has to say? It it being an international hasbara agent?

We are left assuming that this praise is based on Harper’s “understanding of Israel’s unique security dilemmas,” yet Friedman offers as flimsy proof only the news coverage in Canada of his visit to the region, which was supposedly reflective of “the depth of [his] emotional commitment and support.” This completely misses the hearty and open debate that took place in the Canadian media on the implications of Harper’s one-sided vision of what it means to be pro-Israel. (See here and here and here and here and here for just a smattering of what it means to have a little more nuance when it comes to speaking about Israel).

Unfortunately, Friedman also seems to have missed what the Israeli news had to say about Harper. Wouldn’t that be a much more significant indicator of Harper’s supposed “kingly” strength? While much of the media here got caught up in the pomp and circumstance of the PM’s visit, as anyone truly familiar with the place Canada plays in international politics these days can tell you, there was little to say about the substance of Harper’s visit, precisely because there was virtually none to speak of.

As I’ve previously noted, The sad reality of Harper’s visit was reflected most accurately in a steely oped from Ha’aretz, noting the ultimate insignificance of Canada’s role:

With all due respect to the Prime Minister of Canada, his relevance in the international community, his influence on what goes on in the Middle East and his ability to help Israel in matters of life and death are inversely related to the size of his country.”

Setting aside his seemingly ignorant grasp of the reality of Stephen Harper’s and Canada’s role in international affairs vis a vis Israel, Friedman should consider the implications of his Holocaust-oriented paradigm of Judaism and Israel. As the Executive Director of a Jewish Federation, he should know better than to reduce Jewish life and discourse on Israel to such simplistic understandings. As someone responsible for encouraging vitality in Jewish life, Friedman should be presenting an aspirational view of Judaism and Israel, rather than the dark, gloomy, and backwards-looking fear mongering he speaks of. Such a person would be much more worthy of the kingly appellation that he wishes to bestow.

1 Comment

  1. natalie solomon says:

    Wow. Jesse. ‘These some fightin words’ as we would say in the South. Or, as we would say in Canada, ‘Did you really just say that, Ay?’ Yep, I am a Birminghamian and a Montrealer- and now the proudest Tel Avivite you will ever find- and so just had to write a little comment on your posting (I originally saw it in Times of Israel).

    I think you are totally mis-reading Richard Friedman’s original article, and for some reason, seeing the worst in it. I read the article a few times, and still didn’t extract the extreme positions which you seem to find so apparent. You obviously share the concern of many in our community (as do I, as a founder of Adopt-A-Safta and recent delegate on the From the Depths Knesset Delegation to Poland on International Holocaust Memorial Day) of trivializing or minimizing, may I dare even suggest manipulating, the complexities of the Holocaust. As we see the last generation of living witnesses dying out- it is the imperative of OUR generation to ensure that we commit ourselves to memory and to our collective future.

    That being said, I think you just totally missed the point on this- and did yourself an injustice. You are quite obviously a brilliant man- I am myself an academic snob who is easily impressed by pulling in such big words and theorems, even the Latin- very nice. I get it, you are super smart and you grapple with these weighty concepts in a very serious and academic context.

    But I don’t know that you actually said anything. I still don’t get the point of your response (attack?) to Richard Friedman’s Times of Israel posting about PM Harper’s visit to Israel. What are you saying? Friedman is crying wolf, using scare tactics, being hyperbolic and dramatic? What’s your point?

    And, if that is your point- why Friedman? Why not Bibi? Why not Rav Lau? Why not any Israeli leader who stands up and warns of the existential threat we face at the hands of illegitimacy in the world arena and draws a parallel to the delegitimization of our humanity and identity under the Nazis?

    And why Harper? His visit to Israel was a good thing. Depth or no depth- it meant a lot to the people of Israel and to Jews worldwide. Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words. I was happy to see his picture- happy to see him taking a stand for what I agree with Richard is ‘just right.’

    Lastly- I share a story of PM Harper- because you really missed the boat on the importance of Canadian support of Israel. We have a lot of enemies- I am going to honor and commend anyone who extends the hand of friendship.

    On November 29th, 2012, I stood alone in the UN General Assembly- alone except for Canada. I was honored to lead a delegation of 12 young Jewish adults to observe the historic vote that day- the vote for recognition of Palestinian Statehood. (ps- full disclosure, I pray for peace and hope for two states for two peoples- everyone should have the national sovereignty that I, as a Jew, have so often been denied).
    We sat there (after being denied entrance twice and having the US Ambassador to UN, the Honorable Ambassador Rice, intervene) as 14 young Jews, committed to peace and to the future of our beloved State of Israel. In a sea of kiffeyehs, we stuck out like a sore thumb. When Chariman Mahmoud Abbas came to the stage of the great hall at the UN, you would have thought Elvis had returned from the grave. The hysteria was palpable and electric.
    When the Israeli Ambassador to the UN addressed the audience, everyone was silent. You could hear a pin drop – and our 14 pairs of clapping hands reverberated throughout the silent chamber. At the end of the speech, we stood to applaud- and we stood alone. Quite literally. As Israel so often stands alone.
    But then, our friend came out- Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird- and he stood up for us too. He stood with us. We were not alone.

    Perhaps you may think that Canada has a weak or irrelevant place in Foreign Affairs (in which I refer you to the brilliant legacy of the Parliamentarian Irwin Cotler and the work Canada has done in leading the world in human rights thinking and legislation). But Jesse, on that day standing alone in the UN General Assembly, as a young Jewish Zionist American Canadian (and now Israeli), I couldn’t think of a more important country.

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