As anyone who has the misfortune of following me on Twitter knows, I’m pretty critical of the Israeli government. I’ve been particularly disturbed by the recent unfolding of Operation Protective Edge, an airstrike campaign in reaction to the abduction and murder of three Israeli teens.* This campaign has killed scores of Palestinians, the bulk of whom have been civilians, and many of whom have been children. This recent attack on Gaza is reprehensibly disproportionate in a manner unfortunately typical of Israeli military campaigns. As such, it has rightfully reignited a great deal of outcry from various peace groups and critics of Zionism. One charge I see repeatedly, though, bothers me; not infrequently, one hears fervent anti-Zionists compare Israel to Nazi Germany. This comparison strikes me as highly irresponsible for a few reasons.
Most immediately, one might note that it’s a bit tasteless to compare the contemporary “Jewish state” to the quintessential anti-Jewish state. The Holocaust is still in living memory for some Jews, and many more Jews have parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents whose lives were indelibly marred by Fascism. Comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, then, seems insensitive in that regard.
Additionally, this comparison supports ethnic reductionism by implicitly conflating the state of Israel with “the Jews” in general: Germany attacked “The Jews,” and now “The Jews” are attacking Palestine. This conflation suggests that (a) all Jews support Israel, and (b) all Jews are responsible for the actions of Israel. This view can easily be used to justify anti-Semitism, of course, but more commonly, it just encourages a lazy reduction of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a mutual, congenital hatred. “Jews hate Arabs; Arabs hate Jews. Jews hate Muslims; Muslims hate Jews. Jews and (presumably Muslim) Arabs will inevitably fight and kill each other. Oh, well.” Such a narrative conveniently ignores all historical context, as well as the existence of Arabs who are Jewish (there are a lot of them) and Palestinians who aren’t Muslim (there are a lot of them, too). Equating Zionism and Nazism poses a real threat of ethnic reductionism, and it makes the conflict all too easy to dismiss or leverage into bigotry.
On a more straightforward level, though, the comparison of Zionism to Nazism simply isn’t apt. The state of Israel is not fascist. It may be racist, colonialist, imperialist, or what-have-you, but it is not fascist. Israel is, like it or not, a genuine liberal democracy. This is not to exculpate Netanyahu or any of his hawkish predecessors, but to point out the obvious. A fascist regime has very distinct political and economic characteristics which Israel does not. Israel has elected representatives, rule of law, and a standard capitalist economy. This is undeniably very different from Nazi Germany.
A far better comparison is between Israel and the United States. Like the United States, Israel is a liberal democratic country founded with strong religious purpose. Narratives of a persecuted religious minority moved by Providence to establish a new nation are common to both countries (though naturally a bit more dramatic in the case of Israel). Also, in both cases, the new nation has been built upon the systematic repression of indigenous peoples. Right-wing rhetoric of civilization versus savagery in the Promised Land harkens back to conspicuously similar narratives surrounding westward expansion in nineteenth century America. On that note, Israel’s expansion has been ardently defended on religious grounds: G-d promised the land of Palestine to the descendants of Jacob; therefore, Jewish control of the entire region is both inevitable and divinely sanctioned. This scriptural defense of territorial expansion bears a certain degree of resemblance to the nineteenth century American doctrine of Manifest Destiny. The state of Israel indeed appears to have a rather American character.
And at the end of the day, Israel’s violence isn’t any more remarkable than America’s. In fact, the United States has undoubtedly killed more civilians in its military operations over the past decade than Israel has. The United States’s historical displacement and slaughter of Native Americans easily rivals Israel’s displacement and slaughter of Palestinians. Israel may even have a leg up on America in that it’s at least never had widespread slavery, though one could certainly find images in contemporary Israel which echo Jim Crow. Significantly, much in the same way that we are encouraged to gloss over America’s violence, we are encouraged to gloss over Israel’s.
The commonplace nature of Israel’s violence is precisely what we need to confront and problematize, and it is precisely what is obscured when a critic of Israel fulfills Godwin’s Law. Comparing Israel to Nazi Germany implies that Israel’s violence is somehow truly extraordinary, so beyond the violence of other states that it can only be compared to the most violent state in recent memory. The unfortunate fact is, though, Israel’s violence is depressingly ordinary. Quite a few other liberal democratic countries have similarly unsavory track records. In condemning the Israeli right as fascist, one overlooks the crucial fact that even nominally democratic governments are capable of crimes against humanity. Attention must be paid not solely to the astonishing violence of authoritarian regimes, but also to the more banal, mundane violence of liberal ones. When one draws attention to the violence of a liberal state, one should acknowledge and decry said violence’s commonness. It is only then that the deeper problems which give rise to everyday state violence can be addressed.
To put it simply, Israel is not special. It is another imperialist, capitalist nation established at the expense of an indigenous population and maintaining its power at the expense of civilians in the developing world. The misery of life under Israeli military rule isn’t all that different from the misery of life under American military rule, and the comments section of Haaretz is no more racist than the comments section of The New York Times. Israel’s violence is deplorable, but it isn’t extraordinary. That’s the problem.
* Point of clarification: Israel’s direct response to the kidnappings was Operation Brother’s Keeper, a campaign of mass incarceration to which Hamas responded with rocket fire. Protective Edge is in direct response to the rockets, but calls of revenge for the kidnappings still animate much of the rhetoric in defense of the campaign.