Sharon and Hitler are the same. Only difference is the name. (Pro-Palestinian rally slogan, Washington, D.C., April 19, 2002).
It’s not surprising that Palestinians and their supporters have routinely made this kind of equation. But it’s another matter entirely when it comes from mainstream politicians, journalists, and academics.
Quoted in the Guardian, BBC commentator and Oxford University lecturer Tom Paulin remarked that the state of Israel has no right to exist, and that Israeli settlers should be shot dead. “They are Nazis, racists,” Paulin said. “I feel nothing but hatred for them.” Neither the university nor the BBC has taken any action against Paulin. Alas, most of the European press seem to share his sentiments. Even Archbishop Desmond Tutu recently admonished Israel for having “forgotten the collective punishment” of the Holocaust.
It staggers the imagination that only half a century after Hitler’s Nazis vilified the Jews as international criminals, the international community has been denouncing the Jews as Nazis. But if Sharon was indeed Hitler, where were the public rallies declaring death to Palestinians? Where are the arm bands imposed on every Arab Israeli? Where are the textbooks teaching Israeli school children that Arabs are subhuman beasts? Where is the ejection of Arab Knesset ministers, who make up nearly 10 percent of the Israeli parliament? Where is the desecration of mosques and Moslem holy places?
If Israel has been guilty of any crime, is not her worst crime that she is no longer weak, no longer downtrodden, no longer a sympathetic David slinging stones at some towering Goliath? Is this not the true reason, given the superficial perception that every prosperous Western nation is evil and every anti-capitalist entity is good, that the court of world opinion refuses to admit as evidence the decades of Arab aggression, the unbroken record of Yasser Arafat’s duplicity, the targeting of Israeli civilians with wholesale terrorism?.
In short, it seems that the academic and journalistic communities have just gotten too lazy to wean themselves away from the sloppy thinking of moral equivalence, the reduction of complex problems into simplistic, black-and-white constructs. And, even more disturbing, is how such narrow reasoning extends far beyond the current Mideast crisis, for it mirrors the thinking behind the last great attempt to annihilate the Jewish people.
On November 24, 1933, Hitler’s National Socialist Party passed a law for the protection of animals, “designed to prevent cruelty and indifference from man … and to awaken and develop sympathy and understanding for animals as one of the highest moral values of a people.”
Over the next 12 years, doctors working for this same Nazi Party infected human subjects with such maladies as typhus, smallpox, and cholera, and imposed upon them forced sterilization, experimental surgery, and euthanasia.
Some might take comfort that at least no schnauzer puppies were mistreated. But to recognize the perversion of granting human dignity to animals while denying it to human beings is to take the first step toward understanding how a Holocaust can happen.
Moral equivalence begets moral confusion, distorting our sense of fair play so that we fail to distinguish between perpetrators and victims, between aggressors and defenders. Our well-intentioned desire to give the benefit of the doubt blinds us to simple justice until, by refusing to acknowledge evil as evil, we allow evil free reign over ourselves and over society.
Conventional wisdom insists that a Holocaust could never happen again. But some parallels between then and now are unsettling. Today, animal rights activists are pushing ever harder for legislation according human rights to gorillas and chimpanzees, following in the path of Peter Singer, the Princeton University ethics department chairman who made headlines advocating the legalized murder of deformed babies in the first month after birth.
When we start seeing animals as equal to humans, when we can no longer appreciate that human rights are a function of human responsibilities, then we’re only a step away from discarding our responsibilities and treating humans as less than animals. Similarly, when we start to see murderers as freedom fighters, we’re a step nearer to the amoral abyss at the edge of which our civil society is already faltering.
The Jews of Europe were not Hitler’s only victims. The Nazi’s exterminated blacks, gypsies, the handicapped, and the elderly. Given more time, they would undoubtedly have gone still further. Given the opportunity, their ideological successors will go just as far.
How terrifying that the specter of Holocaust once again looms over the civilized world. How much more terrifying that the world might stand idly by while it happens, or worse, hasten its arrival.
Originally published in the Miami Jewish Star Times, July 2002.