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Hamas ≠ Nazis (or Hamas = Nazis?)

In some equations, proportionality does matter
January 16, 2009

“Who are the real Nazis?” read a recent op-ed headline in the Los Angeles Times. The column it announced, penned by Jonah Goldberg, railed against sign-bearers at a recent New York protest against Israel’s offensive on Gaza. The signs, Goldberg noted, included the following language: “Israel: The Fourth Reich” and “Holocaust by Holocaust Survivors.” Citing these and other examples of inflammatory hate language, Goldberg reversed the charge. “Hamas has an avowedly Hitlerite agenda,” he wrote.

The reversal of the “Hitlerite” charge–the casting of Hamas as the new Nazis, as Goldberg’s title trumpeted–is disturbing, for a reason that Goldberg himself expounded upon:

Critics know such charges are painful to a country largely born of the Holocaust and marked by its scars. It also grabs attention, galvanizes radicals, vents legitimate frustrations and anger and helps demonize the enemy.

Goldberg was referring to how hurtful such labels are to Israel. But he—and others who have taken up what seems at least in part to be a retaliatory offensive of comparing Hamas to the Nazis—should be reprimanded for returning fire using that same mode of accusatory discourse, a rhetorical low-blow that Goldberg acknowledged “grabs attention, galvanizes radicals” and “helps demonize the enemy.”

It certainly does. So why is Goldberg himself trafficking in such demonization? The problem with his column—which ran not only in the Times, but also in such venues as The Dallas Morning News, the Nashville City Paper, and the National Review Online—lies not in its response to the anti-Israel protests and their incendiary posters. The problem, rather, is broader and in some ways more insidious: Goldberg is not only employing irony (it’s Hamas that’s Hitler-esque!) in a situation where irony has little place, but he’s also diminishing the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis. The acts of Hamas, an extremist but isolated group, are simply not comparable to the mass murder of six million Jews, which embroiled the world in war for the better part of a decade. To treat the groups’ “agendas” as comparable dilutes both the meaning of the word “Nazi” and the immensity of the Holocaust. It’s an affront to history.

So I was initially comforted when I read the opening lines of a recent post by Ron Rosenbaum, on Pajamas Media, which stated that he wished to lay out “a clarification” about all this—namely, “the analogies between Hitler, the Nazis and Hamas.”

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Kudos, right? Clarification is good. Well, not exactly. Rosenbaum criticized the Hamas-Nazi comparison, but not for its inflammatory-rhetoric aspect (the crime of passion that Goldberg might be accused of committing). Rather, he thought the analogies weren’t going far enough in painting a portrait of Hamas. Taking the comparison a step further than Goldberg, Rosenbaum declared that “Hamas was more extreme than the Nazis”—for the specific reason that “the Hamas founding covenant explicitly calls for the extermination of all Jews,” while “Hitler never made total extermination an official plank of the…Nazi party platform,” and for the broader reason that “the exterminationist anti-semitism of Hamas is more excessive than Hitler’s.”

Some might argue that the “Hitlerite” talk is something of a case study in framing, in which commentators’ biases and personal points of view determine how a conflict is angled and spun—in headlines, on blogs, at dinner tables. A recent segment of “On the Media” visited this idea of linguistic framing in the headlines emanating from various news outlets—“Confronting Hamas” from The Jerusalem Post, for example, as opposed to “War on Gaza,” from Al-Jazeera English. The nature of the discussion—forthright, punctuated by admissions of the difficulty of providing evenhanded coverage—between co-host Bob Garfield and his guest, Paul McKinney, executive producer for news at Al-Jazeera English, underscored the complexities (and power) of the framing issue.

But in the work of Goldberg and Rosenbaum, the problem isn’t one of framing. It’s a problem, rather, of proportionality—and, in their cases, ignoring it. Certainly, as a rhetorical exercise, one can find analogies between Nazi Germany and Hamas—just as one can find analogies between Nazi Germany and Israel, or between Nazi Germany and the United States. Comparisons can be teased ad infinitum—or, perhaps more precisely, ad nauseam.

What’s relevant here, however, are the specific facts about the current situation in Gaza—the details and realities that transcend glib (and in some ways, come-hither) comparisons. And while there have been arguments for and against the idea of proportionality in the coverage of the current conflict (for every article that cites the disproportionate number of Gazans versus Israelis dead, there’s been an op-ed rejecting such comparisons as misleading and not context-driven), it’s ironic that some of the critics of the proportionality argument are just as willing to embrace language that conveniently forgets that there’s a bigger sphere of proportionality as well—not just concerning death tolls on opposite sides, but also with respect to historical accuracy. Hamas, the political entity, doesn’t correspond in size, degree or intensity with the Nazis; in this context—with a distorted characterization that seeks to qualify as well as quantify—proportionality does matter. And a headline like “Who are the real Nazis?,” with its bombastic sense of rectitude, does a disservice to the critical discourse about both the Gaza conflict and the events that engendered it—and irresponsibly turns a painful historic event into an attention-seeking label.

Jane Kim is a writer in New York.