Calling Jews Nazis is offensive but not racist, and should be allowed as part of a debate about Israel

I have recently begun a campaign (my grand name for writing a post on my blog) against the misuse of the prefix “pre-”.

I noticed that private hire cars now appear on the streets with a London Transport sign and the words “pre-booked only”. I have tried pre-booking a cab, but always just end up booking it instead. Pre-book, pre-order, pre-prepared. It is pre-preposterous.

I am telling you this because you need to know that I know that I am a pedant. And I realise that what I am about to write may appear merely like another example of my pedantry. But I really don’t think that it is.
The estimable European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism has issued a new report entitled, “Understanding and Addressing the Nazi Card”. The document is worth taking seriously because EISCA usually gets it right and because this one was launched with the involvement of the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Now, my pedantry does not involve pointing out that, while you can understand a card, it would be an odd person indeed who addressed one. I am, just about, capable of rising above making that point. My point instead is that EISCA has gone wrong by confusing two separate kinds of “Nazi card”.

The compilers of the EISCA report are arguing for the outlawing — both in the formal sense of criminalisation and the informal sense of creating a taboo — of what they call the “playing of the Nazi card”.

The use of traditional Nazi propaganda — the idea that Jews are a conspiracy that has to be wiped out — is more prevalent than one might think. The authors provide the excellent example of the disgraceful New Statesman cover that featured a golden Star of David and asked if there was a kosher conspiracy.

Fair enough. And if that was all they meant by the Nazi card, fairly unexceptional. But it is not all they meant. For they use the same term to refer to people calling Israel a Nazi state, or calling Jews Nazis.
This is where the pedantry comes in. When Ken Livingstone accused a Jewish reporter of behaving like a concentration guard, many thought this antisemitic. I always felt that, if used to describe a German, such a term might be regarded as an ethnic slur. When used to describe a Jew, it could not be. Yes, it was stupid, offensive, insensitive and inaccurate. But not racist. The difference is important.

For various historical reasons, racist behaviour and insults are outlawed. I understand why this is so, but it is very important — not least for Jews — that this limited restriction of free speech does not slowly broaden to include everything that anybody might happen to find insensitive and offensive.

Comparing Israel to Nazi Germany is a horrible — and ridiculous — thing to do. It is an attack chosen to be wounding. It is utterly indefensible. But it is, at the same time, a comparison that people should be free to make as their contribution to the public debate should they wish to.

I naturally believe that Israel does not behave like the Nazis, and that the comparison shows scant understanding of how the Nazis behaved. The comparison of Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto is repulsive. But the point is that it is designed to be repulsive. The link is being made in order to shock Jews and force us to think again about Israel’s conduct. We are being asked to put ourselves in the shoes of the Palestinians and think if they are suffering as Jews suffered.

I find this a nasty, obtuse point to make, one that lacks all sense of proportion and knowledge of history. I think less of those who make it. I do not, however, regard the insult as racist. I am sorry if that makes me a pedant.

Daniel Finkelstein is Associate Editor of The Times

    Last updated: 2:19pm, July 29 2009