Boris Johnson got into trouble last week with a historical reference.He said Napoleon, Hitler and others had tried to unify Europe; the EU was trying to do the same by different methods. He was promptly accused of comparing the EU with the Third Reich.
The fuss all but eclipsed the speech by David Cameron in which he invoked the sacrifice of British soldiers during the Second World War to claim the EU had kept the peace ever since. He was promptly accused of denigrating that sacrifice, made to keep Britain free rather than under the yoke of Brussels.
In Israel, Major-General Yair Golan wandered into the same minefield. In a speech on, of all things, Holocaust remembrance day he said: "If there is one thing that is scary in remembering the Holocaust, it is noticing horrific processes which developed in Europe - particularly in Germany - 70, 80, and 90 years ago, and finding remnants of that here among us in the year 2016."
The uproar over his apparent equation of Israeli society with Nazi Germany obscured other things he said which were sound. In an apparent reference to Sergeant Elor Azaria, whose trial for manslaughter after shooting a wounded Palestinian on the ground has divided the country, Golan said the IDF should be proud that it probes "problematic behaviour" with courage.
It is very troubling that so many Israelis seem not to grasp the moral distinction between shooting in cold blood someone who poses no threat and defending against attack. There are also disturbing trends indeed in Israeli society, from violent anti-Arab "hilltop youth" and "price-tag" terrorists to prejudice against Ethiopian Jews.
This is boilerplate leftist jargon to attack the non-left
Nevertheless, none of this remotely justifies any comparison with pre-Holocaust Germany. The comparison is obscene. It diminishes the Holocaust and provides ammunition for Israel-bashers around the world.
What's interesting is why Golan used it. The point he was making was clear. He was attacking those who demonise "the other". This is boilerplate leftist jargon to attack the perceived bigotry and racism of everyone who is not left-wing. Only liberals apparently embrace "the other". Non-lefties, aka the right, vilify and attack "the other" instead.
Yet demonising "the other" was what Golan was doing in comparing unidentified Israelis to putative or actual Nazis. That is also the signature motif of the left, demonising the non-left as fascists while accusing them of demonising "the other".
In Israel, these are standard tactics. During the 2014 Gaza war Israel Prize laureate (and historian of French fascism) Prof Ze'ev Sternhell said there were "indicators" of fascism in Israel which was "on the brink of boiling over", and compared the atmosphere to 1940s France. Last December Dr Ofer Cassif, a political science lecturer at the Hebrew University, called Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked "neo-Nazi scum" and wrote she was responsible for making Israel more fascist. He also told Israel Radio: "I think it's fair to compare Israel to Germany in the 1930s, and not to the years of genocide."
Ha'aretz does this all the time. Last December, Gideon Levy wrote that 2015 "heralded the start of blatant and unapologetic Israeli fascism". I could go on, but you get the general idea.
Is it any wonder British politicians are sloppy about invoking the struggle against fascism when the military and intellectuals in democratic, human rights-obsessed Israel have themselves stripped fascism of its meaning?