Nazi comparisons are wrong, whoever is making them

We do ourselves no favours by reaching for the Third Reich analogy – not least as regards pushing back against those using the same comparisons for the actions of Israel


A pro-Palestinian protester uses a bullhorn during a demonstration in front of Sproul Hall on the UC Berkeley campus on April 22, 2024 in Berkeley, California (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

May 22, 2024 09:55

I’m in America, but before I got here, I went to a birthday party, at which the host made a speech about the state of the world, or, to be more exact, how the world feels presently for Jews. It was an anxious speech, getting more and more anxious as it continued, the anxiety spreading among the various Jews congregated around the cake and candles, until eventually one of the other guests said, “It could be worse: it could be 1939.”

It broke the tension, and everyone laughed. But I think that joke, as often with jokes, contains an important truth. I, like many Jews since October 7, have spent some time on various WhatsApp groups on which other Jews, basically, kvetch. However, I have taken myself off all of them because a) I can’t be doing with that much kvetching – Ting! Oh good, another complaint about BBC News – and b) so much of the kvetching concerns the notion that we are living in the ante-room of a second Holocaust.

Which, let me reassure you, we are not. Presently, we in the West are living through a spike in antisemitism. An extreme spike, but one magnified through the dysfunctional lens of social media. Most importantly, none of it is state-sanctioned. You may not think the state response is good enough – you may think that various governments should be doing more, policing more, denouncing anti-Jewish hatred more – but I promise you, no one in these governments is planning legislation towards new Nuremberg Laws.

There is much hatred for Jews in the world at the moment, but it is, as it were, grassroots hatred: on the streets, on campuses, online. It is – let me be clear – bad. Let me also be clear. The systematic extermination of a civilian ethnic group across many borders by a nation state equipped with huge military resources is considerably worse.

I understand the need, on seeing Jews being attacked, like a man and his daughter were in an airport in Belgium this week, to reach for the comparison. My mother was born in Nazi Germany. Any violence towards any Jew stirs that intergenerational memory. But history is specific. It is different.

I see the comparison regularly, accompanying videos of the pro-Gaza encampments at Columbia and Penn universities. I saw, with footage of massed protesters in Malmo outside the Israel Eurovision contestant’s hotel room, people on X saying “Reminiscent of Europe in the 1930s”.

But these protesters are not Nazis. Nazis are defined by conscious, active, unashamed hatred of Jews. Modern antisemitism is defined, and I’m sorry to bring this phrase in, but I don’t know a better one, by Jews not counting. By a basic assumption that the feelings and concerns of Jews are not that important. If Jews are intimidated and disturbed by what is happening now, by what they are seeing on TV and on social media, that is, at best, a pity, and, at worst, something which is considered to pale next to the need to protest what is happening in Gaza. Jewish sensibilities are considered reasonable collateral damage.

I’m not suggesting this is OK. But it is worth understanding. And it is not useful to imagine it as equivalent to what my grandparents went through. It is not similar to living in a police state that requires that Jews wear insignia marking them out as Jews.

Some will say, “Oh but the Nazi state didn’t start with Auschwitz.” No. It started with – three weeks after Hitler came to power – the burning of the Reichstag and the consequent Enabling Act, which allowed the National Socialists to pass any laws they wanted. This was soon followed by the Malicious Practices Act, which made sure that anyone deemed an enemy of the state – and who do you think most of those were? – could be arrested and sent to concentration camps.

A society in which laws that discriminate against Jews (or any minority) are enacted by a government is of a different dystopian order to anything we are seeing now, and imagining it as a parallel diminishes the actuality of the 1930s.

Besides, there’s a key practical reason why we should not make the comparison. Which is: it is used, often, by – it’s not about sides, of course, but hey – the other side. It is common, from that side, to hear how much like Hitler Netanyahu is, how Israel is a Nazi state, and how what they are perpetrating in Gaza is a second Holocaust.

None of that is correct either. But Jews open themselves up to it by reaching for the Third Reich analogy too quickly ourselves. It is difficult to object to placards in which Stars of David are conjoined with Swastikas whilst being on WhatsApp groups convinced that everyone marching through central London at the weekend is a Brownshirt. Remember. It could be worse: it could be 1939.

My Family: The Memoir by David Baddiel is available for pre-order online now

May 22, 2024 09:55

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