bad analogies

palestineI was out for drinks with friends and Israel came up in the conversation.  A friend of mine said that she’d heard somewhere – Fox maybe? – that if you likened Gaza to a Nazi concentration camp you were an anti-Semite, and isn’t that ridiculous?  Can’t we criticize the Israeli government’s policy without being anti-Semitic?

To which, of course, the answer is unequivocally yes. Of course we can (and should) criticize the bad policies of any government, and especially those governments which have close ties to our own.  But what jumped out at me at this point was not the persistent frustration of being poorly labeled by the pro-Israel right (and left) – it was the bad analogy.  It’s simply a bad analogy to compare Israelis (or Zionists) to Nazis.  And along with being a bad analogy, it’s just in poor taste to call Gaza a concentration camp.

Now, I say this for a number of reasons.  First, it gets us nowhere.  In fact, calling the Jewish people Nazi’s is kind of like calling all critics of Israel anti-Semites.  It doesn’t further the debate, it shuts the debate down.  Comparing Gaza to a concentration camp is similarly ineffectual.  Gaza is in bad shape.  The blockade has been really, really bad for the Palestinians there – but they’re not in death camps.  They’re not being gassed or placed into forced labor.  They’re not being exterminated like the Jews were in Auschwitz or Treblinka.  So call it like it is, don’t embellish the bad truth with worse lies.  Then you end up arguing about the lies instead of the truth – and that gets us nowhere.

Second, the bad analogy plays right into the “other side’s” hands.  For instance, if you call everyone who criticizes Israel antisemitic, then the power of that term is diluted.  There are anti-Semites out there.  Plenty of them.  A lot of them are hyper-critical of Israel.  But most critics of Israel are critical because of Israeli policies such as settlements and apartheid control of the occupied territories which they see as unjust.  It isn’t because the Israelis are Jewish.  So when you start calling everyone an anti-Semite, then the real bigots can just blend in and disappear.

Similarly, when you call Gaza a concentration camp, you not only open up a rather horrifying wound in Jewish (and European) history, you also open the door with this exaggeration to people claiming that you must be anti-Semitic, and yes, it becomes sort of cyclical and obfuscating.  This doesn’t mean you are anti-Semitic – but the line of argument you’ve adopted isn’t very bright either, and smart people who want to have a smart conversation on this issue should find better analogies.  Using bad analogies opens the door to legitimate and illegitimate responses, and after a while all this rhetoric just muddies the waters too much.

So, enough with the Nazi comparisons and enough with the wild-eyed calls of antisemitism.  A real debate over Israel has to shuffle on beyond the talking points.  Obama’s on his way to Cairo.  Any day now we might have a sensible dialogue on this issue.  Any day now….

(I just realized this is the second post today I started off with some mention of drinking….must be my subconscious)

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40 thoughts on “bad analogies

  1. Problematic if we say “Israel is an apartheid state” but not so much if we say “the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is an apartheid form of governance.” Or is it that everything in this debate is problematic?

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  2. Well, yes. Everything is problematic.
    But specifically, I think the weakness of the analogy comes up in the fact that Israel’s conduct is not racially motivated, in the sense that Israeli Arabs can travel freely and vote outside of the occupied territories. So since it’s a ‘security measure’ in certain geographies, it’s not Apartheid.

    But personally, I think that’s a weak sort of weakness, that motivation isn’t as important as consequence, and therefore I’m pretty comfortable making the Apartheid analogy.

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  3. I’m a supporter of Israel, but often disagree with their tactics, but then again, they are the ones surrounded by hundreds of millions of people that want to drive them into the (wine dark) sea, so I’ll turn the other way while they do what they need to do. As the good Peggy Noonan says, some thing are best left mysterious.

    Off topic, why is it that most posts here get maybe 10 or 20 comments, but bring up abortion and the responses are over 100? Are people being linked in from other blogs to those particular posts?

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  4. Oh it just depends, Semra. We’re still a very new blog so if we get a Sully link or something like that we inevitably get more comments. Also, more controversial topics get more, etc. etc. (glad to see you’ve stuck around, by the way…)

    Also – regarding the settlements, one of my primary reasons for opposing them is I think their continued existence will make the “drive them into the (wine dark) sea” more of a likely scenario….

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  5. Yup.
    The settlements simply have to stop.
    During the Summer War I had a lebanese expat commenter on my blog.
    He said from the start, that the war began because a german-arbitrated prisoner exchange fell apart when the Iraelis refused to include Sameer Kuntar as part of the package. Hizb’ snatched the two Israeli soldiers to strengthen their bargaining hand. Calculator (that was his name) said Hizb would never stop until they got Kuntar back.
    I stopped blogging for a year and lost contact with Calculator….but he was right….in the end Hizb’ got Kuntar and and a bunch more seats in the leb parliment and Sionora lost control of his legislature and Bush and the USA and Israel got another black eye in MENA.
    I can pull up blog posts where he also said there can never even be peace TALKS between Palestine and Israel as long as the settlements continue. Israel has an understandable bunker mentality, but the combination of that and Bush’s profound lack of subtlty was simply deadly.
    Calculator also said that Bush was so universally detested in MENA that we could never make progress on Israel/Pali as long he was in office.
    We have a fortunate window of opportunity now…..
    Stop the settlements.

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  6. “But most critics of Israel are critical because of Israeli policies such as settlements and apartheid control of the occupied territories which they see as unjust. It isn’t because the Israelis are Jewish.”

    I wonder about that. Living in San Francisco, I’ve met a lot of people “on the left” who see these policies as unjust because the Israelis are Jewish. They often went to East Coast colleges with relatively high numbers of prosperous Jews. Not particularly good students of history, they assume as a result that *all* Jews are rich and college-educated like themselves, and cannot conceive of Jews being oppressed. Thus they frame the conflict. nuance-free, as Rich/White vs Poor/Brown and tell me dumb things about a “secular bi-national state”. Etc…

    Does that viewpoint qualify as Anti-Semitism? Because it certainly feels that way when I’ve talked to them about it.

    I oppose the settlements (aside from some minor land transfer in Jerusalem) and I am extremely critical of the Israeli government (regardless of which party is in power) along with the bulk of Israelis for being unserious about peace. But I have never heard a reason to oppose a Jewish national home that didn’t start from some Anti-Semitic rationale.

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  7. Mark, I recommend googling anti-Zionism. It’s a mostly Israeli set of ideas, about taking Judaism from the center of the state’s goals and imagination and turning it into a more secular, fairer state. Zionism requires that Jews are first-class citizens, and so encourages racism and oppressing non-Jews.

    There ARE anti-Israeli activists who ARE anti-semitic, IMHO, but it’s a minority of liberals and people otherwise bothered by what’s going on. Yeah, Israel IS oppressing people, but there’s blame to go around – that’s why it’s so bad, it’s a feedback cycle.

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  8. I’ve met a lot of people “on the left” who see these policies as unjust because the Israelis are Jewish.

    Let me guess. You’re not ‘on the left’.

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  9. Is there any reason why concentration camp is a bad analogy aside from its connection with the Shoah. Because if memory serves the British invented the concept. Has the phrase been so tainted by the Shoah that its use is inappropriate outside of the descriptions of the Shoah itself?

    To put it another way, is there any circumstance the analogy could be used ever?

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  10. It’s moronic, for the reasons E.D. lays out, to say the occupied territories are like Nazi concentration camps. But what’s going on in the occupied territories does fit classical definitions of a concentration camp.

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  11. <>

    Not sure where you got that. I’m a friggin’ socialist. I put the quotes around it because I think being an anti-semite disqualifies you from being a liberal.

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  12. Right – using that language is rhetorically hyper-charged and seems to intentionally start irrational discussion. If the Jewish people hadn’t been nearly exterminated largely in concentration camps that wouldn’t be the case….

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  13. Chris,

    This is where I think E.D.’s argument is problematic. Because the very phrase “concentration camp” is intimately linked in the popular imagination to the Shoah. By E.D.’s standard it seems that it should be forever thrown out of public discourse no matter how well its actual definition suits the actual situation.

    You could run into a similar argument about the analogy of “Zionism is Racism”. Is this another bad analogy because of racism’s association in the popular imagination with National Socialism?

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  14. Dan – when Israelis start mass-murdering Palestinians in actual concentration camps, then okay. Until then we should be accurate in our language. Gaza is not a concentration camp – in any sense of the word. It’s not a functional state, and it’s becoming very much like a large refugee camp in many senses, but it’s not a concentration camp.

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  15. E.D.,

    Concentration camps are and have never been only implements of mass murder. That’s simply not the definition. Now the language of concentration camps is intimately tied to our narrative of the Shoah, but that’s not a question of accuracy in language but of the popular imagination. Again would “Zionism is Racism” not be similarly problematic with racism being tied in the popular imagination to National Socialism?

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  16. Here’s the funny thing about language. It changes. It morphs and evolves. It is very much alive. Now, once upon a time the phrase “concentration camp” meant one thing. Then along came the Nazis and the Holocaust (another word with a “new” meaning…) and that changed everything.

    It doesn’t really matter anymore what concentration camp used to mean or technically means. All that matters is that when people hear it they immediately conjure up the Holocaust and the Nazi concentration camps – “actual” definitions be damned. Yes, extermination camp is more accurately what the Nazis did – but again, that doesn’t matter.

    Accuracy of language is not always sticking to technical definitions – it is more often than not accepting popular definitions, because that’s how language works. It is determined by usage. (at least in English)

    So – no matter what way you spin it, calling Gaza a concentration camp is simply a flame-war waiting to happen. Even the Japanese internment camps were nothing like Gaza is today.

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  17. “Please understand that when I say “anti-semitic”, I’m not using the word with the ugly connotations that it has today, but I’m using the classical definition found in the late 1920’s. I’m sorry if you don’t have the nuance to appreciate exactly how I’m categorizing you people.”

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  18. Let’s do that again (though my comment barely bears repeating):

    11/”Let me guess. You’re not ‘on the left’.”

    Not sure where you got that. I’m a friggin’ socialist. I put the quotes around it because I think being an anti-semite disqualifies you from being a liberal.

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  19. E.D.,
    Connotations vs. denotations and all that… I agree it’s probably not helpful.

    So, what’s the word/phrase we’re going to use instead? Keep in mind that it needs to express the enormity of what’s going on in the occupied territories. Is that word ‘Apartheid’?

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  20. Dan – I wholeheartedly oppose the idea that Zionism = Racism. Zionism is not racism. Zionism can take various forms. I know some very liberal, very critical of Israel Zionists. They are Zionists in the classical socialist term, though. I don’t think it’s racism and calling it that also does not further this dialogue.

    Chris – in Gaza it is not apartheid because Israel has withdrawn, though apartheid does describe the situation in the West Bank.

    Gaza is under siege.

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  21. E.D.,

    I appreciate the clarification. You reject the use of “Zionism is Racism” based on a formal definition.

    Apartheid may however be just as problematic as “concentration camp” in that the National Party came to power largely because of its of National Socialism in Germany and against the British war effort. Also withdrawal has nothing to do with Apartheid. The SADF “withdrew” from Transkei in 1976, that didn’t make it not Apartheid.

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  22. No worries…But for future reference, there is only “left” in San Francisco politics: Democrats are known as “moderates” and Anti-Capitalists are known as “progressives.” A man who has a job and doesn’t wear tight hipster jeans is automatically a “moderate.”

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  23. A few years back, I was listening to NPR in the morning and there was a news story that began with something to the effect of “an unarmed Palestinian was shot and killed while attempting to ram his car through an Israeli checkpoint earlier this morning.”

    This was in the middle of the infatada, of course. Every morning, NPR had to dedicate 12 minutes to the troubles yonder and I kept finding myself boggling at the framing of the debate. Like, a story on ambulances being stopped by Israelis to check for bomb belts focused on stuff like “ambulances are being stopped!” rather than “they’re smuggling bomb belts in ambulances!”

    The level of expectation held for Israelis vs. those for Palestinians bothers me to this day as well.

    Choosing a framing of “Aparthied” seems to be engaging in similar tactics… that is to say, the point is to get the reader/listener to reach a specific conclusion rather than to actually describe what’s going on.

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  24. Here’s where we differ Jaybird. I think we need to carefully frame exactly what is going on in Israel and in the West Bank and the two are not the same. In Israel Arabs and Jews are treated as equals. In the West Bank two separate sets of laws govern two separate peoples. That is – by definition – apartheid. But the distinction is important. Israel itself is not an apartheid state. But it will be if the current set of policies ever spill over from the West Bank into Israel proper.

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  25. “That is – by definition – apartheid.”

    To my mind, “apartheid” invokes “South Africa” if not out and out “Kiplingesque Colonialism”… and that doesn’t seem terribly representative of what’s going on either.

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  26. Here’s the definition of anti Semitism provide by the European Union: http://www.google.com.mx/url?sa=t&source=web&ct=res&cd=1&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.zionismontheweb.org%2Fantisemitism%2FEU-definition-of-antisemitism.htm&ei=Gj8pSoOgJKGitgOY9tWiCw&usg=AFQjCNHqDd-7t823_JPsFGXr5r6Ggg38CA&sig2=jeX7r-PRpP2bQhmW_L7mfA

    It says

    Examples of the ways in which antisemitism manifests itself with regard to the state of Israel taking into account the overall context could include: … Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis….

    This is very clear. Therefore, your friend is anti Semitic. Why? It’s obvious that calling Gaza a concentration camp is not simple “criticism” of Israel. It’s an attempt to demonize them. Demonizing Jews is the hallmark of anti Semitism from the Middle Ages through European Protocols-style anti Semitism.

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  27. See this is why you can be so infuriating to converse with, Roque. You say “Therefore your friend is anti Semitic” which is just ludicrous beyond belief. First, they did not make the comparison. They heard it made and were upset that those making it were instantly labeled anti Semitic. To which, my point is – if we all engage in this behavior, playing fast and loose with analogies and name calling, then it all loses any meaning. So, your immediate declaration that my friend is anti Semitic falls right into that category and your argument immediately loses any meaning – just as anyone showing up on this thread and calling the Israelis Nazis would lose any validity.

    So – my advice – quit playing this stupid game. You have intelligent points to make. Try doing so without stooping to that level.

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  28. Hey, ED Kain, Sorry!

    I thought it was your friend who was calling Gaza a concentration camp. It sure sounded like it from your original description or at least it sounded like he/she thought that doing so was a legitimate criticism of the state of Israel. I think we agree that calling Gaza a concentration camp can never be legitimate criticism of the state of Israel.

    Therefore, I should amend my remark about your friend: if he/she agrees that Gaza is a concentration camp, then he or she is an anti Semite, according to the EU’s definition. This definition does not emphasize bad taste, or poorly-thought-out analogies, like you do. It emphasizes demonization of Jews, which is proper, considering that we’re talking about anti Semitism. I am not “playing fast and loose with analogies and name calling.” I am simply applying an impartial definition of anti Semitism (by the European Union) to the statement your friend brought up, whether he/she agreed with it or not.

    So: if you want to disagree with me, show why the EU’s definition is wrong or why it doesn’t apply to the case at hand. Just don’t call me names. Try not to stoop to that level because I know you have some intelligent points to make.

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  29. Right. I called you names…where exactly? (The whole flip what I said thing is a tired trick at this point, Roque…)

    And – uhm – why is it that people use things like the EU definition when they’re convenient and then decry the EU, Europeans, the UN etc. when they’re no longer convenient? Hardly seems consistent.

    Here’s what I’d call most people who liken Gaza to a concentration camp: lazy. Most people are A) not terribly invested in this debate and are pretty much “followers” of whoever they’re getting their talking points from. They don’t think through the analogy until someone points out to them why it’s a bad analogy. And you know what? Using my tactic – explaining the falsehood in the analogy – that works pretty well in debates. That is convincing to people.

    You know what doesn’t work?

    Calling them antisemitic.

    Gosh, I wonder why?

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  30. Ummm… why is my attitude (which you don’t even understand) towards the EU relevent to this? Even if it were true that I “decry” the EU in general, what possible relevence could that have here? I’m simply using their definition to avoid criticisms as to the source of the definition: it isn’t tainted by US imperialism or by Zionism. It’s European.

    You haven’t discussed this at all, as I suggested: why is the definition wrong or why is is misapplied in this case?

    From what I read here, and elsewhere, we’re probably in agreement as to the substance of the issue. You misunderstood me at the start, though: I am not trying to convince anyone that he or she is an anti Semite as a way of showing them that Gaza is not a concentration camp. I agree that you are much better at convincing these “lazy” people than I am. I just don’t care one way or the other about convincing them, especially since, according to the EU they are anti Semites. On the other hand, I am concerned to convince people that may not have made up their minds about this and are just casually reading a comment thread on a blog. It may “work pretty well” to show that comparing Israeli pliicies to Nazi Germany is anti Semitic.

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  31. When an individual uses the verbiage of “Concentration Camp” to describe Gaza and “Nazism” to describe Zionism, the reaction to those words is to describe that individual as an anti-Semite. It is the extremity of those phrases that provokes that reaction. It isn’t that you can’t criticize Israel’s policies, it’s how you do it and the words you do it with. To use that kind of language is not only reactionary, it is inaccurate and provocative. It does diminish the conversation to nothing more than sound bites, in invites hate and anger instead of constructive criticism and solutions.

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