The original Law, let us remind ourselves, says that "As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one."
Just to explain, 'Usenet' was one of the earliest internet discussion fora, and an event with a 'probability of one' is a dead-certainty. In plain English, then, the longer an internet discussion continues the more likely it is that someone will compare something (or someone) with Hitler, the Nazis, etc.
In recent public discourse about Israel, however, far from having to wait a considerable length of time, such comparisons seem to have become de rigeur. Take these reported 'sound bites':
“Gaza is a ghetto, in exactly the same way that the Warsaw Ghetto was, and people are trapped in it.” - Ken Livingstone
“[The Israelis] will continue to create a Warsaw Ghetto in the Middle East.” - Brian Eno
“Those murdering [the occupants of Gaza] are the equivalent of those who murdered the Jews in Warsaw in 1942.” - George Galloway
(These are from a thought-provoking article by David Aaronovitch on the whole issue of such comparisons.)
Even more worrying, given the facts of religious history, is the Pope's justice minister, Cardinal Renato Martino, apparently likening the Gaza Strip to a "big concentration camp".
Importantly, Godwin's Law does not say that such comparisons cannot be made. Nor, as is often assumed, does it suggests that anyone invoking Hitler or the Nazis has thereby lost the argument. It is certainly not inappropriate, for example, to compare a military rally to 'Nuremberg' or a policy of true and deliberate genocide (such as took place in Rwanda) to the 'Final Solution'.
The problem is, if Messrs Livingstone and Galloway indeed used terms like "exactly the same way " or "the equivalent of" they are patently wrong on points almost too numerous to list (though Aaronovitch gives it a go).
So why do they do this? (Mr Livingstone seems particularly fond of such comparisons.) It is hard to believe that they, or those using similar language, are historically unaware of the differences. They are not covert 'Holocaust Deniers' who would seriously argue that, in the end, what happened in Warsaw was really no more than what is happening in Gaza - hideously bad, perhaps, but still not part of a systematic and systemic plot to eradicate an entire people.
It is similarly hard to believe that they are self-deluded, simply not realizing their over-extended use of language.
So why is there this frequent and (moreover) narrow use of a particular hyperbole? Why not a comparison with Britain in the Boer War, for example? What drives the speaker to use the analogy? The answer may lie at several levels.
The most obvious, perhaps, identified by Aaronovitch, is the 'doing unto others as you would not wish done unto yourself' syndrome. And, particularly from a Christian point of view, there is considerable validity to this criticism. One of my memories of boyhood films and books about the Second World War is the point where the hero stops someone from mistreating a German with the words, "No! That would make us as bad as them." And one of the great lessons of history is that there is, indeed, a moral high-ground which must be maintained. (Indeed, it is this which continues to fuel unease about the role of Bomber Command in the last war.)
However, such 'high ground' cannot exist in isolation, or be appealed to in a selective fashion. In other words, morality must be part of a wider culture and not become, itself, a selective 'weapon' for bashing one side and not the other. The moral high ground can only be occupied, in the end, by those who generally occupy a moral landscape.
Another factor is the assault on what is seen as a 'victim' mentality which Israel and the Jews use to justify their actions. Yet victim mentalities are widespread and are dangerously deployed in support of all kinds of actions in ways which generally escape criticism. Islamist propaganda uses images of dead Muslim children to stir up hatred against the West generally and Israel and the Jews specifically, in just the same way as Allied propaganda did in the First and Second World Wars.
This goes back to the issue above, about a 'moral landscape'. The danger here is of falling into the fallacy of the tu quoque ('you also') argument: "You have killed our schoolchildren, and so we are justified in killing yours." A moment's thought shows, however, that if killing schoolchildren is wrong, then either it is wrong whoever does it and for whatever reason it is done, or it is only wrong in certain circumstances. The moral issue is then whether it is right deliberately to take actions which lead to the death of schoolchildren because one's own schoolchildren have been killed. But this is to get into subtleties which lie beyond most such conflicts.
One suspects, however, that the reason for the frequency of odious comparisons between Israel and Nazism is itself much more odious, and that is simply that people hate Israel viscerally, and therefore they make the comparison because they feel the same way about Israel as they do about Nazi Germany.
Of course, one may indeed hate something with good reason. Hate, like wrath, or even violence, may be the appropriate response to the appropriate object. The trouble is that in human hands (or minds), hatred is always fraught with danger. Worst of all, it feeds voraciously on our own desires, so as to prompt the worst of our words and actions. To look at a face full of hatred is to look into the heart from which come "evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly". Only those who know themselves - or rather who know that they don't know themselves - can afford to hate:
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord,
and abhor those who rise up against you?
I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies.
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:21-24, NIV)
For the rest of us, when we feel the thrilling intoxication of hatred rising in our chests, it is time to fall on our knees and ask God to take it from us.
Meanwhile, we must watch out for any expressions of hatred for Israel, not because the Jews are 'God's chosen', or because Zion is his 'holy hill', but because we are human beings, and human beings must never be allowed to hate easily or for very long.
Revd John P Richardson
8 January 2009
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