In a recent debate in Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated: “The opposition has gone off the rails: Ram Ben Barak shamefully and scandalously compares the Israeli government to the Nazis.” We were asked to comment on whether this means that opposition parliamentarian Ram Ben Barak is an antisemite according to the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism. This example provides a useful opportunity to correct some misconceptions that may exist about the IHRA definition which a number of our universities are now seeking to implement and others are considering adopting.
Distinguishing antisemites from antisemitic acts
The first and most important point, is that the IHRA definition doesn’t say anyone is an antisemite. It explains when words or actions might, “taking into account the overall context” (to quote the definition) be antisemitic. This distinction is important.
Here are three circumstances in which antisemitic statements might occur:
(1) A person makes an antisemitic statement deliberately out of a desire to harm Jewish people.
(2) A person wishes to harm a person who is Jewish, and choses to use an antisemitic statement to do so.
(3) A person says something, despite knowing it is antisemitic, because they feel the benefit they / their group / their cause gets is worth any harm it may cause (or they simply don’t care about the harm).
(4) A person makes an antisemitic statement unintentionally and out of ignorance.
The first person is clearly an antisemite and would likely self identify as such. The second and third are people engaging in deliberate acts of antisemitism, and if this is a pattern of behaviour, people may reasonably conclude they are antisemitic. The fourth person is not antisemitic and this may be a valuable learning opportunity. In all cases the act itself is antisemitic and it is appropriate and reasonable to call it out. This is known as counter speech.
References to the Holocaust
The IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism makes three references to the Holocaust:
- Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews
- Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust
- Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis
There is also an IHRA Working Definition of Holocaust Denial and Distortion which states that “Holocaust denial in its various forms is an expression of antisemitism.” After explaining the various forms of Holocaust denial, it notes the following five forms of Holocaust distortion:
- Intentional efforts to excuse or minimize the impact of the Holocaust or its principal elements, including collaborators and allies of Nazi Germany;
- Gross minimization of the number of the victims of the Holocaust in contradiction to reliable sources;
- Attempts to blame the Jews for causing their own genocide;
- Statements that cast the Holocaust as a positive historical event. Those statements are not Holocaust denial but are closely connected to it as a radical form of antisemitism. They may suggest that the Holocaust did not go far enough in accomplishing its goal of “the Final Solution of the Jewish Question”;
- Attempts to blur the responsibility for the establishment of concentration and death camps devised and operated by Nazi Germany by putting blame on other nations or ethnic groups.
At the Online Hate Prevention Institute we have documented many examples of antisemitism both denying the Holocaust and whether Israel is compared to the Nazis. Not every reference to the Holocaust or to Nazism is, however, an example of antisemitism.
There are at least four situations in which Nazism / the Holocaust might be mentioned without it being antisemitic:
- Content that is actually about the Holocaust and is not otherwise denial or distortion. For example Holocaust education, research, remembrance etc.
- Statements that extract some general truth from the experience of the Holocaust E.g. the idea that ordinary people can do extraordinary evil, or engage in extraordinary act of bravery
- Comparing the Holocaust to different genocides by correctly using a comparative genocide approach that identified commonalities and differences.
- Comparing some aspect of the Holocaust to another atrocity by correctly using a thematic approach in which insight from the Holocaust is applied to contemporary situations
Guidance on the last two points, the scholarly use of comparisons in an appropriate manner, is provided by IHRA in a Working Paper adopted by the plenary in 2016, “History Never Repeats Itself, but Sometimes it Rhymes Comparing the Holocaust to different Atrocities“.
IHRA’s guidelines on teaching and learning about the Holocaust warn:
“The specificity of the Holocaust and other human rights violations should be respected, and comparisons made cautiously. Comparing events requires detailed knowledge of each element being compared or risks ahistorical comparisons that hinder understanding and impede critical thinking and analysis. Educators should be honest and clear about their level of expertise about both the Holocaust and any additional events being examined.”From page 42
“Ensure that the comparison of genocides or human rights abuses does not lead to a hierarchy of suffering, whether past or present. The suffering of those targeted by the Nazis and their collaborators was potent and real and should not be used simply to evoke sympathy in the present. Likewise, suffering experienced by human beings in different contexts also deserves acknowledgement. The motives, policies, and procedures for creating conditions of discrimination, economic exploitation, persecution, and murder are often varied and complex – in both the past and present. Educators owe victims past and present an accurate understanding of their suffering on its own terms, and not relative to others.”From page 43
As can be seen, it is too simple to say all comparisons are Holocaust distortion and therefore antisemitic, but where comparisons are made they should be done carefully, accurately, and for the right reasons i.e. to accurately learn from the past so those lessons can be applied in the present. The use of Nazi analogies in general is often done for the wrong reason, as a means of describing an ultimate evil and evoking sympathy and support for some other purpose. It’s use in relation to Israeli policies is often done gratuitously for the purpose of causing distress to survivors, their descendants, and Jewish people in general. We have often compared it to the use of rape analogies when speaking to a victim of sexual assault about another topic, where speaking to them in order to persuade them, or speaking about them in a forum where they will hear and need to respond.
This doesn’t prevent a discussion of Israel’s record on human rights, or of Palestinian suffering, but the right language should be used. A situation should not be inflated, and particularly not with the use Holocaust imagery which can undermine understanding about the Holocaust itself as some people apply that understanding in reverse.
The Ram Ben Barak example
We should start by understanding that Ram Ben Barak is a member of the Knesset since 2019, and he previously served as Deputy Director of the Mossad (Israel’s intelligence service), Director General of the Ministry of Intelligence Services, and Director General of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs. His party is in the opposition. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he “shamefully and scandalously compares the Israeli government to the Nazis”. What Ram Ben Barak actually said was:
“This is a sad day. You may not be aware of what is happening, but we are increasingly divided. The State of Israel is being lost, we are in chaos. Hundreds of thousands of people are taking to the streets, and they are telling you to stop this insane legislation. You think we will be ready to live in your dictatorship, that we don’t understand that this is just the first step to things which are much worse? We will not allow this to happen, this is an illegal move and we will oppose it. We will not allow you to destroy what we have built for the last 75 years. What you are doing is worse than all the regimes we do not want to be like – the Turks, the Hungarians and the Poles. In Germany, as well, the Nazis came to power democratically. We are not Hungarians or Poles and we will not agree to this,”Ram Ben Barak, in the Knesset, according to reporting from Israel National News Arutz Sheva
While there is a comparison here, it between the sort of Israel Ben Barak says the Government is seeking to create through its new legislation to reduce the power of the Supreme Court, and authoritarianism regimes in Poland, Hungary, and Turkey. As an article in the Journal of Civil & Legal Sciences explains:
- In Poland the law and justice party (PiS) which won election in 2015 “set itself the goal of transforming the country’s politics, economy, culture and society according to its national conservative worldview”. The new government amended the law on the constitutional court, sacked judged, appointed their own insiders, and through legislation brought the court under the control of the government. The paper noted this was “a complete transformation of the judicial system, at the end of which the independence of the judiciary and thus of the division of powers will certainly be abolished.”
- In Hungary, after the national conservative Fidesz party won power they adopted a new constitution which limited the rights of the constitutional court. After winning re-election the government took steps to weaken the constitutional state and restrict fundamental rights including freedom of the press.
- In Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan served as Prime Minister, and then President. The role of President constitutionally had very weak powers, but while President he also served as chairman of the party in power and in that way drove the government’s agenda. He later sought to legitimise his control shifting Turkey from a parliamentary system into a presidential government system that lacked checks and balances. This was completed via a referendum in which there are allegations of irregularities and government intimidation. (See more in this paper at Plos One.)
The line “In Germany, as well, the Nazis came to power democratically” seems disconnected from the rest of the analogy. It highlights that not only the three authoritarianism regimes under discussion came to power democratically, but that even the Nazis were also originally elected to power. The meaning is that electoral success should not be accepted as a mandate for a government to make radical constitutional level changes that reduce the checks on its own power, as that direction leads to authoritarianism, not an effective democracy.
The original allegation that a comparison was made between the Israeli Government and the Nazis was inaccurate. There was no such comparison. As such, the IHRA definition is not relevant. The misrepresentation in the allegation is an abuse of the memory of the Holocaust in order to divert a political discussion occurring within the Knesset. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ought to issue an apology to both Ram Ben Barak and the public.