Demonizing Israel with false moral equivalence
Rhetoric plays a major role in the demonization of Israel. Besides the use of lies, the dissemination of false arguments is among the major demonization techniques. It is thus important that those who publicly defend Israel be trained to see through such tactics.
One prominent technique used against Israel is false moral equivalence. It is based on the deceitful claim that there is no difference between two greatly dissimilar actions. Comparisons by nature easily lend themselves to abuse. Examples abound and only some of the most frequent ones can be mentioned here. Several go beyond the realm of common sense. A prominent one is the perverse claim that Israel’s behavior is equivalent to that of Nazi Germany or the Nazis. This example of false moral equivalence is widespread throughout Europe. Five studies covering nine European countries show that about 40 percent of Europeans think that Israel is a “Nazi state.”
Another version of this falsehood is that Israel is exterminating the Palestinians. This belief is also widespread as found in European polls. Yet another variant of this false comparison is “Zionism is fascism.” When speaking at the Fifth Alliance of Civilizations Forum in Vienna in February 2013, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayipp Erdogan stated, “Just like Zionism, anti-Semitism and fascism, it becomes unavoidable that Islamophobia must be regarded as a crime against humanity.” This statement was immediately criticized by US Secretary of State John Kerry, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Since false comparisons are so easily made, a great variety of them are used against Israel. The false moral equivalence of Zionism and racism was a tactic created by the Soviet Union to justify its refusal to condemn anti-Semitism. This political strategy was initially used in an attempt to expel Israel from the United Nations in the 1960s. Although it failed, the Soviet Union, its satellite states and its Arab allies eventually succeeded in 1975 in passing UN resolution 3379. It determined that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.”
Yet another example of false moral equivalence frequently used to demonize Israel is labeling Israel an apartheid state. Former US president Jimmy Carter is among those who made this false comparison, in the title of his 2006 book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.
Israeli left-wing journalist Benjamin Pogrund’s book Drawing Fire has as its subtitle “Investigating the Accusations of Apartheid in Israel.” The author says in a personal note in the book: “I was treated for stomach cancer at one of Israel’s leading hospitals, Hadassah Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem. The surgeon (he was the head surgeon) was Jewish, the anesthetist was Arab. The doctors and nurses who cared for me were Jews and Arabs. During four and a half weeks as a patient, I watched Arab and Jewish patients get the same devoted treatment. A year or so later, the head surgeon retired; he was replaced by a doctor who is an Arab. Since then, I’ve been in hospital clinics and emergency rooms. Everything is the same for everyone. Israel is like apartheid South Africa? Ridiculous.”
Another popular false moral equivalence used is the idea that Israel represents a colonial power in the Middle East. Historian Richard Landes exposed the hypocrisy of this moral equivalence. He wrote about the benign nature of Zionist settlements in Ottoman and British Palestine, sharply contrasting from the imperial aspirations of European powers at the time. “Rather than arrive as zero-sum military victors, the Zionists arrived as positive-sum neighbors,” writes Landes.
Yet another use of false moral equivalence is comparing the Holocaust to the Nakba, the “catastrophe” or creation of the State of Israel. Many have adopted this false moral equivalence. The Holocaust and Nakba are far from similar, however. The Holocaust was a planned, industrial genocide. The Palestinian Nakba was a direct result of the refusal of Palestinians to accept the existence of Israel, which led to their major military defeat.
Another category of moral equivalence implies that the intentional murder of innocent civilians is equivalent to the accidental deaths of civilians in military actions. In March 2012, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton compared the deaths of innocent people, such as the Jewish children killed in Toulouse, France, by serial killers, and brutal dictators like Syria’s Bashar Assad, to the accidental deaths of civilians due to Israeli retaliatory actions in Gaza. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni reacted by saying, “There is no similarity between an act of hatred or a leader killing members of his nation and a country fighting terror, even if civilians are harmed.”
Many so-called humanitarian NGOs are frequent abusers of false moral equivalence. Even when writing brief statements about the human rights violations imposed upon Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit when he was kidnapped and imprisoned by Hamas terrorists for over five years, the reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch chose to bring attention to the false moral equivalence of a kidnapped Schalit and the Palestinian terrorists sentenced by the courts to serve time in Israeli jails.
Says American lawyer Alan Dershowitz, “Every single prisoner held by Israel has judicial review available to him or her and some have won release. Every one of them has access to Red Cross visitation, can communicate with family, and has a known whereabout.
Kidnapped Israeli soldiers on the other hand are kept incommunicado by criminal elements, are routinely tortured, often murdered (as occurred recently), and have no access to the Red Cross or judicial review.
Moreover, the prisoners being held by Israel are terrorists – that is, unlawful combatants. Many are murderers who have been convicted and sentenced in accordance with due process. The ‘women’ and ‘children’ are guilty of having murdered or attempted to murder innocent babies and other non-combatants. The soldiers who were kidnapped are lawful combatants subject to prisoner of war status.”
Dershowitz mentioned that Hamas or Hezbollah would not treat the Israeli soldiers in the same manner that Israel treats its prisoners, because “they are terrorist organizations who do not operation within the rule of the law.”
Many more false moral equivalences can be mentioned. Israel’s public defenders and diplomats have, for the most part, not been trained to recognize and systematically fight against abusive moral equivalence. The damage caused by these demonization tactics should be addressed and dealt with by those who are in the public eye. The same is true for other false arguments that are frequently used, such as sentimental appeals, double standards and scapegoating. Failing to combat false moral equivalence is one of the many Israeli shortcomings in the war of words to which its government authorities should give far more serious attention.
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is a former chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (2000-2012). Jamie Berk is a researcher working toward an MA in political science at Hebrew University.