A curious phenomenon emerged a number of years ago, identified by the author Mike Godwin, and ultimately labeled “Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies.” Godwin’s observation is that the longer an online discussion continues, the likelihood that one participant will call another a Nazi or compare them to Hitler goes to one – that is, inevitably that will happen if the argument continues for a while.
What Godwin was effectively saying was that we have become so accustomed to calling other people Nazis that it has become a standard part of our discourse. Seinfeld’s infamous “Soup Nazi” episode, in 1995, may very well have exacerbated the problem.
Really nothing rises to the unique brand of evil that the Nazis created. Has there been attempted genocide? Yes. Have there been anti-Semitic, racist, and fascist-leaning governments, with charismatic authoritarian leaders? Unquestionably.
But let’s face it: applying the “Nazi” label to anyone (except, I suppose, to neo-Nazis who where it proudly) is ridiculously hyperbolic, and also extraordinarily unhelpful. A corollary to Godwin’s Law is that as soon as you have called somebody else a Nazi, you have lost the argument.
In today’s environment, where mind-numbing quantities of information and opinion and spin blur together on our screens, people who are desperate to get their point across can sometimes only succeed in getting your attention by throwing around grossly inaccurate, inflammatory language.
This phenomenon is truly unfortunate, and Jewish tradition has what to say about this. Just as a starting point, we read a few weeks back in Parashat Mishpatim (Shemot / Exodus 23:7)
מִדְּבַר־שֶׁ֖קֶר תִּרְחָ֑ק וְנָקִ֤י וְצַדִּיק֙ אַֽל־תַּהֲרֹ֔ג
Midevar sheqer tirḥaq, venaqi vetzaddik al taharog…
Distance yourself from a false matter; and the innocent and righteous you shall not slay …
Connecting the first and second parts of the verse, we should read this as saying that deliberate misrepresentation can kill innocent people. We know the power, and the danger, of words. If a statement is so wildly hyperbolic as to be untrue, we should not repeat it.
In recent years, you may have heard people applying equally inflammatory language to the State of Israel: “Apartheid.” “Genocide.” “Settler colonialist state.” “Ethnic cleansing.”
You may have heard that a few weeks back, around the same time as the Whoopi Goldberg debacle, the human rights organization Amnesty International issued a report that declared that the State of Israel is carrying out a campaign of “apartheid” against the Palestinian people. Amnesty is not the first organization to accuse Israel of apartheid crimes – Human Rights Watch issued a similar report last year, as did the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. And, perhaps most notoriously, President Jimmy Carter published a book in 2006 entitled, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.
Just a brief refresher: “Apartheid,” an Afrikaans word for “separateness,” was the legally-enshrined racial categorization system that functioned in South Africa for nearly five decades in the 20th century. Under apartheid, all citizens were categorized into four distinct races: White, Black, Indian, and Coloured, and laws about whom you could marry, where you could live and work, how you could vote and for whom, were all a part of that system. It was a system that was fundamentally unjust, denying non-white people many of the rights that we all agree should be universal.
According to Amnesty International’s website, the definition of apartheid has been generalized:
The crime against humanity of apartheid … is committed when any inhuman or inhumane act (essentially a serious human rights violation) is perpetrated in the context of an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over another, with the intention to maintain that system.
Now, I’m sure that we do not have to think too hard to come up with other nations that might be guilty of this type of inhumane mistreatment. China is clearly one, and the context of the Olympics has elevated the plight of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province. According to Amnesty’s definition of apartheid, I can think of some people in this country who might even apply it here in the United States.
The only nation for which Amnesty has used the term “apartheid” other than Israel is Myanmar, a nation that has been in nearly constant civil war and sectarian fighting since its founding in 1948, subjected to coup after military coup, and has meanwhile severely persecuted its Rohingya Muslim population.
The Amnesty report blurs the line between Israel’s Arab citizens, who are of course also ethnically Palestinian, and the residents of the territories of Gaza and the West Bank.
When I was in an Israeli family court in the Israeli-Arab city of Nazareth in 2006 to resolve an agreement over mezonot (child support) for my Israeli son, the presiding judge was a Muslim Israeli Arab. Arab citizens of the State of Israel participate in Israeli democracy (remember that there is currently an Arab Islamist party in the governing coalition), they attend Israeli universities, serve as doctors and lawyers and academics and musicians and journalists and soccer stars, and some even serve in the IDF.
Is there discrimination in Israeli society? Yes there is, just like there is here in America, and in France, and in Brazil, and India, and all over the world. But you would have to twist reality to claim that within Israel, there is a system of apartheid, at least by South African standards.
Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra’am party, that Arab Islamist party that is currently a part of the governing coalition, when asked if Israel is an apartheid state, clearly said no, it is not.
The application of that term by those organizations is somewhat akin to Godwin’s Law – it is an attempt to get the world’s attention with language that makes us respond in anger or disgust.
Now, it is true that in the Israeli-controlled territory of the West Bank, Palestinian Arab residents live in vastly different circumstances, and the thorny question regarding how to resolve the challenges posed by Israel’s occupation of territories captured in 1967 continues to roil the region and the world.
But while pointing out the failures of the current approach is essential, some critics of Israel have gone too far. As distant as it may seem right now, the two-state solution is still the best possible option available for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That’s in large part because the alternatives are even less plausible. And of course there is a great deal of fear, anger, intransigence and inertia all around that continue to make the challenge even greater.
And yes, both Palestinians and Israelis continue to suffer greatly because of these failures. But broadcasting extreme positions help no one – they only exacerbate tensions all around, and cause even more intransigence.
We all know that the situation on the ground for all of the 15 million people in the region is heartbreaking, in so many ways.
But we absolutely cannot give up on finding and building the best solution possible under the circumstances. We cannot allow the failures of the past and the inertia of the present to prevent us from building a sustainable Palestinian state alongside a safe and secure Israel.
And we will never be able to achieve this if we continue to hurl inflammatory language which is meant to inflict spiritual wounds and distort reality. Midevar sheqer tirḥaq. Distance yourself from falsehood.
If we truly want to arrive at an equitable solution, everybody is just going to have to cool it with the extreme rhetoric. Using terms like “apartheid,” and yes, “anti-Semitic” is not helpful. All the more so terms like the completely unsupportable “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing” or the inscrutable “settler colonial state.” (By the way, if you live anywhere in the Western Hemisphere and think that Israel should be dismantled because it’s a “settler colonial state,” you might want to consider moving overseas, because you too are living in a settler colonial state.
It is perfectly reasonable to be critical of Israel, but not in a way that supports those who want to destroy her, and certainly not in a way that just provokes more anger and fear and obstinacy. Our goals should be to bring everybody back to the negotiating table.
One of the principles we encounter in Parashat Vayaqhel, as the Israelites are building the mishkan, is that all of the work and materials are donated by those who are “kol nediv libo” (Shemot / Exodus 35:5). The Sefat Emet, the late 19th-century Torah commentary by the Gerrer Rebbe, teaches us that this means that the Israelites who contributed brought not only the materials, but also their willing hearts.
There are many, many people around the world who care about the future of the State of Israel and the fate of the territories. We all need to bring our willing hearts, so that the State of Israel can continue to thrive, and all those who dwell in that land can be free.
We must reject those who place obstacles on the path to peace with flagrant mischaracterizations and distortions of the Israeli and Palestinian reality. Israel is not an apartheid state. Now let’s roll up our sleeves, and in the words of Psalm 34, בַּקֵּ֖שׁ שָׁל֣וֹם וְרׇדְפֵֽהוּ – Baqqesh shalom verodfehu – seek peace and pursue it.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 2/26/2022.)