By Manfred Gerstenfeld and Jamie Berk, Gate Stone Institute—
- False moral equivalence is one of a series of major fallacies. False moral equivalence comparing Israel’s actions to those of the Nazis was used by several prominent social-democratic politicians, including French President François Mitterrand, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme and Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou.
- Another example of false moral equivalence is calling Israel an Apartheid State. Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter made this comparison in his 2006 book,Palestine Peace Not Apartheid — which incorporates the false moral equivalence in its title.
- The false comparison between Zionism and racism has been repeated countless times through United Nations and UN-sponsored declarations and conferences.
- Another category of moral equivalence pretends that the intended murder of innocent civilians is equal to the accidental deaths of civilians in targeted assassinations.
Among the many tools mobilized for the demonization of Israel, one frequently used is a mode of argument known as false moral equivalence. The term “moral equivalence,” originates from a 1906 address by American philosopher William James. It is the claim that there is no difference between two actions of greatly varying character. It is frequently used to emphasize similarities between two otherwise dissimilar acts. False moral equivalence undermines norms and values in a society, blurring the lines between good and evil also right and wrong.
False moral equivalence comparing Israel’s actions to those of the Nazis was used by several prominent social-democratic politicians, including French President François Mitterrand.Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme and Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou.
When two dissimilar realities are linked such as Israel and Nazism, use of one side of the equivalence will eventually automatically bring to mind the other – however distorted the comparison may be. Subsequent repetition results in an acceptance, where the false moral equivalence is no longer countered or questioned.
False moral equivalence should not be confused with moral relativism. The latter lends itself to the justification of behavior by claiming that they are acceptable in a certain culture’s values or were common practice during certain periods of history.
Moral equivalence embodies comparisons, defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as: “The act or process of comparing: as the representing of one thing or person as similar or like another, or the modification of an adjective or adverb to denote different levels of quality, quantity, or relation.”Comparisons innately lend themselves to frequent abuse.
CATEGORIES OF MORAL EQUIVALENCE
False moral equivalence used against Israel may be categorized into nine main groups, shown below. These groups are:
- The false moral equivalence between Israel and Nazi Germany;
- Israel and South African apartheid;
- Zionism and racism and its sub-categories Zionism and colonialism/imperialism, as well as Zionism and fascism, the Holocaust and the Nakba (Arabic for “The Catastrophe,” of 1948.)
- False moral comparisons of murder and accidental death, comparisons of targeted killings of terrorists with intentional murder of civilians;
- Equivalencies drawn between kidnapping of soldiers and imprisoning terrorists;
- Presenting moral equivalence between Israel’s actions as a legitimate sovereign state and the illegitimate actions of terrorists.
- A ninth category, “others,” includes demonization of Israel in ways which do not fit into the above categories, such as the moral equivalence drawn between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and the perceived parallels between Nazi brutality and the actions of their Allied opponents.
CATEGORY 1: ISRAEL AS A NAZI STATE
One widespread example of false moral equivalence is the comparison of Israel’s behavior to that of the Nazis, and suggests that Israel’s actions are equivalent to those of the perpetrators of the world’s largest genocide. In Western societies, Nazi behavior has become the contemporary equivalent of absolute evil.
A poll published in 2004 by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation asked Germans if they agreed with the statement “What the State of Israel does today to the Palestinians is in principle the same as what the Nazis did during the Third Reich.” Many respondents (23.9%) partly agreed with the statement and 27.3% of respondents totally agreed. When a similar poll from the same foundation was published ten years later, with the same question, 16.6% of respondents partly agreed, and 10.5% totally agreed.
When a Bertelsmann foundation poll put the same question to Germans in 2007, 30% of respondents agreed. However, by the time the question was asked yet again in 2013, the number of German respondents agreeing with the statement had risen sharply to 41%, a figure much higher than the findings of previous polls.The multiple polls show that the false moral equivalence is a well-proven phenomenon even though the actual numbers may differ.
The first comprehensive study investigating the attitudes of Norwegians toward minorities was carried out in 2011 and 2012 by the Center for Studies of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities at the request by the Norwegian government. The study found that 38% of Norwegians agree with the statement that Israel behaves toward the Palestinians in the same way that the Nazis acted toward the Jews.
One element that can be learned from these figures is how important belief and thoughts are in addition to speech and actions. These people did not come forward and say Israel is a Nazi state. It was not even known that such a large number of Europeans held this belief until they were asked. The many people holding extreme false views about Israel provide the societal infrastructure that enables anti-Israeli inciters to succeed.
In 2009, for example Trine Lilleng, a first Secretary in the Norwegian embassy in Saudi Arabia, sent an email from her Ministry account juxtaposing pictures of slain children in Gaza with “photos of Holocaust victims in seemingly correlating situations.” After these emails were covered by the Norwegian and Israeli press, she faced no reprimands, and may have even been promoted, according to a Haaretz reporter who contacted the embassy a few months following the incident.
David Harris, Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, wrote an answer to Lilleng’s email: “You’ve been in Riyadh since 2007. If you’re so anguished by human rights violations, perhaps you could have begun by devoting some of your attention — and email blasts — to what surrounds you. Or were your eyes diplomatically shut?
In April 2002 the Portuguese Nobel Prize-winning writer José Saramago, using the allegory of David and Goliath, wrote in the Spanish daily El País describing his view of how Israel has become a Nazi state: “From the point of view of the Jews, Israel can never be brought to trial because it was tortured, gassed and cremated at Auschwitz. I wonder if those Jews who died in Nazi concentration camps, those who were persecuted throughout history, those who died in the pogroms, those who were forgotten in the ghettos, I wonder if that vast multitude of unfortunates do not feel shame on seeing the heinous acts committed by their descendants. I wonder if the fact that we endured does not constitute the best reason not to hurt others.”
To Saramago, Israel, while supposedly using the Holocaust and pogroms as justification, acts as a Goliath toward the Palestinians.
According to Belgian historian Joel Kotek,
“there is in fact evidence that across the board, from the far right to the far left, there are those who take advantage of the ‘opportunity’ offered by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to unleash anti-Semitic utterances long suppressed precisely on account of the genocide. Thus, it seems to us, that anti-Zionism would appear to have become a means of drowning a feeling of vague guilt on the part of the West toward the Jews not long since abandoned to barbarity. a neat way of making up for the cowardliness and abandonment of the past by taking up an unambiguous and virtuous position on behalf of the victims of major contemporary injustices.”
CATEGORY 2: ISRAEL AS AN APARTHEID STATE
Since the democratization and end of apartheid in South Africa, Israel has faced a new false moral equivalence, the comparison of its policies to those of the former South African white-only regime. Ignoring that much of the West Bank is under Palestinian National Authority control whereas all of South Africa was under the control of the undemocratic Apartheid regime, these opponents try to create the false comparison that Israel is an apartheid state.
Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter made this comparison between Israel and apartheid politics in his 2006 book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid — which incorporates the false moral equivalence in its title.
Within the book, Carter writes of the ways in which Israel may change the status quo. His “option two” states the possibility of
“A system of apartheid, with two peoples occupying the same land but completely separated from each other, with Israelis totally dominant and suppressing violence by depriving Palestinians of their basic human rights. This is the policy now being followed although many citizens of Israel deride the racist connotation of prescribing permanent second-class status for the Palestinians… An unacceptable modification of this choice, now being proposed, is the taking of substantial portions of the occupied territory, with the remaining Palestinians completely surrounded by walls, fences, and Israeli checkpoints, living as prisoners within the small portion of land left to them.'”
Alex Safian, the assistant director of CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, proved that even when giving his book a title rooted in moral equivalence, Carter perhaps did not fully comprehend himself that his claims that Israel is an apartheid state simply are not true. Safian remarked that “ routinely misstated the definition of the word ‘apartheid’ saying that it was not based on racism. Yet the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defines apartheid as ‘inhumane acts … committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group.”
Retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a former anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, in a letter written in 2002 to The Guardian, at the height of the Second Intifada, is one among many examples of Tutu using his own past as an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa to justify this false comparison. He wrote:
“What is not so understandable, not justified, is what it did to another people to guarantee its existence. I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.”
Like Carter, Tutu confused systems of apartheid under a single government in South Africa with Israel and the PA’s dual-control of the region. What is most striking about this statement — and countless others by Tutu decrying apartheid in Israel — is that unlike Carter, Tutu’s focus on Israel at that time did not come from personal observation and travel in the region. His last visit to Israel prior to his 2002 letter was in 1989, four years before the Oslo Accords and creation of the Palestinian National Authority.
“Israel,” wrote Robbie Sabel, professor of law at Hebrew University, “is a multi-racial and multi-colored society, and the Arab minority actively participates in the political process. There are Arab parliamentarians, Arab judges including on the Supreme Court, Arab cabinet ministers, Arab heads of hospital departments, Arab university professors, Arab diplomats in the Foreign Service, and very senior Arab police and army officers. Incitement to racism in Israel is a criminal offence, as is discrimination on the basis of race or religion.”
In addition, Sabel wrote, “The real goal behind the Apartheid campaign is the denial of the legitimacy of the State of Israel and the determination that the only status the Jewish population in Israel can hope for is that of a ‘protected’ ethnic minority in an Arab Palestinian state.”
CATEGORY 3: ZIONISM AND RACISM
The moral equivalence of Zionism and racism is a false moral comparison, apparently initially fabricated to further a political agenda. Prior to the mid-1960s, there was little mention of Zionism or the ethno-nationalist movement for the return of the Jewish people to their homeland as being a racist ideology. The singling out of “Zionism as a form of racism” was a device created by the Soviet Union to justify its refusal to condemn anti-Semitism. Soviet leaders felt that condemning anti-Semitism would anger its Arab world allies.
The strategy initially was to try to expel Israel from the United Nations. When it failed, the Soviet Union, its satellite states and Arab allies instead succeeded in passing UN resolution 3379, defining Zionism as a form of racism, in 1975. During the same year, the World Conference to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination in Durban, South Africa also determined that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” This resolution remained in place until the General Assembly officially revoked it in 1991, after the fall of the USSR.
This false comparison has also been repeated countless times through United Nations and United Nations-sponsored declarations and conferences. In the NGO-sponsored forum at the 2001 UN Conference against Racism, held in Durban, a strategy focusing on delegitimizing Israel was adopted.
Although initially attendees, the United States and Israel, after receiving for consideration the text of the Durban NGO forum, much of it equating Zionism directly to racism, withdrew from the first Durban Conference. The NGO Declaration referred to Israel as an ‘apartheid state,’ guilty of ‘racist crimes against humanity including ethnic cleansing, acts of genocide,’ and called for ‘comprehensive sanctions and embargoes’ as well as ‘the full cessation of all links.'” The text of this forum was presented to the Durban organizing committee for consideration.
The Durban NGO Forum later led to the US, Israel, and seven other nations boycotting the 2009 Durban Review Conference in Geneva. Although since the fall of the Soviet Union no UN-affiliated body has passed a declaration that “Zionism is racism,” calling the world’s only Jewish state racist is a direct moral equivalent of this statement. The same logic, however, repeated itself during the Durban II conference, as well as the Goldstone Report in 2009, through many other false moral equivalences such as the comparison of Israel to an apartheid state. Read On…