The ADL should value Nazi analogies, not call them 'offensive'
In mid-December, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) sharply condemned a board member of the National Rifle Association (NRA) for comparing gun restrictions in America to those in Nazi Germany. That’s par for the course for the group, which appears to have a strict policy of battling any analogy that invokes Nazi Germany as offensive to the memory of the Holocaust. But Nazi Germany isn’t the same thing as the Holocaust—in fact, the Jewish community should constantly look for signs that evoke aspects of the pre-Holocaust era so we can speak out before events descend further.
The ADL, which calls itself “the world’s leading organization fighting anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry” unfortunately seems to issue a denunciatory press release every time someone from the left, right, or center suggests that a contemporary problem recalls some facet of the Nazi era.
In 2010, Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) said Arizona’s strict policy requiring immigrants to carry legal documents was reminiscent of the “second-class status of Jews in Germany prior to World War II when they had to have their papers with them at all times.” Here, the analogy is quite precise—in both cases a minority was expected to carry papers. The ADL ignored the Congressman’s specific reference to pre-World War II Germany and suggested he was comparing the Arizona law to “a plan to force Jews into ghettos and for their ultimate deportation to extermination camps.”
The ADL reflexively objects when politicians allege their opponents use the “big lie” techniques perfected by Joseph Goebbels. For example, the organization complained when Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) compared healthcare reform distortions to Nazi propaganda. But there indeed were outrageous lies in the health policy debate (remember “Death Panels”?) and if we can’t explore whether there’s a parallel to Nazi Germany (not to Auschwitz, but to German disinformation) how can we ever heed the lesson of “Never Again”?
In 2012, the ADL took law professor Judith Reisman to the woodshed for comparing Nazi posters in German public schools to pro-gay posters in American ones. The group’s statement declared that “invoking the Holocaust and the Nazi effort to exterminate the Jewish people is offensive and has no place in civil discourse.” Exterminate? Only in the hyper-paranoid minds of ADL employees does a simple comparison of propaganda evoke genocide against Jews.
For the record: Polis, Cohen, and Reisman themselves are all Jews.
One case is actually a bit humorous. In 2011, the ADL criticized actress Susan Sarandon for her “disturbing, deeply offensive, and completely uncalled for” statement that Pope Benedict XVI was a “Nazi.” One problem: technically, the former Joseph Ratzinger really was, well, a Nazi. As a teen in wartime Germany, he was a reluctant member of the Hitler Youth.
An amusing Internet adage known as “Godwin’s Law” asserts that in any lengthy discussion on any subject, someone will eventually make a comparison to Nazis or Hitler—and that person automatically loses the argument. But Godwin’s Law doesn’t apply when the analogy refers to events that actually echo parts of the Nazi era.
For example, the Dominican Republic’s top court recently stripped citizenship from the children of undocumented Haitian immigrants, and ordered an audit of all birth records since 1929 to disqualify others. The ADL should have denounced a ruling that has clear resonance with the 1935 Nuremberg Laws robbing German Jews of citizenship. On the contrary, the league would probably have attacked any public figure making that point—perhaps decrying “the comparison of these events to the horrors of Treblinka.” Nothing to see here. Move along.
Sure, some Nazi analogies are more apt than others. The NRA official’s comments seem particularly off-base to me. But if comparisons to the experiences of Jews in Germany in the 1930s are never legitimate, Holocaust memorialization and education themselves become less relevant—as does the role of organizations like the ADL.
David Benkof has a master’s degree in modern Jewish history from Stanford. He teaches Hebrew grammar at Yeshivat Darche Noam/Shapell’s in Jerusalem and constructs the weekly Jerusalem Post Crossword Puzzle. He can be reached at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.