Monday, August 23, 2010

Using Auschwitz against Israel

A rhetorical ploy that I have found disturbing and disgusting whenever I have come across it are attempts to use Nazi analogies against Israel. It has always seemed such an offensive metaphor to use against the Jewish state that I struggle to see how anyone can even begin to deploy it: indeed, if it comes to seem reasonable, then that in itself is surely evidence that you should re-assess seriously your reasoning and perspectives.

A recent essay by Yoram Hazony Israel Through European Eyes (via) has proved to be greatly enlightening in explaining how the spectre of Auschwitz can be used against the Jewish state: indeed, how a certain conception of what Auschwitz represents fundamentally undermines the legitimacy of the Jewish state.

Not that the essay has changed my mind about how repulsive use of Nazi analogies against the Jewish state is. Hazony, a citizen of Israel, seems to have written the essay to try and understand what seems so self-evidently offensive.

A clash of paradigms
Hazony argues that the problem for Israel is not an issue of the facts of the matter. Events fluctuate back and forth:
Yet the international efforts to smear Israel, to corner Israel, to delegitimize Israel and drive it from the family of nations, have proceeded and advanced and grown ever more potent despite the many upturns and downturns in Israeli policy and Israeli PR.

Exhibit A of this is:
Nothing could make this more evident than the Jewish withdrawal from Gaza and the subsequent establishment there of an independent and belligerent Islamic republic 40 miles from downtown Tel Aviv. Israelis and friends of Israel can reasonably be divided on the question of whether this withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, or the parallel withdrawal from the security zone in South Lebanon in 2000, was really in Israel’s interests, and whether the Jewish state is today better off because of them. But one thing about which we can all agree, I think, is that these withdrawals did nothing to stem the tide of hatred and vilification being poured on Israel’s head internationally. Whatever it is that is driving the trend toward the progressive delegitimization of Israel, it is a trend operating more or less without reference to any particular Israeli policy on any given issue
The problem is how facts are construed, the paradigm through which events are viewed.

Hazony cites the model of belief provided by Thomas Kuhn’s theory of paradigms. Since Hazony is discussing the sociology of belief, I have no problem with his use of Kuhn’s theory (attempts to build philosophy of science on it are an entirely different matter). The key point is:
As Kuhn points out, even a mountain of facts will not change the mind of a scientist who has been trained in a different paradigm, because the fundamental framework from which he views the world is different: The facts themselves mean something completely different to him.
This describes the endless frustration of political debates quite well. Political facts are rarely “brute”: the same events can be seen quite differently depending on what views of human nature and of social causation and possibly lie behind responses to them.

In Hazony’s analysis, the old paradigm is that of the nation-state. That national self-determination was a norm worthy of respect within the international order. That Israel is the Jewish state is precisely the basis of its legitimacy, part of a surge in national self-determination as the old imperial orders were dismantled.

One notes that this principle still has power within the educated elites of the West. Tibetan self-determination, or Palestinian self-determination, are still worthy causes. As, indeed, are (for example) Welsh or Scottish self-determination, (though within the European Union, not against it).

As Hazony points out, it is also a principle with a lot of (European) history behind it—notably French, Dutch and English:
What made the defeat of the Spanish “Armada” by Elizabeth in 1588 a turning point in mankind’s history was precisely the fact that in turning away Phillip II’s bid to rule England, she also made solid the freedom (or “self-determination”) of peoples from the Austro-Spanish claim to a right to rule mankind as sole protector of the universal Catholic faith.
In the end, it is a principle with too much history. The European Union had its origins, after all, in a determination to end the cycle of Franco-German enmity that had spawned two megacidal wars in European in the space of four decades.

Rejecting the nation-state
The alternative paradigm to that of the nation state, Hazony traces back to Immanuel Kant’s 1795 assault on the legitimacy of the nation-state in his Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch. Kant took direct aim at the pretensions of unimpeded national sovereignty:
each state sees its own majesty … precisely in not having to submit to any external constraint, and the glory of its ruler consists in his power to order thousands of people to immolate themselves …
A point that had greater power in a Europe that had blasted itself apart in the Dynasts’ War followed by the Dictators’ War.
Kant’s solution was:
There is only one rational way in which states co-existing with other states can emerge from the lawless condition of pure warfare…. They must renounce their savage and lawless freedom, adapt themselves to public coercive laws, and thus form an international state, which would necessarily continue to grow until it embraced all the people of the earth.
In other words, go down the path of the European Union and the process of internationalisation it has fostered—such as the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Kant’s claim did not resonate during the C19th or early C20th. After 1945, however, it very much did. (But, of course, the post-1945 period has seen quite a surge in Kantian, or neo-Kantian thought.) In particular, the Nazi scourge was seen as the “rotten fruit of the nation-state”, in Hazony’s words.

Not that Hazony agrees with this reasoning:
For the record, my own view is that this line of argument is preposterous. The heart of the idea of the nation-state is the political self-determination of peoples. The nation-state is a form of government that limits its political aspirations to the rule of one nation, and to establishing national freedom for this nation.
The Nazi aim for lebensraum was a bid for a racial-imperial state that was the greatest offense against the notion of national self-determination inflicted on European peoples. (An experience which, on the way through, did so much to discredit the imperial idea among Europeans.) As Hazony writes, far from manifesting national self-determination:
The Nazi state, on the other hand, was precisely the opposite of this: Hitler opposed the idea of the nation-state as an expression of Western effeteness. On his view, the political fate of all nations should be determined by the new German empire that was to arise: Indeed, Hitler saw his Third Reich as an improved incarnation of what he referred to as the First Reich—which was none other than the Holy Roman Empire of the Hapsburgs! The Nazis’ aim was thus diametrically opposed to that of the Western nation-states. Hitler’s dream was precisely to build his empire on their ruin.

Quite (even if Nazi ideology stressed the allegedly German nature of the first Reich).

Needless to say, this take on Auschwitz—that it is first and foremost a manifestation of the nation-state—is not the typical Jewish take on the Shoah:
For most Jews, Auschwitz has a very particular meaning: It was not Herzl’s Zionist Organization that succeeded in persuading nearly all Jews the world over that there could be no other way but to establish a sovereign Jewish state. It was Auschwitz and the destruction of the six million at the hands of the Germans and their sympathizers that did this. From the horror and humiliation of Auschwitz, this inescapable lesson emerged: That it was Jewish dependence on the military protection of others that had brought this about.
On this, I am definitely with the Jews. The first principle of Zionism was that Jews were not safe in Europe: that turned out to be true. The travail of the Jews was precisely that no state was there to defend them. It is monstrous to use the horrors of Jewish powerlessness to argue for depriving Jews of the one state that does exist to defend them.

But Auschwitz has other victims than Jews. Moreover, so many Jews were caught in the Nazi power as a result of a war waged by nation-states. Hence:
It is a little-discussed fact that the Jews are not the only ones for whom Auschwitz has become an important political symbol. Many Europeans, too, see Auschwitz as being at the heart of the lesson of World War II. But the conclusions they draw are precisely the opposite of those drawn by Jews. Following Kant, they see Auschwitz as the ultimate expression of that barbarism, that brutal debasement of humanity, which is national particularism. On this view, the death camps provide the ultimate proof of the evil that results from permitting nations to decide for themselves how to dispose of the military power in their possession. The obvious conclusion is that it was wrong to give the German nation this power of life and death. If such evil is to be prevented from happening again and again, the answer must be in the dismantling of Germany and the other national states of Europe, and the yoking together of all the European peoples under a single international government. Eliminate the national state once and for all—Ecrasez l’infame!—and you have sealed off that dark road to Auschwitz.

There are many things wrong with the analysis Hazony describes, but what I find most offensive is that any such analysis insists on the central importance of the German particularism of the Nazi state but strips the Nazi state’s most hated victims of their identity: they become generalised victims of the nation state. Their Jewishness becomes irrelevant to the moral lessons of Auschwitz.

Yes, of course Nazis had other victims. Nevertheless, anyone aware of the history of Jew-hatred cannot be other than appalled at tying the ultimate pogrom—which is what the Shoah was—as some crime specific to the nation-state. Jew-hatred, including murderous Jew-hatred, long predates the nation-state. One can have anti-Jewish progroms without a nation-state. In terms of the history of Jew-hatred, it is far more important that most of the key organisers of the Holocaust were born and raised Catholic, than that they were Germans. Particularly as Hitler, for example, was Austrian.

Yes, Europeans slaughtered each other for national reasons in the C20th, but Europeans have slaughtered each other for many reasons over the centuries—notably religious ones. There is no specific evil to national identity as a basis for tyranny and slaughter.

Ideological slaughter
Consider the other megacidal ideology of the C20th, Leninism. To cast the meaning of Auschwitz as some specific manifesation of the nation-state is to deny the crimes of the Soviet Union, and the other murderous tyrannies of Leninism, moral significance and analytical resonance. There were crimes against nations involved in such, but the slaughters and wilful starvations of Leninism were not crimes for nationalist reasons, but class ones, in pursuit of a thoroughly universalist ideology.

There are many reasons why the crimes of Leninism have not resonated within Western Europe—and particularly the European educated elite—as the Nazi ones do: none of those reasons is respectable, if the concern is to understand the basis of such slaughters and guard against their recurrence.

Particularly if Auschwitz becomes a symbol of the evil of nation-states waging war. Then analysis of the causes of the great Wars of mutual European slaughter is turned into an analysis of mass murder in a way which, when we consider the Leninist killings, clearly does not work.

It could reasonably countered that the issue is not the nation-state as such, but the notion of the absolute sovereignty of the state, however constituted. But, unless one is going to embrace anarchism and the abolition of the state, there is still going to be the issue of where the trumping authority resides, where power lies.

Still, if one wants to create a European order such that the states of Europe can never war against each other, then national identity does become “the” problem, for one has to create a supranational European identity that trumps national identity. Hence:
Notice that according to this view, it is not Israel that is the answer to Auschwitz, but the European Union: A united Europe will make it impossible for Germany, or any other European nation, to rise up and persecute others once again. In this sense, it is European Union that stands as the guarantor of the future peace of the Jews, and indeed, of all humanity.
But, why would a supranational identity somehow be automatically safer? ‘Muslim’, ‘Christian’, ‘proletariat’, ‘Aryan’ are all supranational identities in whose name slaughter and tyranny has been engaged in.

Indeed, the unwillingness of European politicians to deal with Islamic militancy has made Jews in Europe feel increasingly unsafe. That the EU “guarantees” safety is a very large claim to make—particularly as it is clearly not true for Jews outside the EU and increasingly seems somewhat dubious for Jews inside the EU. The central issues is still what claims, and how strongly, people can make on power and how: this is true in a world of nation-states or supranational states.

The problem of irresponsible power
And how responsible power is, and to whom. Consider a different analysis: both the continent-wide wars, and the megacidal slaughters, of C20th Europe were not the products of the nation-state as such, but of irresponsible power. The fundamental dynamic which drove the European states to war in 1914 was that the three imperial states—Hohenzollern Germany, Habsburg Austria-Hungary and Romanov Russia—had ruling elites who were threatened by demotic claims—both democratic and national—and used war and the threat of war to justify their continuing authority: a fundamentally unstable structure that fell into war. None of them were nation-states: they were imperial orders which rested (to varying degrees) on denying various national aspirations, aspirations which generated a significant part of the tensions which drove their strategies that collided in war.

If the European Great War (aka World War One) was, at bottom, the Dynasts’ War then the Eurasian War (aka World War Two) was very much the Dictators’ War. It started in Europe with an agreement between two dictators—Hitler and Stalin—to divide Poland and the Baltic States between them in gross violation of the principle of national self-determination. Its course in Europe was driven by the ambitions of the various dictators—Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin. It was a massive, and monstrously destructive, manifestation of irresponsible power.

Which suggests the real solution is responsible power. Even the critique of the notion of absolute state sovereignty is, after all, a critique of power without constraint.

If the European superstate is a structure of taming, reducing and eliminating irresponsible power, then it is a solution to the spectre of war, and of Auschwitz and Kolyma. Which is the problem, for that is what it is not. The EU does insist on democratic governance for its member states, yet its own structure subverts democratic governance through the democratic deficit. Worse, its attempt to export its “solution” through internationalisation is a process of exporting the democratic deficit globally.

The misdiagnosis of “the” problem of European history as being nationalism is both convenient and disastrous. Convenient, because nationalism is a popular sentiment, so, if one has pretensions to be Platonic Guardians, the notions that a moral and cognitive elite has to “guide” the benighted masses away from the “curse” of nationalism generates a sense of superior status and of justifying new forms of, well, irresponsible power. The democratic deficit becomes, not a bug, but a feature.

Yet the notion that the Eurasian War was created and driven by popular sentiment is nonsense. The German people did enjoy the string of military victories after the War began but, in the lead up to war, Hitler found their preference for peace extremely frustrating. War was what he wanted (if not quite the War he got), not something the German people, in any sense, drove him to.

Certainly, warmongers manipulate popular sentiments, but that is easier to do the more irresponsible power they have. The issue remains irresponsible power, not national identities and sentiments.

Unless, of course, such sentiments are a barrier to new forms of irresponsible power. The well-established nation states of Europe form political communities in which popular will can cohere at least moderately successfully. The only political community in supranational Europe is the political community of the European elite. It thus becomes an excellent forum for power without responsibility.

Irresponsible internationanlism
Which is even more true for the internationalist elite. The real problem for the International Criminal Court (ICC), for example, is not the idea that people should be responsible for their actions, but that it is based on an authority not genuinely responsible to anyone. American rejection of the ICC is entirely logical, since it represents a clear denial of the principles of the American Revolution. And it is so in a very specific way, as its founding treaty claims to the right to have authority over Americans without the consent of Americans. Europeans treating the notion of the consent of Americans to be governed as a mere triviality is, after all, how and why the the Ameican Revolution began and the United States came into existence.

Which is, or should be, another one of those warning signs. That it does not even seem to occur to the EU elite that they are claiming the right to abrogate the American Revolution is, in itself, very revealing.

For the failure of the EU to be any more than a deeply flawed response to the problems of European history is manifested in the attitudes of the EU elite. If one wants to be a member of the moral “cutting edge” in the EU, one is expected to manifest a range of attitudes, including:
• Hostility to Israel;
• Strong support for EU-driven internationalisation;
• Hostility to much American policy (particularly military policy);
• Strong support for the structures of the EU, including its overriding and supplanting of national sentiment.

In other words, the attitudes that make on a “good European” can be summarised as:
• Blame the Jews.
• The world would be better if run according to our perspectives.
• The colonials are vulgar brutes.
• The masses should defer to their betters.

The notion that these represent some radical “new departure” in European attitudes would be sad if it was not so pathetic (indeed, contemptible). But irresponsible power needs justifications: claims to superior status, identification of corrupting groups and ideas to oppose work very well for that.

[In particular, if bad ideas--such as nationalism and identification with the nation-state--lead to evil, then good ideas--ideas that create the “compassionate society”--grant authority. The issue becomes empowering those good ideas by empowering the people who embody them.]

The common market aspect of the EU is very valuable. Its insistence on democratic governance among its member states has been a genuine boon to democracy in Europe. Nevertheless, there is a canker at the heart of the EU project that may yet bring it all crashing down. The canker being its creation of new patterns of irresponsible power and—even worse—its attempt to export such globally.

And the use of Auschwitz against the Jewish state is a manifestation—for those with eyes to see—of that moral corruption, of that self-serving failure of understanding.

ADDENDA Fidel Castro gives an excellent example of using Nazi analogies against Israel.


  1. This is a fabulous but very chewy post that I am going to be mulling over for some time.