Reductio ad Hitlerum is a logical fallacy. Leo Strauss coined the phrase, and described it thus: Hitler liked neoclassical art; therefore, neoclassicism is a Nazi art form. Hitler believed in the traditional family; therefore, the traditional family is a Nazi idea.
One would think that Israelis would be the last to dare comparing their fellow Jews to Hitler and the Nazis, even if for the sole reason that doing so not only trivializes the Holocaust, it actually down-right denies it.
Sadly, Israelis have been comparing one another to Nazis since all the way back in 1933, when David Ben Gurion, later to become Israel’s first prime minister, referred to his political rival, Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky, as “Vladimir Hitler.” To be fair, Ben Gurion did make the remark prior to the Holocaust.
But after the Holocaust? Israelis who make comparisons between today’s Israel and 1930s Germany have no excuse for doing so. Yet they still do in misguided attempts to irreparably tarnish the reputation of either Israel or their political opponents.
Philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz was well-known for doing so. In the wake of the 1982 Lebanon War, he compared Israel as a whole to Nazi Germany. He justified the comparison by pointing to the Israeli “occupation,” and went so far as to coin the term “Judeo-Nazi” to refer to his Jewish countrymen. Naturally, that term has become a mainstay of left-wing discourse that seeks to defame the right.
This is not to say that right-wingers don’t use the “N” word against leftists. They do, but in a different manner. When used by the right, the term “Nazi” is a curse, an obscenity, as opposed to the left presenting it as a rational comparison between their present-day political rivals and history’s greatest fiends.
It was during the 2016 Holocaust Remembrance Day speech by then-IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Gen. Yair Golan that things really took a turn for the worst.
Among other things, Golan said: “It’s scary to see horrifying developments that took place in Europe begin to unfold here [in Israel].” His speech sparked an uproar that likely cost him a promotion to Chief of Staff. Since then, and especially after Netanyahu’s decisive victory at the polls, the Nazi argument, which is now framed as concern for Israel’s democracy, has only gained momentum.
In his first speech in the Knesset, “Blue and White” party leader Benny Gantz warned that Israel faced a bleak future if Netanyahu were to succeed in passing the so-called “override clause,” which would enable the government to re-legislate laws that were disqualified by the Supreme Court.
But Gantz wasn’t satisfied with just critiquing the prime minister. He chose to compare Netanyahu and his new government to Israel’s Nazi-like enemies. “After I have fought against [Nazi-like] enemies who wished to annihilate us,” said Gantz, “I stand here today to fight against a new threat. A threat against our democracy … we shall fight in the streets, in the city squares, in the neighborhoods and schools.”
If that speech sounds familiar, it’s essentially a Hebrew version of Churchill’s famous declaration that the UK under his governance would fight tooth-and-nail against the Nazis: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…”
Now, when a former army chief and a man who nearly became prime minister compares Israel’s democracy to the failed Nazi regime, he creates an atmosphere in which all means are justified to fight against pure evil, which today takes the form of Netanyahu and his cabinet.
And if that wasn’t enough, just a day after Gantz’ speech came the speech of Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut, delivered in Nuremberg, Germany. Given the context, it is legitimate to mention Hitler in this place, but it is not legitimate to draw a straight line from Nuremberg to the Netanyahu government. But that’s precisely what Hayut did when evoking the 1933 “Enabling Act” that gave the German Cabinet, meaning Hitler, the power to enact laws without the involvement of the Reichstag.
Chief Justice Hayut sees it as perfectly acceptable to use allusions to Hitler to combat Netanyahu’s machinations, even though many Israelis believe it was the Supreme Court that was wielding too much power, and that the prime minister is merely restoring the proper balance.
By Netanyahu’s estimation, it is the unmitigated power of the Judiciary that threatens democracy. The difference between Hayut and Netanyahu, however, is that the second would not dare make comparisons to 1930s Germany. And that makes one wonder whether Gantz and Hayut are using the Reductio ad Hitlerum argument in a frantic effort to convince us Israelis that democracy can’t thrive under a conservative regime. True democracy, they seem to be saying, can only be liberal or progressive.