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In recent weeks, readers of The New York Times were subjected to statements comparing Palestinian Arabs to Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Such false analogies are hardly news anymore. What made the latest accusations notable was that both were made by Israelis.
The first was made by a former cabinet minister. Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof, in a March 18 column, bemoaned what he characterized as the reluctance of American politicians to criticize Israel.
In that context, Kristof recalled that three years ago, "Israel's minister of justice [Tommy Lapid] spoke publicly of photos of an elderly Palestinian woman beside the ruins of her home, after it had been destroyed by the Israeli army" in the course of an anti-terror operation. "He said that they reminded him of his own grandmother, who had been dispossessed by the Nazis."
Kristof wrote: "Can you imagine an American cabinet secretary ever saying such a thing?"
No, it's extremely unlikely that would happen, because most reasonable people, cabinet secretaries included, recognize that such analogies are inaccurate and irresponsible. Even those few political figures who have used such language have usually retracted it once reminded, by the force of public condemnation, that such comparisons are unacceptable.
Two years ago, US Senator Richard Durbin (Democrat of Illinois) compared American soldiers' interrogation of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay to the methods used by the Nazis. Also in 2005, then-Senator Rick Santorum (Republican of Pennsylvania) once described the Democrats' filibuster of judicial nominees as "the equivalent of Adolf Hitler in 1942."
But both men soon apologized for their statements. Tommy Lapid, too, quickly backtracked and denied that he had intended to compare Israel's actions to those of the Nazis.
FIVE DAYS after Kristof's column appeared, the Times published a feature story about Israeli soldiers involved in checking Arab travelers in the territories. The system of security checkpoints "protects Israel, but also deeply inconveniences Palestinians who would never consider strapping on a bomb" the Times correspondent noted.
The article quoted an Israeli reserve soldier who, during a public discussion about the checkpoints, said part of the problem soldiers face is that some of the Arabs seeking to pass through "come up to our faces and lie to us."
At that point, according to the Times, retired Prof. Uriel Simon stood up and proclaimed, "My father was a liar. My grandfather was a liar. How else did we cross lines to get to this country? We stayed alive by lying. We lied to the Russians, we lied to the Germans, we lied to the British! We lie for survival! Jacob the Liar was my father!... Of course [Arab travelers] lie! Everyone lies at a checkpoint! We lied at checkpoints, too."
NO, PROF. SIMON, all liars are not the same. An Arab seeking to pass from territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority to territory controlled by Israel is not the same as a Jew fleeing goverment-sponsored pogroms in Czarist Russia or escaping Nazi genocide. And Israeli soldiers checking identity papers, in order to capture fugitive terrorists or would-be suicide bombers, are not comparable to the Czarist police or Hitler's stormtroopers.
Such analogies pollute public discourse. Regardless of the speakers' intentions, the effect is to trivialize the brutal horrors committed by those who have persecuted Jews, while at the same time grotesquely distorting the actions of the Israeli army.
One hopes that what Lapid and Simon said simply reflected carelessness on their part. Perhaps in an unguarded moment, in the midst of a heated argument over a controversial subject, they let their emotions get the best of them. That can happen. Surely in a calmer moment, when he carefully considers the historical facts, Simon will recognize, as Lapid did, that such comparisons are invalid.
THE PROBLEM, however, is that, as Winston Churchill once said, "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on." Thanks to the Internet, that trip halfway around the world doesn't take long. Lapid's remark about his grandmother made its way into Nicholas Kristof's New York Times column, but his subsequent statement denying any comparison between Israel and the Nazis was nowhere to be found.
If Uriel Simon one day regrets his statement about liars at checkpoints, will his retraction be reported in the Times? Or will his original remark continue to zoom through cyberspace, while his statement of remorse limps along, far behind, with one pants leg on?
The writer is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.
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