Grumpy Old Man: It's not just the hurt

Important terms lose their necessary sense of evil when they're thrown around in a vast and endless war of words.

Symbols can be powerfully hurtful (photo credit: Reuters)
Symbols can be powerfully hurtful
(photo credit: Reuters)
Many people and groups are fond of mining the Holocaust for terminology to describe things that are happening today. A lot of Israel haters say the IDF is “worse than the Nazis.” A lot of Jew-haters say it’s too bad the Germans didn’t finish us off. A lot of Israelis say Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal is “continuing Hitler’s work” and that some of the material found in PA-authorized textbooks is “worse than what appeared in Der Stürmer.”
It seems to have taken the recent antics of certain haredim, though, for some Knesset members to call for up to half a year in jail and a NIS 100,000 fine for calling someone a “Nazi” or employing Holocaust terminology or symbolism as brickbats.
These terms and symbols can be powerfully hurtful, especially for Holocaust survivors, and for that reason alone one should think a lot more than twice about using them. But needlessly invoking them goes way beyond hurt – it cheapens these terms and symbols and dilutes the essence of a horrible period, not to mention the memory of the six million, because no matter how vile, no matter how evil something is, no one and nothing today approaches what Hitler and the Nazis did.
But should we stop there? A lot of important terms lose their zing, their necessary sense of evil and something extraordinary when they’re thrown around in a vast and endless war of words.
Back in 1982, when Ariel Sharon was defense minister and seemed to be spending a lot of time explaining the whys and howcomes of the first Lebanon war, he frequently used the word “terrorist.” One instance sticks out in my memory. He was talking about something that involved a PLO-run hospital in Beirut, I believe, and he mentioned “terrorist nurses.”
Now, you and I might understand where this was coming from: It was Sharon’s way of emphasizing that the PLO was a terrorist organization. Yet to a foreign journalist parachuted into action from afar, some things are not so self-evident.
Did these nurses, at the end of their shifts, remove their hospital whites in favor of something a little more guerrilla, grab AK- 47s from their lockers and head out for a nighttime raid on, say, a kibbutz nursery? Probably not, and calling them terrorists sounded ridiculous.
It sounded even more ridiculous when everything even remotely associated with the PLO seemed to deserve, according to Sharon’s way of thinking, the description “terrorist.” It got so bad you half-expected to hear him call Yasser Arafat’s belt the “terrorist belt” (with not a stick of explosives to be seen, at least on the length of leather holding up Old Stubble Face’s knickers).
More recently we’ve been hearing a lot of “anti-Semite” and “self-hating Jew,” particularly in the wake of “Newt, Mitt, Bibi and Vladimir,” in which New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote on December 13 that the hearty congressional reception accorded Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu early last year had been “bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.”
Obviously there was something to people’s more measured criticism of Friedman, especially when it came to the images his “bought and paid for” conjured up. In fact, the columnist was later quoted by The Jewish Week as saying, “I probably should have used a more precise term like ‘engineered’ by the Israel lobby — a term that does not suggest grand conspiracy theories that I don’t subscribe to.”
For one of America’s premier columnists to admit he could have been “more precise” is like the rest of us declaring, “Boy, did I say something stupid.”
But anti-Semitic?
Real anti-Semites leave little or no doubt as to their true sentiments. Hitler (need I say it?) was an anti-Semite. Today, David Duke, an American redneck from the Louisiana bayou with an all-too-sizable following of lowlifes, calls Jews bad names and accuses them, as a people, of doing a lot of bad things, very often in the realms of finance, the media and Hollywood. This political wanna-be might not be gassing us, at least yet, but it’s clear he’s an anti-Semite.
Of course, it’s possible that Friedman is an anti-Semite, or at the very least a self-hating Jew. But a stupid choice of words does not prove this, and to use the term anti-Semite when describing Friedman – who, to my knowledge, has never collectively called Jews bad names or tried to harm them just for being Jewish – would require looking into his heart. Likewise, it’s best to leave “self-hating Jew” to his psychiatrist.
It’s also important to point out that saying bad things about Israel, or even coming straight out and declaring hatred for Israel, does not necessarily make one an anti-Semite. Many people think it does because anti- Semites like Duke call Israel bad names; ergo, anyone who calls Israel bad names must be an anti-Semite. Look at it this way: Evangelical Christians love Israel, but no matter what they say, their catechism makes me doubt they think very highly of Jews.
Bottom line, though: It’s not Tom Friedman I care about. (I prefer Times columnist Frank Bruni, who is just as knowledgeable but far less infatuated with himself, and has way more class.) It’s the overkill. To say anyone is an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew based on eight stupid words and a record of criticism of Israel – alongside praise for Israel and even fair and well-deserved criticism of our enemies – can only dilute the true meaning of the monikers.
Today, a badly behaving three-year-old is called a terrorist (if only half in jest) and a riot cop who hauls in a protester by the hair is called a Nazi. But tearing up a preschool classroom is not what terrorists do. Terrorists tear up kids. That’s what makes them terrorists. And while the Nazis might have pulled a lot of their victims by the hair, they aimed to pull an entire people toward the gas chambers and the killing pits. That’s what set them apart from many of history’s other evil hair-pullers. That’s what made them Nazis.
People are already forgetting this. To paraphrase Friedman, we should be more precise when using loaded terminology. To paraphrase me, we should be less stupid. I just hope we’re not going to have to continue relying on the Knesset to make us remember this.