Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s anti- Semitism is getting the better of him. Once again, the Turkish prime minister has trotted out the Hitler analogy in relation to Israel and what it has done in Gaza. “They curse Hitler morning and night,” he said of the Israelis. “However, now their barbarism has surpassed even Hitler’s.”
Erdogan’s Hitler fetish is both revolting and inaccurate. Hitler murdered an estimated 6 million Jews, not to mention millions of Poles, Russians, Gypsies and, as a group, homosexuals; the Israelis have killed in the current Gaza operation more than 1,000 Palestinians. The difference between murdered and killed — the former on purpose, the latter mostly what’s called “collateral damage” — ought to be clear to anyone whose mind is not addled by anti-Semitism.
Israel has gone out of its way to try to avoid civilian deaths. It has often — maybe too often — not succeeded. But it has warned civilians with telephone calls and text messages and even dummy bombs hitting the roof. This, I point out, is far more than President Obama has done when U.S. drones kill terrorists in Pakistan or wherever. Hamas militants are also terrorists and they hide, as every guerrilla army has ever done, among the people.
The loss of civilian life is awful, but it is no Holocaust. It is, though, an opportunity for anti-Semites, latent or otherwise, to express their bigotry. Their implied statement is that the Jews had it coming — see how they act now! Their bigotry overpowers their logic and they deliriously lose all sense of proportion — 6 million vs. 1,000 or so in Gaza — and they conflate the killer with the killed. It is repugnant.
For Erdogan, the handier reference, one closer to home, would have been what the Turks did to the Armenians. This genocide — the very word was coined by Raphael Lemkin to encompass what happened to 1.5 million Armenians during and after World War I — has been roundly denied by the Turkish government. In a dizzying feat of irrationality, the head of that government brushes past the crimes of his own nation to point an accusatory finger at the victims of another nation.
Erdogan’s remarks are merely the reductio ad absurdum of the anti-Israel argument. Some accuse Israel of a hideous lack of proportionality without pausing to say what the proper proportion of death and destruction should be. Would Hamas have ceased firing rockets into Israel if Israel had bombed less? Somehow, I think not. Would Hamas have blown up its own tunnels if Israel had ceased its attack after, say, a week? Again, no. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, did the United States go into Afghanistan to kill exactly 2,977 al-Qaeda and Taliban, an eye for every eye extinguished on that infamous day? Israel is a small nation of only about 8 million people, more than a fifth of them Arabs. Proportionality is a luxury beyond its reach.
It is clear that much of the world has grown weary of Israel. Its persistent settlement of the West Bank is surely cause for indignation. Yet there is an edge to the outrage that is elsewhere lacking. When did thousands gather in Europe to protest the Syrian slaughter — not just the government’s abhorrent bombing, use of gas and repression but the torture and murder of about 10,000 activists and dissidents? It was a mass murder that the Syrian government studiously archived — photos and such — which surely deserves the Nazi analogy that comes so easily to the tongue of Erdogan and others. No matter. Silence.
To understand the fury of the European protests, it’s useful to recall — and expand upon — the remark of the Israeli psychiatrist Zvi Rex: “The Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz.” For any part of Europe that was complicitous in the Holocaust — essentially most of it — this means coming to grips with a terrible legacy that has to haunt subsequent generations and raises a creepy question: Why did Grandpa kill the Jews? Look at what they have done in Gaza. Now we know.
I take psychiatric theories with a grain of salt, but the effort of Erdogan to make the victim worse than the victimizer is not only false and tasteless, it is psychologically intriguing. It does more than blame the victim. It tends to exonerate the criminal. History is repeating itself — not, as Marx said, as either tragedy or farce, but in Erdogan’s telling as pornography.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.