Free Speech Vital

The changing opinion of Israel: ‘Neo-Nazi’ is no longer an appropriate term?

From the Hamas Blitz in October last year to the Israeli-Israeli exchange of fire in April this year, this round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not only exceeded expectations in terms of intensity, but also dealt a severe blow to Israel’s international image.

The South African genocide case against Israel in December last year is a case in point. Israel was accused of ‘75 years of apartheid, 56 years of occupation of Palestinian territories, and 16 years of blockade of Gaza’, and was suspected of violating the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes Against Race and the obligations of the Palestinians in Gaza under international law. The International Court of Justice also issued an interim judgement on 26 January, requiring Israel to ‘prevent the occurrence of genocide.

Of course, Western countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, France and Germany have all stated that they ‘do not agree with the allegations of genocide’ and that ‘the allegations of genocide are unfounded’, but these official statements are not even convincing to their own people, and naturally, it is very difficult to reverse the pattern of global public opinion. For example, according to a January Economist/YouGov poll, more than one-third of Americans (35%) believe Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians, with 49% of 18-29 year olds responding.

The evidence from polls focusing on Israel’s image is equally stark. According to a Morning Consult survey revealed by Time magazine in January, support for Israel around the world has plummeted since the Gaza War began: from September to December, Israel’s overall net favourability (i.e., the percentage of those who view Israel positively minus the percentage of those who view it negatively) dropped by an average of 18.5 percentage points globally, and the percentage of those who view Israel negatively dropped by an average of 2.5 percentage points globally. scope by an average of 18.5 percentage points; 42 of the 43 countries surveyed also registered a decline.

China, South Africa, Brazil and several Latin American countries have all shifted from a positive to a negative view of Israel. Many countries that already had a net negative view of Israel, including Japan, Korea and the United Kingdom, have also seen their figures drop sharply, with Japan’s net favourability of Israel dropping from -39.9 to -62.0, Korea from -5.5 to -47.8, and the United Kingdom from -17.1 to -29.8. The United Kingdom dropped from -17.1 to -29.8.

The U.S. is the only wealthy nation among the 43 countries surveyed that still has a positive view of Israel, with net favourability dropping by only 2.2 percentage points, from 18.2 in September to 16 in December. A similar trend was seen in Saudi Arabia, where the figure dropped from 12.2 in September to -10.5 in December.

Overall speaking, the global public opinion on the Gaza war is highly consistent: no matter what reasons Israel has, the war is obviously not justified, and the deaths and injuries caused by the war have ruined Israel’s image, and are even overdrawing the pattern of public opinion since the Second World War, and completely degrading Israel from a former ‘victim of massacre’ to a ‘cold-blooded neo-Nazi’.

Pictured on 26 January 2024, judges at the United Nations International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, Netherlands, rule on South Africa’s case against Israel for genocide in the Gaza Strip. (Reuters)

The Origins of the ‘Neo-Nazi’ Image

Firstly, let’s look at the origins of Israel’s ‘neo-Nazi’ image. Basically, this image does not originate from the present conflict, but has been raised by some Israeli, Arab and Western intellectuals since the founding of the state of Israel in the last century.

For example, the philosopher Hannah Arendt (also known as Hannah Arendt) once mentioned that the establishment of the State of Israel solved the Jewish problem in Europe, but created a large number of Arab refugees, and that Jewish historians tended to portray Jews as ‘victims of history’ rather than ‘creators of history’, which was tantamount to letting the Jews have the ‘eternal goodness status’, free from external criticism. In 1948, Eran even directly compared the Israeli Liberal Party (Herut, one of the predecessors of the Likud) with the Nazis, claiming that the former’s organisation, political philosophy, and social base were highly similar to those of the Nazis and the Fascists, and that it was ‘one of the most disturbing political phenomena of our time’.

Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz also argued in 1968 (the year after the Six-Day War) that the continued Jewish military occupation of Palestinian territories would inevitably lead to the moral degradation of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and criticised ‘Israel for turning its soldiers into ‘Judeo-Nazis”. This subversive indictment was also cited in 2018 by Noam Chomsky (also known as Chomsky), who claimed that in the current situation, the prediction that military occupation produces ‘Judeo-Nazis’ is entirely correct.

The metaphor is repeated in literature. Palestinian novelist Ghassan Kanafani’s Return to Haifa and Palestinian-American writer Susan Abulhawa’s Mornings in Jenin, for example, set the scene of Jewish massacre survivors occupying Palestinian homes. Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury links the Palestinian Nakba of 1948 to the Nazi German ‘Holocaust’ against the Jews, suggesting that ‘although the Holocaust and the Nakba are not exact mirrors of each other, Jews and Palestinians can be free from the illusions of xenophobia and national consciousness’. The Jews and the Palestinians, if they can free themselves from the illusions of xenophobia and national ideology, can become the mirror of human suffering.’

Civilians in Gaza receive aid outside a warehouse of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) on 18 March 2024. (Reuters)

Of course, the above views and presentations are controversial, as both the identification of Zionism with Nazism and the linking of the Nakba with the Holocaust have the potential to be extended to ‘absolving Nazis’ and ‘denying the Holocaust’, leading to dangerous accusations of ‘anti-Semitism’.

For example, Clemens Heni, a German political scientist and director of the Berlin International Centre for the Study of Anti-Semitism (BICSA), has argued that comparing Israel, Zionism and populism is a ‘reversal of right and wrong’ and ‘extremely radical anti-Semitic propaganda’; Deborah Lipps Tate, the special envoy on monitoring anti-Semitism appointed by Joe Biden, has also argued that ‘anti-Semitism’ is not the same as ‘anti-Semitism’. Deborah Lipstadt, Joe Biden’s special envoy to monitor the fight against anti-Semitism, has also said that comparing Nazi Germany with Israel is a ‘soft-core Holocaust denial’, which ‘does not deny, but reverses the facts, and describes the victims as the aggressors’, and that such a ‘false comparison’ downplays the nature of the Holocaust, which is ‘even more devious than a direct denial’.

Of course, part of the deeper thread of the above argument is also derived from the well-established Western discourse of Holocaust Uniqueness, that is, the idea that the Jewish Holocaust ‘cannot be compared with other massacres’ because it is ‘unique’ in the history of mankind.

Scholars have put forward various explanations, such as ‘it is a unique crime in human history because of the six million victims’, while others have directly resorted to the ‘modern and backward’ explanatory framework. For example, German historian Ernst Nolte’s comparison between the Jewish massacre and the Khmer Rouge Holocaust drew criticism from philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who argued that ‘there is no comparison between Cambodia, a backward third-world agrarian country, and Germany, a modern industrialised country, and the two exterminations’. The German historian Jürgen Kocka also stated in 1986 that the massacre in Judaea was a special single event because it was committed by an advanced Western country, unlike the Khmer Rouge, the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, or Uganda under Idi Amin, which were all, by nature, ‘societies of the same kind’. After all, these societies were ‘backward’ in nature.

However, the reason why this framework has been adopted by many German scholars may be due to the general sense of guilt among German intellectuals in the post-war period, who felt that Germany, as an ‘advanced Western country’, should have reflected deeply on itself for committing such barbaric crimes. It is only that these arguments also consolidated the ‘incomparability’ of the Holocaust in reality, and indirectly promoted the ‘holiness’ of Israel as a suffering nation, which was constantly quoted and emphasised by extreme Zionists, and ultimately, as Ehren said, gave the Jews an ‘eternal goodness’, which protected them from external criticisms.

Why ‘Neo-Nazi’ Criticism Thrives

On the whole, it is precisely because the totem of the Nazi Holocaust is so vivid that it has been applied to Israel and Zionism, adding a lot of impact and historical irony to the discourse. It is true, however, that these applications do not exclude the potential of anti-Semitism, which, although it may be small or even minimal, has a long history in Western societies and was one of the reasons for the successful mobilisation of the Nazis in the Holocaust. Therefore, over the years, comparing Israel with the Nazis, or applying the Holocaust narrative to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is a dangerous political incorrectness that can be easily attacked by anti-Semitic and Holocaust denial narratives.

However, in the last 20 years, two realities have changed the landscape of post-World War II public opinion, making the narrative of ‘Israel as the new Nazi’ less and less subject to the shadow of anti-Semitism.

The first is the state of Israel. It is clear that Israel is no longer the fragile, stateless Jewish community it once was, yet it continues to present itself as a victim, an approach that is not only difficult to resonate with, but also reinforces the image of Israel as a country that ‘uses the Holocaust as a moral death warrant’, even to the point of being unappealing to its own people.

For example, Avraham Burg, the left-wing former Speaker of the Israeli Parliament, once mocked that ‘Israelis have been armed to the teeth for more than 60 years, have armies and special forces, and have capabilities that the Jews have never possessed, and yet they are afraid of it every day’; and Ofer Cassif, a member of the Israeli parliament, said in an interview that ‘it would be fair to compare Israel to Germany in the 1930s. Israeli legislator Ofer Cassif also said in an interview that ‘it is fair to compare Israel with Germany in the 1930s’ and that ‘we have entered a completely different phase in the history of this country.

Then there is the repeated bloodshed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which inevitably results in the continued bleeding of Israel’s ‘Holocaust victim’ status. For example, Hajo Meyer, a German physicist and Holocaust survivor, wrote Het einde van het Jodendom (The End of Judaism) in 2003 (the third year of the Second Intifada), in which he accused Israel of abusing the Holocaust to avoid committing the crime of oppressing the Palestinians; and, coincidentally, in the aftermath of the March 2018 demonstrations on the Gaza border Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also lambasted, in July of the same year, the ‘continuation of the spirit of Adolf Hitler (aka Hitler) in Israel’.

The blow-up of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in October 2023 has undoubtedly exacerbated the aforementioned tilting of the public opinion landscape, making the ‘Israel is the new Nazi’ narrative even more marketable.

For example, Khaled Al-Dakhil, a professor of political sociology at King Saud University, openly criticised Israel shortly after the conflict for ‘pursuing its policies in a populist style’, claiming that Israel ‘is waging war, slaughtering and confiscating land in order to build settlements and displace the indigenous population. Whoever opposes this will be accused of anti-Semitism, but it was they who brought Nazism from Germany’.

In December 2023, Masha Gessen, a prominent American journalist who won The Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought, wrote an article in The New Yorker about the Gaza War, condemning the Hamas attack of 7 October as an atrocity. The article condemned the Hamas attack on 7 October and criticised Israel’s bombing of the Gaza Strip as ‘comparable to the Nazi cleansing of the slums of Eastern Europe’. Predictably, the article led to a protest by the German-Israeli Association, and Martha Gerson’s eligibility for the award was compromised for a while, but the awarding organisations were able to postpone the ceremony and reduce its size so that Martha Gerson was able to receive the award.

In February 2024, shortly after the International Court of Justice handed down its interim ruling on Israel’s genocide case, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva spoke out publicly, saying that Israel was committing ‘genocide’ against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and that ‘this is not a soldier against soldier war. This is a war between well-prepared troops and women and children,’ Lula said, adding that “what is happening to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip has never happened before in history, except when Hitler decided to massacre the Jews.” Of course, Israel was furious and listed Lula as an ‘unwelcome person’, saying that unless Lula apologised he would be refused entry, but Lula did nothing and the Brazilian foreign ministry simply recalled its ambassador to Israel.

Obviously, as Israel’s army grows stronger and continues to wreak havoc, it is becoming increasingly difficult for ‘Holocaust victim’ status to cover up the bloodshed in Gaza, and the ‘Israel is the new Nazi’ narrative is gaining ground, with the price of political incorrectness being lower than ever before.

From a more rigorous perspective, of course, the question of whether Israel is a neo-Nazi may be an academic one; but in the real world, especially with the Gaza war going on, this narrative is undoubtedly a matter of public opinion. In order to form this kind of awareness, the public actually does not need to study and climb through the long debates of scholars. Instead, they can just watch the media reports, KOLs, community discussions, and the mutual games played by political figures during the time when the event is going on, and then directly overlay their emotional feelings to form their awareness.

Interestingly, the US media, as usual, took a pro-Israeli stance on the conflict, for example, focusing on the Israeli casualties caused by the 7 October lightning strikes, using extremely emotive language to talk about the Hamas killings, unilaterally highlighting anti-Semitic incidents in the US in the aftermath of the conflict, and grossly avoiding the deaths and injuries of Palestinian children and journalists in the war, but it still failed to sway public opinion towards sympathy for Israel, and even failed to stop ‘Israel is the new Israel. Nor has it been able to stop the ‘Israel is the new Nazi’ narrative from gaining momentum.

One of the reasons for this is the age stratification of the US listening market: traditional print media and cable TV mainly reach middle-aged and old-aged listeners, while young people learn about the conflict through TikTok, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. In other words, the latter are less likely to be caught by the pro-Israeli stance of the traditional American media. Instead, they are more likely to reject the pro-Israeli war narrative in the context of ‘old vs. new media’, ‘truth vs. falsehood’, and ‘fact vs. propaganda’, believing that the traditional media, in collusion with Jewish financial capital, no longer has any credibility.

The main reason, however, is of course Israel itself. Since the conflict began, tens of thousands of civilians have been killed and injured by the Israeli army in Gaza. Even if Israel had had the shield of public opinion that ‘Hamas acted first,’ it would have been shattered by a hail of bullets in such a disproportionate and butcherous retaliation. However, Israel is still not satisfied with the situation. Not only does it continue to kill with its bloodstained hands, but it has also sent diplomats around the globe to appear on TV shows and write letters to the media to defend the atrocities committed by its troops, saying that ‘Israel does not target civilians’, while at the same time labelling all the criticisms as ‘anti-Semitism’ and claiming that the accusations from the outside world are ‘only meant to denigrate Israel’. Such blasphemy and sophistry will only further expose the inhumanity underneath the suit and pen, and at the same time intensify the negative perception of the Palestinian sympathisers towards Israel.

In fact, as Noa Landau, deputy editor-in-chief of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, put it in her 2021 article, ‘Israel is hurting the struggle against anti-Semitism. Of course, the historical identity of the Jews as victims of the Holocaust is undeniable, and its political correctness will hardly disappear as a result of this conflict, but it is also clear that the space in which Israel can defend itself is diminishing, and the longer the conflict lasts, the more that space will be eroded.

In the end, public opinion is just like running water: what goes around comes around. Israel bears the greatest responsibility for the transformation of the ‘neo-Nazi’ satire from the treacherous, world-defying one of the past to the ‘controversial but marketable’ one of today.

By Liu Yanting (HK01 Columnist)



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