In 1932, there was a fierce ideological battle between David Ben-Gurion and Ze’ev Jabotinsky over the organization of Jewish labor in Mandatory Palestine. Ben-Gurion and the Histadrut favored a strong central union that would effectively control the labor market, while Jabotinsky felt that in order to attract foreign investment, free-market principles ought to be implemented. The two great Zionist ideologues fought over this issue on the pages of various political organs, and each used choice words to describe his adversary.
On October 3, 1932, Jabotinsky published an article in his Russian-language Revisionist organ Rassvet, in which he called the Histadrut a “malignant growth” and accused it of using totalitarian tactics to maintain its monopoly over the Jewish labor market and impoverish political opponents of socialist Zionism. Leaving little to the imagination, Jabotinsky titled his article “The Red Swastika” (p. 133 here).
A month later (“Yes, Break It!,” Haynt, November 4), Jabotinsky continued his polemic by calling on workers to cross picket lines and thereby break up the Histadrut. Against the claim that class solidarity is fundamental to democracy, he argued that Jewish national solidarity must trump class solidarity in Mandatory Palestine. To illustrate the limits of democracy, he invoked Hitler:
Must we Jews, democratic, liberal, progressive Jews, support the principle of university autonomy? Or, in accordance with the principles of democratic law, if Hitler wins a plurality in the upcoming German elections, must he be invited to assemble a government? If yes, must we Jews then demand that he be made ruler?
Not to be outdone, Ben-Gurion responded in a press conference held by the Histradrut Executive Committee on December 27, 1932. In addition to calling Jabotinsky “Il Duce” repeatedly, Ben-Gurion also compared Revisionism to Hitler’s movement in no uncertain terms:
The aspiration to “break” the labor union is not an original invention of Jabotinsky’s. The founder of Revisionism obtained this “ideal” – together with the brown shirt color of the “nationalist” youth, the doctrine of “pure nationalism,” and the pose of a dictator and national redeemer – from the patriotic German movement headed by Hitler. From this movement he also learned the craft of hurling defamations and slandering the labor movement. In Hitler’s newspapers, like in Revisionist journalism, workers are denigrated with the epithet “Marxists.” Here and there they are also denounced as traitors to the nation, destroyers of the economy, and enemies of the state.
The ideological and political debates did not slow down, and the following year Ben-Gurion famously called Jabotinsky “Vladimir Hitler.”
This may be one of the first instances of a public debate that devolved into each side comparing the other to Hitler and/or Nazis. These two great Zionist leaders were comparing each other to Hitler even before his rise to power in 1933. Presciently, he had become a byword among the Jews long before the rest of the world understood what he was.
This legacy of Israel’s founding fathers has continued to typify Israeli political and ideological debate. After the Holocaust, though, there is no doubt that comparisons to Nazis or Hitler are, in the overwhelming majority of cases, insensitive and grossly exaggerated. There is little doubt that Israeli ideological discourse can do with a bit more civility.
There are two primary ways for debate to become more courteous: statutory regulation and self-regulation. Statutory regulation would mean limiting freedom of expression, a freedom enshrined in Israel’s Basic Laws and in its Declaration of Independence. Abrogating such basic rights, while justifiable in certain circumstances, is clearly a dangerous precedent, especially when applied directly to ideological and political discourse. Yet this is the course chosen by Israeli lawmakers. Israel’s Ministerial Committee on Legislation recently approved a draft bill, call the “Nazi Law,” which will criminalize the use of the word “Nazi” except in a limited range of contexts and of “Holocaust symbolism” in a vaguely worded “inappropriate manner.” The crime carries a penalty of a six-month prison term and a fine of 100,000 shekels.
There is another way, though. As anyone who regularly participates in online discussion forums knows, Nazi comparisons, while common, have become a surefire way to lose a debate. The phenomenon was stated succinctly by Mike Godwin in 1990, in an adage that has come to be known as “Godwin’s Law”: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” The law also contains a widely accepted corollary: “Once this occurs, that thread is over, and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever argument was in progress.”
Had Godwin been Israeli, perhaps he would have formulated his law much earlier, as Nazi comparisons have been rearing their ugly mustachioed heads in debates political and philosophical, online and offline, longer in Israel than anywhere else. Then, maybe, Israelis could have learned to temper overheated rhetoric much sooner. Nevertheless, it is clear that a “law” that is in reality nothing more than an internet meme has the power to civilize discourse. Here’s hoping that Israeli discourse embraces Godwin’s Law without impinging on individual freedoms by passing the Nazi Law.
This article first appeared in the Intermountain Jewish News