All The More Reason

Ian Buruma
June 26, 2007, 6:02 pm
Filed under: Bernard Kouchner, Ian Buruma, Israeli / Palestinian, The Guardian

There is an unwritten rule of argument which states that once X is compared to ‘Hitler’ or ‘the Nazis’, X wins the quarrel by default. It’s a theme that Ian Buruma latches onto in his latest piece for The Guardian, attacking the hackneyed applause-line of Benjamin Netanyahu that ‘this is 1938 and Iran is Germany’: “Revolutionary Islamism is undoubtedly dangerous and bloody.”, admits Buruma, “yet analogies with the Third Reich, though highly effective as a way of denouncing people whose views one disagrees with, are usually false.

Leaving to one side the wisdom of Buruma’s decision to brush away the ‘Islamofascist’ label so readily, this cautioning against false analogy seems fair. A shame, then, that he succeeds in resorting to what I would regard as an equally crass piece of rhetorical laziness. Here, in the same article, is Buruma on Bernard Kouchner:

“Whatever one thinks of Kouchner’s policies, his motives are surely impeccable. The fact that many prominent Jewish intellectuals in Europe and the US – often, like Kouchner, with a leftist past – are sympathetic to the idea of using American armed force to further the cause of human rights and democracy may derive from the same wellspring. Any force is justified to avoid another Shoah, and those who shirk their duty to support such force are regarded as no better than collaborators with evil.”(my italics)

If false analogy with the Third Reich is a highly effective way of ‘denouncing’ people whose views one disagrees with, the parallel – and arguably more sinister – tendency of intellectuals to adorn their Jewish colleagues with this non-existent crutch is an equally effective way of dismissing their arguments. Buruma cites Kouchner’s claim that ‘the murder of his Russian-Jewish grandparents in Auschwitz inspired his humanitarian interventionism’, but that is a far cry from the italicised sentence, which, to the best of my knowledge, has never passed the lips of Kouchner or Wolfowitz (the absence of quotation marks would seem to support this assertion), and is not even a parody of how they might choose to express their feelings on the matter.

Luckily for Buruma, this lapse in taste proves to be attributable to muddle-headedness, rather than anything more unpalatable. How else to explain this directly contradictory caveat:

“Kouchner did not advocate western intervention in Bosnia or Kosovo because of Israel. If concern for Israel played a part in Paul Wolfowitz’s advocacy of war in Iraq, it was probably a minor one. Both men were motivated by common concerns for human rights and democracy, as well as perhaps by geopolitical considerations.

One should give Buruma some credit for accidentally hitting upon this grain of truth even if, by this stage in the article, his forensic style brings to mind a blind hen pecking for corn. The Holocaust is indeed the ‘wellspring’ from which much of the will to face up to, and halt, genocide has derived, but the sentiment of ‘never again’ – tragically trite in the shadow of Bosnia, Rwanda and, now, Darfur – is one that we feel equally keenly, not because of our particular sect, but because of our common concerns and our common humanity’.

It might be reasonable to argue that Israel’s fear of an existential threat from Iran is heightened because its people have known the odd existential threat in its time. However, to isolate ‘Jewish intellectuals’- presumably blinded by tears – as being ‘mysteriously trusting’ patsies for imperialism is troubling; particularly so at a time when a wholesale boycott* of Israeli academics threatens to choke off progressive Jewish voices by similarly casuistic reasoning. Were it not for fear of instantly losing the argument by default, I might have said that such a habit of fabricating and ventriloquizing the ‘motives’ of leading Jews brought to mind the tactics of you-know-who.

Michael P

*EDIT- More up to date link to information about the boycott, here. 


4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

There is an unwritten rule of argument which states that once X is compared to ‘Hitler’ or ‘the Nazis’, X wins the quarrel by default.

Does X win, I wonder, when X is also the one making the comparison? 🙂

Comment by hydralisk

Godwin’s Law is worthy of mention here.

Comment by J.S.

I enjoyed this piece.

Comment by J.S.

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