The Limits of the Law

June 25, 2009 at 09:18 Leave a comment

Some time a go, professor William I. Robinson at UC Santa Barbara sent an e-mail to his students comparing the Holocaust with the Israeli occupation. This upset some of his students, who then filed a complaint with the university claiming that professor Robinson was violating university policy.

Today, Yediot Aharonot reports that the university has dropped their investigation concluding that this kind of e-mailings should be allowed. Case closed.

I think that the UC Santa Barbara made the right decision. One should be allowed send hurtful, uninformed and counterproductive e-mails. But one needs to keep in mind that we are indeed talking about stupid and uninformed crap. I find claims that the Israeli occupation is like the Holocaust, made by all kinds of people from time to time, problematic for a few reasons.

First of all, from an ethical point of view, I find it objectionable to trivialize the Holocaust in this way primarily because of the hurt that it causes to the survivors who are still alive. The instrumentalization of the brutality and barbarism in the Nazi treatment of European Jewry is just too cheap a shot to be taken seriously.

This brings me to my second problem with these comparison, and that’s historical facts. The Nazis had a plan to murder all Jews, men, women and children, where ever they lived. In order to achieve this, they even built camps designed to function as killing centers for the Jews of Europe and in these camps, millions of people were murdered — primarily with gas. I know that one cannot compare suffering on an individual level, but on the collective level I think it would be hard to find a single Jew who arrived in Treblinka, Sobibor, Birkenau or some other camp, who hadn’t preferred to be in Gaza — and conversely I find it hard to believe that there are any Palestinians who would like to trade places with these Jews. And for good reason.

Let me just stress at this point, that rejecting claims that the occupation is like the Holocaust, shouldn’t be interpreted as a defense of the occupation. One can be against both these things at once. In fact, and here we arrive at my third reason to object to the equation between the Holocaust and the occupation, I don’t think that it helps to improve the situation.

Politically, it’s counterproductive to claim that the Holocaust is like the occupation. On the one hand, it alienates Israelis who won’t take seriously, let alone trust, anyone who makes such remarks. And on the other, it strengthens extremists among the Palestinians, who see it as a way to demonize Israel and win propaganda points on the international scene — forgetting that in order to make peace, and end the occupation, Palestinians need to come together with Israelis — not with their supporters in Europe or at UC Santa Barbara. Thus, if these kinds of affected comparisons have any influence on the politics in the Middle East at all, it’s only going to be a negative one.

With that said, I still think that it should be allowed to make such claims because I’m not interested in living in a society where the first reflex should be to stifle debate. I don’t think anyone benefits from that.

No, that’s not exactly true. People like professor Robinson and his ilk benefit. Because by focusing the debate on whether e-mails like his should be allowed, his students have unfortunately turned the attention away from the fact that it was hurtful, uninformed and counterproductive.


Entry filed under: Politics.

Something Rotten The Postman Has Rung Again

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