Moral Equivalency and its Discontents
Hamas and Israel are not equivalent—that should be obvious, but it's not for many on the far Left who have lost their moral conscience and compass
As the horror of violence, rape, and murder of Jews in Israel by Hamas terrorists unfolded this past week I was astonished—and sickened—to hear the “whataboutism” and “bothsideism” response of many commentators and activists on the political Left that sounded eerily similar to the moral equivalency arguments I encountered when researching my book Denying History, on “who says the Holocaust never happened and why do they say it?” (co-authored with Alex Grobman). To be fair, some commentators on the political Right have used their platforms to blame Joe Biden for enabling or emboldening Iran to back Hamas terrorism—as Ted Cruz did on Megyn Kelly’s show—but at least the Right has the moral clarity to distinguish between genocide and complex political issues such as instituting a Two-State solution to the the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Left: pictures from the entrance of Kibbutz Be'eri in which a car of civilians attempted to escape and Hamas burned them alive. Posted on X by Ben Shapiro. Right: U.S. soldiers discover bodies stuffed into an oven in a crematorium in April of 1945.
By contrast, the progressive Left (a term I use to distinguish them from more mainstream center-left liberals and classical liberals) seems hopelessly adrift at sea without a moral compass. As I posted on X, what’s the difference between White supremacists at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia chanting "Jews will not replace us" and “You will not replace us” and Palestinian Supremacists at a rally in Sydney, Australia celebrating the Hamas murder of Jews chanting "Gas the Jews" and “Fuck the Jews”? If you go far enough to the Left you end up on the far end of the Right. (This is called the horseshoe theory, in which the far Left and the far Right are actually close in ideology at the two ends of the bent political spectrum.)
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In another post on X I declared that it is not fair to compare Hamas to Nazis (which some on the Right are doing)—not fair to the Nazis I meant! Why? Because at least the Nazis knew that the orchestrated extermination of European Jewry was wrong and would be condemned by other nations. That’s why the Nazis murdered most of the Jews (and others) in secret, mostly in isolated death camps in Eastern Europe and Poland, such as Auschwitz, Majdanek, Treblinka, Sobibor, Chelmno, and Belzec. That’s why the paramilitary Schutzstaffel (SS) Einsatzgruppen death squads responsible for mass murder, primarily by shooting, was conducted far from the prying eyes of German citizens in Nazi occupied territories to the East. That’s why the Wannsee Protocol, like that of most Nazi documents in dealing with the “Jewish question,” is obfuscated by innocuous-sounding jargon, such as:
action, special action, large-scale action, reprisal action, pacification action, radical action, cleaning-up or cleansing action, cleared or cleared of Jews, freeing the area of Jews, Jewish problem solved, handled appropriately, handled according to orders, liquidated, over-hauling, rendered harmless, ruthless collection measures, severe measures, special treatment or special measures, executive tasks, elimination, evacuation, eradication, relocation, and, of course, Final Solution (Endlösung).
That’s why this letter from Heinrich Himmler to Ernst Kaltenbrunner, who succeeded Reinhard Heydrich as chief of security police and SD after Heydrich’s assassination, is declared to be “Top Secret!”:
Reichsfuhrer-SS Field HQ
April 9, 1943
To the Chief of the Security Police and SD Berlin:
I have received the Inspector of Statistics’ report on the Final Solution of the Jewish Question. I consider this report well executed for purposes of camouflage and potentially useful for later times. For the moment, it can neither be published nor can anyone be allowed sight of it. The most important for me remains that whatever remains of Jews is shipped East. All I want to be told as of now by the Security Police, very briefly, is what has been shipped and what, at any points, is still left of Jews.
That’s why at war's end the Nazis covered over their crimes, burned documents, destroyed the crematoria and gas chambers, and denied any wrong doing after. And that’s why throughout the 1930s the Nazis went to great lengths to change German law to later justify their actions as legal, under the pretense that if they lost the war they could argue—which they did at the Nuremberg war-crime trials—that national sovereignty precludes one nation judging the actions of members of another nation whose laws differed at the time. That defense didn’t fly and the murderers were brought to justice.
By contrast, far from denying their crimes, for the past week Hamas has been bragging about murdering Jews, posting videos on social media and declaring "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great). Worse, many on the progressive Left in the United States have been condemning…Israel! At The Free Press Bari Weiss has compiled a list of examples that reveal, in her words, “the rot inside our universities”:
Over 30 student groups at Harvard said of the 1,200 Israelis who have been slaughtered that “The apartheid regime is the only one to blame.”
A joint statement from Columbia University’s Palestine Solidarity groups wrote “we remind Columbia students that the Palestinian struggle for freedom is rooted in international law, under which occupied peoples have the right to resist the occupation of their land.”
Northwestern University’s Middle Eastern and North African Student Association “grieves for the martyrs and the civilians lost in this time.”
A student group at California State University in Long Beach advertised its “Day of Resistance: Protest for Palestine” event on Tuesday with a poster that showed a crowd waving the Palestinian flag and a Hamas paraglider—a symbol of mass murder—in the top corner.
At Stanford, hand-painted signs appeared on buildings declaring: “The Israeli occupation is NOTHING BUT AN ILLUSION OF DUST.” (In The Stanford Review, Free Press intern Julia Steinberg wrote that, on Instagram, “my classmates posted infographics declaring that, ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.’ ”)
Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Virginia declared on Sunday that “The events that took place yesterday are a step towards a free Palestine.”
To be blunt, these people are genocide deniers, almost indistinguishable from the Holocaust deniers I encountered and debunked over twenty years ago. Here is what we wrote in Denying History about the moral equivalency argument and why it is not just wrong but morally obscene:
Ironically, after denying that the Nazis intended to exterminate the Jews, deniers argue that what the Nazis did to the Jews is really no different from what other nations do to their perceived enemies. David Irving, for example, points out that the U.S. government obliterated two Japanese cities and their civilian populations with atomic weapons—the only government in history to do so. Furthermore, Mark Weber notes, Americans concentrated Japanese Americans in camps, much as Germans did to their perceived internal enemy—the Jews. These examples and others, such as Irving’s citation of the mass bombing of Dresden, have a not-so-hidden agenda: to implicate America and Britain as equally guilty, along with Germany, in the mass destruction of the Second World War.
But what is missing in this comparison? First, there is a big difference between two nations fighting one another, both using trained soldiers, and the systematic, state-organized killing of unarmed, unsuspecting people—not in self-defense, not to gain territory or wealth (although these may accrue as a beneficial by-product), but because of anti-Semitism. Scholars and the general public debate the morality of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps, and the mass bombing of Dresden. But historians do not try to equate these actions with the Holocaust. If we take the mass bombing of Dresden, for instance—although it was admittedly one of the worst acts against the Axis powers by the Allies, it resulted in about 35,000 deaths, not the 250,000 first claimed by the Germans (Goebbles exaggerated the number for propaganda purposes), and nowhere near the 6 million of the Holocaust.
At his trial in Jerusalem Adolf Eichmann, SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer of the Reich Security Main Office and one of the chief planners and organizers of the Final solution, tried to make the moral equivalency argument. The judge, however, did not accept his rationalizations, as this sequence from the trial transcript shows (and let this serve as a refutation of today’s claim for the moral equivalency of Hamas and Israel):
Judge Benjamin Halevi to Eichmann: You have often compared the extermination of the Jews with the bombing raids on German cities and you compared the murder of Jewish women and children with the death of German women in aerial bombardments. Surely it must be clear to you that there is a basic distinction between these two things. On the one hand the bombing is used as an instrument of forcing the enemy to surrender. Just as the Germans tried to force the British to surrender by their bombing. In that case it is a war objective to bring an armed enemy to his knees. On the other hand, when you take unarmed Jewish men, women, and children from their homes, hand then over to the Gestapo, and then send the to Auschwitz for extermination it is an entirely different thing, is it not?
Eichmann: The difference is enormous. But at that time these crimes had been legalized by the state and the responsibility, therefore, belongs to those who issued the orders.
Judge Halevi: But you must know surely that there are internationally recognized Laws and Customs of War whereby the civilian population is protected from actions which are not essential for the prosecution of the war itself.
Eichmann: Yes, I am aware of that.
Judge Halevi: Did you never feel a conflict of loyalties between your duty and your conscience?
Eichmann: I suppose one could call it an internal split. It was a personal dilemma when one swayed from one extreme to the other.
Judge Halevi: One had to overlook and forget one’s conscience.
Eichmann: Yes, one could put it that way.
In assessing the initial response to the rape, torture, and murder of Jews in Israel by Hamas this week I can only conclude that the progressive Left denouncing Israel and celebrating Hamas have had to overlook and forget their moral conscience.
Skeptic is a reader-supported publication. All subscription monies go to the Skeptics Society, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit education organization. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, Executive Director of the Skeptics Society, and the host of The Michael Shermer Show. His many books include Why People Believe Weird Things, The Science of Good and Evil, The Believing Brain, The Moral Arc, and Heavens on Earth. His new book is Conspiracy: Why the Rational Believe the Irrational.