Michael Leunig’s recent cartoon, ‘First they came for the Palestinians,’ has stirred the emotions of Australia’s Jewish community and seen the cartoonist dubbed anti Semitic – not for the first time.
The cartoon is based on ‘First they came,’ a statement criticising German intellectuals during the rise of the Nazis, attributed to Pastor Martin Niemoller, a one time Nazi supporter turned pacifist. Leunig and his critics have traded columns in the nation’s newspapers since the cartoons publication last month.
What has riled most of Leunig’s critics is the cartoons comparison of the Israeli state to that of Nazi Germany – a sensitive topic for many Jewish people. Leunig’s counter argument is that ‘Palestinian’ could be substituted for any other group of people facing discrimination and harassment, be they Burmese Rohingya Muslims, Afghan Hazaras or 2Day FM radio hosts.
Leaving Israel aside, how useful are Hitler and Nazi comparisons for modern day evils?
It was almost impossible to attend an anti war rally in 2002 / 03 without seeing a ‘Bush / Blair / Howard / Cheney / Rumsfeld = Hitler’ placard and still at anti-war, anti-globalisation or anti-whatever rallies Adolf’s moustache, combover or swastika adorn the faces of modern day leaders. Mike Godwin, an American author, coined Godwin’s law in 1990. He argues that the longer online discussions go, the higher the probability of Hitler or the Nazis being introduced as a comparison for the discussed topic, and at that point, all sensible discussion effectively ceases. A random search of online forums will prove whether he is right or not. Elsewhere, Al Gore is among many politicians who have invoked Hitler and the Nazis, when he aligned world leaders who ignored climate change to those who were silent during the rise of the fascists.
I am here to say, kids – you don’t need Hitler! Comparing Bush / Blair / Howard / Israel etc to Hitler and the Nazis is not only unoriginal, ‘intellectually lazy’ and insulting to those who suffered under the regime, but also unnecessary. Modern day evils can stand alone – and if I was Hitler, I think I would be insulted; those above are not quite in the same league. Hitler and the Nazis ran execution camps in Poland and Germany, the US and Australia merely run torture camps in Cuba and Nauru; Nazi Germany drove the entire Jewish race (that they didn’t gas to death) from the whole of Europe, while the Israelis have only bombed family homes and driven the Palestinians to the edges of their homeland; Hitler and co. invaded Europe for fascist idealism, Bush, Blair and co. went in to Iraq for oil, money and political control – they were not nearly as ‘principled’ as the Nazis.
Syria’s Assadhole, currently the world leader who most resembles Hitler, has enough blood on his hands to stand alone from Mein Fuhrer, about 40,000 dead at the latest count. Drawing a silly moustache on his photo does not strengthen a protest against him. The late Libyan dictator and YouTube star, Muammar Gaddafi, dressed badly enough and did plenty of evil things to warrant criticism without needing a Nazi comparison. And the list goes on – the Israeli government routinely flexes its muscle against the Palestinians, the lunatics in Iran and North Korea run repressive military states, the Taliban hate everybody, the generals in Burma are driving the Rohingya into the ground or onto leaky boats, Mugabe and his goon squad in Zimbabwe are still somehow defying father time, Sudan’s al-Bashir stared down the might of George Clooney and won and Mbasongo of Equatorial Guinea, well, nobody gives a shit about a small Central African country, as long as they continue producing oil we’ll all look away.
So you see? You can criticise leaders and regimes without the assistance of Adolf of Austria. It does nobody any benefit to scribble a moustache or swastika on Bush, Ahmadinejad or Netanyahu’s face, in fact, let the swastika be and let it the return to its homes around the world and be reclaimed as a peaceful symbol.
Leunig’s cartoon ends with the character ‘fall[ing] into silence to reflect upon the appalling, disgraceful and impossible aspects of human nature.’ What is happening is Palestine is a display of the appalling, disgraceful, though terribly possible aspects of human nature and deserves widespread attention and condemnation. However, invoking the ghosts of regimes pasts, particularly the Nazis, does nothing to advance the Palestinian cause, which a cause worthy of its own symbolism and prose.