The Philadelphia Jewish Voice

October 2006

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Iranian teenage boys being executed for being gay. 

Immoral Equivalence
Trying to draw a comparison between them and us..

-- M. J. Rosenberg

I have never had any patience for those who use the charge of ?moral equivalency? as a means of shifting an argument from the facts to a discussion of whether the argument should take place at all. 

In other words, I reject the idea that employing the same standard to criticize, say, Israel and Syria or, in the old days, the United States and the Soviet Union, is innately wrong because ?you just can't equate the two."

I first heard of the concept back at Brandeis when one of my fellow students, a left-wing antagonist, took umbrage when I equated the crimes of Stalin with those of Hitler. 

He responded that such analogies were offensive. Hitler killed millions based on racial criteria. Hitler's goal at Auschwitz and elsewhere was eradicating certain people based on immutable racial or religious characteristics. Stalin, on the other hand, did not use racial criteria. He killed "class enemies" and his goal was not the killing itself but advancing Communism. 

I was floored but did not think anyone who uttered such nonsense was worth arguing with. I simply said that it was the Nazi-Soviet pact that made the Holocaust possible and that from the point of view of the victim, being murdered for "class" rather than ethnic reasons would have been small consolation. (I didn't bother addressing all the historical facts he had wrong). 

Later I married into a family in which some family members were victims of Hitler and others were victims of Stalin (not uncommon in Poland, whether one was a Jew or a Catholic.) There are no distinctions in that family between one form of mass murder and another. 

Or, as I heard someone say recently, "a dead child is a dead child. Period." It doesn't ?especially matter if one child was killed by the forces of ?good? while the other by forces of ?evil."?

That is how I feel. 

However, not committed to perfect consistency, I will say that, despite my distaste for the concept of moral equivalency, I believe that none exists between Israel and Iran/ Hezbollah. Any suggestion that the two sides are in any way comparable is obscene. 

I do not say that to defend the IDF's unintentional killing of innocents in Lebanon while condemning Hezbollah's intentional killing of them in Israel. I do think there is a difference, a significant one, but innocent civilians are innocent civilians. Period. 

However, I think one can simultaneously believe that Israel was right to hit Hezbollah hard and that the killing of civilians in Lebanon was absolutely terrible. Think of World War II. The allies were, after all, unambiguously right but the fire-bombing of Dresden was absolutely terrible. Life has contradictions. Seamless thinking is either sloppy or ideology driven.

Until I actually saw and heard people stating that Israel and its opponents in Lebanon were essentially the same item, I would not have thought anyone could believe it. But check out the web. Responsible mainstream websites are filled with comments arguing, in essence, that the IDF and Iran-backed Hezbollah are two sides of the same coin. Many view Hezbollah as a resistance organization, ignoring the fact that Israel holds no "Hezbollah" territory and that Hezbollah itself is neither a party to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict nor in any way known for its support of the Palestinians. 

The really odd thing about these Iran/Hezbollah defenders is that most of them come from what I'd have to call the secular left. These are people who dislike theocracy, favor equal rights for women, and oppose discrimination against gays. They dislike religious fundamentalism in any form and certainly oppose any and all forms of religious coercion. 

Nevertheless, there is a small minority among them that has a soft spot for Iran and Hezbollah, at least as compared to Israel. What is it about radical Islamicists that these people don't get? And how can they compare Israel to them? 

Start with Hezbollah, a fundamentalist organization that has, from its inception, been dedicated to removing infidels from its midst. 

It first came to the attention of Americans when it blew up 250 US Marines in their barracks. Later it bombed the Israeli embassy and a Jewish center in Buenos Aires. Like its backers in Teheran, it believes in the establishment of a Shiite state in which the only law that matters will be the Sharia (Islamic religious law). 

Israel is a secular democracy. Yes, it is a Jewish state. But no one is forced to practice the Jewish faith. In fact, Israeli Jews, for the most part, are less religious than their American counterparts (and certainly less so than American Christians).

You will not, for instance, find many Jews on the beach in New York or Los Angeles during holy days. In Israel, the beaches are packed. Orthodox Jews make up a sizable segment of the population but they do not run the country and never have. Only a radical fringe would choose to. 

Israel does have its share of violent fundamentalist crazies: right-wing settlers who terrorize Palestinian children in Hebron and lynch Arabs, rabbis who pray for the murder of leaders with whom they disagree (successfully in the case of Rabin) and religious fanatics who would, if they could, roll back the last several centuries of social progress and growing equality. 

But not very many Israelis are of that ilk. The heart of Israel is Tel Aviv, one of the freest and most tolerant cities in the world. The heart of Hezbollah is in Teheran where freethinking modern men and women (the majority of the population by far) live essentially in a giant fundamentalist prison, an American secularist's worst nightmare. 

Congressman Barney Frank points to Israel's acceptance of gays and lesbians as emblematic of the difference between Israel and its Islamic fundamentalist enemies.

He says, ?Gays in Israel feel much freer than they do in most other parts of the world. Israel is not only accepting of Jewish gay people, the Israeli government has a conscious policy of giving asylum to gay Palestinians. Gays openly serve in the IDF. The attitude towards gay and lesbian people in Israel is more like that in the US and Europe than it is in any of the Arab or African countries."

In fact, Israel's laws governing same sex issues are far closer to those of the European Union than to the United States, let alone Iran! The Israeli military, for instance, pays survivor benefits to the same sex partners of gay soldiers. 

Barney Frank does not say that its treatment of homosexuals is the reason Israel has his support. But he does make the point that Israel's treatment of gay people --- especially as contrasted with that of fundamentalist Islam's --- says something very profound about the kind of nation Israel is.

Apologists for Islamic fundamentalism may not know about the case of the two teenage boys in Iran who were executed one year ago for being gay. One was 18 and the other 16. 

They had each been held in prison for over two years, prior to being executed for the crime of having had sexual relations. Their defense was that being 15 and 16 at the time of their alleged "crime," they did not know that it was punishable by death. According to Iranian human rights campaigners, over 4000 lesbians and gay men have been executed since the Ayatollahs seized power in 1979. 

Again, the issue of gay rights is far from the center of the issues dividing Israel and Hezbollah (and the Iranian government). But in today's world the treatment of gays is often a litmus test. Countries and movements worthy of support do not persecute their citizens because of their sexual identity. Those that do, invariably are hostile to other minorities, are xenophobic and militarily aggressive. 

There is no equivalence, moral or any other kind, between Israel and people who string up gay teenagers.

Israel has its problems. Prime among them is the continuing occupation of the West Bank which, as the Lebanon war has taught us, has weakened Israel militarily. [That is in addition to all the other suffering and injustices that have resulted from the occupation]. But Israel is a modern country, struggling, in the most difficult of circumstances, to be a nation standing on the principle of equal rights for all its citizens. 

It's not there yet. It is still not the "light unto the nations" envisioned by its founders. But it is, at least, heading in the right direction, that is forward, in contrast to adversaries who would drag us all back to the dark ages.