Antiwar Protest’s Toxic Rhetoric

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Harold Brackman, a historian, is a consultant to the center.

War’s first casualties on the home front are usually fair play and tolerance. As the U.S. moves toward war with Iraq, we should strive to avoid any witch hunt for enemies among us. We should not repeat the injustices done to conscientious objectors during World War I, Japanese Americans during World War II and peace marchers during the Vietnam War.

Neither side in the debate over war against Iraq is immune to political extremism. All Americans should behave civilly and not give in to the temptation to poison political discourse with distortions and hatred.

Right-wing extremists used to smear their opponents as communists. Today, reflective of a kind of reverse McCarthyism, advocates of military action to disarm and topple Saddam Hussein are smeared as Nazis or fascists.

Too many in the antiwar movement are guilty of this rhetorical overkill. For example, during Germany’s election campaign, the country’s justice minister told an audience of metal workers that President Bush “wants to divert attention from domestic political problems. Hitler also did that.” Human-rights icon Nelson Mandela has accused Bush of “wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust.”


At a recent antiwar rally in Washington, “Bush = Hitler” signs bobbed above the crowd. Other marchers wore lapel buttons expressing the same message. Last year, some participants at Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) demonstrations equated Israel’s prime minister with the Nazis. More recently, ANSWER barred Rabbi Michael Lerner, among the most vituperative critics of Israel’s efforts to defend itself against terrorism, from an antiwar rally because Lerner claims to be a “Zionist” and supporter of Israel’s right to exist.

ANSWER has now set its rhetorical sights on the White House. Its placards and propaganda equate the United States with the ultimate evil of the Third Reich. This dangerous distortion of history is the wrong ANSWER to how we should be debating the issue of going to war against Iraq.

Cyberspace has also been invaded by sick America-bashing. An egregious example is the Web site, which substitutes character assassination of Bush and his family for reasoned opposition to war with Iraq. There, you can find a slick, multimedia video juxtaposing images of Hitler and Bush, eventually morphing the president into the Nazi dictator. We are told that Bush’s father became a much-decorated U.S. Navy pilot not because he was a patriot. No, he wanted to cleanse the Bush family’s “reputation as World War II traitors” because of prewar investments in U.S. corporations that did business with Germany’s I.G. Farben. Just as the Nazis depicted alleged Jewish greed as genetic, the video accuses successive Bush generations of pursuing policies that sacrifice “Good Patriotic Americans ... so the Bush family and their pals can get rich.”

In the Web site presentation, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer appears in an SS uniform, First Lady Laura Bush and the secretary of State give Nazi salutes, the Bush administration’s response to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon is equated with Hitler ranting about the Reichstag fire, and the terrorist suspects and Afghanistan war detainees at Guantanamo Bay are likened to emaciated inmates in Nazi death camps.


The video finale tells us, tongue-in-cheek, “Now, no one is saying George Bush is a Nazi,” followed by a vicious caricature of him sporting a Hitler mustache against a backdrop of a German eagle. We’re told that the American president, along with Hitler and Mussolini, make up a “corporatist fascist” leadership “trifecta.”

This kind of political extremism posing as principled antiwar protest is not an aberration on the Web. Across the Internet, far-right and far-left extremists increasingly march in lock step to the tune of venomous anti-American, as well as anti-Semitic, propaganda. They vilify supporters of war to disarm Hussein as agents or dupes of a conspiracy orchestrated by “the Illuminati” and Israel to create a sinister “new world order.”

Rational argument is alien to these antiwar extremists. Hateful smears come naturally. Nazi analogies seem to be their rhetorical device of choice. Maybe that’s because these extremists have an unconscious admiration for the 20th century inventors of the “Big Lie” tactics of crude political argument, hateful image and cutting-edge media.

Anyone looking for a true Hitler-era analogy in the current international situation need look no further than Hussein’s back pocket, where, according to recent visitors to Baghdad, a well-worn Arabic translation of “Mein Kampf” is kept. Regrettably, too many in the world’s democracies prefer to ignore the Iraqi tyrant’s favorite source of inspiration.