False Moral Equivalence as a Tool to Demonize Israel by Manfred Gerstenfeld and Jamie Berk

  • False moral equivalence is one of a series of major fallacies. False moral equivalence comparing Israel’s actions to those of the Nazis was used by several prominent social-democratic politicians, including French President François Mitterrand, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme and Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou.

  • Another example of false moral equivalence is calling Israel an Apartheid State. Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter made this comparison in his 2006 book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid — which incorporates the false moral equivalence in its title.
  • The false comparison between Zionism and racism has been repeated countless times through United Nations and UN-sponsored declarations and conferences.
  • Another category of moral equivalence pretends that the intended murder of innocent civilians is equal to the accidental deaths of civilians in targeted assassinations.

Among the many tools mobilized for the demonization of Israel, one frequently used is a mode of argument known as false moral equivalence. The term “moral equivalence,” originates from a 1906 address by American philosopher William James.[1] It is the claim that there is no difference between two actions of greatly varying character. It is frequently used to emphasize similarities between two otherwise dissimilar acts. False moral equivalence undermines norms and values in a society, blurring the lines between good and evil also right and wrong.

False moral equivalence comparing Israel’s actions to those of the Nazis was used by several prominent social-democratic politicians, including French President François Mitterrand,[2] Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme[3] and Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou. [4]

When two dissimilar realities are linked such as Israel and Nazism, use of one side of the equivalence will eventually automatically bring to mind the other – however distorted the comparison may be. Subsequent repetition results in an acceptance, where the false moral equivalence is no longer countered or questioned.

False moral equivalence should not be confused with moral relativism. The latter lends itself to the justification of behavior by claiming that they are acceptable in a certain culture’s values or were common practice during certain periods of history.[5]

Moral equivalence embodies comparisons, defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as: “The act or process of comparing: as the representing of one thing or person as similar or like another, or the modification of an adjective or adverb to denote different levels of quality, quantity, or relation.”[6] Comparisons innately lend themselves to frequent abuse.


False moral equivalence used against Israel may be categorized into nine main groups, shown below. These groups are:

  • The false moral equivalence between Israel and Nazi Germany;
  • Israel and South African apartheid;
  • Zionism and racism and its sub-categories Zionism and colonialism/imperialism, as well as Zionism and fascism, the Holocaust and the Nakba (Arabic for “The Catastrophe,” of 1948.)
  • False moral comparisons of murder and accidental death, comparisons of targeted killings of terrorists with intentional murder of civilians;
  • Equivalencies drawn between kidnapping of soldiers and imprisoning terrorists;
  • Presenting moral equivalence between Israel’s actions as a legitimate sovereign state and the illegitimate actions of terrorists.
  • A ninth category, “others,” includes demonization of Israel in ways which do not fit into the above categories, such as the moral equivalence drawn between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and the perceived parallels between Nazi brutality and the actions of their Allied opponents.


One widespread example of false moral equivalence is the comparison of Israel’s behavior to that of the Nazis, and suggests that Israel’s actions are equivalent to those of the perpetrators of the world’s largest genocide. In Western societies, Nazi behavior has become the contemporary equivalent of absolute evil.

A poll published in 2004 by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation asked Germans if they agreed with the statement “What the State of Israel does today to the Palestinians is in principle the same as what the Nazis did during the Third Reich.” Many respondents (23.9%) partly agreed with the statement and 27.3% of respondents totally agreed. When a similar poll from the same foundation was published ten years later, with the same question, 16.6% of respondents partly agreed, and 10.5% totally agreed.[7]

When a Bertelsmann foundation poll put the same question to Germans in 2007, 30% of respondents agreed. However, by the time the question was asked yet again in 2013, the number of German respondents agreeing with the statement had risen sharply to 41%, a figure much higher than the findings of previous polls.[8] The multiple polls show that the false moral equivalence is a well-proven phenomenon even though the actual numbers may differ.

The first comprehensive study investigating the attitudes of Norwegians toward minorities was carried out in 2011 and 2012 by the Center for Studies of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities at the request by the Norwegian government. The study found that 38% of Norwegians agree with the statement that Israel behaves toward the Palestinians in the same way that the Nazis acted toward the Jews.[9]

One element that can be learned from these figures is how important belief and thoughts are in addition to speech and actions. These people did not come forward and say Israel is a Nazi state. It was not even known that such a large number of Europeans held this belief until they were asked. The many people holding extreme false views about Israel provide the societal infrastructure that enables anti-Israeli inciters to succeed.

In 2009, for example Trine Lilleng, a first Secretary in the Norwegian embassy in Saudi Arabia, sent an email from her Ministry account juxtaposing pictures of slain children in Gaza with “photos of Holocaust victims in seemingly correlating situations.”[10] After these emails were covered by the Norwegian and Israeli press, she faced no reprimands, and may have even been promoted, according to a Haaretz reporter who contacted the embassy a few months following the incident.[11]

David Harris, Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, wrote an answer to Lilleng’s email: “You’ve been in Riyadh since 2007. If you’re so anguished by human rights violations, perhaps you could have begun by devoting some of your attention — and email blasts — to what surrounds you. Or were your eyes diplomatically shut?[12]

In April 2002 the Portuguese Nobel Prize-winning writer José Saramago, using the allegory of David and Goliath, wrote in the Spanish daily El País describing his view of how Israel has become a Nazi state:

“From the point of view of the Jews, Israel can never be brought to trial because it was tortured, gassed and cremated at Auschwitz. I wonder if those Jews who died in Nazi concentration camps, those who were persecuted throughout history, those who died in the pogroms, those who were forgotten in the ghettos, I wonder if that vast multitude of unfortunates do not feel shame on seeing the heinous acts committed by their descendants. I wonder if the fact that we endured does not constitute the best reason not to hurt others.[13]

To Saramago, Israel, while supposedly using the Holocaust and pogroms as justification, acts as a Goliath toward the Palestinians.

According to Belgian historian Joel Kotek,

“there is in fact evidence that across the board, from the far right to the far left, there are those who take advantage of the ‘opportunity’ offered by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to unleash anti-Semitic utterances long suppressed precisely on account of the genocide. Thus, it seems to us, that anti-Zionism would appear to have become a means of drowning a feeling of vague guilt on the part of the West toward the Jews not long since abandoned to barbarity. a neat way of making up for the cowardliness and abandonment of the past by taking up an unambiguous and virtuous position on behalf of the victims of major contemporary injustices.” [14]


Since the democratization and end of apartheid in South Africa, Israel has faced a new false moral equivalence, the comparison of its policies to those of the former South African white-only regime. Ignoring that much of the West Bank is under Palestinian National Authority control whereas all of South Africa was under the control of the undemocratic Apartheid regime, these opponents try to create the false comparison that Israel is an apartheid state.

Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter made this comparison between Israel and apartheid politics in his 2006 book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid — which incorporates the false moral equivalence in its title.

Within the book, Carter writes of the ways in which Israel may change the status quo. His “option two” states the possibility of

“A system of apartheid, with two peoples occupying the same land but completely separated from each other, with Israelis totally dominant and suppressing violence by depriving Palestinians of their basic human rights. This is the policy now being followed although many citizens of Israel deride the racist connotation of prescribing permanent second-class status for the Palestinians… An unacceptable modification of this choice, now being proposed, is the taking of substantial portions of the occupied territory, with the remaining Palestinians completely surrounded by walls, fences, and Israeli checkpoints, living as prisoners within the small portion of land left to them.'”

Alex Safian, the assistant director of CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, proved that even when giving his book a title rooted in moral equivalence, Carter perhaps did not fully comprehend himself that his claims that Israel is an apartheid state simply are not true. Safian remarked that “[Carter] routinely misstated the definition of the word ‘apartheid’ saying that it was not based on racism. Yet the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defines apartheid as ‘inhumane acts … committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group.”[15]

Retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a former anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, in a letter written in 2002 to The Guardian, at the height of the Second Intifada, is one among many examples of Tutu using his own past as an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa to justify this false comparison. He wrote:

“What is not so understandable, not justified, is what it did to another people to guarantee its existence. I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.”[16]

Like Carter, Tutu confused systems of apartheid under a single government in South Africa with Israel and the PA’s dual-control of the region. What is most striking about this statement — and countless others by Tutu decrying apartheid in Israel — is that unlike Carter, Tutu’s focus on Israel at that time did not come from personal observation and travel in the region. His last visit to Israel prior to his 2002 letter was in 1989, four years before the Oslo Accords and creation of the Palestinian National Authority.

“Israel,” wrote Robbie Sabel, professor of law at Hebrew University, “is a multi-racial and multi-colored society, and the Arab minority actively participates in the political process. There are Arab parliamentarians, Arab judges including on the Supreme Court, Arab cabinet ministers, Arab heads of hospital departments, Arab university professors, Arab diplomats in the Foreign Service, and very senior Arab police and army officers. Incitement to racism in Israel is a criminal offence, as is discrimination on the basis of race or religion.”

In addition, Sabel wrote, “The real goal behind the Apartheid campaign is the denial of the legitimacy of the State of Israel and the determination that the only status the Jewish population in Israel can hope for is that of a ‘protected’ ethnic minority in an Arab Palestinian state.”[17]


The moral equivalence of Zionism and racism is a false moral comparison, apparently initially fabricated to further a political agenda. Prior to the mid-1960s, there was little mention of Zionism or the ethno-nationalist movement for the return of the Jewish people to their homeland as being a racist ideology. The singling out of “Zionism as a form of racism” was a device created by the Soviet Union to justify its refusal to condemn anti-Semitism. Soviet leaders felt that condemning anti-Semitism would anger its Arab world allies.[18]

The strategy initially was to try to expel Israel from the United Nations. When it failed, the Soviet Union, its satellite states and Arab allies instead succeeded in passing UN resolution 3379, defining Zionism as a form of racism, in 1975.[19] During the same year, the World Conference to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination in Durban, South Africa also determined that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.”[20] This resolution remained in place until the General Assembly officially revoked it in 1991, after the fall of the USSR. [21]

This false comparison has also been repeated countless times through United Nations and United Nations-sponsored declarations and conferences. In the NGO-sponsored forum at the 2001 UN Conference against Racism, held in Durban, a strategy focusing on delegitimizing Israel was adopted.

Although initially attendees, the United States and Israel, after receiving for consideration the text of the Durban NGO forum, much of it equating Zionism directly to racism, withdrew from the first Durban Conference. The NGO Declaration referred to Israel as an ‘apartheid state,’ guilty of ‘racist crimes against humanity including ethnic cleansing, acts of genocide,’ and called for ‘comprehensive sanctions and embargoes’ as well as ‘the full cessation of all links.'”[22] The text of this forum was presented to the Durban organizing committee for consideration.[23]

The Durban NGO Forum later led to the US, Israel, and seven other nations boycotting the 2009 Durban Review Conference in Geneva.[24] Although since the fall of the Soviet Union no UN-affiliated body has passed a declaration that “Zionism is racism,” calling the world’s only Jewish state racist is a direct moral equivalent of this statement. The same logic, however, repeated itself during the Durban II conference, as well as the Goldstone Report in 2009, through many other false moral equivalences such as the comparison of Israel to an apartheid state.[25]

Zionism is Colonialism/Imperialism

Another popular moral equivalence used is the idea that Israel represents a “colonial power” in the Middle East. Proponents of this theory argue that Zionism, like colonialism and imperialism, justifies the colonization of people of color in their own land by white people, who then rule the entire population and exploit their resources.

The claim that Zionism and Israel are inherently imperialist, representing a colonial power in the Middle East, is largely present in the world of intellectuals and academics.

The academic discipline, “Post-Colonial Studies,” suggests that current trends in former colonies be viewed through the lens of their colonial legacy, in particular in terms of the power structures and Western influence on these nations. A distorted version of this discipline, however, tries to implicate Israel.

In practice, much of modern postcolonial studies is built on a distorted concept of the discipline presented in Edward Said’s book, Orientalism. He argues that nearly all Western influence on the developing world has been negative and destructive, with Western colonizers imposing their culture and attitudes on colonized populations while treating them as if they were primitive peoples.[26]

Proponents of this distorted view draw a parallel between indigenous people of color colonized by Westerners for centuries, and the Palestinians. They incorrectly argue that Zionism “justifies” the colonization of people of color in their own land by white people, who then rule the entire population and exploit their resources.

A few examples illustrate this. The Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, in his article, “Zionism as Colonialism: A Comparative View of Diluted Colonialism in Africa and Asia,” argues that the rise of Zionism in the late 19th century can be directly linked to the Age of Imperialism in Europe:

“Zionism was not, after all, the only case in history in which a colonialist project was pursued in the name of national or otherwise non-colonialist ideals. Zionists relocated to Palestine at the end of a century in which Europeans controlled much of Africa, the Caribbean, and other places in the name of ‘progress’ or idealism not unfamiliar to the Zionist movement. It happened in a century when French settlers colonized Algeria, claiming an atavist and emotional link to the Algerian soil no less profound that that one professed by the early Zionists with regard to Eretz Yisrael.”[27]

American writer and activist Alice Walker also developed this theme, comparing Israel to apartheid-era South Africa, segregationists in the United States, and Nazi Germany. She drew false equivalence of Zionism and European imperial powers in her book, The Cushion in the Road. In her description of apartheid South Africa, she stated that

“… poor Europeans, though, to save themselves, learned to speak proper English, supported as they were by a system that favored whites. Advancement for them, as for the Jewish settlers in Palestine, was unlimited, if they could blend in, accepting the spoils of war against the indigenous and enslaved, with those in power.

“This is an old, old story and it is a terrifying one. Can people who hunger so desperately for what other people have ever have enough? One thinks of Hitler, of course, and Napoleon; of the American generals who fought wars of conquest against Mexico and Cuba and the Philippines. Guatemala. Iraq. Afghanistan. And countless other places we’ve never heard of.”[28]

Historian Richard Landes exposed the hypocrisy of Walker’s moral equivalence on his website, “The Augean Stables.” He wrote about the benign nature of Zionist settlement in Ottoman and British Palestine, sharply contrasting Walker’s own misconceptions about Zionist settlement in Israel with the imperial aspirations of European powers at that time.

Landes wrote, referring to Walker’s comment about Hitler, Napoleon, American generals and more, that

“behind this rather blandly stated remark lies the path to a real assessment of Israeli ‘colonialism’ and ‘imperialism.’ All (other) colonial projects (e.g., Spanish in Latin America, British in South Africa, French in Algeria), occurred in the wake of a conquest. The only way that the new colonists could make claims to the land was by conquest, by (at best) driving away the inhabitants, and establishing overwhelming military superiority. Political power came from victory in war. In so behaving, the European imperialist-colonialists conformed to the international norms of millennia.

“The Zionist project of colonization worked in a markedly different manner. Rather than arrive as zero-sum military victors, the Zionists arrived as positive-sum neighbors. Granted they had no ability to conquer, and granted they built up their defenses against predatory attacks from both Arabs and Bedouin inhabitants of the land, but they nonetheless made peace with most of those who dwelled there by offering the benefits of civil society: hard productive work made everyone better off.”[29]

Martin Kramer, President of the Shalem Center describes claims that Zionism is colonialism as

“a very great lie, and it is a self-serving lie. Those who believe it can sustain in their hearts the hope that in any given span of a few years, Israel will disappear. America will decide to dismantle it, or the Jews will decide that it is too costly to maintain, and so will go to other countries that are safer and more comfortable. For colonialism is something that is transient and lasts only so long as it is cost-effective. But authentic nations are forever, the ties of nations to their land are never really severed, and nations are bound by ties of solidarity that cross the generations.”[30]

Colonialists conquered other countries in order to lay claim to their resources and exploit them. They funneled money and value out of the colonies. The Zionists brought money and skills into the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate of Palestine and afterwards into Israel. Israeli Arabs also significantly benefitted from this. Their current average income per capita is a multiple of that of the inhabitants of the neighboring countries. If the Palestinian Arabs had not followed their leaders’ road to violence, they too would have benefited similarly.

Zionism is fascism

The false moral equivalence, “Zionism is fascism,” is a fallacy linking the ideology underpinning the establishment of the State of Israel to the violence justifying fascism.

When speaking at the Fifth Alliance of Civilizations Forum in Vienna in February 2013, for instance, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated, “Just like Zionism, anti-Semitism and fascism, it becomes unavoidable that Islamophobia must be regarded as a crime against humanity.”[31]

This statement was immediately criticized by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s office released this statement addressing Erdogan’s speech, “This is a dark and mendacious statement the likes of which we thought had passed from the world.” Erdogan did not retract his comments even after this international pressure, and did not issue an apology.[32]


In 2008, 59 British Jews, including popular writer and entertainer Stephen Fry, signed a letter published in The Guardian urging their Jewish peers not to celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary. They stated that

“in May, Jewish organizations will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. This is understandable in the context of centuries of persecution culminating in the Holocaust. Nevertheless, we are Jews who will not be celebrating. Surely it is now time to acknowledge the narrative of the other, the price paid by another people for European anti-Semitism and Hitler’s genocidal policies. As Edward Said emphasized, what the Holocaust is to the Jews, the Nakba is to the Palestinians.”

The letter then cites a number of Nakba incidents as justification for this moral equivalence, including the statement that “thousands of Palestinians (Israeli citizens) were expelled from the Galilee in 1956”[33] — despite no evidence of any such expulsion.

Archbishop Tutu has also drawn a moral equivalence between the Holocaust and the subsequent treatment of Palestinians. Tutu toured Yad Vashem in 2009 with the “Elders,” a peace activists group of retired global leaders, including Jimmy Carter. In an interview with Haaretz after the visit, Tutu said that

“the West was consumed with guilt and regret toward Israel because of the Holocaust, as it should be. But who pays the penance? The penance is being paid by the Arabs, by the Palestinians. I once met a German ambassador who said Germany is guilty of two wrongs. One was what they did to the Jews. And now the suffering of the Palestinians.”[34]

In response, Dr. Robert Rozett, Tutu’s museum guide and director of Yad Vashem Libraries, published in Haaretz:

“certainly it is the Jews who paid for the Holocaust with the blood of some six million innocent victims – not the perpetrators, not the bystanders and not Arabs in Palestine or anywhere else. Saying that the Palestinians are paying for the Holocaust falsely presupposes that the Jewish tie to the Land of Israel became significant only in the wake of the Nazi attempt to eradicate the Jews. It overlooks the ancient and ceaseless connection of the Jewish people to Israel, and the modern Zionist enterprise that returned an exiled people to their ancestral home.”[35]

Though compared numerous times in public discourse, the Holocaust and Nakba are far from equivalents. Tutu’s fallacious arguments blaming the Holocaust for Palestinian suffering are yet another distortion leading to the obfuscation of the factual events. The Palestinian Nakba was a direct result of the war initiated by the Arab states and Palestinians against Israel to massacre Jews.

The fallacious arguments of South Africa’s retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, blaming the Holocaust for Palestinian suffering, are yet another distortion leading to the obfuscation of the factual events. The Palestinian Nakba was a direct result of the war initiated by the Arab states and Palestinians against Israel to massacre Jews. (Image source: World Economic Forum)

Like claiming the moral equivalence of Zionism and racism, the equivalence of the Holocaust and Nakba was a Palestinian strategic political maneuver. Tel Aviv University’s Meir Litvak and Esther Webman in their book, From Empathy to Denial: Arab Responses to the Holocaust, state that

“the Arab governments and public discourse rejected the linkage between the solutions of the Jewish problem and the Palestine problem, and presented in its stead a link between the Holocaust and the Palestinian catastrophe, introducing two parallel human tragedies. The Palestinians strove to gain recognition of their tragedy, with all it entails for rights of self-determination and restoration of justice. This striving for victimhood status constituted the backbone of the narrative from which various motifs developed, starting with the equation of the extent and gravity of the tragedies, through denying the tragedy of ‘the other’ and turning him from victim to perpetrator.”

In addition, they wrote that “the Nakba, epitomizing the Palestinian suffering, was being reconstructed as a founding myth in the Palestinian national identity, fulfilling, wittingly or unwittingly, a similar role to that of the Holocaust, the epitome of Jewish suffering, in Israeli society.”[36]


This category of moral equivalence pretends that the intended murder of innocent civilians is equal to the accidental deaths of civilians in targeted assassinations. Those who use this moral equivalence compare Israeli military operations intended to kill only terrorists, to premeditated cold-blooded murder.

Israeli military operations have frequently been targeted for criticism by Western pseudo-humanitarians. They are now also trying falsely to compare Israel’s response to the wave of individual Palestinian terrorist knifings and ramming attacks to cold-blooded murder. Sometimes such comparisons are even made by prominent officials, overlooking that they took place during the attempted murder of Jews by terrorists.

The philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain pointed out the dangers of false moral equivalences:

“If we could not distinguish between an accidental death resulting from a car accident and an intentional murder, our criminal justice system would fall apart. And if we cannot distinguish the killing of combatants from the intended targeting of peaceable civilians, we live in a world of moral nihilism. In such a world, everything reduces to the same shade of gray and we cannot make distinctions that help us take our political and moral bearings.”[37]

By way of illustration, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry compared the three civilians murdered in the 2013 Boston Marathon to the nine killed by Israeli soldiers on the Mavi Marmara ship in the flotilla that attempted to bring help to the Gaza Strip in 2013.[38] Kerry falsely mischaracterized these flotilla passengers as innocent activists and bystanders, much like the truly innocent Boston victims, killed by bombs hidden in backpacks.[39]

False moral equivalence of this incident does not have any foundation in fact. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs proved that acts of violence had been planned by some of the passengers on the Mavi Marmara before any Israeli troops set foot on the ship. Video footage shows an Israeli soldier being thrown overboard, and other soldiers being attacked with metal pipes and chairs immediately after boarding, leaving no time to negotiate with passengers.[40] Kerry ignored all of this.

Catherine Ashton, former European Union Foreign Policy chief, provided another extreme example of false moral equivalence. In 2012, she compared the deaths of innocent people by serial killers and brutal dictators such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to accidental deaths of civilians due to Israeli actions in Gaza. In a speech to Palestinian youths in Brussels, Ashton said:

“When we think about what happened today in Toulouse [the murder of four Jews by the Muslim terrorist, Mohamed Merah], we remember what happened in Norway last year, we know what is happening in Syria, and we see what is happening in Gaza and other places – we remember young people and children who lose their lives.”[41]

Such false moral comparisons encourage terrorism.[42] Islamist terrorism in particular has increased greatly since Ashton and Kerry made their remarks. While the Israeli army has made more effort to instill combat morality in its soldiers than any other armed force,[43] the opposite can be said for terror organizations setting out to murder civilians, or with the Mavi Marmara’s violent activists intending to attack soldiers.


The media have frequently claimed that targeted actions by the Israeli military against terrorists have also included the deliberate murder of civilians. It is, however, the Palestinians who specifically target Israeli civilians. While mainly Arab terrorists attack Israeli and Jewish civilians in Europe and elsewhere, Israel targets terrorists to prevent their future murderous acts.

The Los Angeles Times set up false moral equivalence in an April 2013 article entitled “2 killings shatter relative calm between Israelis, Palestinians.” In this article, journalist Edmund Sanders reported the stabbing of an Israeli settler civilian by a Palestinian terrorist. The terrorist then stole the civilian’s gun and attacked nearby soldiers before being arrested. The image used in this article is an unrelated and undated picture of Israeli soldiers firing tear gas in Nablus.

In the article’s next paragraph, Sanders writes about a completely unrelated killing in Gaza that occurred the same day, that of terrorist Haitham Ziad Ibrahim Mishal, and remarked that “separately, the government said that Israel Defense Forces killed a Gaza Strip-based militant accused of participating in rocket attacks, including one earlier this month that struck the Israeli resort city of Eilat from the Sinai Peninsula.”

The killing by the Palestinian was the cold-blooded murder of a civilian by a terrorist.[44] In the other case, the IDF targeted Mishal while he rode a motorcycle with another passenger in an isolated area to limit civilian casualty.[45]

The November 16, 2012 front page of the print edition New York Times utilized visual manipulation to achieve moral equivalence. The cover story displays two photographs of equal size, both from funerals. The first photo is of the Gaza City funeral of Ahmed al-Jabari, a Hamas military commander killed by an Israeli airstrike at the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defense. The second image is of the funeral of Mina Scharf, an Israeli civilian killed by a Hamas rocket during the campaign.

Writing about Jabari and Scharf’s respective backgrounds, Tablet Magazine’s Adam Chandler, says in an editorial, that “Jabari was killed for being a Hamas strongman, who directed terror activity for a decade and was one of the central figures in the planning of the Gilad Shalit kidnapping. Beneath his picture is the picture of the body of Mina Scharf, a 25-year-old mother of three, who worked for Chabad in New Delhi, India and who was one of three civilians killed when a Hamas rocket struck a residential building in Kiryat Malachi.”[46]

In a Huffington Post opinion piece on the same topic David Harris asks, “In the same spirit, would equal and abutting space have been given to photos of the funerals of Osama Bin Laden and one of his victims?”[47]

The 2015 report compiled by the UN Human Rights Council in response to Israel’s 2014 Operation Protective Edge in Gaza created a similar moral equivalence between Israel and Hamas. Israel has, for its adversaries, a system of advanced warnings, including radio announcements, the dropping of leaflets, and “roof knocks” to announce airstrikes on weapons depots and other terror targets, so civilians will have time to leave the premises. The report claims that Israeli warnings were not adequate because of “the fact that many places considered safe were already overcrowded; and the poor conditions in shelters, which themselves came under attack.”[48]

The report implies that Israel, which targeted weapons or terrorists is equivalent to Gaza’s terror groups which launched rockets at Israeli civilian centers, because in a single mentioned case, the terrorists gave warnings. The report argues that “in some instances, Palestinian armed groups in Gaza reportedly attempted to warn civilians in Israel of imminent attacks. For instance, on 20 August 2014, the Al-Qassam Brigades warned communities near Gaza to avoid returning home or to remain inside shelters.”[49] However, the report does not mention the means taken to ensure the effectiveness of this warning, such as whether, for example, it was translated into Hebrew. It also does not differentiate between the intended targets under threat, which in this case were civilian, not military, as opposed to Israeli airstrikes, exclusively on Gaza’s terror targets.


NGOs often advocate for the human rights of imprisoned terrorists and terror suspects. Even when writing brief statements about the human rights violations imposed on a kidnapped Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, when he was imprisoned by Hamas terrorists for over five years, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports chose to draw a false moral equivalence between Shalit and Palestinian terrorists in Israeli jails.

In October 2011, at the time of the exchange of Gilad Shalit for 477 Palestinian terrorists, the expression “prisoner exchange” was frequently referenced. Amnesty International, titled its press release, “Israel-Hamas prisoner swap casts harsh light on detention practices of all sides.” In response to the prisoner exchange, Malcolm Smart, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa Director, stated that “this deal will bring relief to Gilad Shalit and his family after an ordeal that has lasted more than five years. Many Palestinian families will feel a similar sense of relief today when they are reunited with their relatives, many of whom have spent decades under harsh conditions in Israeli detention.”

This statement was one of the few published by Amnesty International about Shalit, and made only on his release. Twelve paragraphs of the seventeen-paragraph text concern conditions in Israeli prisons for Palestinian detainees, while requests for Shalit’s basic rights under the Geneva Convention, such as Red Cross visits, contact with his family, and information about his condition, were repeatedly denied. Despite this, Amnesty International also set up a false moral equivalence between Shalit’s situation and that of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails by comparing the situation of the Shalit family to family members of Palestinian prisoners because some struggled to obtain travel permits to visit Israeli jails.[50]

In a similar press release from Human Rights Watch (HRW) about Hamas’s violations of international law, three paragraphs were devoted to the moral equivalence of terrorists under Israeli control. HRW, nevertheless, did include that the ban on Gazans visiting relatives in Israeli prisoners was because of the 2007 Hamas takeover of Gaza. Amnesty in its press release had omitted this. HRW, however, also wrote that “Israeli authorities have repeatedly detained Hamas members, including elected members of parliament, without charge in the West Bank in apparent retaliation for Shalit’s detention.” There was no reference to Hamas’s status as a terrorist organization intent on the destruction of the State of Israel.[51]

U.S. law professor Alan Dershowitz writes that “Every single prisoner held by Israel has judicial review available to him or her and some have won release. Every one of them has access to Red Cross visitation, can communicate with family, and has a known whereabout. Kidnapped Israeli soldiers on the other hand are kept incommunicado by criminal elements, are routinely tortured, often murdered, and have no access to the Red Cross or judicial review. Moreover, the prisoners being held by Israel are terrorists—that is, unlawful combatants. Many are murderers who have been convicted and sentenced in accordance with due process. The “women” and “children” are guilty of having murdered or attempted to murder innocent babies and other non-combatants. The soldiers who were kidnapped are lawful combatants subject to prisoner of war status.”

Hamas or Hezbollah, Dershowitz states, would not treat the Israeli soldiers the way Israel treats its prisoners, because “they are terrorist organizations who do not operation within the rule of the law.”[52]

Humanitarian racism, a term for a little recognized type of racism, was coined several years ago by Gerstenfeld. He wrote: “This racism is a mirror image of the white-supremacist variety. Humanitarian racists consider—usually without saying so explicitly—that only white people can be fully responsible for their actions; nonwhites such as the Palestinians cannot (or can but only to a limited extent).”[53]

Humanitarian racism is present in the NGO statements about Shalit and Palestinian prisoners. All of these statements also attack Israeli prisons, using them as a tool to shift the emphasis in their articles away from the blatant violations of Shalit’s human rights, thus creating a false moral equivalence between the treatment of an Israeli soldier kidnapped by terrorists in Israeli territory and legally-imprisoned terrorists.[54]


When releasing statements about Israel and its terrorist enemies, officials from across the world have drawn equivalencies between Israel’s legitimate government and the leaders of terror organizations that are illegal according to international law.

At the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, the declarations of officials representing Russia, India, Turkey, and Sweden put Israel and Hamas on the same level.[55]

Erdogan, speaking to a gathering of the Eurasian Islamic Council, commented that “those who speak of Muslims and terror side by side are turning a blind eye when Muslims are massacred en masse.” He added that “those who turn a blind eye to discrimination toward Muslims in their own countries, are also closing their eyes to the savage massacre of innocent children in Gaza. … Therefore, I say Israel is a terrorist state.”[56]

Harris commented: “Erdogan has branded Israel a “terrorist state” for having the audacity to defend itself against a group that seeks its destruction. He has vociferously denounced Israel’s use of military force, while never condemning the hundreds of missile attacks against Israel this year alone… Yet Erdogan has the audacity to assail Israel mercilessly for merely exercising its right to defend itself against those who would destroy it.”[57]


There are some forms of false moral equivalence toward Israel and the Jews that fall outside the above categories. These include for instance the moral equivalence of murder and vandalism, and the comparison between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

The false moral equivalence between anti-Semitism and Islamophobia compares the problems facing Jewish populations across Europe with those of Muslims. This comparison is distorted in part because many Muslims are anti-Semites and because the most extreme persecutors of Jews in Europe have come out of Muslim communities. All anti-Semitic murders of Jews in Western Europe in the current century have been committed by Muslims.

Furthermore, while both groups face adversity in modern Europe, the scope and nature of this persecution could not be more different. Anti-Semitism has its origins in many centuries of religious and ethnic hate propaganda. Islamophobia derives from perceived aggression. At the same time there is a weariness with Islam because of the actual violence supported by many in the world of Islam.

False comparisons are also frequently used by Holocaust deniers. They try to minimize the horrors of the Shoah by comparing it to the actions taken by the Allies in the Second World War to defeat the Axis powers, in particular pointing to the airstrikes on German and Japanese targets. Although some of the actions taken, such as the internment of Japanese civilians by the U.S. and in particular the use of the atom bomb against civilian targets, were inhumane, they did not reach the magnitude of the Holocaust, the largest genocide in history, intended to cleanse Europe of the Jews.

False moral equivalence was also used by Adolf Eichmann during his 1961 war crimes trial in Jerusalem. He claimed that there were no basic differences between the Allied and Axis powers. Judge Benjamin Halevi responded 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 them over to the Gestapo, and then send them to Auschwitz for extermination it is an entirely different thing, is it not?”[58]

Eichmann’s sentiments were also shared by historical writer David Irving, who in 1996 sued Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher Penguin books for libel. She had characterized him in her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, as being aware of the harsh realities of the Holocaust, but choosing to distort them to ally with his own ideology and political agenda. In Lipstadt’s words, he did this because “Irving realized that a pre-condition for Nazism’s resurrection was to strip and wash it of its worst elements. The first important tool to accomplish this was the creation of immoral equivalencies, essentially a balance of bad behavior. For instance, in the same breath, one mentions that, while the Nazis bombarded London in 1940, the Allies bombed Germany in 1945. Less truthfully, one agrees that the Nazis had concentration camps, which were terrible places, but then denies anybody was murdered in them. One can then ‘balance’ that by mentioning that the Americans had camps for American citizens of Japanese descent.”[59]

The defendants in the trial however emerged victorious. In a lengthy judgement, Judge Charles Gray ruled in 2000 that Irving was an anti-Semite who “for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence.”[60]


The analysis of the above categories provides a broad overview of different ways in which comparisons of the moral equivalence type are abused to demonize Israel or damage its image. A more detailed analysis of false comparisons in general using many additional examples would yield many more insights in the process of demonization of Israel.

From the above, it also emerges that certain NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International use various categories of false moral comparisons. Through referencing an earlier article by Gerstenfeld on the nature and definition of double standards, it becomes clear that these organizations use additional false arguments.

Detailed analysis of all types of lies and false arguments used against Israel and the Jews is an essential tool in fighting the propaganda war. Understanding these techniques is necessary if Israel wants to operate efficiently on that battlefield against its multiple overt and indirect enemies as well as against anti-Semitism.

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is former Chairman of the Steering Committee of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, where he founded and directed the Center’s Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism program. His latest book The War of a Million Cuts: analyzes how Israel and Jews are demonized and how one can fight these attempts at delegitimization. He was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, and the International Leadership Award by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Jamie Berk is a researcher working toward an MA in political science at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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