Think what you like about Israel, but to equate Zionism with Nazism is simply incendiary

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The Independent Online

One thing is not another thing. What makes a thing the thing it is and not something else is not just a question for artists and intellectuals, it is the question. Where all things look the same, there is no life of the mind.

One thing is not another thing. What makes a thing the thing it is and not something else is not just a question for artists and intellectuals, it is the question. Where all things look the same, there is no life of the mind.

More committed to the life of the mind than has always been good for them, the Jewish people came to understand their faith as exceptional, unlike other faiths. Though it has been wilfully misinterpreted as pride, the concept of chosenness, of bearing the burden of selection – choosing to be chosen – was one of the ways they identified this exceptionalness. Centuries later the Nazis paid them back in kind. For an exceptional people, an exceptional fate.

When Jews demur from the word Holocaust each time there is an instance of man's inhumanity to man, it is not because they think their suffering is keener, or somehow more pristine, than anyone else's. It is simply that one thing is not another thing. When next there is an attempt first to slander and then to wipe out a whole people, to burn away every trace of them and their beliefs from the face of the earth, to make it as though they never were and to ensure they never will be again, Jews will accept that Holocaust is the word.

This is not a species of scholasticism, verbal fastidiousness for its own sake. If we do not properly describe what a thing is like and not like, we do not know what it is. It is in the nature of hatred not to know what a thing is like and not to care. Which is why we say that hatred is blind. Indeed, one of the signs that hatred is being brewed, in an individual or a community, is the deliberate wedding of like to unlike. Brutes yoke unlikes together in haste, enjoying that surge in emotional violence that blurring all distinctions brings.

Here is why intellectuals, philosophers, artists, poets, are so important to our wellbeing. By exploring the ways things are different, however much they may sometimes look the same, by showing us how and why a thing became the thing it is and not another thing, they help still the undifferentiated violence of the furious and embittered. Little by little, they bring the calm of distinctness and individuality back into our lives.

So when the poet Tom Paulin throws himself on the side of those who would equate Zionism with Nazism, it is his calling as an artist and intellectual he betrays. He is allowed to think what he likes of Israel. He is allowed to misread history in the quiet of his Oxford room, if misreading history is his bag. I am even half inclined to say he is allowed to indulge himself the dark barbaric satisfaction that comes with saying the unsayable, in this instance accusing a people who have suffered a grievous wrong of now being the instigators of it themselves. If he must get high on this psychic thrill, he must. But he is not allowed to use the word Nazi where nothing remotely resembling Nazism is afoot.

The systematic defamation leading to the wholesale destruction of another people who posed no threat, who threw no bombs, who simply were – does he charge Zionists with that? Gas chambers, euthanasia, experiments on "degenerates", human soap factories – does he accuse Zionists of those? When they weren't killing Jews, the Nazis also slaughtered gypsies and homosexuals – does Paulin know the number of gypsies and homosexuals so far murdered by Zionists?

Let me be clear: I do not charge Paulin with anti-Semitism. I'm not sure I even charge him with sensationalism, though I understand why a poet in our time must grab a headline. What I charge him with is stupidity. He has a mind and in this instance he has refused to use it. He has chosen to be a fool.

Nor is he the only one. AN Wilson has been vulturously circling the subject of Israel for a long time. In his column in last week's Evening Standard, he swooped. I will not fight him for his dinner. Let him complain that no Jews were on the pro-Palestinian march in Trafalgar Square last Sunday, when in fact there were. A man must eat. But a man must also think. And when Wilson claims that the activity of Israeli troops around the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is "the equivalent of the Taliban destroying Buddhist sculpture", he ceases to be a thinker.

One thing is not another thing. Central to Taliban theology was the destruction of all other faiths and all monuments to any aesthetic but their own. There was to be no other doctrine, no other music, no other conception of beauty. So where is the "equivalence" of which AN Wilson speaks? Does he know of a deliberate Israeli clampdown on Christianity and Islam? Can he show us that Israeli concert halls play only Jewish music and that paintings by non-Israeli painters are being ripped off gallery walls? Or does he simply mean that in the course of prosecuting a war of which he does not approve Israeli soldiers have caused terrible damage, as do all armies when they fight? I minimise nothing. But one crime is not another crime.

There is something incendiary in Wilson's "equivalence" – accusing Jews of deliberately desecrating Christian sites. I do not know on what disreputable journey into his own heart of medieval darkness Wilson has embarked, but you can always tell when a civilised man wishes to embrace barbarism – things not alike all start to look the same to him.