When graffiti appeared in Turin in the 1960s that claimed 'Fiat=Auschwitz' the Holocaust survivor Primo Levi was disgusted. It was 'not true' he said, for 'there is no gas chamber at Fiat' and you can go home at the end of the day.
It seems an obvious point, but Levi thought the necessity of making accurate distinctions and judging fairly were among the most important lessons he had learnt in Auschwitz. Yet, ironically, the very same camps had made us fear that any act of discernment could slip into mere prejudice and, perhaps, enormity. Best to leave well alone. That fear is still rife in our culture, and, it has to be said, is mostly a good and kindly impulse that has improved the position of minorities in the West.
But Levi thought the refusal to draw distinctions could also lead to terrible collapses of judgement and a politically dangerous tendency to moral equivalencing.
A collapse of judgement was what happened to European Foreign Affairs chief Baroness Ashton this week when she seemed to draw a parallel between the deliberate and targeted murder of three Jewish children in Toulouse and the deaths of Palestinian children in Gaza. Speaking at a conference entitled "Palestine Refugees in the changing Middle East" in Brussels, she said:
"We remember young people who have been killed in all sorts of terrible circumstances - the Belgian children having lost their lives in a terrible tragedy and when we think of what happened in Toulouse today, when we remember what happened in Norway a year ago, when we know what is happening in Syria, when we see what is happening in Gaza and in different parts of the world - we remember young people and children who lose their lives."
Now, Primo Levi welcomed the fact that the "global labelling so dear to the totalitarian regimes [now] repels us". He thought this was one source of our human rights culture, which he rightly considered a glory. But he was a subtle thinker, always qualifying one thought with another. Be careful, he warned, lest your fear of labelling stops you from judging. For we live in a dangerous world in which "although it might be difficult to, it is necessary to judge." (When his daughter Lisa put up a picture of Chairman Mao on her bedroom wall Levi told her that Mao was a 'dictator' and words were exchanged.)
Let's be clear: there is no difference between the value of an individual child's life in Gaza or in Toulouse. Such a distinction would indeed be obscene. The difference missed by the Baroness concerns not the victims but the perpetrators. The Kadima chairperson and opposition leader Tzipi Livni, an intelligent voice that is sorely missed, captured this perfectly, pointing out that "a hate crime or a leader murdering his people is not like a country fighting terror, even if civilians are hurt." Livni added that Ashton's comment "represents the misconception in the world concerning the State of Israel and the current leadership's inability to create the appropriate moral distinction." (Ashton released a clarification yesterday.)
Appropriate moral distinctions are having a tough time these days in our culture. Moral philosopher Jean Bethke Elshstain has identified our tendency to "traffic in a distortion of language that leads to contortions of moral meaning." Whatever her intention, when Baroness Ashton drew a parallel between the actions of the Israeli government in Gaza in 2008-9 - an act of self-defence undertaken only as a last resort after the withdrawal from the Strip resulted in years of terror and rockets raining down on Israeli civilians, and only after Israel had appealed in vain to the international community to act - to the deliberate murder of Jewish children in Toulouse because they were Jewish children, then we have a grotesque distortion of language.
Baroness Ashton did not explicitly compare the actions of the IDF to those of the killers in Toulouse. She seemed to be grasping for some more general point about the tragedy of young people dying, even adding the deaths of young people in a tragic coach accident in to the equation. But there are dangerous inferences that could be drawn.
Her linking of Toulouse and Gaza as part of an apparently free association of unrelated issues was clumsy and inappropriate. It risked implying a moral equivalence. Our leaders need to distance themselves from such politically disarming contortion of moral meaning. For these are the distinctions the West needs if it is to defend itself against terror.