Bid to ban 'Nazi' raises free-speech worries in Israel

Jodi RudorenThe New York Times

JERUSALEM -- Israel is on the brink of banning the N-word. N as in Nazi, that is.

Parliament gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a bill that would make it a crime to call someone a Nazi -- or any other slur associated with the Third Reich -- or to use Holocaust-related symbols in a noneducational way. The penalty would be a fine of as much as $29,000 and up to six months in jail.

Backers of the law say it is a response to what they see as a rising tide of anti-Semitism around the world as well as an increasing casual invocation of such terms and totems in Israeli politics and even teenage trash talk.

"We have to be the leader of this battle, of this struggle, in order to encourage other countries," Shimon Ohayon, the lawmaker sponsoring the bill, said in an interview. "We, in our land, can find enough words and expressions and idioms to express our opinions. What I'm asking is, please put away this special situation that has to do with our history."

But critics, including some with deep connections to the Holocaust, say the proposed law is a dangerous infringement on free speech and an overreach impossible to enforce. Though they, too, have been horrified by the recent appearance on Facebook of a digitally altered photograph of the finance minister in an SS uniform, the donning of yellow-star patches by Orthodox Jews demonstrating against an expanded military draft and the accusations that the government's treatment of African migrants is comparable to Hitler, many suggest such episodes call for a public awareness campaign, not criminalization.

"You have to build it by educational process, by the spirit of public debate, what you can say publicly and what you cannot," said Avner Shalev, director of Yad Vashem, a Holocaust memorial and museum. "I would prefer to create this kind of atmosphere that things are not done or not said or not expressed in this way. Societies know how to do it."

The bill, which has been much debated here since its backing by a crucial committee of the governing coalition last week, is the latest clash involving Israel's insistence on being both a Jewish state, where the Holocaust has special significance, and a democratic one, where free speech is a paramount principle and minority positions are protected. It also reflects how Israel continues to grapple with the imprint of the Holocaust on its culture and identity, as the atrocity passes from living memory to history.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other politicians routinely invoke the Holocaust in warning against the Iranian nuclear threat and in emphasizing that the Jewish people now have an army to protect them.

Yet those leaders are also wary of their state being seen as simply a response to the slaughter of 6 million Jews, pointing out that the Zionist movement predates World War II and that the Jewish presence in the land of Israel dates back thousands of years.

Many Jewish Israelis make high-school pilgrimages to Auschwitz and other death camps. Yet younger people have also been heard using the Hebrew word shoah -- which literally means catastrophe but is generally reserved for the Holocaust -- to describe an everyday disaster like a botched relationship or a messy kitchen.

The Israeli bill comes amid an uproar over the quenelle, a hand gesture that some see as an inversion of a Nazi salute and that has been popularized by a French comedian widely considered anti-Semitic.

At least half a dozen European nations, along with Brazil, already prohibit the use of Nazi symbols and flags, along with those of other extremist groups, and a longer list consider Holocaust denial a crime (as Israel has since 1986). And Rwanda bans "genocide ideology," which it defines as any form of speech or action deemed to support or promote genocide. But other countries do not ban the utterance of the word Nazi, as the proposed Israeli law would, along with "everything that has to do with it and everything that connects to Nazism and the regime of the Third Reich and those who were the head of it."

While the European laws are clearly aimed at neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism, Israel seems to be responding more to the terms' trivialization.

In recent months, a satirical television show compared the interior minister to a concentration-camp supervisor for his handling of migrant workers, protesters at the Western Wall shouted "Go back to Germany" at police officers, and a sports commentator denounced a veteran basketball referee as "Gestapo."

Dov Lipman, a rabbi and a Parliament member from the centrist Yesh Atid Party who is one of the bill's sponsors, said he was frequently called a Nazi during the 2011 demonstrations in Beit Shemesh, when he was trying to protect schoolgirls from attacks by religious mobs who considered their dress immodest.

"I remember thinking to myself, 'My goodness, my grandparents are Holocaust survivors, and perhaps their grandparents survived together with mine!'" Lipman wrote in an email. "Freedom of speech is important, but in my opinion, every country has to establish certain value-based limits."

A similar law was introduced here in 2012, but died in committee amid opposition from Parliament's legal adviser. Ohayon's version passed Wednesday by a vote of 44-17 with 12 abstentions, and it still must face committee hearings and three more votes in the 120-member Parliament.

The New York Times