Forward Thinking

Israel's Got No Business Banning Nazi Symbols

By Brent E. Sasley

  • Print
  • Share Share

A swastika symbol painted on the wall of a synagogue in Petah Tikva, Israel. / Getty Images

Israel’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted for a bill yesterday that, if it passes three readings in the Knesset, would impose penalties on those who use the term “Nazi” as a comparison, employ Nazi symbols, or call in some way for the work the Nazis began (killing the Jews) to be finished. Those who break the law could face a 100,000 shekel fine and six months in prison. But while Nazi comparisons are abhorrent, the law itself is dangerous and anti-democratic.

The bill — a second effort after a similar bill was proposed in 2012 — has broad backing for now. It was sponsored by Likud-Beiteinu, Yesh Atid, and Hatnua, while some members in Labor have in the past expressed support. And we can easily discern worthy motives behind it. Settlers fighting forced evacuation by the state have used Nazi symbols to claim the government is as evil as Hitler. In 2011, to protest the Haredi draft, several Orthodox demonstrators dressed in uniforms that resembled concentration camp clothing, complete with yellow star. Civil dialogue is difficult under these conditions, to say nothing of the deadly atmosphere that can be created when these accusations are carried too far — for example, the murder of Yitzhak Rabin.

And yes, comparing people you disagree with to Nazis is ridiculous and immoral. There simply hasn’t been any group or regime like the Nazis, who didn’t just torture and murder millions of people, but created the most efficient systems and organizations for doing so. The Holocaust isn’t the only case of mass killing in human history, but it is unique.

Moreover, because the term is associated with such horrific and sadistic acts of violence, calling your enemies or opponents “Nazis” obscures the real issues at stake, because of the emotional reactions and overly-sensationalist assumptions the name evokes. This, in turn, makes it that much harder to construct policies to resolve the problem or conflict at hand.

But Nazi comparisons are not for the Israeli state to forbid. Doing so only serves as a restriction on what citizens can say about their country and opens the door to further limitations on their freedom of expression.

Israel already skirts the edges of intolerance toward free speech with its Basic Law: The Knesset, which disqualifies parties from running in elections if they negate either the democratic character of Israel or its existence as the “state of the Jewish people.” (The Law also forbids parties that incite to racism, which was used to ban Kach.) These are broad enough stipulations that they could, in theory, be used to outlaw a wide range of parties and candidates; as a matter of fact, they have been used to try to keep Arab politicians out of politics.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s current and previous governments have also proposed or enacted a number of bills designed to further limit what Israelis can say about their state’s policies. This includes calling for boycotts of the settlements and commemorating the nakba.

One of Israel’s greatest strengths is its democracy. Elections are contested by tens of parties representing a wide range of interests and ideas, while Israelis’ ability to critique, disagree, and dissent has long been nearly unlimited. Indeed, it’s a regular comment that Israelis can say things about their politics that American Jews can’t.

It can be hard to hear, but the ability of citizens to use offending terms like “genocide,” “apartheid,” and “Nazi” to describe their country is a right of freedom and a sign of a confident, mature, and healthy democracy. They may be inaccurate and misleading, but that is for citizens or the government to contest in the marketplace of ideas and words.

Besides, it’s not like use of Nazi terminology or symbols is all that convincing. Haredim or settlers wearing yellow stars might reinforce for Haredim or settlers their opposition to state policy, but few others will suddenly believe that their state is a fascist, Jew-hating, murderous regime bent on world domination.

In other words, the drawbacks of such a bill far outweigh any benefits that might come along with it. Israel should be proud, not embarrassed, by the freedom of expression its citizens enjoy.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: anti-Semitism, Nazi, Knesset, Jewish, Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.