Israel Pulse

Israel debates legality of 'Nazi'

Article Summary
A new bill prohibiting the inappropriate use of the word "Nazi" brings into Israeli public debate the limits of free speech in a country dedicated to spreading the lessons of the Holocaust.

The proposed bill outlawing the word “Nazi” and Nazi symbols, which was approved in a preliminary Knesset reading on Jan. 15 after a stormy debate, and prior to that by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation, was greeted, as expected, with harsh condemnation by left-wing legislators. One of its authors, Knesset member Shimon Ohayon (Yisrael Beitenu), emerging from total anonymity, was said to be "bizarre [and] hallucinating."

“You are a bunch who hallucinates and are turning the Knesset into a joke,” said Knesset member Zehava Gal-On, chairwoman of the Meretz Party, lashing out at Ohayon and a group of other Knesset members who joined him in tabling the bill. It’s easy to dismiss Ohayon as odd, given that he’s generally unknown and a member of Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s party. But the identity of the other Knesset members who signed the bill — among them former Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit and two Knesset members of the Yesh Atid Party, Boaz Toporovsky and Dov Lipman — justifies a more serious debate of its content, which in its current version runs counter to freedom of speech.

This is not the first time such a bill outlawing Nazi symbols and signs has been tabled. Similar proposals were presented in past years, including in the final days of the previous Knesset, with no less than four bills aimed at turning the use of Holocaust symbols into a criminal offense.

Among the Knesset members who authored those bills were Ruhama Avraham and Yoel Hasson of the Kadima Party, Naomi Chazan of Meretz, Colette Avital and Eitan Cabel of Labor — none of whom were considered “hallucinatory.” Chazan and Avital, with roots deeply embedded in left-wing politics, were even considered at the time worthy and highly-respected members of the Knesset.

As for Ohayon, I don’t think he fits the description of “hallucinatory” either. Ohayon has a doctorate in education, and has specialized in writing curricula for teaching the Holocaust. He also heads the Knesset caucus for the fight against anti-Semitism. It’s clear that the issue of the Holocaust is dear to him, and it’s unfair to accuse him of trying to stir up provocation to get his name in the paper and to gain public awareness, as he did.

The problem with Ohayon’s bill is not in its guiding principle but rather in its lack of proportionality and balance, which would have enabled the safeguarding of the principle of freedom of speech. Thus, for example, Ohayon’s bill decrees that "any word which sounds like 'Nazi' and is used because of its similarity to the word — is also banned."

The proposed legislation also bans "insulting a person by expressing a wish, hope or desire for the realization of the Nazis’ aims, or an expression of regret or protest over the fact that these aims were not fully realized." As for symbols of the Holocaust (striped garb similar to that worn by prisoners in concentration camps and yellow badges), their inappropriate use is banned, as is the drawing of swastikas or other symbols affiliated with the Nazis.

The bill further states that the use of the word “Nazi” and Nazi signs are permitted only for educational purposes, documentation, scientific research or historic reporting, and is punishable by six months in jail and a 100,000-shekel ($27,000) fine.

The explanation of the proposed law says: "Unfortunately, in recent years there is a growing trend of using Nazi names and signs ... disrespecting the sensitivities of Holocaust survivors and their offspring." Thus, the bill is designed to stop the spread of this phenomenon.

The Knesset’s legal advisers, as well as Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, have made clear they will find it difficult to defend the proposed bill against petitions to the Supreme Court because it undermines freedom of speech and a strong justification is required in order to violate this right. In other words: The proposed bill is too sweeping.

“This bill is worded in a negligent fashion. Anyone who makes a movie about the Holocaust will go to jail. Are they suggesting that the prime minister, who compared Ahmedinejad to Hitler, would be put in jail?” asked Knesset member Dov Khenin of the Hadash Party.

Knesset member Sheetrit, a one-time justice minister, known for his liberal and moderate views, was one author of the bill. In a conversation with Al-Monitor, Sheetrit admitted that when he signed the proposed legislation he thought less about its prohibitions, which he thinks are too sweeping, and more about the principle.

“The truth is the bill needs to be amended,” he said, “and I will make sure to do so down the line. But it’s not at all an outlandish proposal. There are countries in Europe that limit the use, and we should be even more sensitive here. Why even in France the administration is trying to forbid a comedian to use the upside down Nazi salute [the quenelle]. Nonetheless, the restrictions should apply to very special cases. I’m not in favor of forbidding a standup comedian from making use of the word Nazi."

Excerpts of the interview follow.

Al-Monitor:  And when the satirical TV program “It’s a Wonderful Country” compares Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar to Nazis in the affair of the asylum seekers?

Sheetrit:  That’s wrong. When survivors demonstrated for an increase in their benefits and wore yellow badges, I thought it was in bad taste. The thing is, the bill, as it was tabled, is too broad and it misses the point. It doesn’t contain balances.

Al-Monitor:  Don’t you find it bizarre that it outlaws any use of the word “Nazi”? The prime minister makes use of this word all the time. He would then be in contempt of the law.

Sheetrit:  It’s not bizarre. I think the bill has a certain logic and the whole question is where to draw the line. When I was justice minister, I promoted legislation prohibiting incitement. We determined that the line runs at the exact point where the incitement risks physical harm to a person. Since then, as far as I know, the law has been used only once. Freedom of speech stops if it causes people physical harm.

Judging by parliamentary history, Ohayon’s proposed bill will also be canceled. Instead of making do with outlawing extreme usage of the word, he and his colleagues table a sweeping bill that ignores the principle of freedom of speech. It thus precludes a broad, serious debate of the issue, which lies at the core of the values of the State of Israel, where the memory of the Holocaust is enshrined in ceremonies, symbols and heritage as an imperative of history and values.

Such a debate was conducted in the Supreme Court in 2006 in a libel suit brought by right-wing activist Itamar Ben-Gvir against the late journalist Amnon Dankner, who called him “a little Nazi” and “a dirty Nazi” on a television show. Dankner claimed in his defense that he had spoken the truth and asked to prove the similarity between the Kach Party [to which Ben-Gvir belonged] and the Nazi movement.

The judges wrote a split opinion, going into great details over 103 pages. Whereas Justice Eliezer Rivlin sought to expand the right to freedom of speech, Justice Ayala Procaccia dissented: "The expression 'Nazi' ‘little’ ‘dirty’ hurled at any Jew, in the Hebrew state, where the living memory of the Holocaust rules the lives of many and of the entire public, constitutes a radical blow, by all standards, to a Jew in Israel,” Procaccia wrote. Eventually, with a two-to-one majority, the court ruled in Ben-Gvir’s favor.

All those who instinctively attacked and criticized Knesset member Ohayon’s proposed bill would have done better to at least peruse the Supreme Court ruling. Perhaps, then, they might have reached a less sweeping conclusion.

Found in: supreme court, knesset, judaism, israeli politics, holocaust

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3


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