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Israel: Who are you calling a Nazi?

The Knesset has taken the first step toward approving a law that would ban the use of the word “Nazi” as an epithet.

Even for Israel, this was “a heated debate,” said Gideon Allon in Israel Hayom. The Knesset has taken the first step toward approving a law that would ban the use of the word “Nazi” as an epithet. Anyone who calls someone a Nazi could face six months in prison and a fine of $29,000. Displaying swastikas or other Nazi symbols would be banned, as would wearing the striped shirts of concentration camp inmates or yellow Star of David—as some ultra-Orthodox Israelis recently did to protest restrictions on their way of life. The law, proposed by the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, exempts educational and artistic uses of Nazi symbols, but was still “strongly attacked” by the opposition. One representative, Dov Hanin, asked whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should be imprisoned for comparing Iran’s former leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Adolf Hitler. “You’re not protecting the memory of the Holocaust,” said another, Zahava Gal-On. “You’re destroying freedom of expression.”

Plenty of other countries already outlaw Nazi symbols and expressions, said Noah Klieger in Yedioth Ahronoth, most notably Germany and Austria. These Western democracies enjoy free speech and robust political debate but recognize that the Nazi insult is a bridge too far. It’s not like any other epithet, because “its intention is not just to tease a person, but to compare him to those who exterminated 6 million Jews.” In fact, “I naïvely thought” that Israel already had such a law and just wasn’t enforcing it very well. It “should have been enacted decades ago.”

Then we’d all be in jail, said Benny Ziffer in Ha’aretz. Israelis trivialize the Holocaust all the time. Growing up, I remember hearing adults yelling, “What is this, Auschwitz?” for inconveniences like when “the line at the health clinic was especially long.” In politics, it’s ubiquitous. Asylum seekers from Africa protest that they’re being mistreated and say it’s just like the Holocaust. The ultra-Orthodox claim they’re being oppressed and invoke the Holocaust. “It really does trivialize Holocaust victims when their singular catastrophe is turned into a routine metaphor that’s ostensibly appropriate for any injustice to any group of people whatsoever.” Yet even more, the Holocaust is trivialized when our leaders invoke a “fabricated fear of a new Holocaust.” And this bill wouldn’t apply to speeches like that.

You can’t legislate civility, said Seth J. Frantzman in The Jerusalem Post. The sad truth is that “this libel has had a warm home among many elite sectors in Israel and a welcome place on the Left and Right.” David Ben-Gurion called his chief rival, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a Hitler back in 1934, and in 1982 Yeshayahu Leibowitz, an Israel Prize nominee, said that Israeli soldiers were behaving like “Judeo-Nazis.” This stuff continues to this day, and banning it is beside the point. “The real problem is the fact that such descriptions meet with no widespread condemnations.” No intellectual who resorted to this lazy slur has ever apologized. It is not the laws that must change, but “Israeli society’s understanding of civil debate.”

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