Will Israel make use of Nazi slurs and symbols punishable by law?

Click photo to download. Caption: Member of Knesset Rabbi Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid) is pictured in an Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee meeting in the Knesset on Nov. 19, 2013. Lipman and several other Knesset members recently introduced legislation that would make any illegitimate use of the word “Nazi” or Nazi symbols punishable by law. Credit: Flash90.

By Josh Hasten/JNS.org

There’s little doubt that U.S. native MK Rabbi Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid) takes great pride, but at the same time grasps the tremendous responsibility, of being the first American-born oleh (immigrant to Israel) to serve in the Knesset in decades. 

But this proud Beit Shemesh resident, who has worked tirelessly towards co-existence and against gender segregation in his community, was beyond shock when a fellow Jew called Lipman a “Nazi” to his face during a violent altercation with an extremist fringe Jewish group in that city. 

“We were out protecting young girls who were not allowed to walk to school freely when we were verbally (and then physically) assaulted by a group of extremists who called me a ‘Nazi,’” Lipman tells JNS.org. “I thought to myself how surreal it was that 70 years after our grandparents were in Auschwitz together, they were using this terminology.”

The incident Lipman describes is just of many throughout Israel in recent years in which Nazi slurs and symbols have been used by Jews during protests against fellow Jews, including against government officials, Israel Defense Forces soldiers, security officials, and others. To help address this issue, Lipman and several other Knesset lawmakers recently introduced legislation that would make any illegitimate use of the word “Nazi” or Nazi symbols punishable by law.

In January, the Knesset Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved the first reading of the bill, with the original draft proposal introduced by Likud MK Shimon Ohayon. Along with Lipman, the bill is co-sponsored by MKs Meir Sheetrit (Hatnua), Boaz Toporovsky (Yesh Atid), and Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beiteinu).

Lipman says his goal in signing on to the law, which he says currently reads broadly, is that “no one should be able to verbally attack someone by calling them a ‘Nazi’ without criminal ramifications.”

“For a country built on the heels of the Holocaust, which houses survivors, their children, and grandchildren, [that term] is crossing a line,” he says.

While the bill passed its initial reading, Lipman explains that it now requires the support of the Israeli Justice Ministry, as well as the Ministry of Internal Security for the purpose of narrowing down its specifics, in order for it to become binding legislation.

A natural question arises in connection with the legislation: Does banning the use of the term “Nazi” in certain contexts infringe upon an individual’s right to freedom of speech, guaranteed under Israeli law, in a country that prides itself in being a liberal Western democracy?

Lipman acknowledges the dilemma and openly admits that while the bill does in fact “take away an individual’s freedom of speech,” he nonetheless feels that “in certain and limited situations, such as this one, which will benefit Israeli society, making this statement outweighs the detriment of taking away freedom of speech.”

He adds, “I believe in the U.S., for example, on the heels of civil rights and racism, that someone calling someone else a specific name in a hurtful way—the underpinnings and hurt that opens up, it should not be allowed.”

Several prominent non-profit organizations both in Israel and abroad, whose missions range from combating Anti-Semitism and racism to educating about the Holocaust, said they support the Knesset bill. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, tells JNS.org, “It is tragic that such legislation is even necessary in Israel, which correctly prides itself as a strong democracy. But recent events and protest underscore the need for action to be taken.”

“Beyond the harm done to and within Klal Yisrael by the use of such symbols, icons, and words linked to the perpetrators of the Shoah among Holocaust survivors, their children, and all Israelis, the continued abuse of these symbols by Jews in Israel in the Internet age will only further encourage and legitimize global anti-Israel campaigns, anti-Semites, and Holocaust deniers,” adds Cooper.

Yaakov Hagoel, who heads the World Zionist Organization’s Department for Countering Anti-Semitism in Israel and abroad, agrees.

“The word Nazi represents six million Jews whose voices cry out to us from the ground,” he tells JNS.org.

“It’s time that the Jewish state—championed as the Jewish home and constituted for all Jews around the world—enact a law prohibiting the use of the word Nazi in any context,” Hagoel says. “Let’s keep the word to describe the Damned (evil) who destroyed six million of our people in the Holocaust.”

Hagoel adds, “Recently we witnessed the growing use of Nazi symbols for other purposes by external enemies both in our surroundings and also from within. In addition, there is a sharp increase in the use of the term Nazi, as a comparison, when referring to existing situations. This disrespects Holocaust remembrance and its memory.”

Particularly given the reality of increasing anti-Semitic incidents worldwide, Hagoel says he is “happy about the decision to impose sanctions on those who use the terms, symbols or slogans from the world of Nazism.”

But Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, has reservations about the bill. He feels that the misuse of language should be dealt with through education instead of legislation. “The language we use has an impact, and we as a society should be cognizant of the power of the words and symbols we choose to use,” he tells JNS.org.

“I would prefer if through education, through the spirit of public debate, there was an atmosphere where these terms would not be misused and abused,” says Shalev.

MK Lipman admits that while turning the bill into Israeli law will be a long process, he is “optimistic that the bill will be passed” and says it is well worth the wait. 

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Posted on March 19, 2014 and filed under Holocaust, Special Sections, Features.