Did you know that it’s technically against the law to use the word “nigger” in New York City? The City Council voted unanimously — as in 49 to nothing — to encourage New Yorkers not to use the N-word and to learn about its racist provenance. This was back in 2007, but you’d be hardpressed today to find anyone who can point to a tangible result of this ban, except for a hilarious episode on The Daily Show satirizing the whole enterprise.
At least the City Council members passed a resolution that carried no sanctions or penalty, recognizing that they were expressing a civic sentiment, not creating a new class of criminal offense. Not so the Israeli Knesset, which on January 15 gave preliminary approval to a bill that would criminalize the word Nazi or symbols from the Third Reich if they were used in a “wrong or inappropriate way.”
The bill would impose a maximum fine of 100,000 shekels and six months in jail for any violators. (Educational settings and some artistic performances would be exempt.) No word on who gets to decide what is “wrong or inappropriate,” how this ban would be enforced or whether a teenager who equates a bad romantic breakup with the Shoah would be hauled off to prison.
“We want to prevent disrespect of the Holocaust,” said Shimon Ohayon, the bill’s sponsor, from the Yisrael Beitenu party. “We allow too many freedoms, which are taking over in a way that is harming us.”
He’s correct on the first point. Of all the nations and peoples on earth, Israel should be the one to hold the Holocaust in careful context, and Israelis should be the ones to understand how derogatory words and emblems can deeply insult the survivors who live in their midst and the Jewish values on which their state is built.
But respect is not a virtue that can be legislated. It must be taught, modeled, extolled, embedded in a culture.
Holocaust imagery is used and abused by Israelis up and down the social food chain, from snarky teenagers to angry settlers to senior government officials who routinely equate today’s enemy with Hitler and his ilk. A bill similar to Ohayon’s was introduced two years ago, after some ultra-Orthodox Jews wore yellow stars and concentration camp-style dress to protest what they contended was persecution by secular countrymen. Israelis were outraged.
Still, the bill went nowhere.
Israeli lawmakers supporting the latest legislation point to the dozen or so European nations that prohibit the use of Nazi flags and symbols, along with those of other extremist groups. But there’s a crucial underlying difference. By and large, the European statutes ban Nazi imagery only if it is being used to incite hatred or violence.