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.
The Nazi flag — with its foreboding black swastika and its blood-red background — had incited hatred and violence in those countries not so long ago, within living memory. Banishing it is a way of protecting lives and maintaining public safety, a cause which could trump the right to free speech.
That is why even the clumsy attempt by the New York City Council to outlaw the N-word has some legitimacy. It was a word first used by white people to subjugate, brutalize and persecute black people. Here. Not really that long ago.
Israel doesn’t face a Nazi threat from within its borders, just a threat within its soul. The crime now is trivializing the past, appropriating Nazi language and symbols and twisting them into something ordinary, temporarily offensive, or just plain awful. But not life threatening. Insult is not the same as genocide.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day is January 27. It is an invented “holiday” but a useful occasion to focus on what we Jews still owe the survivors in our midst. And despite the billions of dollars spent in restitution money, tens of thousands of them still suffer.
Of the estimated 200,000 survivors in Israel, 25% need food aid, and 12,000 had no heating or warm clothing during this unusually cold winter, according to Latet, an Israeli humanitarian aid organization. Of the 120,000 survivors in the United States, 25% live below the poverty line, according to federal officials.
The White House announced in December that it was willing to spend up to $15 million to help needy Holocaust survivors in the U.S. Given the immense financial resources in our community, combined with the billions that has flowed through the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany for decades, why should taxpayers’ money be necessary?
The crime here is not a slanderous remark by a thoughtless citizen, or the display of an offensive symbol. The real crime is that tens of thousands of the neediest, most deserving Jews in our midst live in inexcuseable deprivation.
What’s the use of banning the Nazi’s symbols if the victims of their dastardly work continue to suffer today?