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Neo-Nazis and Free Speech

On Wednesday Israel’s Knesset approved the preliminary reading of a bill that would both outlaw the use of Nazi symbols, such as the swastika, and make it illegal to label someone a Nazi. The bill, which must now be reviewed by committee prior to the final Knesset vote to determine whether it is to become law, was proposed by MK Shimon Ohayon (Likud-Beiteinu) and would make illegal both the use of swastikas and even the wearing of yellow stars reminiscent of those Jews were forced to wear under Nazi rule. 

Given Israel’s history and identity as a Jewish state, perhaps it is quite understandable that the presence of Nazi symbols, and indeed the all-too-common Nazi name calling that goes on in Israel’s national debates, should be considered particularly objectionable. But this legislation is riddled with problems and more than anything else bespeaks of the often confused and at times shallow political culture that Israelis live with.

For one thing, this bill clumsily conflates two clearly distinct issues. On the one hand, there is the no doubt vexing irritation of Israel’s minute neo-Nazi fringe, and on the other is the clearly undesirable trend of certain protest groups, and a number of public figures, throwing around the Nazi accusation with a casualness that is as offensive as it is infantile. In both cases, however, there are clear issues of free speech at stake. With Israel’s lack of any kind of First Amendment culture, we witness a reflexive attitude that seeks to solve problems by simply outlawing them. Yet, in this instance, the proposed remedy risks being more crippling than the ailment that it seeks to cure.

MK Ohayon has defended his proposed bill by arguing, “it is very important that Israel join the many countries in Europe that prohibit all use of Nazi symbols. These are a danger to Jews wherever they are, and as long as these symbols are not illegal in Israel we cannot go to the nations with complaints about how they allow their use.” Although undeniably an affront to Israel’s values as a Jewish state, the scant number of neo-Nazis (mostly from the former Soviet Union) that do exist in Israel today are hardly comparable to the much larger and politically significant neo-Nazi movements that proliferate in Germany and Eastern Europe.

Yet, by referencing Europe Ohayon perhaps unwittingly highlights precisely what is wrong with his bill and what Israel should seek to avoid emulating. For those who place the greatest emphasis on the importance of democracies being places where freedom of expression and conscience are protected above just about all else, much of Europe could not be considered a happy place. Even Britain, which conceives of itself as being closer to the American model of championing free speech, finds its laws against the incitement of race hatred regularly create an unresolved paradox where freedom is concerned. The heckler’s veto plagues public discourse there. In this way political correctness, as generally defined by the liberal establishment, is imposed top-down on the wider public. Israel should think seriously about whether it really wishes to side with the European attitude to free speech, rather than the American one.

Indeed, for sometime now Israel has been veering toward the European tendency to regulate speech. To be clear, it would be wrong to read this in the alarmist manner that Jewish liberals tend to view just about every law proposed by Likud parliamentarians: as proof that the Israeli right is fast transforming Israel into a banana republic. This is not a problem exclusive to either side of the political divide. Both left and right in Israel have been guilty of trying to create legislation to silence the other. The left in the 1980s sought to have certain right-wing parties simply struck off the electoral register on the grounds that they were racist and anti-democratic, while more recently Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has been associated with a string of proposed bills to outlaw, among other things, mourning Israel’s Independence Day.

Most of the things that Ohayon’s recent anti-Nazi bill seeks to address can be confronted through existing laws. If neo-Nazi groups are engaging in terrorist or vigilante activities, their activities can be proscribed as such. If Nazi slurs are being made, then Israel has sufficient libel laws to rectify this, and such statutes have been used in the past in precisely such instances of Nazi-themed defamation.  

It may well be the case that Israel’s high-pitched political discourse has a problem with the flippancy with which unthinking accusations of Nazism are made, but the idea that the solution to the low quality of public debate is more laws to limit free speech is wrongheaded. The ease with which Haredi and far-left activists have the tendency to charge Nazism at centrist politicians who clearly have no such sympathies with any aspect of Nazi ideology is silly if not unforgivably offensive, but making it illegal is hardly a proportionate or well considered way of dealing with this practice.

Irving Kristol was quite right when he explained that Israel’s young political culture lacked a certain intellectual depth and required the infusion of the greats of Western thought. Solving the problem of Israel’s troubled political discourse will be a long process, requiring a lot more than clumsy top-down legislation. Although, if this bill does pass Israelis will at least have to get far more inventive in the future. Perhaps Israel’s politicians can look forward to being compared to Pol Pot and Ceausescu from now on. 


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