A Threat To Free Speech In Israel

Marc Tracy considers a Knesset bill that would ban the use of the word “Nazi”:

Nazi analogies are always fraught, their deployment frequently a sign of flailing desperation or ulterior motive on the part of the deployer; there’s a reason we have phrases like Godwin’s law (which states that Internet arguments, no matter the topic, are virtually certain to include Nazi analogies if they go on long enough) and reductio ad Hitlerum (coined, I learn from Wikipedia, by Leo Strauss!). In Israel, the comparison is problematic twice more: Because the Jews were in many ways the Nazis’ most important victims, and because the contingent circumstances of Israel’s founding cannot be understood without reference to the Holocaust.

But it seems to me that the Holocaust’s uniqueness should actually make it an extremely useful heuristic for understanding the world, even and especially in an Israeli context. We can use its special awfulness to wake up to events in our own time that might be less but still plenty awful. Reasonable adults, after all, understand that to compare someone to a Nazi—even, off-the-cuff, to call someone a Nazi—need not be an argument that the person in question is the equivalent of a Nazi. (As for unreasonable adults who do mean to argue such equivalence, they can be dismissed and disgraced. Again, see: free speech.) Similarly, reasonable Israelis might shun anti-Semites who are eager to paint the comparison while simultaneously appointing to themselves the burden not to resemble the Jews’ greatest persecutors. A healthy Israeli society would assimilate legitimate critiques and better itself.

Tom Wilson also opposes the bill on free speech grounds:

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.

Abby Ohlheiser links the proposed ban to other Israeli laws governing speech:

As striking as the “Nazi” ban is, the measure would join a number of existing restrictions on free speech in the country. Israel already bans anyone who demeans Israel’s democratic character or its status as the “state of the Jewish people” from running for office, as the Forward points out, and a number of similar laws have been used to keep many Arab parties and politicians out of elected offices. In 2011, Israel banned all boycotts against the state or its settlements in the West Bank, a popular protest tool used by those who oppose Israel’s settlement building on land that Palestinians would like to use to build their own state in the future.

Eylon Aslan-Levy points out that the law would “jail half the cabinet”:

1. It would be illegal to refer to the Green Line as “Auschwitz borders”. Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, Housing Minister Uri Ariel, Tourism Minister Uzi Landau and even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself could all find themselves behind bars for using Abba Eban’s provocative phrase to describe Israel’s borders before 1967.

2. It would be illegal to compare anyone to Goebbels. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was acquitted on corruption charges, but another prosecution beckons if he calls Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan “the successor to [Nazi propagandist] Joseph Goebbels” again; his comparison of a Palestinian Authority letter to the contents of Der Stürmer would also land him in hot water. [Update: Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz would also be guilty of accusing Channel 2 of broadcasting Goebbels-like “Nazi propaganda”.]

3. It would be illegal to compare Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to Hitler. Prime Minister Netanyahu (again!) could find himself in prison for repeating comments comparing the former Iranian president to the Nazi dictator. President Shimon Peres has made similar remarks, but at least he has presidential immunity to fall back on to avoid prosecution.

I don’t know. Maybe the ban wouldn’t be so bad after all.