Israeli rights groups defend use of Nazi imagery

NGOs warn that freedom of expression will be harmed by proposed ban on SS uniforms, yellow Stars of David.

By ARIEH O’SULLIVAN / THE MEDIA LINE
January 11, 2012 20:10
3 minute read.
Neo-Nazi activist (illustrative)

Neo Nazi 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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For generations after the Second World War, no one in Israel ever thought there was a need to legally ban the use of Nazi imagery in the Jewish state.

But there has been an increasing number of portrayals of officials and leaders in Nazi uniforms and a rise in the use of Holocaust imagery like the yellow Stars of David that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi-controlled areas. This has led to a bill that would outlaw the use of Nazi imagery, backed by heavy fines.

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Civil rights groups have been on the defensive as lawmakers have pushed legislation in the last year that would obstruct freedom of speech, such as limits on Palestinians’ marking Israel’s Independence Day as the Nakba (catastrophe) and on public calls for a boycott of Israel or West Bank settlements.

The ban on Nazi imagery has put Israeli civil rights activists in the awkward position between protecting holocaust victims and preserving the right to freedom of expression.

“We see this as another encroachment on freedom of speech in Israel,” Haggai Elad, the executive director of The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), told The Media Line.  “Obviously this is something that is very sensitive in Israel. But the true test for freedom of speech is exactly when people are using language or symbols that are offensive to some or even all members of society.”

Israel’s Knesset is expected to vote on the bill’s preliminary reading on Wednesday after the Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved it earlier this week. It was proposed by Uri Ariel, a legislator from the right-wing National Union.

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"Unfortunately, in recent years we have been witness to the cynical exploitation of Nazi symbols and epithets in a manner that injures the feelings of Holocaust survivors, their families and many other Israelis,” Ariel said. “The law will act as an appropriate deterrent."

The proposed bill would also call for a six-month jail term for anyone violating it. It is not clear if the bill, which requires three readings to become law, will pass.

Specifically, the bill would prohibit: the use of all forms of the word "Nazi" or similar-sounding words; any epithets associated with Nazism, the Third Reich or any of its leaders; the wearing of striped clothing resembling that worn by prisoners in concentration camps and yellow Stars of David.

Police arrested two men last week for posting a photo-montage of Jerusalem Police Chief in a Nazi SS uniform. Israelis have periodically used Nazi images, most infamously putting former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in an SS uniform in the protests against a peace treaty with the Palestine Liberation Organization just prior to his assassination in 1995.

But the use of such symbols is relatively rare and when it does occur it tends to touch a raw nerve and mass condemnation. Recently, ultra-Orthodox protesters demonstrating against what they said was incitement against their community wore Nazi concentration camp uniforms and donned yellow Stars of David. The ploy implied that Israeli police were behaving like Nazis, a move that was heavily criticized.

Most European countries bar the use of Nazi imagery. But Israel never enacted any such laws or felt a need to even outlaw anti-Semitism, largely because it never thought it would have to. It does have legislation banning racial incitement, but that has rarely been used.

“Israel is actually closer to the United States in the way that we perceive the defense of freedom of speech even in such instances,” Elad said. “There are already existing defenses in current legislation in Israel banning incitement for racism. So the extreme instances where the usage of such imagery or language could actually be dangerous in the context of real fear or incitement to racism is already covered by the current legislation.”

“People reference history often in their daily lives in Israel, especially in politics, sometimes offensive and sometimes in a thoughtful way. There is no reason to limit that through legislation,” Elad said. 

He added that the question of social legitimacy of Holocaust and Nazi symbolism in public and political discourse is indeed a big question, one which deserves a robust and free public debate. It is not a question that should be handled through criminal law.

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