Recently, the Israeli cabinet backed a bill that would forbid the use of the term Nazi, as well as Nazi and Holocaust symbols. It also forbids people from wearing clothes that invoke the Holocaust era, including striped uniforms that look like concentration camp prisoners'' uniforms, the yellow Star of David, or any other symbols associated with the Holocaust. (The only exceptions are for educational or historical purposes.) This law was drafted quickly after a disturbing event in late December where Ultra-Orthodox Jews protested the "oppression'' and ''incitement'' of the ''secular community'' against them" by wearing Holocaust-era clothing in order to compare their plight to Jews in concentration camps.
Ultra-Orthodox protestors; Photo by Marc Israel Sellem
This debate reminded me of an article I did last summer about a web comic called Hipster Hitler
, which portrays Hitler as a modern day hipster. In the web comic, Hitler wears T-shirts with slogans like “Weimar guitar gently weeps,” “Under Prussia” and “You make me feel like danzig.” The creators also sell T-shirts based off of these comics. The Hipster Hitler comic begged the Jewish community to ask itself whether the comic should be accepted or banned, and whether the T-shirts should be accepted or banned?
Although many Jews found the comic amusing, many also did not. In particular, the Australian Jewish community, which has the highest percentage of Holocaust survivors after Israel, found the comic''s T-shirts offensive. In June 2011, the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission successfully organized the removal of Hipster Hitler shirts from an Australian vendor’s website.
Interestingly, Anton Block, who headed the Commission, made a distinction between the comic and the T-shirts. He explained, "The audience needs to know the context." In the case of the comic itself, he believed the website clearly explained that it was a satire about Hitler and hipster culture. So even if one was personally offended by it, the context was clear and hot harmful to survivors.
However, the T-shirts were a different story. According to Block, "when you see someone putting on a T-shirt… There might be a Nazi sympathizer who sees that and likes it. They could use it to make a political statement." The potential harm to survivors was too much for Block to ignore, so he decided to approach the company selling Hipster Hitler''s T-shirts and convinced the company to ban them from being sold in Australia.
The company, called Red Bubble, agreed to take the T-shirts off the site as a matter of sensitivity and decency to survivors of violence and trauma. The commission also developed community guidelines so Red Bubble could act responsibly in the future. These guidelines state that “victims of violence, disaster or disease, their families and communities have a right not to be subjected to material that aggravates their pain.” I agreed with Block''s assessment of the comic and his approach in educating Red Bubble.
Applying these lessons to this new law, I believe it''s a grave mistake to forbid the use of Nazi terms and symbols associated with Nazism and the Holocaust. Dialogue is healthy, especially around such traumas as the Holocaust. Additionally, in regards to Holocaust survivors, most speech related to the Holocaust has a context, and is therefore not intentionally harmful.
This does not include speech that uses Nazi terms in order to incite violence. This can only be considered hate speech, and should be illegal. However, outlawing most speech related to the Holocaust is not only a threat to freedom of speech; it is also not protecting survivors.
Similar to Block, I agree that banning people from wearing clothing reminiscent of the Holocaust makes sense. This can only be traumatic for Holocaust survivors. It causes too much harm to justify its use.
Therefore, when we tackle such challenging subjects as free speech versus hate speech, the ultimate question we need to ask is if the context behind the speech is hateful.