Survivors back criminalizing Nazi symbols

Civil rights groups, left-wing MKs say bill will harm freedom of speech.

Swastika grafitti 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Swastika grafitti 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Holocaust survivors and attorneys representing them called on Wednesday for the Knesset to approve a controversial bill that would make using Nazi and Holocaust symbols a criminal offense.
While civil rights groups argued the bill would harm freedom of expression, Holocaust survivors said that although free speech was important, there should be limits.
“Politics cannot reduce the importance of the Shoah to the Israeli people,” said survivor Miriam Grieber. Attorney Uri Weisenberg from the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel said any and all use of Nazi or Holocaust symbols should be outlawed.
“Freedom of expression is of great value,” he said. “But it is not the ultimate sacred value.”
The remarks came during a hearing of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, which convened to prepare the proposed legislation, dubbed the Nazi Symbols Bill, for its first reading in the Knesset.
The Nazi Symbols Bill is a combination of four separate bills, all of which seek to criminalize the use of Nazi symbols.
While several countries, including Germany, Hungary and Poland, have banned the public display of Nazi symbols, it is legal in Israel.
In recent months, secular and religious residents have come under fire for using such symbols or the term “Nazi” as a provocative way to lash out at political opponents.
In January, Holocaust survivors and survivors’ organizations condemned haredi (ultra-Orthodox) protesters in Jerusalem for using Holocaust imagery during demonstrations, during which some people wore concentration camp uniforms and yellow Stars of David.
Meanwhile, the Im Tirtzu movement is suing a group of left-wing activists who dubbed the movement “fascist.” An attorney representing Im Tirtzu said the remarks linked the movement to the Nazis.
The first two bills, proposed by MKs Uri Ariel (National Union) and Yoel Hasson (Kadima), would make it a criminal offense to use any Nazi symbol, or to make improper use of Holocaust symbols – including wearing yellow Stars of David and concentration camp prisoner uniforms.
The same bills also make it a criminal offense to use the term “Nazi” as a pejorative term for another person, including expressing hope that the Nazis’ goals of exterminating the Jewish people should eventually be realized, or by expressing regret that those genocidal goals were not fulfilled.
The law would make the offenses punishable by six months in prison and a hefty fine.
However, calling a person a Nazi would not be an offense if it were proved to be true, or if it were done within the context of historical or scientific research or reporting.
Meanwhile, Kadima MK Marina Solodkin’s bill proposes prohibiting the use of any Holocaust or Nazi-linked icon or calling anyone a Nazilinked name. Violation of the law would be a civil wrong punishable by one year in prison.
The fourth bill, proposed by MK Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi) proposes banning Holocaust-related symbols in all advertising and commercial materials unless approved by the Interior Ministry.
In Wednesday’s committee hearing, Solodkin said she felt her bill was important because “the Jewish people must not belittle the Holocaust.”
Meanwhile, MKs on the Left and civil rights groups opposed the criminalization of Nazi symbols, saying the bill was “problematic and dangerous.”
MK Dov Henin (Hadash) said that while there was no doubt the Holocaust was a “traumatic event in Jewish history” and a particularly sensitive subject that caused pain when certain symbols were used, the proposed bill was an “insult to freedom of expression.”
He said the bill would also harm the memory of the Holocaust.
Attorney Lila Margalit of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) also attended the hearing and expressed her opposition to the bill.
“The importance and centrality of the Holocaust serve only to exacerbate the gravity of this attempt to dictate when and in what context it is permissible to mention this event,” Margalit wrote in a letter to committee chairman MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beytenu) on Tuesday.
When Rotem asked Margalit whether she considered incitement to racism freedom of expression, the ACRI attorney replied that the use of Holocaust symbols, even yellow Stars of David, were “legitimate protest.”
Meanwhile, MK Israel Eichler (United Torah Judaism) backed the bill, criticizing leftwing activists for inciting against the haredi community.
Eichler said the media had published cartoons making fun of the ultra-Orthodox public in ways reminiscent of the Holocaust era.
Weisenberg pointed out that the Nazis had not differentiated between religious and secular Jews.
No decision regarding the proposed legislation resulted on Wednesday, and the committee is expected to convene again shortly to debate the bill.