The Road to Heil

If ever there were a question to inspire ambivalence it might be whether the current push in Israel to outlaw the word “Nazi” and Holocaust-era German symbols is a good idea.

On the one hand, the word and symbols are often used these days to score political points, to just insult someone with whom the user disagrees or in the ostensible service of humor.  Placards of Yitzchak Rabin’s image in a Nazi uniform were brandished in demonstrations before his assassination; and, more recently, religious Jewish children were dressed in concentration camp garb to protest government budget cuts.  A long-into-reruns popular American television show included a character, the irascible owner of a food stand, who nom de tv was “the soup Nazi.”  Talk about trivialization.

But there’s another hand, too, at least to many minds: Outlawing speech is not something to undertake lightly. And just where does one draw the line between speech that’s just impolite or crude, and speech that is so depraved as to merit being criminalized?  Forbidding the shouting of “fire!” in a crowded theater is understandably worthy of penalization; calling someone a soup Nazi, well, somewhat less so.

And then there is the question of whether criminalizing even clearly outrageous use of words like “Nazi” would in fact in the end help curb the misuse of the metaphor, or, perhaps, empower it, making it even more enticing to those who seek to shock, not enlighten.

The sponsor of the Israeli bill, the Yisrael Beitenu party’s Shimon Ohayon, said that “We want to prevent disrespect of the Holocaust,” and contends that “we have too many freedoms.”  Free speech advocates, as might be expected, do not agree.  (To their credit, though, they seem to have avoided comparing the proposed legislation with the Nuremberg laws.)

The pending bill would impose a fine of 100,000 shekels (nearly $29,000) and six months in jail for anybody using the word or symbols of the Third Reich in a “wrong or inappropriate way.”

Whatever one feels about the wisdom of the legislation, though, what exactly will define “inappropriate”?  Oy, there’s the rub.

Is likening Iran’s nuclear ambitions to the designs Nazi Germany had on the world in the 1930s inappropriate?  Most of us would say it’s no stretch at all.  Dov Hanin, however, a member of an Arab party in the Knesset, feels otherwise, and has suggested that, had the pending law been enacted a year or two ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would deserve jail for having compared former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler.

And what about people who, as has happened in the U.S., falsely accuse a community – say, the charedi one – or one of its organizations of being part of a sordid conspiracy to enable the harming of children? Would it be inappropriate, in light of such a law, to compare the accusers to Nazi propagandists who insinuated that Jews as a group killed Christian children for their blood?  There is certainly a difference between the two propagandas; the contemporary accusers don’t seek (one hopes) to kill their fellow Jews.  Is it a difference, though, that makes a difference?

I recently dared to write an essay that suggested that the animus some Orthodox Jews display toward President Obama is misconceived, and unjustified in light of the facts.  Most of the responses I received were positive ones; there are many observant Jews, it seems, who have harbored that realization quietly and who were happy to see it actually expressed in a public medium.

Then there were responses that took issue with my point, and pointed out things – some of them loosely pertinent to Israel, many of them in entirely unrelated realms – that the writers felt justified their anti-Obama attitudes.  Even though I was unmoved by the arguments, that’s fine.  People don’t see things, or have to see things, the same way.

But then there were the crazed reactions, among them that of a gentleman who posted his take on a blog. I had begun my piece with an anecdote about a Mi Sheberach prayer made for President Obama; the blog-poster, clever fellow that (he thinks) he is, attempted to show how wrongheaded  that was – by suggesting a parallel prayer being made in a German synagogue in 1938 on behalf of… you guessed it, Adolf Hitler.  The rest of his piece was similarly unhinged, reaching far and wide to change the subject, preaching the talk-show tropes of Benghazi and Obamacare, and berating me for my criticism of “Open Orthodoxy.”

In the end, I remain of two minds regarding the proposed Israeli law.  I fully understand the desire to enact such legislation, and recognize the bill’s sponsors’ good intentions; yet part of me feels that things would best be left alone.

For two reasons: First, because legislating civility is likely a futile endeavor.  And, second, because, all said and done, the wild misapplication of words like “Nazi” and “Hitler” ultimately says something only about the person who misuses them.

© 2014 Rabbi Avi Shafran

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