Nazi march in Germany - AP
In this March 1938 file photo, Adolf Hitler salutes German troops parading in Vienna, Austria. Photo by AP
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A bill approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation this week, which would make any use of the word “Nazi” or of Nazi symbols a crime, is yet another step in the government’s efforts to stifle criticism. This legislation – like the so-called nonprofits bill (which seeks to impose financial penalties on foreign donations to certain NPOs) or the “Boycott Law” (which penalizes people who call for anti-Israel boycotts) – infringes on freedom of expression and has no place in a democratic country.

Under this bill, anyone who calls someone else a Nazi, or any other name “connected with Nazism or the Third Reich in Germany or any of its leaders, or a word that sounds similar to the word Nazi,” could face a sentence of up to half a year in prison, as well as a fine of 100,000 shekels ($28,600). The bill would also ban the use of Nazi symbols like the swastika, except “in the context of teaching, documentation or historical reports,” as well as the “inappropriate” use of Holocaust symbols such as the yellow star or clothing resembling that worn by concentration camp inmates.

The term “Nazi” is used in Israeli discourse as a rhetorical device meant to shock the listeners. Even though in many cases such rhetoric is unwarranted and repellent, Israel, of all places, must allow criticism of acts and opinions that are reminiscent of those of the Nazis. And it certainly shouldn’t forbid this by law.

Existing law provides more than enough tools for dealing with incidents in which the use of Nazi symbols or terminology constitutes incitement to violence or serves as a means to deny the Holocaust. Moreover, anyone who thinks his reputation has been harmed by being called a Nazi is entitled to sue the person who used that term against him under the libel laws, as has indeed been done in the past.

If it’s possible to imagine a public interest that such a law might conceivably serve, it is only the need to avoid hurting the feelings of Holocaust survivors. Preventing harm to survivors’ feelings is indeed very important, but even that isn’t enough to justify an absolute ban on the use of certain words.

Moreover, the bill’s prohibition on the “inappropriate” use of Holocaust symbols is such a vague prohibition, and so contrary to the principles of law, that it borders on unconstitutionality. A criminal offense, as opposed to a disciplinary one, cannot be worded so vaguely.

Freedom of expression isn’t tested by inoffensive statements, and criminal law isn’t a guide to good manners. It’s permissible to be outraged by harsh, hurtful statements, but it’s forbidden to silence them by defining them as a criminal offense.