The N-word, the Jews and The Law That Shall Not Be Named

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This was a dark week for Israeli politics. Courtesy of, well, itself, it lost one of its most basic tenets this week with the approval of the so called “Nazi Bill”. If the bill passes, Israelis will be prohibited from using the word “Nazi” as a derogatory term (and thereby the bill ironically prohibits even its own name).

The proposal, sponsored by MK Shimon Ohayon (Likud-Beiteinu) and approved by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, prohibits use of the word “Nazi” in contexts other than “learning or scientific study”, and carries a six-month prison sentence and an 100,000-shekel find (around $30,000) for offenders.

It would also, unbelievably, prohibit the use of words that sound like “Nazi” when used in a derogatory manner. So if you play Yahtzee in Israel, you just might be liable.

It's easy to mock the idea. Talented (and not-so-talented) tweeters and meme generators brought up Sam Jackson’s “Say what again!” line from Pulp Fiction (“Say nazis again!”). Monty Python’s Life of Brian received new life (“Jehovah! Jehovah! Jehovah!”). Somebody couldn’t resist bringing up the “The Germans” episode on Fawlty Towers, the one where Basil hosts a bunch of German tourists and despite his wife exhorting “don’t mention the war”, he does, and does and does.

Nor may we ignore the fact that in the muddy waters of Israeli politics, calling someone a Nazi is an insult so common it's lost its cachet. Also, the very MKs trying to outlaw “Nazi” as an insult are the same people who made their living for years by doing just that. They'd get life if the law is retroactive.

Kidding aside, the anti-Nazi bill reveals something important about the state of Israeli being at this point in time: Nearly 70 years after the Nazis' defeat, we still fear the Nazi. Seven decades after Adolf Hitler took his last breath, the Nazi still haunts the Israeli mind.

Haunted houses

One does not have to look very deep to see it. The Holocaust pervades every step and every facet of Israeli life. It is there when we get caught in traffic (“this traffic jam is a real Shoah!”, we mutter, dead serious), it is there when we go to the movies. It is there when we go on vacation abroad and see skinhead types, or just run into a heartless bureaucrat.

It is there when we serve in the army: soldiers are brought to Yad Vashem in order to instill the memory of the Holocaust, and the ethos of “never again”.

And it is certainly there when we try to score political points. Thomas Friedman once described Israel as a “Yad Vashem with an airforce”, and he had a point.

The Jewish psyche is the haunted house, and the Nazi - the mythical, primal threat - is the ghost.

The state of Israel was built, in part, in order to ensure Nazis and their ilk would never haunt Jews again. The idea was to create a “New Jew” - the muscular, confident, sabra - capable of eradicating any Nazi threat.

Over the years, Israel did everything it could to exorcize the Nazi, including to hunt down senior Nazis and bring them to trial. It built an army like no other, and made sure it was armed to the teeth. And in 2003, it sent three F-15 fighter jets to fly over Auschwitz, in an ultimate gesture of “never again”.

It hasn't worked. The more Israel tries not to “mention the war”, the more - like poor Basil Fawlty - it couldn’t help itself. The Nazi is still here, still dead, but as threatening as ever. Still invoked by politicians trying to justify their hawkish stands, still brought up by generals when asked to explain arms deals, still the object of children’s nightmares.

Prank photos with quenelling skinheads

One need only look at the hysterical coverage of French comedian Dieudonné’s reverse Nazi salute, the "quenelle," to see how fearful Israel still is. The headlines that followed the spread of a rather silly salute made up by a French comedian and imitated by a few footballers of questionable nous made it sound like the resurrection and ascension of the National Socialism movement is imminent.

“Anti-semites are exploiting the public’s unawareness to the new salute by taking pictures of it being performed at symbolic sites, near Jews unaware of the trick," proclaimed an Israeli news story, warning Jews of a new threat: trickster Neo-Nazis asking to be photographed with them while performing the Quenelle, then uploading the photos online. “The Defense Ministry was asked to warn IDF soldiers,” the article said.

The hysterical media reaction to the spasmic anti-Semitic tripe was preceded by years of Israeli media proclaiming “a new wave of anti-Semitism” every time a few Jewish graves are desecrated in France.

Now, Europe has its own fears of the Nazi demon - but Israel was supposed to be different. It was meant to offer its Jews a different fate than the paranoia of the diaspora. Instead, it has come to brand enemies, from the Palestinians to Iran, as its rightful successor.

And now, it tries to exorcize itself of the Nazi by erasing it from its public discourse through The Law Who Shall Not be Named.

But the Nazi is dead. All that remains are a few far-right weirdos and misdirected teens in Halloween costumes. Anyway, one cannot defend against an imaginary enemy by writing a law. Ghosts don’t obey laws. They exist only in the mind of the haunted. A dead enemy, after all, cannot become deader, and the more Israel tries not to mention the war, the more it will be haunted by it.

So maybe it is ok to “mention the war”. After all, it is over.

Frenchmen protesting the banning of comedian Dieudonne's show. Left: A quenelle. Center: A pineapple.Credit: AP
Dieudonne M'Bala M'Bala, right, insists his quenelle is anti-establishment, not anti-Semitic.Credit: AP

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