The Israeli Parliament voted Wednesday to consider a bill that would prohibit the use of the word Nazi and its affiliated epithets, as well as the wearing of Nazi or Holocaust-related garb.
The bill comes weeks after a group of Orthodox Jews dressed up as concentration camp victims – in striped linen with a yellow Star of David attached – to protest what they claim is persecution by Israeli police for breaking up an Orthodox demonstration calling for stricter gender segregation laws.
The bill would punish the use of Nazi or Holocaust related speech – as well as clothing referring to such events – with a six-month jail sentence and heavy fines.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed support for the bill, but some rights groups claim the measure goes too far.
The Association for Civil Rights (ACRI) in Israel said Monday that the bill infringes on Israelis’ right to free speech.
“[Freedom] of expression means the right to say difficult things that might be even hurtful,” an ACRI statement read. “It means the right to give bold and extreme expression to positions, feelings, and thoughts, and also includes the right to make rhetorical use of provocative and harsh images.”
Portions of the ACRI statement were expressed in a letter by the group’s attorney, Lila Margalit, and sent to Israel’s Ministerial Committee. The group believes limiting discussion of the Holocaust endangers Israeli culture and the accurate representation of history.
“According to ACRI, it is precisely because of the importance and gravitas of the Holocaust that the attempt to dictate how and in what contexts it can be discussed is particularly egregious,” the ACRI statement said. “This bill aims to forcibly control the public discourse in Israel, its content, and its tone – by way of criminal prohibitions and threats of detention.”
Several European nations have laws that prohibit the use of Nazi-related expression, but Israel has forgone enacting such legislation in part because it never thought it would have to.
The use of such language is rare in Israel, and so the Orthodox protest may have struck a nerve with Israelis – of whom many are Holocaust survivors or direct descendants of survivors.
Minister Daniel Hershkovitz said there is a tenuous balance of maintaining freedom of expression and respecting the Israeli people.
“I understand the claims that this would hurt freedom of expression, but to treat the Holocaust like other things is intolerable,” Hershkovitz said at the Parliamentary vote.
“We have Holocaust survivors and their descendants among us, for them the word Nazi and the Holocaust symbols include a very different meaning than other harsh words,” he continued. “Postponing the bill would pass a message that we are indifferent to such severe statements."
The Orthodox group used the Nazi imagery to compare Israeli police to the brutal World War II regime responsible for killing an estimated six million Jews.
The bill is still in its nascent stage – Israeli law requires bills to pass through five stages and three readings before becoming law.