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Israel is a Perplexing Place…

In an effort to curb the use of Holocaust imagery and comparison in its current domestic sociopolitical discourse, the Israeli parliament (Knesset) is now considering a bill that would make such usage a crime punishable by fine and possible imprisonment. Here’s a blurb from NPR.org about it:

[A] bill under consideration by parliament “would impose penalties of up to six months in jail and a $25,000 fine for using the word ‘Nazi’ or Holocaust symbols for purposes other than teaching, documentation or research.”

The bill was introduced — and approved by Cabinet ministers — a week after ultra-Orthodox Jews dressed as prisoners from a concentration camp to protest what they said was a campaign against them by secular media.

The BBC reports the protesters wore striped uniforms with a yellow star of David emblazoned with the word “Jude,” which is German for Jew. The protests caused an uproar. [The BBC writes,] “Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up 10% of Israel’s population, have been criticised in recent weeks for attempting to impose their strict beliefs on others as their population grows and spreads to new areas. Extremist sects have sought to ban the mixing of sexes on buses, pavements and other public spaces. Members of one sect jeered and spat at girls walking to school, saying they were dressed immodestly.”

Haaretz reports that Uri Ariel, one of the ministers sponsoring the bill, said this law would deter “the cynical exploitation of Nazi symbols and epithets in a manner that injures the feelings of Holocaust survivors.”

While in some respects it is difficult not to feel sympathetic toward the Knesset’s intent – the use and abuse of Holocaust imagery and comparison for political gain is bad enough in principle, but to actually make use of it, and in Israel of all places, is simply revolting – the overarching point remains that the step is a direct violation of free speech, something on which Israel has traditionally prided itself.

In my view, the passing of such a law merely plays into the hands of the fringe groups who already complain of being socially marginalized and mistreated. By retaliating this way, the Knesset just gives the Ultra-Orthodox community more ammunition in its arsenal; worse, it turns them into victims potentially worthy of popular sympathy, while before they were simply exploitative, misogynistic, intolerant anachronisms with little to no broader support among average Israelis. To make these people political martyrs would be a gross miscalculation by the Knesset, not to mention a violation of basic democratic rights.

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