Terra Incognita: No more ‘soup Nazi’? Civility can’t be legislated
In one of Seinfeld’s most memorable episodes, the characters are drawn into a conflict with an enchanting soup restaurant. One problem, though: The owner is referred to secretly as the “soup Nazi.”
Kramer, ever one to find a silver lining, tells the characters, “He’s not a Nazi. He just happens to be a little eccentric.” But later in the episode when Jerry refuses to share soup with George, who has been banned from the restaurant, Kramer declares, “This is what comes from living under a Nazi regime.”
Funny? Many people found it so. But under a new law, episodes like this might need to bleep the word “Nazi,” which appeared a dozen times in the show.
On January 12, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved a bill that would ban the use of Nazi symbols for non-historical or educational purposes. This would include calling someone a Nazi. Violators would face NIS 100,000 fines. It is similar to a bill championed in the last Knesset by Kadima member Yoel Hasson.
The current bill has garnered support from a variety of sponsors, which according to reports include Yisrael Beytenu’s Shimon Ohayon, Meir Sheetrit of Hatnua, and Yesh Atid’s Boaz Toporovsky and Dov Lipman. Basically, the Center and the Right support this bill.
Some supporters have pointed out that this law would be similar to European attempts to clamp down on Holocaust denial and hate speech. For instance, French comedian Dieudonne has been forced to drop a sketch widely considered anti-Semitic after its ban was upheld by a court.
While attempts to legislate away the word “Nazi” and use of Nazi symbols may seem to stem from good intentions, this ham-handed approach is missing the elephant in the room: it is Israeli society’s understanding of civil debate that needs to change, and no legislation can change how people speak about each other.
Consider a little history: The Nazi libel has been common in the country since the pre-state period.
In 1934, David Ben-Gurion told a British Mandate court that he had referred to Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky as “Vladimir Hitler.” Hannah Arendt and Albert Einstein claimed in late 1948 that the ancestor of today’s Likud party, Herut, was “closely akin in its philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and fascist parties.” Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who was nominated for the Israel Prize in 1993, opined that Israeli soldiers were behaving like “Judeo-Nazis” in 1982. Prof. Moshe Zimmerman claimed in 1995 that “there is an entire sector in the Jewish public which I unhesitatingly define as a copy of the German Nazis.” As recently as 2010, Arutz Sheva noted that former education minister Shulamit Aloni compared Yesha [Judea and Samaria] residents to Nazis.”
All of these statements were made by leading intellectuals, politicians and noted figures; this libel has had a warm home among many elite sectors in Israel and a welcome place on the Left and Right. Can a mere law reverse 65 years in which “Nazi, Nazi!” became a normal epithet? One can’t legislate morality or human decency.
The fact that Dieudonne canceled his show in France doesn’t mean anti-Semitism no longer exists in the country. Similarly, calling people and comparing things to the Nazis is a society-wide problem, but the real problem is the fact that such descriptions meet with no widespread condemnations and in the history of Israel, there has been no leader or intellectual who used these descriptions who apologized for doing so.
Leibowitz didn’t apologize for coining terms like “Judeo-Nazi,” and Ben-Gurion never apologized to Jabotinsky. The haredi group that decided to dress up children in Holocaust outfits in 2012 didn’t come forward afterward and say, “That was a mistake.”
This is because there is no accepted standard of rhetoric and behavior in Israel.
The problem is that these symbols and offensive terms of abuse take on a political aspect, and are always categorized as protected by “free speech.”
Thus when someone compares settlers to Nazis, none of those on the Left step in with outrage over the abuse of the Holocaust; instead it is the Right that is offended, and thus any contrition is seen as a political defeat. Similarly, free speech is often used as a shield to explain why offensive statements must always be allowed everywhere.
Take for example the strange op-ed by Gideon Levy in Haaretz on December 22, bashing Russian immigrants, “a third of them non-Jews, some of whom were also found to have a degree of alcohol and crime in their blood.” Would any newspaper in another Western democracy have printed an opinion article by a leading columnist claiming that an entire group, whether Russians or Congolese or Jews, have “crime in their blood”? But because it was written by a well-known leftwing columnist, the issue became about “free speech” – and not about the fact that a major newspaper had published such offensive remarks.
Yes, saying that whole groups have “crime in their blood” is covered under free speech. But that in itself doesn’t mean this kind of speech has a place in a major newspaper.
In the wake of the article, Levy penned a response “to the flurry of accusations leveled at him by Russian immigrant readers.” This is the heart of the problem: only Russians were seen as the victims of this rant, rather than all of society, which was subjected to hate speech.
Compare this to the case of Justine Sacco, a PR executive who was fired after writing in a racist tweet about Africa and AIDs. Sacco’s tweet was covered by “free speech,” but just because someone is free to spout hate doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to do so.
What Israel desperately needs is not a law banning specific terms of abuse, but rather a decision by intellectuals, public leaders and politicians to fight against hate speech. We need to separate hate speech from “free speech” and politics, so that it can be condemned for what it is. Those who want to describe people as Nazis are free to do so, but they should be shamed by the public into losing their jobs and positions of respect.