Jodi Rudoren has a fascinating piece in the Times on proposed legislation in Israel that seems to be gaining ground.
Israel is on the brink of banning the N-word. N as in Nazi, that is.
Parliament gave preliminary approval on Wednesday to a bill that would make it a crime to call someone a Nazi — or any other slur associated with the Third Reich — or to use Holocaust-related symbols in a noneducational way. The penalty would be a fine of as much as $29,000 and up to six months in jail.
Backers of the law say it is a response to what they see as a rising tide of anti-Semitism around the world as well as an increasing, casual invocation of such terms and totems in Israeli politics and even teenage trash talk.
Many Jewish Israelis make high-school pilgrimages to Auschwitz and other death camps. Yet younger people have also been heard using the Hebrew word shoah — which literally means catastrophe but is generally reserved for the Holocaust — to describe an everyday disaster like a botched relationship or a messy kitchen.
At least half a dozen European nations, along with Brazil, already prohibit the use of Nazi symbols and flags, along with those of other extremist groups, and a longer list consider Holocaust denial a crime (as Israel has since 1986). And Rwanda bans “genocide ideology,” which it defines as any form of speech or action deemed to support or promote genocide. But other countries do not ban the utterance of the word Nazi, as the proposed Israeli law would, along with “everything that has to do with it and everything that connects to Nazism and the regime of the Third Reich and those who were the head of it.”
I should confess at the outset that I find the throwing around of the word Nazi to describe individual Israelis or the actions of the Israeli state really distasteful. While specific actions or deeds of the state do make me think of the Nazis—I simply can’t look at the Separation Wall without thinking of the Warsaw Ghetto—I still flinch, and am repelled by, the hurling of that epithet. So I get, at a visceral level, where people might be coming from on this.
That said…there are so many other things to say.
First, the idea that you can’t, in the State of the Jews of all places, say the word Nazi or anything, as the article puts it, “that has to do with it and everything that connects to Nazism and the regime of the Third Reich and those who were the head of it.” What if there really are Nazis in Israel? Or neo-Nazis? You can’t call them what they are?
Also, isn’t it part of the arsenal of a lot of defenders of Israel to claim that countries like Iran or opponents of the state are the inheritors of an anti-Semitic tradition that culminated in Nazism? Seems like you’d be depriving these people of one of their critical weapons. So I’m fascinated about that. The article touches on it, obliquely.
Second, prohibitions on words have a special valence in Judaism, as in most religions and cultures. They acquire an aura of holiness and the sacred. Could it be that the two words you can’t say or write in Israel are going to be God (for religious reasons, which not all Jews honor) and Nazi (for political reasons, which would apply to everyone)? Are God and Nazi really to be the two holiest words of the Jewish people in Israel?
Third, it seems like the intimate relationship between the Holocaust and Jewishness is coming full circle here. So much of postwar Jewish-American and Israeli identity—not to mention the legitimacy of the State of Israel—is caught up in the Holocaust, in remembrance of it. But because of the rising tide of anti-Israel sentiment, the State of Israel now wants to put that connection back in its box. References to Nazism once served as a legitimating device for Israel; now they’re a delegitimating device.
And last, one could say that what has cheapened the Holocaust and the remembrance of Nazism more than anything is not the casual or even hateful invocation of the Nazi epithet, but the use, as Hannah Arendt recognized in those memorable opening passages of Eichmann in Jerusalem, of the Holocaust by the Israeli state and its international supporters. There’s no business like Shoah business, as the old joke has it.
I’d say there’s far less kitsch in a teenager describing her failed relationship as a shoah—indeed, I see that as a brilliant appropriation of the word, signaling the vitality and power of Jewish irony and satire, the triumph of not merely humanism but our humanity over barbarism—than there is in state leaders mobilizing the memory of six million to justify the exertions of a regional superpower. As Hillary Clinton did when she visited Yad Vashem in 2009:
Yad Vashem is a testament to the power of truth in the face of denial, the resilience of the human spirit in the face of despair, the triumph of the Jewish people over murder and destruction and a reminder to all people that the lessons of the Holocaust must never be forgotten. God bless Israel and its future.
When it comes to the cheapening of the Holocaust, that horse has long been out of the barn.