In one of British television’s greatest sketches, Basil Fawlty nervously deals with the presence of German guests at his hotel by reminding everyone, “Don’t mention the war!” If Shimon Ohayon MK of Yisrael Beiteinu gets his way, “Don’t mention the war!” will soon be on the Israeli statute books. The Knesset has just approved by 44-17 a bill that would proscribe using the word “Nazi” in contexts other than “for the purpose of learning, documentation, scientific study or historical accounts”. Calling someone a “Nazi” or using Nazi symbols will be punishable by law, with a six-month prison sentence and 100,00 ILS fine. The bill will return to the plenum after deliberation in committee.
The bill is intended to prevent outrageous abuses of the free speech and tolerance afforded by a liberal democracy, such as the wearing of striped pajamas and yellow stars in particularly distasteful protests. It has, however, attracted fierce opposition: for once, even the ultra-Orthodox have come out as fully-fledged liberals, with Shas chairman Arye Deri stating bluntly, “Not everything has to be passed as a law.” Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein says simply that the law serves no legitimate end that existing hate speech legislation cannot cope with.
What Ohayon and his co-sponsors probably do not realise, however, is that their bill threatens to expose half the cabinet to criminal prosecution, at least if they repeat statements they have made in the past. Here are some unintended consequences of the bill:
1. It would be illegal to refer to the Green Line as “Auschwitz borders”. Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, Housing Minister Uri Ariel, Tourism Minister Uzi Landau and even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself could all find themselves behind bars for using Abba Eban’s provocative phrase to describe Israel’s borders before 1967.
2. It would be illegal to compare anyone to Goebbels. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was acquitted on corruption charges, but another prosecution beckons if he calls Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan “the successor to [Nazi propagandist] Joseph Goebbels” again; his comparison of a Palestinian Authority letter to the contents of Der Stürmer would also land him in hot water. [Update: Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz would also be guilty of accusing Channel 2 of broadcasting Goebbels-like "Nazi propaganda".]
3. It would be illegal to compare Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to Hitler. Prime Minister Netanyahu (again!) could find himself in prison for repeating comments comparing the former Iranian president to the Nazi dictator. President Shimon Peres has made similar remarks, but at least he has presidential immunity to fall back on to avoid prosecution.
I don’t know. Maybe the ban wouldn’t be so bad after all.