Banning words or banning ideas?

Three weeks ago I attended a lecture at Tel Aviv University. The topic of the lecture was an analysis of the manner in which French Jews who have made Aliyah to Israel consume online news. The lecturer began by describing the migration of Jews from North Africa following the end of French colonial rule over Morocco and Tunisia. At this point, a student remarked that “colonialism has not completely disappeared from the Middle East. Some countries still occupy others”.

The class broke out in laughter. The lecturer did not. She stepped forward, raised her arm and said “You said that not me! I did not mean to imply that at all!”

-” I was referring to the Israeli occupa-”

-“I didn’t say that word! You did. Not me. Now let’s move on”.

Like most of my classmates, I was somewhat surprised by the lecturer’s reaction. It was not that she opposed the student’s comment from a political standpoint, nor did she feel the subject matter was irrelevant. She refused to hear the word occupation out of fear, fear that it be known that her lectures mention the occupation.

She was afraid of a word.

I have always believed that fear has no place in the halls of the academia. Academic institutions are meant to serve as sanctuaries of free thought, open discussion, critical thought and above all the desire to question everything- whether it is the manner in which man evolved from the ape, the governing laws of physics or the shape of the Earth.

Occupation, it would seem, is not the only word Israelis now fear. Nazi is another.

Ten days ago, Israel’s ministerial legislative committee agreed to propose a bill outlawing the use of the word Nazi. The bill will also forbids displaying Nazi symbols, displaying symbols related to Germany’s Third Reich, wearing clothing which resembles the stripped uniforms worn by Jews in Nazi concentration camps and wearing a yellow Star of David. Should the law pass in the Knesset, calling another person or group Nazis shall be a  crime punishable by a six months prison sentence and a 100 thousand Shekel fine.

One has to wonder why such a law has been proposed at this time. Is there a wave of neo-Nazi demonstrations in Israel? Are Jewish neo-Nazi groups gaining popularity on Facebook? Perhaps the IAL (Israeli Aryan League) has applied for a permit to march down Rothschild Boulevard on Friday afternoons? Or maybe this is a legislative preemptive strike aimed at preventing Israeli children from dressing up as Nazi commandants on Purim?

According to Itztik Ohayon, the Member of Knesset who proposed the bill, “The rise in neo-Nazi movements using such symbols poses a threat to Jews wherever they may live. As long as Israel does not ban the use of such symbols it cannot expect the same of other countries”.  The rationale behind Ohayon’s bill is the same of many Polish Jewish families- the swiping under the rug rationale. As long as none of your friends know that your daughter is a lesbian, she isn’t gay. As long as we don’t see or hear neo-Nazis, they don’t exist.  Yet Ohayon’s logic is faulty for issues, words and movements swept under the rug always surface with renewed force and with greater support.

Ohayon’s logic is also faulty when it comes to Israel. Are we really supposed to pass laws just so we can tell other nations how to act? Are we really going to outlaw words so we can demand the same of others? Or are we banning words as part of an attempt to exclude topics from public discussion? Are we outlawing words in an attempt to define what we can and can’t talk about?

Words are important. Words matter. Words can move entire nations. We were reminded of the power of words this past week as the US marked the birth of Dr. King, a man whose words’ shaped modern America. Words can also hurt us, words can infuriate us and words can divide us. Yet this is the price we pay for freedom of speech for when we limit freedom of speech we inevitably limit the freedom of thought.

Banning words leads to fear and fear breads ignorance. It is the opposite of enlightenment. It is also what we can expect to find when living under a totalitarian regime, an Orwellian dystopia, not when living in the “only democracy in the Middle East”. We should not fear words and we should not fear open discourse, even when dealing with the most sensitive of topics.

Banning words is just as ludicrous as banning ideas. And just as dangerous.

P.S. Here is a helpful tip- If you still want to call someone a Nazi, try saying “you supporter of a 1939 man with a little mustache!” If you want to say occupation, try saying “I believe we should end the “word that rhymes with constipation” of the Palestinians!”


About the Author
Ilan Manor is finishing his mass media studies at Tel Aviv University. He has previously contributed to the Jerusalem Post, +972 Magazine, the Jewish Daily Forward and On Second Thought magazine. His Hebrew-language blog has been featured several times in the Israeli press.