“NAZI” is a short word. It has only two syllables, like “rac-ist” or “kill-er.” “Democracy,” on the other hand, is a long word with lots of syllables that is very tiring to say. It may not be as tiring as saying “freedom of expression” or “social justice,” but still, there is something really exhausting about it.
People in Israel use “Nazi” when they want the most vicious curse possible, and it’s usually directed at someone they perceive as belligerent. It could be a cop, a soldier or an elected official who, in their opinion, is acting like a bully.
Such usage is offensive and infuriating. As the son of Holocaust survivors, I find it particularly rankling. This week the Knesset gave preliminary approval to a bill that would criminalize saying “Nazi” under inappropriate circumstances. The government views the word as a weapon of mass destruction no less lethal than an Iranian nuclear bomb, and so it insists on Israel’s basic right to protect itself from the threat.
Many Israelis think that passing a law against a word is stupid and juvenile; others see it as fascist and anti-democratic. Incidentally, saying “fascist” or “anti-democratic” is also seen as insulting and offensive. And I wouldn’t be surprised if someone tried to outlaw those words in the future, too.
Imagine a different state of Israel, one very much like our own: This other Israel would also be sunny, with golden beaches, roadblocks in the territories, targeted killings, and rockets hitting the southern towns. The only difference between this new Israel and the current one would be that in the new Hebrew language that would be spoken there, you could say anything except “Nazi,” “fascist” and “anti-democratic.” Wouldn’t that be a better place to live than our current Israel?
And now that we’re exercising our imaginations, let’s picture yet another new Israel — one where the word “Nazi” is permitted but the government genuinely wants a peace accord and its members do not treat the Palestinians like “shrapnel in your butt” — as our economy minister, Naftali Bennett, recently put it — but rather as neighbors seeking freedom and self-determination.
Let’s go one step further: Imagine that in this second new Israel, the government gives serious consideration to African refugees’ appeals rather than locking them up in camps while Knesset members like Danny Danon and Miri Regev call them “a cancer,” or “infiltrators,” and use racial epithets not unlike those my parents were subjected to in that miserable war in which my grandparents were murdered by you-know-who.
Now, hand to heart, which of these alternative Israels would you prefer to live in?
Aha! I knew you’d choose the one that strives for peace and defends human rights regardless of religion, race or gender. How unfortunate, then, that our elected government wants the other one. Its ministers know, of course, that criminalizing the word “Nazi” will require painful sacrifices, such as banning reruns of the Soup Nazi episodes of “Seinfeld.” But they are willing to pay this heavy price.
Many years ago, my father, who had to hide in a damp pit for roughly 600 days during World War II, told me that there were only two lessons to be learned from that war. The first was that the Jewish people, who have suffered so much, must do whatever it takes to be strong so that they never again find themselves at the mercy of others.
The second was that the Jews, who have suffered from racial discrimination and inhumane conduct, must be more careful than any other people to avoid the slightest hint of racism and persecution in their own conduct.
My father, may he rest in peace, tried to live by these sometimes contradictory values throughout his 83-year life.
More than three decades ago, he once found himself at a train station in Norway, where a group of local drunks were harassing two Chinese tourists. The drunks called the tourists “slant eyes” and “yellow dogs.” My father stood between the drunks and the Chinese and demanded that the hooligans leave. In response, he was also showered with curses and threats.
When the Norwegians called him a “kike,” he called them “Nazis.”
What my father did, according to the Knesset members who support the “Nazi” ban, was a criminal act that justifies a prison sentence. And in their Brave New Israel, it’s worth noting, the racist Norwegians would have been well within their rights.
Etgar Keret, a short story writer, is the author of Suddenly, a Knock on the Door.