Why Israelis Get to Joke About the Holocaust
Israel's parliament last night gave its initial approval to a bill that would criminalize the use of Nazi terms or symbols, with exceptions only for educational or historic purposes. Natural as such a restriction might seem for a Jewish state, it's not at all like Israel.
My education on this point came when I was posted to Israel as a foreign correspondent. I was repeatedly shocked by the cavalier ways in which Israelis sometimes would refer to the Holocaust.
When the movie "Schindler's List" came out in 1994, an Israeli friend told me his mother, who'd survived Hitler, had seen it and concluded, "It was good, but the real Holocaust was better." He made a tiny smile so I'd know he was joking.
Not long afterward, a band called Auschwitz began appearing in Tel Aviv clubs. The name was only briefly controversial.
I came to understand that in Israel, such references are OK. After all, the whole point of Israel is to make the Jewish people safe, to offer them a normal life. If you're sufficiently safe and normal, you can mock anything -- even, evidently, genocide.
Although Israel isn't as secure as it aspires to be, its culture is self-confident enough to permit extraordinarily robust public debate, vibrant and highly competitive media, and outrageous comedy. It's a place where "satirist" is an occupation like any other.
The newly introduced bill is a response to recent acts that some think trivialize the Holocaust. For instance, Orthodox Jews have protested the expansion of the draft to their community by wearing yellow stars like the ones Nazis forced German Jews to don.
The bill, which must be approved by a committee and then again in a series of votes in the full parliament before becoming law, would impose a six-month prison sentence or $28,000 fine for an unapproved use of Nazi terms or symbols. It's hard to imagine a justification for such an inhibition of free speech anywhere, but certainly not in Israel.
Israel is the one place where it is simply not possible to trivialize the Holocaust, which is commemorated every year by a two-minute nationwide standstill, during which sirens wail and commerce and traffic come to a halt, with drivers standing beside their cars with heads bowed. If critics of Finance Minister Yair Lapid depict him in an SS uniform, they succeed only in trivializing themselves. If opponents of the government's policy on African migrants compare it to Hitler's treatment of the Jews, no one in Israel actually confuses the two.
The bill suggests that Israelis are suddenly threatened by mere words when for 65 years, they've stood up to sticks and stones. It's not worthy of the vigorous democracy they've built.
(Lisa Beyer is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow her on Twitter.)