We’re fans of Rabbi Dov Lipman, the Beit Shemesh Orthodox rabbi elected to Israel’s Knesset last year with the secular Yesh Atid party. So when we hear that he’s supporting a bill we would ordinarily dismiss out of hand, we give him a fair hearing.
In this case, the proposed law would prohibit the word “Nazi” in contexts other than “for the purpose of learning, documentation, scientific study or historical accounts.”
In general, we’re not big fans of the American approach to criminalizing offensive words: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
Rabbi Lipman was born in America but he explained his co-sponsorship of the measure to the New York Times like this: “Freedom of speech is important, but in my opinion, every country has to establish certain value-based limits.”
He recalled being called “Nazi” himself, when he was defending modern Orthodox school girls in Beit Shemesh from assaults by charedi mobs who wanted their school building for their own institutions.
Yet in the end it is the Beit Shemesh experience itself that convinces us that speech – even as offensive as that which trivializes the Holocaust – should be free.
The charedim who spat at 8-year-old girls and calling them “whores” because they wore modern Orthodox rather than ultra-Orthodox clothing, were arguably guilty of assault. And the girls’ parents went to the police reporting the crimes, seeking both police protection and possible prosecution.
The police – presumably directed by the town’s charedi mayor, Moshe Abutbol – didn’t write down or file the complaints.
And this failure to report the crime has now been used to claim that the crime never occurred; that the offenses committed by their community never took place.
In the end, laws are enforced not by a blind objective justice, but by real, flawed authorities. Here in New Jersey, we have our own experience of the disproportionate way reasonable laws – such as those allowing state police to stop motorists – are used against those whom the police don’t like. In Israel, we’ve seen time and again that crimes committed by charedim – including firebombing bookstores, attacking soldiers, and interfering with the police – never result in serious jail time. After all, in Israel the police ultimately answer to the prime minister, and the prime minister is always thinking of the next election.
So count us as First Amendment absolutists: Better a marketplace of ideas, no matter how vile and offensive, than one in which the authorities weigh in, perhaps on the side of truth and goodness or perhaps just on the side of their friends.