Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds up a document outlining plans for the Auschwitz death camp
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds up a document outlining plans for the Auschwitz death campReuters

An Israeli bill to outlaw the use of the word Nazi that has passed a preliminary vote in the Knesset might have unintended consequences - such as sending the prime minister to prison for comparing former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler.

The legislation, which will make it illegal to use the word "Nazi" and Holocaust symbols in any non-historical or non-educational context, came under fire from opposition lawmakers in the Israeli parliament, who claimed that it constitutes a violation of the freedom of speech.

A Labour member of Knesset, Shelly Yachimovich, argued that if the law was approved the late Israeli intellectual Yeshayahu Leibowitz "would be sitting in prison".

The outspoken professor once accused Israeli soldiers of a "Judeo-Nazi" mentality.

Among the critics also attorney general Yehuda Weinstein who in a letter to MKs, reported by Haaretz newspaper, wrote:

"There is no dispute that the use of Nazi symbols and epithets in public is offensive and outrageous. However, not all behaviour that offends the public is deserving of being criminalised.

"Is it worth it for a democratic country to forbid an entire world of images in public debate? Given the importance and centrality of the right to freedom of expression, any restrictions on it should be examined very carefully.

Restriction on freedom of speech

Left-wing politician Dov Khenin, of the Hadash party, warned that according to the proposed legislation "even somebody who calls Hitler a Nazi is breaking the law".

"Whoever makes a film about the Holocaust will go to prison. They are proposing here to send the prime minister to prison for comparing [former Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad to Hitler."

When he was leader of the opposition, in 2008, current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu compared Ahmadinejad to Hitler in a conversation with Stephen Haldey, national security adviser in the Bush administration.

"Ahmadinejad is a modern Hitler," Netanyahu told Hadley, "and the mistakes that were made prior to the Second World War must not be repeated."

During a speech at the UN general assembly in 2009, PM Netanyahu held up original copies of Nazi plans for the Holocaust – the Wannsee agreement in which the Nazis set out their plans for the "final solution" to exterminate Jews in Europe – as a way to counter the ex-Iranian leader's doubts over the Holocaust.

Holocaust symbols banned

The bill, which was passed 44-17 in the Knesset, has to go before a committee before being voted on for passage into law.

If passed into law, the bill would also penalise the use of words that sound like "Nazi" as a reference to someone.

"Insulting someone by expressing the wish, hope, or anticipation for the fulfillment of the Nazis' aims, or expressing sorrow or protest that they were not accomplished — [is] forbidden," the bill reads.

Holocaust symbols such as the gold six-pointed stars, which the Jews in concentration camps were forced to sport, would also be banned under the legislation.

However, ruling Likud MK Shimon Ohayon defended the bill saying that Israel should adopt stricter laws to confront anti-Semitism in other European countries.

"If we don't restrict ourselves, then how can we restrict others that do not know how to make the distinction and compare you to Nazis," he said in a radio interview on 103FM.