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The Nasty Party: Israel's Nazi Name-Calling Law and Its Benefits to Free Speech

21/01/2014 10:12 GMT | Updated 22/03/2014 09:59 GMT

I had an English teacher at school who banned us from using the word 'said'. "It's lazy," she'd tell us, "and you should always be thinking carefully about how someone says something. It's more descriptive that way."

2014-01-19-kettle30n1web1.jpg This notion - that banning words can on occasion be a way of nurturing free speech rather than suppressing it - is a compelling one.

Painful as it is for me to agree with far-right Israeli politicians, I actually think that a law currently being debated in the Knesset to outlaw use of the word 'Nazi' (except, of course, to refer to actual Nazis) might be a good idea.

I'll declare an interest: I am fed up with Nazi comparisons. I'm not a Holocaust survivor; I have no family members who are Holocaust survivors; but this doesn't stop me finding such remarks offensive.

And I'm also a pedant when it comes to language, so I find Nazi comparisons lazy and inaccurate as well as crass and obnoxious. Everyone come across these ridiculous analogies almost every day but I've still yet to see one which makes a half-way decent point.

They are thoughtless both in the sense of 'insensitive' and 'not thought through'.

"New Nazi regime in library!" reported my campus' student newspaper last year. No! What was this new regime in the library doing? Were they burning books? Were they targeting minority groups? No. They weren't even speaking German or building motorways. In fact, the "Nazi regime" in the Sussex University library was going round telling people to be quiet. Hardly the worst thing to befall humanity since the War.

In April last year, a well-known Jewish academic lost a lawsuit against his trade union in a British employment tribunal. He and his wife gave an interview to The Jewish Chronicle to describe their emotions - excellent, that's what free speech is all about - and said: "This case has become part of Hitler's legacy!"

No it hasn't. Which part of the episode would Hitler have supported? The independent judiciary bit, or the ruling in favour of a trade union bit?

In fact, the JC interview leaves me none the wiser as to how this man felt beyond disagreeing with the tribunal's decision - and that fact is anyway obvious since the judgement was given against him. After ignoring the Nazi analogy, because it's meaningless, there is absolutely nothing left for a reader to comprehend. The speaker has failed to express himself.

In fact, people's obsession with the Nazis severely fetters their free speech. People are unthinkingly restricted by it; they reach for the reductio at Hitlerum because it's always close to hand and can seemingly be used to fit any set of circumstances; they think that no negative comment is complete without Nazi imagery being built in.

But in fact no negative comment is complete with a Nazi analogy. Indeed, the thankfully small number of post-war events that have been genuinely comparable to the Holocaust - say, genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia and the Sudan - are rarely so described. How often does one hear Ratko Mladić being called Hitler compared to the number of times one hears pro-Palestinian activists being labelled 'collaborators'?

I walked past the Ecostream protests in Brighton a couple of months ago: one group of demonstrators supporting a boycott of Israeli goods, and a counter-protest 'to provide the other side'. When I went past, both groups were literally just standing there, calling each other Nazis. It was the most unedifying spectacle I've ever seen. What use is the hard-fought-for right to protest unless people use it actually to protest, to convey an opinion, rather than to spout generic clichéd claptrap?

The whole point of free speech is (in Jewish parlance) that "the jealousy of scribes increaseth wisdom" and (in mainstream terminology) to create a marketplace of ideas from which the truth will inevitably emerge victorious. But this system can't work if all the market traders are mindlessly repeating the same mantra whether or not it truly fits their argument.

Anything that forces people to think twice before resorting to the laziest, least free form of 'free' speech that is the default knee-jerk Nazi comparison has to be a positive innovation. A properly-legislated version of Godwin's Law would only give more power to humanity's exercise of freedom of expression.

So thank you, Mrs Turner, for banning the word 'said'. Perhaps next year, when you're planning your Year 5 curriculum, you could add the word 'Nazi' to your list!