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Erik Bleich Headshot

When Is It OK to Call Someone a Nazi?

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Nazis have been in the news a lot lately. But not the kind you read about in textbooks or will see in George Clooney's The Monuments Men. Heated debates have erupted in the U.S., Israel, France, and Britain over the past few weeks about when it is appropriate to use "Nazi" to describe someone you dislike. I propose a simple set of rules to guide our judgment, illustrated through four recent examples.

1. Don't use it to stigmatize the powerless

Last week, retired venture capitalist and billionaire Tom Perkins penned a letter to the editor of The Wall Street Journal complaining of local San Francisco protests against "techno-geek" buses that shuttle workers to Silicon Valley. According to the Heart of the City Collective organizers, these buses encourage real-estate speculators to displace long-term residents by jacking up rent in areas near the coveted bus stops.

For Perkins, these protestors share striking similarities to Nazis. He wrote to "call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its 'one percent,' namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the 'rich.'" He also noted that "Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; is its descendant 'progressive' radicalism unthinkable now?"

His former partners at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers wasted no time disowning him, tweeting "We were shocked by his views... and do not agree." It is arrogant for the powerful to call the powerless Nazis. It was also in incredibly bad taste for The Wall Street Journal to print his letter.

2. Don't ban it to protect the powerful

The rule of thumb about the powerful and the powerless also applies in Israel. You might think that Israelis would be very touchy about the use of "Nazi" as a casual epithet, and you'd be right--and you'd be wrong. It has become increasingly common for Israeli citizens to level Third Reich-inspired imagery at authority figures.

High profile examples in the news include "a digitally altered photograph of the finance minister in an SS uniform, the donning of yellow-star patches by Orthodox Jews demonstrating against an expanded military draft and the accusations that the government's treatment of African migrants is comparable to Hitler." Other creative geniuses have compared the interior minister to a concentration-camp supervisor, shouted at Israeli police that they should "go back to Germany," and called a basketball referee "Gestapo."

As tasteless, irksome, and even demeaning to Holocaust survivors and descendants of victims as these expressions may be, the Israeli Knesset went too far when it recently advanced a legislative proposal designed to outlaw the use of words or symbols associated with the Holocaust or the Nazi regime.

It is one thing for laws to restrict free speech in order to shelter vulnerable social groups who are targets of sustained hatred or violence. But for the government to ban speech used by citizens to challenge those in power--and to do it under the guise of upholding the sanctity of historical memory--undermines free speech while doing little to curb racism or to protect the powerless.

To their great credit, both the Attorney General and the director of Yad Vashem (a high profile Holocaust memorial and museum) asserted that these types of rhetorical excesses are better fought through public dialogue than by a ban. As the Israeli Attorney General wrote in his legal opinion on the bill: "Not all behavior that offends the public deserves to be made a crime."

3. Do use it to stigmatize powerful anti-Semites

On the other hand, sometimes a Nazi is a Nazi. Or, rather, a high-profile figure can promote anti-Semitism in an aggressive and dangerous way. The French state has decided that one of its most prominent comedians fits this bill.

Ten years ago a "quenelle" was nothing more than an obscure French dumpling. But Dieudonné M'Bala M'Bala has re-branded it as his trademark salute, pointing one arm down and touching that arm's shoulder with the opposite hand. According to Dieudonné it is an "up yours" to the powers-that-be. According to the French state and to many commentators, it is a clear reference to the Nazi salute.

In most cases, trying to suppress oblique anti-Semitism will not work. Perpetrators can simply deny the meaning, or change the reference slightly to skirt the law. In this case, however, Dieudonné has a history of unrepentant anti-Semitism. He has been convicted half a dozen times for related crimes, and his December 2013 performance included this comment about a Jewish radio journalist: "When I hear Patrick Cohen speak, I tell myself, you know, the gas chambers... Shame."

For some, the quenelle is an anti-establishment gesture, but for many, it has become an open badge of anti-Semitism. It has been performed by soldiers, citizens, and public figures in front of synagogues, the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, and Auschwitz; former far right presidential candidate and convicted anti-Semite Jean-Marie Le Pen can be seen in a photograph grinning broadly as he makes the quenelle, and English Premier League striker Nicolas Anelka was charged with an offense by the Football Association for celebrating with a quenelle after a December goal.

Banning the quenelle altogether would challenge France's commitment to freedom of speech. But this example shows that there are real Nazi-inspired anti-Semites out there, that they should be loudly and publicly denounced as such, and that they are no joking matter.

4. Do use it for mocking comedy

Some comedians are not funny, but happily some are. We may owe part of the erosion of the taboo against using Nazi in everyday language to Jerry Seinfeld. In one well-loved episode from the 1990s, the dictatorial chef of a popular New York soup stand would unceremoniously and unforgivingly cut off from the coveted soup anyone who crossed him.

Seinfeld is an American Jewish comedian who poked fun at self-important restaurateurs. If anybody has license to coin the term "Soup Nazi," he's the man. For some people, though, it's a slippery slope. Once these terms enter into our lexicon, they are hard to dislodge.

This is a risk I am willing to take. The Nazis in our history books are truly evil characters, and there are people in today's world who so closely resemble them that we have to be able to use that word. If Tom Perkins over-steps the mark by drawing frivolous comparisons to Nazis, we can call him out and shame him into an apology. If Dieudonné M'Bala M'Bala contravenes laws against inciting anti-Semitism, the French state can punish him.

But as Jerry Seinfeld reminds us, sometimes the best approach is to laugh at the Nazis.