Free speech purists might fret that a law banning the display of Nazi symbols – even though distasteful – amounts to the infringement of a basic human right and must be resisted.
But limits to freedom of speech have long been accepted. Even nineteenth-century free speech advocate John Stuart Mill accepted that speech which threatens harm must be restricted.
And just as shouting a false alarm of “fire!” in a crowded theatre could lead to panic and loss of life, so displaying antisemitic symbols of genocide can evoke terror and dread.
So toxic are Nazi symbols – such as the swastika – because of their association with vile hatred, that in countries such as Germany, it is illegal to display them.
Now there are calls for the swastika and other Nazi symbols to be made illegal in Australia, and the Victorian government might soon set an example to the rest of the nation.
If enacted, proposed changes to the law would give police powers to protect Jewish communities who are the most common target of neo-Nazi vilification and hatred.
Concerns about the spread of neo-Nazi hate in Sydney’s Jewish neighbourhoods have now spurred the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies to call for a similar law there.
Swastikas daubed on property at Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach are the latest sign that far-right neo-Nazi groups have not fallen silent but are very active in our midst.
Antisemitism – hatred of Jews – can be expressed both in words and actions, states the definition adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2016.
And the IRHA definition also makes clear that words or actions can still be antisemitic even when directed to non-Jewish individuals, their property, or their institutions.
Drawing a swastika, hoisting a Nazi flag, or giving the notorious “Heil Hitler!” salute are antisemitic actions in themselves. It does not matter who sees them or responds to them.
Hate speech – including the display of symbols of hatred – that is overtly antisemitic must never be tolerated simply because of a broader commitment to upholding human rights.
Despite strenuous efforts to eradicate it from our society, antisemitism remains a scourge in our society wherever and whenever it manifests itself.
Australia is one of the most successful multicultural nations. It is also home to nearly 100,000 Jewish people, many of whom are Holocaust survivors and their descendants.
There are sizeable Jewish communities in Melbourne and Sydney which is why the Victorian and NSW governments are giving serious consideration to enacting protections for them.
Antisemitism has no place in our society. The fight to eradicate it must not fail. Our elected representatives can now set an example to the rest of us in calling out this ancient hatred.
Peter Kurti is Director of the Culture, Prosperity & Civil Society program at the Centre for Independent Studies, and Adjunct Associate Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame Australia.
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