By Allyn Fisher-Ilan
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's parliament gave initial approval on Wednesday to laws to curb public use of Nazi symbols after ultra-Orthodox protesters caused outrage by calling police Nazis and wearing concentration camp garb.
Four bills swiftly passed one of five rounds of voting needed to become law, even though a spectrum of critics denounced them as a violation of free speech.
The laws call for up to a year in jail and stiff fines for anyone convicted of visually or verbally misusing symbols such as swastikas, the term Nazi or epithets related to the killing of six million Jews before and during World War Two.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet approved the bills before they went to parliament, seizing on public outrage at devout Jews who dressed last month as Holocaust victims to show they felt persecuted by objections to their efforts to achieve gender segregation in public.
Some at the Jerusalem protest on December 31 also shouted "Nazis, Nazis" at Israeli police.
Israel has a law banning Holocaust denial but none so far against public displays of Nazi symbols.
The Jewish state established in 1948 is still home to more than 200,000 ageing survivors of the Holocaust, yet all kinds of protesters have long employed symbols of the tragedy to showcase their causes.
Jewish settlers protested against the 2005 withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza by putting yellow Stars of David on their clothes, like those the Nazis once forced Jews to wear.
Critics of Israel's occupation of land Palestinians seek for statehood have also sometimes called Israeli soldiers Nazis.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel said the new laws violated free speech.
"Freedom of expression means the right to say difficult things that might even been hurtful," a statement on the group's Web site said.
While the use of Holocaust symbolism was "indeed a big question which deserves a robust and free public debate, it is not a question that should be handled through criminal law".
Efraim Zuroff, head of the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Nazi-hunter group, said: "The misuse of Holocaust imagery is nothing new. It's a terrible thing, we all agree."
He said he thought Israel would avoid enforcing the measures for fear of aggravating social divisions and that "unimplemented, such a law would make a mockery of the whole issue".
(Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Edited by Richard Meares)