Insisting on Israel’s right to exist conceals the fact that states exist or do not exist. They do not have a ‘right’ to exist. There is no reason to perform the ritual of asserting that any state has this right before it is considered acceptable to say anything critical about it.
Such thoughts are a rarity in the German media. Even on the left, where it was once customary to support national struggles of minority groups, and ex-Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer had gone to Algeria to attend a conference organised by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1969.
Now, opposing Antisemitism means opposing anti-Zionism – even if expressed by Jews, and even if they are Israeli Jews.
While this view was once the domain of the fringe Antideutsche [Anti-German] movement that emerged after German reunification from small groupings on the left, it has now spread to the political and cultural mainstream.
It goes without saying that Germany, with its small Jewish population, lacks any substantial Jewish organisations that represent a pro-Palestinian, non-Zionist stance on Israel comparable to US groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow.
The closest thing is the comparably tiny Jüdische Stimme für gerechten Frieden in Nahost [Jewish Voice for Just Peace in the Middle East] (full disclosure: I am a member). Though a number of its members have some German roots, the majority were born outside of Germany, hailing from countries such as Israel, Russia and the UK. Its founders are mostly Israelis.
In 2016, it was deemed that the group’s views made it a potentially Antisemitic organisation, leading to the closure of its account with the Bank for Social Economy. The main Jewish organisation in Germany, the Central Council of Jews, did not protest.
Following a wider outcry, this decision was reversed. But in 2019, when it was unsuccessfully demanded by the bank – under political pressure – that the group distance itself from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which is considered inherently Antisemitic by most of Israel’s supporters in Germany, the account was closed again pending an investigation.
So, not only did a German bank close a Jewish account for the first and then the second time since the Third Reich. In addition, non-Jewish Germans presumed to investigate whether the holders of this account were conducting Antisemitic activities – all in the name of ‘protecting Jewish life in Germany’.
This slogan has become the raison d’être for a government office established in 2018 whose full name is ‘Federal Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight Against Antisemitism’.
The first person to hold this office is Felix Klein, a (non-Jewish) diplomat and jurist with a background in international law – which is ironic for someone whose job is to defend a state that constantly violates it – who has been proactive in confronting all those he considers to be endangering Jewish life through their words or activities.
Most recently, this included the Cameroonian post-colonial philosopher Achille Mbembe, who, not surprisingly, has referred to Israel in the context of colonial domination in his work and emphatically criticised its ethnocratic system, as well as expressing support for BDS.
Mbembe was invited to give the opening speech at the Ruhrtriennale Festival, which prompted criticism from a Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP) lawmaker and naturally led to the involvement of Mr Klein, who did his job and warned of offering a platform for Antisemitic views.
You should be proud to have Achille Mbembe as a speaker at the opening of the Ruhrtriennale on 14 August. https://t.co/W0G3l5A762
— adri nieuwhof (@steketeh) April 18, 2020
Coronavirus intervened and the festival was cancelled, preventing the expected repetition of the face-off between the Antisemitism industry and the organisers that had led to the dis-invitation and subsequent unsuccessful re-invitation of the Scottish band Young Fathers, supporters of BDS, two years earlier at the very same festival.
In attacking Mbembe, however, Klein found he had bitten off a little more than he could chew.
In a series of statements and open letters, a total of over 700 signatories from the academic world, many of them Jewish and/or Israeli, voiced their outrage at Mbembe’s treatment and demanded Klein’s resignation.
But Klein doubled down, later adding that one must look out for Antisemitism not only on the far right but also among ‘left-liberal’ intellectuals.
This provoked further outrage, but Klein was safe. The narrow domain of his activities means that he is a big fish in a small pond, a niche politician whose activities, short of spitting in Benjamin Netanyahu’s face, are unlikely to embarrass his superiors sufficiently for them to fire him.
For every Mbembe, there are a handful of less visible artists or intellectuals who have had prizes withdrawn, invitations rescinded or proposals rejected because of their views on Israel. Most of all for their proximity, real or rumoured, to BDS.
— Nathan Andrew Fain (public) (@nathanafain) April 21, 2020
BDS policing reached a climax in May 2019, when the Bundestag passed a non-binding but widely publicised resolution condemning BDS. The text claimed BDS is Antisemitic in its ‘pattern of argument and methods’, and that calling for a boycott of Israel is no better than calls for the boycott of Jewish-owned shops in Nazi Germany with the slogan ‘Don’t buy from Jews’.
The far-right Alternative für Deutschland [AfD] party called for an outright ban on BDS in a resolution of its own, demonstrating that hostility to Jews is no obstacle to aggressively defending Israel, whose ethnocratic system is taken as a role model by white supremacists like the American activist Richard Spencer or the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán.
While the Bundestag resolution did not go quite this far, it did call for a defunding of organisations and individuals who support BDS.
This has been extended by some city authorities to seeking a withdrawal of public spaces used for any (in the broadest sense) BDS-related event. It has been espoused especially fervently by the Frankfurt municipal politician Uwe Becker, president of the German-Israeli Society.
Becker once told the Israeli academic Moshe Zuckermann, a scholar of history and philosophy whose Polish parents survived the Holocaust and moved to Germany, where Zuckermann studied in Frankfurt, that he was unwelcome in the city because of his opposition to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.
Once again, it was demonstrated that no degree of Jewishness is enough to escape the condemnation of pro-Israel Germans. Underlining his partisanship, Becker tweeted a picture of a bottle of wine from the occupied West Bank, with the Jewish toast ‘L’chaim!’ [To life!].
In July 2019, the well-established news magazine Der Spiegel published a report describing low-profile lobbying activities by small pro-Israel groups in the lead-up to the Bundestag resolution, suggesting they had influenced the decision.
This triggered the usual condemnation, and Klein mechanically spoke of ‘using Antisemitic stereotypes’ relating to global Jewish conspiracies.
Fortunately, Der Spiegel has a sufficiently strong standing to remain unfazed by such attacks and published a second piece going into greater detail about the lobbying efforts and the unease they had provoked among the politicians involved.
Der Spiegel also made it clear that it reports on all manner of lobbying activities in German politics and follows firm criteria in its distinctions between legitimate efforts and undue influence.
Though they had not been intimidated, the editors had clearly recognised the need not only to deny the customary Antisemitism smears but to refute them point by point with facts before they could establish themselves as credible in the public awareness.
By any reasonable measure, it was a crushing victory. Beyond protecting the magazine’s reputation, however, it had no substantial effect on the national discourse.
The glue that binds together the attacks on defenders of Palestinian rights in Germany, the USA, the UK or France is the so-called ‘working definition of Antisemitism’ drafted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2016.
The definition itself is unremarkable and easy to agree with: ‘Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.’
What follows it, however, is a list of possible examples of Antisemitism, including the characterisation of Israel as a ‘racist endeavour’ and holding Jews collectively responsible for Israeli policy, based on the assumption that there is no real difference between ‘the Jews’ and Israel.
Though it was initially only accepted by some thirty states, Israel’s defenders have spread the myth that the IHRA account is the internationally accepted definition of Antisemitism and that it should be universally upheld, with all listed examples.
This was a key feature of the battle against Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, and his successor Keir Starmer was eager to pledge his adherence to it at the behest of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. It is also cited by Felix Klein as the gold standard, and there has been increasing support for it among German politicians.
Following its aggressive implementation by the Philo-Antisemitic forces of the Trump Administration, however, even the author of the definition felt obliged to condemn the use of his text to stifle free speech.
It is a complicated time for pro-Palestinian activism in Germany. There are contradictory developments. On the one hand, the Bundestag resolution and the widespread fear in cultural institutions that they risk loss of funding if they find themselves in any proximity to pro-BDS individuals has made the space for action increasingly narrow.
On the other hand, this crackdown has also been met with criticism beyond the confines of the activist scene, and the resolution was condemned by UN experts for stifling free speech.
When the director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum, Peter Schäfer, was pressured into resigning because the museum had tweeted a petition by 240 Israeli and Jewish intellectuals with both pro- and anti-BDS positions condemning the resolution, it was an international event.
One can now find people who have little sympathy with BDS insisting on the movement’s right to exist, as boycotts are a historically established non-violent means of effecting political change.
An interesting example in Germany is Micha Brumlik, a retired academic in the fields of history and education and a respected representative of the Jewish cultural establishment. Although he identified as an anti-Zionist as a student in the 1960s, Brumlik became a critic of ‘Antisemitic’ views on Israel, aligning himself with factions to his right, such as the Central Council.
Despite his personal opposition to BDS, which he has characterised as misguided but largely harmless, Brumlik has become an increasingly outspoken opponent of its demonisation in articles and interviews, criticising Felix Klein’s activities as McCarthyism.
Brumlik’s arc is comparable to that of the Jewish American journalist and academic Peter Beinart, who has become ever more outspoken in his defence of Anti-Zionism and a single democratic state in Israel-Palestine.
There are other factors involved. The discourse around social justice, identity and minority rights has gone internationally viral, and movements like Black Lives Matter are finally receiving major white support, especially among younger generations.
In the United States, there is an increasing tendency to view the struggles of different minorities intersectionally and include Palestinians among them, sometimes leading to friction with Jewish communities, where Israel has also become a divisive internal issue, and positions are generationally conditioned.
Germany is not quite there yet. Too many people, from the left to the political centre, still think that opposing fascist tendencies requires defending Israel as the supposed materialisation of Jewish personhood.
At the same time, opposition to Islamophobia is increasingly leading young leftists even to defend the right of Muslim women to wear the headscarf in public office, despite its patriarchal trappings as a token of conservative Islam.
Context is everything, and a garment whose wearing is repressively enforced in countries such as Iran or Saudi Arabia can become a symbol of personal self-determination in an environment of anti-Muslim othering.
This issue will no doubt remain controversial for the foreseeable future. However, it does suggest an increasing openness in civil society to a universalism whose priority is to end all discrimination.
German attitudes to Jews and Israel will not be normalised any time soon. As long as activists keep emphasising these values, it is conceivable that Palestinians will one day be included when German politicians say ‘Never again’. And that these words will no longer mean they must pay the price for Germany’s atonement.
Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.