My preoccupation with the Israel-Palestine conflict dates back to before I joined medico over 20 years ago. At medico, we have strived not only to maintain the language of paradox in discussing the Middle East conflict (in 2002 we published the call “For paradoxical hope”) but also to be aware of the overall context of the region. When you look at Assad’s crimes, including those against the Palestinian population of Syria, Israeli human rights violations no longer appear as outrageous as they do when portrayed in isolation in many media over here.
In my time as foreign affairs editor of a weekly magazine close to the German Communist Party in the 1980s, the vocabulary was clear, as was the dividing line between good and evil. Like with the liberation movements in South Africa or Central America, there was a solidarity movement with Palestine which went far beyond the Palestinians living here (far fewer than today). Any kind of nationalist notion was alien to us. Our ideal was that of an anti-capitalist universalism, and we transferred our revolutionary dreams to the militant South.
Revolutionary romanticism and projection of our own imaginary struggles fitted in in Nicaragua. The matter was far more problematic in Palestine, where reality had a sinister side. This included the failed bombing attack by a German urban guerrilla on the Jewish Community Hall in Berlin’s Fasanenstrasse on 9 November 1969, which – if it had succeeded – would have killed 250 people. This near miss should not be forgotten, even if many have done so. And despite the fact that only a handful of people were behind the idea. There was an environment of left-wing hubris which – as far as presumed correct political opinion was concerned – operated in a space unencumbered by memory. This also avoided the need to consider the question of how surviving Jews should deal with total extermination other than seeking a safe refuge – often too late in their family histories.
You might argue that in those days a restorative Federal Republic with its Nazis converted to democracy cooperated all the more closely with Israel the more that country’s military course became more aggressive. But hardly anyone listened to Jean Améry, who fulminated in his book “Beyond Guilt and Atonement” against such left-wing assumptions about Israel. I well remember the comments of an Israeli friend, who was living very happily in Berlin but was astonished by the German left wing. As she observed it, the Left expected that better people must have emerged from the German concentration camps, with the result that the Left developed special standards for Israel.
The “German theatre of memory”, a term invented by sociologist Michael Bodemann in the 1990s and which Max Czollek revived in his book “Desintegriert euch!” (De-integrate yourselves!), perfected this idea. While it is right to remember the victims of National Socialism, it is difficult to do this in a society which is decisively shaped by the perpetrators. It is not unreasonable to suspect that at some point the need to confront the crime might disappear behind the memory of the victims. Czollek refers to surveys in which fewer and fewer Germans believe that their own relatives could have been perpetrators in the Nazi era. In the German “theatre of memory”, there is the “good German” and the “good Jew”.
The historian Ulrike Jureit and psychoanalyst Christian Schneider even talk of the “potential for trivialisation and denial” in a “concept of remembering which identifies with the victim”. That was part of the then debate about the Holocaust memorial in Berlin - a memorial I find to be excellent despite the criticism, not only because of its sheer size in the heart of Berlin, but also because of its abstract design, which leaves each person free to find their own meaning. But we have to remain aware of the criticism.
The analysis surrounding the issue of what antisemitism is today, and how far it is reflected in statements criticising Israel, is a thorn in the side of this simple picture of the world. Just listen to the German speeches on Holocaust Memorial Day. They repudiate antisemitism and even “immigrant antisemitism” (Schäuble). Clichés and empty phrases contrasted with the speech by Saul Friedländer, who linked his tribute to Israel with his personal experience as a homeless survivor, while at the same quietly but clearly expressing his critical attitude to Israeli government policy. Shouldn’t Schäuble have considered whether to leave the question of immigration aside on a day like this, because the issue is all too often an excuse for racism? Shouldn’t he have made the effort to say more than mouth slogans?
But the German discussion is dominated by such slogans. People repudiate antisemitism and accuse others of it; they are then left with clean hands; they are on the right side. But things aren’t so simple, and not only where Israel is involved. Taking into account over 2000 years of Christian persecution and anti-Judaism, which took on extreme forms even before the Nazi extermination of the Jews, antisemitism and the recurring confrontation with antisemitism is a basic element of German and European self-image. It can’t be settled by parliamentary resolutions defining what constitutes antisemitism, particularly if the definition is primarily agenda-driven: Germans don’t want to be called antisemites, the Israeli Right employs the accusation of antisemitism to disqualify any human rights discussion of the Israeli occupation.
Our view of Israel also needs constant reassessment, given that European history has not managed to reach a consensus on developing Jewish-Christian relations after two millennia of persecution. The National Jewish Project is carrying out the same exclusions as all other national projects, and, like them, is a result of European history. The latest book by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, “Exclu le juif dans nous” (Exclude the Jew in us) accordingly deals with this inexorably repetitive exclusion as the dreadful permanence of Western self-hatred that reveals itself as hatred of the Jews, trying to rid itself of its contradictions as if in a destructive autoimmune reaction. Hence, anyone seriously tackling antisemitism and its more recent forms can only do this by means of a contradictory and paradoxical way of thought.
Just as Israel’s existence is possibly the result of political accident, because the Soviet Union surprisingly voted at the UN for the formation of the state, and is also legitimated by the history of persecution and eradication of European Jews, so Israel is also a product of European and British colonialism. It is not surprising that regions shaped by colonialism view Israel primarily as a colonial project- particularly since Israel’s anticolonial beginnings became increasingly conflicted in the light of its own involvement in forms of settler colonialism.
This desire to resolve the coexistence of different experiences and perspectives by a fixation on simple definitions of antisemitism is a conceptual monstrosity. Ultimately the issue of antisemitism and what constitutes it is a matter for fresh daily re-evaluation on the part of all those for whom combating antisemitism, racism and islamophobia is a major and ardent issue. This also requires maintaining the contradictions, instead of eliminating them. I recently sat in a bar in Strasbourg with a marvellous and courageous colleague from Brazil. We were talking about the appalling situation in Brazil, and then he mentioned that he had been in the West Bank with BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions). When I told him – perhaps rather emotionally – that I found it impossible to call for a boycott of Israel in Germany, since we had started by boycotting the Jews and gone on to kill six million of them, he looked at me in shock. He had obviously never considered the issue from this point of view. And why should he?
Whatever can or must be rightly said against BDS, the accusation of antisemitism turns out to be not just a campaign by Israeli right-wing populists, but first and foremost a Eurocentric issue. Looked at from the global South, the Israeli occupation also shows a single truth – that the Israeli settler colonialism of the West Bank is characterised by everything that belongs to settler colonialism: forms of refined classification and division of the original population in order to better control them; constant de-legitimation of their voices and issues, and classic repression – to name just a few.
At a time when our own colonial ideas are rightly coming under fresh review, also in the Israel debate there is no alternative to maintaining a legitimate mode of speech. And this means, from the German and European point of view, the necessity that responsibility for the persecution and elimination of Jews has to be part of any debate about Israel. The South, on the other hand, does not accept this approach at all, and sometimes fears, not unreasonably and based on bitter experience, that anticolonialism could be played off against antisemitism as understood by European politicians.
This will not happen. In the current confrontation with the “politics of enmity”, as Achille Mbembe calls it, we are all in the same boat. The key instruments of the politics of enmity, according to Mbembe, are antisemitism, islamophobia and racism. Or, to use Czollek’s words: if Muslims are marginalized and excluded today, it will be the Jews’ turn tomorrow. And vice versa.