North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Why Germany gets it wrong about antisemitism and Palestine

Fears about antisemitism are understandable, given German history – but in fact, it’s the unquestioning support for a “Jewish state” that is mistaken

Inna Michaeli
20 May 2021, 10.00am
In Germany, defending the right of the Palestinian people to exist, to live in safety and dignity in their homeland, is regularly met with accusations of antisemitism
@JewishBund. All rights reserved

Palestine solidarity demonstrations and actions in Germany have been accused of antisemitism, yet when we ask what was actually antisemitic about them, it turns out not to be antisemitism at all. Let me explain why. What I am offering here is a public service, a Jewish queer woman’s perspective for the German media, politicians and public.

In Germany, defending the right of the Palestinian people to exist, to live in safety and dignity in their homeland, is regularly met with accusations of antisemitism. But these accusations have little to do with Jews, and everything to do with a German-centred view of the world, and racism against Palestinians, Muslims and migrants in Germany and across Europe.

German politicians speak day and night of Germany’s commitment to eradicate antisemitism and preserve Jewish life. One form this commitment takes is unconditional diplomatic, military and financial support to Israel, even as it commits war crimes in Gaza and maintains a regime recently recognised by Human Rights Watch as apartheid. Another way to demonstrate this commitment is to defame individuals and organizations who support human rights for Palestinians and resist the Israeli apartheid regime as antisemitic, even if these individuals or the members of these organisations are themselves Jewish. Yet another is to blame migrants and refugees for “imported antisemitism”, positioning Germany as the protector of the Jews from antisemitism, the source of which by implication lie outside of Germany.

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Take for example Berlin’s interior minister, Andreas Geisel. In a 2019 interview with Die Zeit, the SPD politician stated: “When I hear that BDS [the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel] supposedly has a commitment to oppose antisemitism, I can only smile wearily. Such organizations like to claim that they are anti-Zionist, but not antisemitic. In practice, BDS is hostile to Israel. There, the transitions to antisemitism are fluid.” Contrary to Geisel’s conflation of antisemitism with anti-Zionism, there is nothing fluid here, nor a conspiracy to mean something other than what they say.

Palestinians and those who support them are not the ones unable to distinguish between racism against Jews and resistance to Israel

While for some white supremacists Israel represents the centre of the global Jewish conspiracy and a force of evil (the way they understand it, of course), others are quite fond of it. Far right movements and politicians can often profess support for Israel, while at the same time promoting or tolerating antisemitic views. Think of the far-right AfD party in Germany, the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán in Hungary, or Donald Trump. On the other hand, movements like Palästina Spricht (“Palestine speaks”) collaborate with many Jews, speaking out against antisemitism with an integrity that state institutions can only dream of. They make clear beyond doubt that antisemites aren’t welcome, and that Zionism doesn’t equate with Judaism; that Jews as a whole are in no way responsible for the crimes of the Israeli state.

Palestinians and those who support them are not the ones unable to distinguish between racism against Jews and resistance to Israel. It’s politicians like Geisel and Michael Müller, Berlin’s mayor, who conveniently compared the non-violent and anti-racist BDS movement to the Nazis.

It is widely assumed that due to its history, Germany is particularly sensitive to antisemitism. However, although German public figures and state institutions invoke antisemitism as an argument against Palestinian rights, they are rarely sensitive to the Jewish experience, or to racism at all. On the contrary, they seem to be exclusively attuned to white German history, experience, and cultural and emotional associations – in other words, sensitive to themselves.

The popular narrative speaks of German guilt, but it is not the kind of guilt that comes with decentring oneself and recognising the other – it is a self-centered, narcissistic position. The result is a form of politics that effectively leads to death and destruction in Palestine, and to attempts to criminalise Palestine solidarity and act violently towards migrants in Germany itself. For a state so preoccupied with “integration”, Germany works hard to alienate us.

It is easy to see how this worldview results in the police brutality we then experience at demonstrations. On top of the classic police violence, this particular brutality is also politically motivated, serving the agenda to crush the Palestine solidarity movement. Yet it’s a growing, popular movement which is stronger than ever before in Berlin and the rest of Germany.

Kindermörder Israel

Slogans like Kindermörder Israel (“child-killer Israel”) are a description of horrendous reality - one of three Palestinians that Israel kills in Gaza are children. As inconvenient and triggering as it is for many Germans (and quite a few Jews), what should people chant when Israel is killing children? How can the victims express their rage and sorrow, how can they mourn their children who are killed again and again by Israel?

A listener who thinks of Jews as synonymous with Israel is the one with the antisemitism problem

It appears that this particular slogan upsets some people for two reasons. One is the supposed equation between Jews and Israel. So when you say “Israel”, the listener hears “Jews”, regardless of the context of what is said and by whom. But a listener who thinks of Jews as synonymous with Israel is the one with the antisemitism problem, not the slogan.

One way to avoid this problem, suggested a commenter on a recent German Facebook thread, would be to say “Netanyahu” instead of Israel. Netanyahu certainly has blood on his hands, but not only Netanyahu. Israel killed children in Gaza before Netanyahu and will likely kill after him too – with the blessing of Germany and the European Union.

It’s not a single person, it's an entire machinery. It is the Israeli education system that educates children from kindergarten onwards to become soldiers, it is the mandatory military service that creates a militarised society, it is the media that aligns with the army and always provides the ideological justification in advance for any war crime. It is a culture that perpetuates a permanent sense of victimhood, that denies the Nakba and the occupation, that dehumanises Palestinians, that sends its youth to occupy, shoot, and kill. Israel is doing the killing, state and society.

The second reason that such a slogan upsets people is the centuries-old antisemitic blood libel, the accusation that Jews kill Christian children to use their blood, found in the history of different regions but dominant primarily in Europe. It is indeed a terrible antisemitic trope. Yet Christian European history is not a universal reference point. It is a reference point of a particular ethnic and religious group in Germany, namely white Germans with Christian heritage. It is also, naturally, a reference point for Jews in Germany.

In Germany, different ethnic and religious communities have different historical trajectories and cultural associations, and the expectation for everyone to share what is primarily Christian European sensibilities and associations is problematic. For Palestinian refugees who came to Germany well after the Holocaust, for reasons not unrelated to it, “childkiller Israel” invokes associations to the Palestinian children killed by the Israeli military and policies, rather than the blood libel. Nor is this blood libel any central reference point for Israeli Jews, who grew up and were socialized in Israel. Yes, this is the primary association for those who grew up in or next to Christian European tradition - but the story here is not about them. Decentering oneself and one’s particular cultural associations and emotional landscape as the universal reference point is the task at hand facing the German society. It is, in other worlds, learning to say: it’s not about me.

Israeli flag burning

On 15 May, the day that the Nakba – the 1948 expulsion and displacement of Palestinians from the newly-declared state of Israel – is commemorated, Germany saw possibly the largest-ever demonstrations of solidarity with the Palestinian people. It was impossible to ignore how intersectional those demonstrations were, from the Latin American bloc to intersectional feminists.

Yet the Guardian’s report on the protests chose instead to highlight German politicians’ condemnation of alleged antisemitism, ignoring speeches by Jewish activists and groups like Jewish Voice or the Jewish Bund, and focusing instead on such horrors as the burning of an Israeli flag. Much of the mainstream media coverage of Nakba Day demonstrations did not even mention nor explain to the readers what the Nakba is, and its continuation in the form of ethnic cleansing and denial of Palestinians’ right to return. Berlin, with the largest Palestinian population in Europe, is home to people whose family members have been murdered by Israel in the recent days. These protests are often framed as “anti” Israel, but the fact that they are primarily “for” Palestinian life is omitted.

This is exemplary of public discourse on the issue in Germany, the United Kingdom and elsewhere: Israeli flags matter, Palestinian lives do not. When people, politicians and the media, care more about the burning of national flags than the burning of homes and neighbourhoods and the killing of entire families, they should really have a hard look at themselves.

Here too, in the eyes of the beholder, Israeli flag stands for Jews (and the beholder assumes everyone shares their associations). You can be sentimental about the Star of David as much as you want, but painted on a house in Sheikh Jarrah, it is not more than a symbol of violence and ethnic cleansing. Painted on the Israeli flag, it is a symbol of colonization, occupation and an apartheid regime.

During Channukah 2017, the Jewish Antifa Berlin group staged a Chanukkia with the words: “on our Chanukia, instead of candles, there are now the symbols of human bondage – the national flags of repressive regimes from all over the world, which, in their own unique ways, are responsible for global misery. Their sacralisation is the modern form of idolatry.” Contrary to what some German politicians think, not all Jews are the same.

From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free

Another slogan that’s stressful to many German ears – and many Jewish ones – is “from the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free”. Like the hollow expression “Israel’s right to exist”, it evokes the fear that Jews will be annihilated, if they cannot maintain a state where Jews control the territory between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean. For many people, no Israel means no Jews. Feeding this fear is to perpetuate the logic that Jewish life depends on racial and ethno-national demographic and political domination of one group over another, rather than more egalitarian and democratic frameworks of civil rights, in all their imperfection.

Yet open antisemites who conflate Israel and Jews are not the only ones to do so. The Israeli state does its best efforts to position itself as the voice of the world’s Jewish communities. The German media often unthinkingly describes Israel as “the Jewish state”, even though democratic principles would suggest that a state should not be ethnically or religiously exclusive.

Tragically, mainstream Jewish institutions in many countries also align themselves with Israeli politics no matter what, and wave Israeli flags at every opportunity, including at the very moments that bombs fall and kill entire families in Gaza. This makes the task of distinguishing between Israel and Jews all the more difficult – yet an anti-racist position demands that we do.

There is also a deeper political and philosophical question here. What does it even mean, for Israel to exist? I was a child when my family immigrated to Israel, I have Israeli citizenship, and I grew up in the Israeli education system. I didn’t know where Palestine was and what exactly it was until I was an adult.

If you choose death in Gaza, you don’t choose life for anyone. You choose death.

I grew up in Haifa not knowing it was and is a Palestinian city. Right or no right, Israel does exist for me – as a nation-state, as a system, as a society that made much of who I am. It exists as a colonial project and a machinery of oppression. Yet, this very land on which Israel exists and which it constantly tries to grab, occupy and take control of, is Palestine.

My understanding of this land is neither religious nor essentialist, but political. I understand the land between the river and the sea to be Palestine, colonised. This understanding comes out of respect for what the land means to people who were colonised and displaced. Refusing to recognise this geopolitical space as Palestine would contribute to its colonisation and complete its erasure. This we must refuse. So for me, Haifa is Palestine, even if it is simultaneously the Israel I grew up in.

Palestine exists as a land, a country, and also as an idea of freedom, homecoming and decolonisation. It also exists as a Palestinian society, in diaspora and in Palestine. It has different degrees of overlap with the Jewish-Israeli one, and exists in different constellations of colonial control, from the besieged Gaza to the occupied West Bank to the Israeli citizenship of Palestinians.

Jewish life doesn’t require Palestinian death

Ultimately, this Israeli apartheid system draws its legitimacy, among others, from telling Jews in Palestine and around the world, that if it collapses, so will they. Germany also gets this message loud and clear. South African Apartheid relied on a similar myth, convincing its allies in Britain, the US, Germany and elsewhere, that its fall would trigger an annihilation of whites by Blacks.

Yet what if it isn’t true? What if one day this system collapses – the same way the Soviet Union collapsed, or the German Democratic Republic, or Czechoslovakia – and we are left very much alive and breathing?

The rockets from Hamas are invoked - not just by Israel but also by Germany, the EU and the US - to justify the death and destruction in Gaza. As if Gaza has to burn for Jews to live.

What if Jewish life doesn’t require Palestinian death? (Though even if it did, my life certainly isn't worth more than the life of Rajaa Abu Al-Ouf, a dedicated social worker and psychologist who worked to provide children with psychological support, murdered last week in Gaza, with her children.)

What if Jewish existence doesn’t mean that as Jews we necessarily have to become occupiers, colonisers, Kindermörder? What if the expectation placed on us to become these things is itself the worst antisemitic blood libel of all?

If you choose death in Gaza, you don’t choose life for anyone. You choose death.

Consider the Israelis on the Gaza border who suffer from the rockets. The moment a resident of the south or elsewhere refuses to serve as justification for the massacre in Gaza and starts to talk of a peaceful solution, they are often branded as traitors (You note quite rightly that I am not talking about Hamas here, because when it wasn’t Hamas or Islamic Jihad, it was someone else. You cannot hold millions of people in the world’s largest prison, and expect they’ll throw flowers at you.)

Israel and the international community had the chance, when Hamas was democratically elected, to enable them transition from a militarised group to political actors. Plenty of governments started as ‘terror’ groups. Nelson Mandela was listed on the terror watchlist in the US until 2008. In Germany, he was considered a ‘state terrorist’ for a long time by successive German governments. Clearly the interest here was not to allow any legitimate Palestinian sovereignty.

This is also my appeal to fellow Jews in Germany and beyond. I know our intergenerational traumas. Many of us know perfectly well from our grandparents’ generation what it means to have your entire family murdered. How loss and trauma and yes, fear, continue to live in the next generations.

Fear is a powerful instrument that is used to control people – so let us not be controlled. Let’s be afraid of what we really need to be afraid of: white supremacy and colonialism, fascism and nationalism, murderous regimes and apartheid. Even if these things come under the name of Israel.

As a Jewish queer woman, I know that I am genuinely safer with my Palestinian friends and comrades, than with the German establishment. I am convinced we must work against antisemitism and all forms of racism, with those affected by it – not by finding fake comfort in white saviours. As long as Jews turn to the white German establishment for safety, this will never stop the paralysing fear and anxiety, because we have excellent reasons not to trust this establishment with our lives.The establishment that lets thousands of refugees drown in the Mediterranean and shakes hands with Israeli war criminals before it is willing to speak with critical Jews.

So let’s take a deep breath and together: from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.

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