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France 24
France 24

Germany’s historical guilt haunts opponents of Israeli war in Gaza

Demonstrators commemorate the victims of the October 7 Hamas attack at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, November 7, 2023. © Fabrizio Bensch, Reuters

Germany’s responsibility for the Holocaust underlines Berlin’s staunch defence of Israel and its bans on expressions of Palestinian solidarity, which authorities blame for a rise in anti-Semitism. But critics say the state is failing German Jews opposed to Israel’s policies and stifling the freedom of expression of immigrants.

Deborah Feldman knows a thing or two about standing up to authority. Her bestselling autobiography – which was the basis of the Netflix miniseries, “Unorthodox” – attests to that.

In her book, “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots”, the New York-born Feldman recounts how she escaped her ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, the Yiddish-speaking Hasidic Satmar sect.

After moving to Berlin, Feldman became a naturalised German citizen in 2017 and is a familiar figure in her adopted country, where her book readings are sold-out events.

In numerous media appearances, she has discussed the curious twist of fate that saw a girl, brought up to be terrified of Germany by Holocaust survivors, embrace a country that is now considered an icon of post-conflict national reckoning.

But on Tuesday, November 1, Feldman took her adopted country to task in an electrifying TV appearance.

As Israeli warplanes pounded Gaza in retaliation for the October 7 Hamas attack, Feldman appeared as a panelist on the primetime Markus Lanz talk show on a German public TV station.

In a clip that has since gone viral on social media, Feldman held truth to power on a particularly sensitive topic in Germany: the country's ironclad special relationship with Israel and its implications for German Jews and Muslims criticising Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government and calling for an end to the Gaza war.

Postwar Germany’s atonement for the horrors of the Holocaust has seen the German government and all major political parties condemn the Hamas attack on Israel while brooking no discussion on the context of the current conflict. Pro-Palestinian rallies have been banned. The list of writers, artists and cultural figures disinvited or being forced to resign due to expressions of sympathy for the Palestinian people grows longer by the day. Even small Jewish protests criticising Israel’s actions in Gaza have faced censure.

In her TV takedown of the current situation in Germany, Feldman cut to the heart of the matter. As a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, the 37-year-old Jewish writer noted that “there is only one legitimate doctrine of the Holocaust. And that is the absolute, unconditional defence of human rights – for everyone”, she said in German. “Anyone who wants to instrumentalise the Holocaust to justify further violence has forfeited their own humanity.”

The responsibilities of the past

On the foreign policy front, the German position has been in line with the US on the Gaza war, which has claimed more than 12,000 Palestinian lives, according to health authorities in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, in addition to the roughly 1,200 people killed in a single day during the October 7 Hamas massacre in Israel.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was the first Western leader to visit Israel following the Hamas attack. After his meeting with Netanyahu on October 17, Scholz said that “the responsibility we bear as a result of the Holocaust makes it our duty to stand up for the existence and security of the state of Israel”.

The next day, US President Joe Biden was on the tarmac at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, where he walked into Netanyahu’s arms.

Both visiting leaders called for humanitarian pauses, but not a ceasefire, to enable Israel’s stated goal of destroying Hamas.

But Middle East foreign policy is not a driving issue for Berlin, which tends to follow Washington’s lead. In Germany, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is much more of a domestic issue, one that is more beholden to atoning for the past than addressing the challenges of the future, according to critics.

Addressing anti-Semitism

Germany has seen an explosion of anti-Semitic incidents over the past month. In the week after the Hamas attacks, anti-Semitic incidents in Germany soared by 240 percent compared with the same period in 2022. Mosques were also targeted, with eight mosques receiving parcels with torn-up Koran fragments mixed with fecal matter during the same period, according to the police.

On October 18, at around 3.45am local time, assailants threw two Molotov cocktails at a Berlin synagogue. The bottles, filled with liquid explosives, landed on the pavement outside the synagogue and a small fire was put out by security officials, “preventing further consequences”, said a police statement.

Scholz was quick to condemn the synagogue assault, but the German leader was not as eloquent as his vice-chancellor, Robert Habeck, a poet-turned-politician from the Green party.

In a widely acclaimed speech, the German vice-chancellor criticised anti-Semitism from Islamists, “parts of the left” and the far-right. Habeck’s 10-minute video clip immediately went viral, getting more 11 million views on X, formerly Twitter.

“Anti-Semitism is not to be tolerated in any form,” said Habeck. “Anyone who is German will have to answer for it in court. If you’re not German, you also risk your residency status. Anyone who doesn’t have a residence permit provides a reason to be deported.” 

Hours later, Habeck joined the Markus Lanz talk show panel via video link. His fellow panelist, Feldman, directed her own 10-minute speech at the German vice-chancellor.

“Herr Habeck,” said Feldman as the screen behind her displayed the vice-chancellor listening intently. “You say you stand for the protection of Jewish life in this country. I’m horrified how Jews can, in principle, only be considered Jews here if they represent the right-wing conservative agenda of the Israeli government.”

As an outspoken secular Jew, Feldman is no stranger to backlash from conservative Jewish groups. Shortly before getting on air, she received a screenshot of a post in which a journalist working for a state-funded German Jewish newspaper fantasised about the “Unorthodox” author being held hostage by Hamas in Gaza.

The latest ire was sparked by an open letter signed by more than 100 Jewish academics, artists and writers, including Feldman, rejecting “the conflation of anti-Semitism and any criticism of the state of Israel” and calling on Germany to “adhere to its own commitments to free expression and the right to assembly”.

The calls appear to be falling on deaf ears, admits Susan Neiman, director of the Potsdam-based Einstein Forum and one of the open letter signatories.

“German politicians are cleaving to the old position, indeed doubling down on it,” said Neiman. “Politicians and most media are absolutely holding on to the idea that we have to support Israel, right or wrong, and what Israel is doing in Gaza is justified by Hamas terrorism. My position is we can condemn both.”

German far-right party embraces Israel

It’s a position under strain in the Bundestag as German parliamentarians confront the rising popularity of the far-right Alternative for German (AfD) party, which overtook Scholz’s coalition in opinion polls this year amid concerns over surging migration.

Since it secured 14 seats in the Bundestag in 2017, the anti-immigrant AfD has “tried to make common cause with Israel’s tough stance toward terror and self-styled position as a forward bulwark against Islamic extremism,” noted the Times of Israel.

Once shunned on the political stage, the AfD has attempted to refute suspicions of neo-Nazism within its ranks by public displays of support for Israel, according to experts.

“Racism toward other groups can be covered up by denouncing anti-Semitism and swearing support for any Israeli government,” wrote Neiman in an article in the New York Review of Books.

In May 2020, the German far-right party raised eyebrows in Israel when a senior AfD European Parliament member used a photograph and quote of the Israeli prime minister’s son, Yair Netanyahu.

“Schengen zone is dead and soon your evil globalist organisation will be too, and Europe will return to be free, democratic and Christian,” said the AfD poster featuring Yair Netanyahu.

Migration anxiety binds ‘difficult’ allies

The Bundestag is currently debating a new immigration law, which includes a provision for denying citizenship to people convicted of anti-Semitism. German Interior Minister Nancy Fraser announced the draft citizenship law on October 25, following a meeting with Israel’s ambassador to Germany, Ron Prosor.

Given the sweeping definition of anti-Semitism in Germany, the announcement had a chilling effect on free speech, with some German TV stations saying they were unable to get Arab guests on-air due to residency and job security anxieties.

“Right-wing politicians have called for making unconditional support for Israel a condition of living in Germany. Not surprisingly, the appeal is meant to apply to immigrants from Muslim countries. They are not going after far-right white German anti-Semites, even though official figures show most anti-Semitic crimes are conducted by right-wingers. Nonetheless all the focus is on so-called left-wing anti-Semitism, which means criticism of Israel,” explained Neiman.  “At a recent demonstration, police told demonstrators that the slogan ‘Stop the War’ cannot be spoken."

Migrant anxieties can bring together difficult allies in Germany. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has called Israel a terror state and accused it of fascism, met with Scholz in Berlin on Friday.

Erdogan’s visit to Germany came despite calls by German opposition conservatives and even the liberal FDP, a member of Scholz's coalition, urging the chancellor to scrap the invitation.

But the centre-left-led government said it was important to keep talking in the toughest of times. "We have always had difficult partners whom we have to deal with," Scholz's spokesman told reporters ahead of the visit.

Turkey signed a key 2016 deal with EU to alleviate the migrant influx, primarily from war-torn Syria. As the Gaza humanitarian crisis worsens, some European politicians have warned of a new round of displacements from the Middle East.

A 'reason of state' turns state of confusion

The 2016 migrant deal was struck by former German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who elevated Germany’s already close ties to Israel.

In a 2008 address to the Knesset marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Israeli state, Merkel declared that Israel’s security was part of Germany’s Staatsräson, or "reason of state".

The declaration set experts scrambling to understand the meaning of the legal term and, more importantly, the implications of the new Staatsräson.

“Nobody sat down to discuss it, and nobody knows what it means. Does it mean Germany is going to send troops to the Golan? Of course not. It’s just a symbolic claim that no one feels they can question,” explained Neiman.

Feldman was left with the same feeling after her televised confrontation with Habeck, when she urged the vice-chancellor to provide a space for people to express their grief over Gaza and asked him to “decide between Israel and Jews” because the two were not interchangeable.

“He tried his best, responding that while he understood that my perspective was one of admirable moral clarity, he felt that it was not his place as a politician in Germany, in the country that committed the Holocaust, to adopt that position,” wrote Feldman in a Guardian column days later. “And so, at that moment, we arrived at a point in German discourse where we now openly acknowledge that the Holocaust is being used as justification for the abandonment of moral clarity.”

The acknowledgment though is unlikely to assure Turkey’s Muslim citizens and residents as the Bundestag debates an immigration bill that could kill their German dreams for expressing doubts about Berlin’s position on the bitterly divisive Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

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