Two articles below & a video describe attacks on people supporting Palestinian human rights. Israel partisans use unfounded claims of ‘antisemitism’ to block events, boycott scholars, censor critical texts…
Now, in an unprecedented move, leaders of top German cultural institutions have joined forces to declare: Enough
In Germany, a Witch Hunt Is Raging Against Critics of Israel. Cultural Leaders Have Had Enough
By Itay Mashiach, reposted from Ha’aretz
BERLIN – Nirit Sommerfeld’s musical show has been touring Germany for years. Backed up by her klezmer band, Sommerfeld performs texts and songs, in both German and Yiddish, about Kristallnacht, yearnings for Israel and such things as Hanukkah in the Diaspora.
For years, the 59-year-old singer, who was born in Israel and grew up in Germany, was the darling of the Jewish community in Munich, where she lives.
Two years ago, however, when Sommerfeld submitted a standard request for public funding for her show, she encountered hemming and hawing on the part of the cordial clerks in Munich’s cultural department, and delays in the handling of her request. “In the end they said, ‘Would you perhaps be willing for us to receive the text of the work beforehand? Maybe it will be possible to make changes here and there.’”
Sommerfeld was shocked. “Excuse me? Do you want to censor me?” she shot back. She didn’t get the funding.
Last year, she rented a club for an event marking the band’s 20th anniversary. The club’s owner sent her a formal letter in which she was called upon “to confirm in writing that no antisemitic content will be given expression within the framework of the performance” – without which the club would be compelled to cancel the show.
Sommerfeld fired off a strongly worded reply. “For 10 years, we have been appearing with a program at whose center is the story of my grandfather, who was murdered in a concentration camp,” she wrote, and added in bold font: “May I remind you that [he was] murdered by antisemites in Sachsenhausen?”
The explanation for both of these events can be traced back to a single root: Sommerfeld’s activism against the Israeli occupation in the territories and her critical, very public remarks about Israel, which have long provoked the wrath of the Munich Jewish community. By submitting repeated complaints to the authorities, members of the community made it difficult for her to work.
Sommerfeld’s case may be minor and local, but it’s only a drop in the ocean. Across Germany a fierce campaign is underway against every person, organization or event that holds anti-Israel views, whether real or surmised.
Anti-BDS Resolution is pushed in Germany
The heart of the matter lies in a resolution passed in May 2019 by the Bundestag, the German parliament. Confirmed by a large majority, the resolution states that BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions), the movement that calls for a boycott of Israel, bears an antisemitic character. In the resolution, which is nonbinding, the Bundestag called on the government “not to financially support any projects that call for the boycott of Israel, or actively support the BDS campaign.”
Despite the parliamentary consensus, the passage of the resolution was steeped in controversy. About 100 members of the Bundestag who supported the resolution published personal declarations expressing concern that it would nonetheless impinge on freedom of speech and affect people’s ability to criticize Israeli policy. In addition, 240 Jewish and Israeli intellectuals came out strongly against the resolution.
A year and a half later, in the view of many, the apprehensions have been borne out. Broad circles in Germany are seriously upset at what they see as an exaggerated use of accusations of antisemitism and of the BDS label for the purpose of curtailing criticism of Israeli policy. There is a widespread view that a toxic atmosphere of fear, threats and censorship has been created.
German democracy at stake
During the past year, the heads of the central cultural organizations in Germany met once a month – in absolute secrecy – to discuss the situation that had emerged.
They saw the topic before them as being connected to no less than German democracy and the freedom of artistic and academic expression. The meetings were frequently tempestuous and in some cases went on into the night. Thanks to the secrecy, and with cooperation between the directors, as well as the broad backing of the institutions they direct, the participants had the opportunity to address the subject freely for the first time.
More than 25 institutions were involved in the initiative, among them the Goethe Institute, the Federal Cultural Foundation, the Berlin Deutsches Theater, the German Academic Artists Exchange, the Berliner Festspiele (a body that promotes a variety of performing-arts festivals), the Einstein Forum (whose director is the Jewish American philosopher Susan Neiman) and many others from the heart of the establishment. Together, their leaders constitute a group of senior figures whose influence in the German cultural world cannot be overestimated.
Claims of ‘antisemitism’ used to silence criticism of Israel
This week, in a press conference that had been planned clandestinely for months, they spoke out against the dangers they see in the Bundestag resolution. In its wake, they declared, in a joint statement, that, “accusations of antisemitism are being misused to push aside important voices and to distort critical positions.”
As those who stand in the forefront of the German artistic and intellectual world, they seem convinced that the BDS scare is dramatically impeding their activity and abridging freedom of expression in the institutions they lead.
It is not every day that a broad and diverse spectrum of influential members of the German establishment come together to express a unanimous critical position on the most sensitive issue on the country’s public agenda: the battle against antisemitism. In Germany, it constitutes no less than a cultural earthquake.
Interviews conducted by Haaretz with a range of intellectuals, academics, journalists, artists, politicians and heads of cultural institutions indicate the depth of the influence the Bundestag resolution has had on all areas of German civil society. Moreover, their views make it clear that the resolution and its consequences – which many see as the politicization of the struggle against antisemitism – may endanger that very struggle.
‘Guilty’ of signing a petition a decade ago
Without knowing the story of Dr. Stefanie Carp, it’s impossible to understand how the cultural institutions were motivated to act. Carp was, until recently, the artistic director of one of the most prestigious arts events in Germany, the Ruhrtriennale, a large-scale, even spectacular, festival in which music, dance, theater, performance and fine arts are presented in abandoned industrial buildings of the Ruhr region in the west of Germany.
Carp, a cordial woman of 64, invites a journalist into her apartment in the center of Berlin. Books line the walls and her worktable buckles under a stack of printed pages annotated in dense handwriting. This year’s festival was scheduled to have as its keynote speaker the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe. An intellectual with a global reputation, Mbembe has long had connections with the German cultural elite. The charge – that he’s a covert antisemite – struck like a bolt from the blue.
A local blogger and a politician conveyed the message. Ten years ago, they noted, Mbembe signed a petition calling for the severance of ties between the University of Johannesburg and Ben-Gurion University in Be’er Sheva, because of the latter’s connections with the Israeli army. BDS welcomed the petition, the Bundestag classifies BDS as an antisemitic organization – therefore, Mbembe is an antisemite.
The accusers spiced their allegations with two snippets of quotations culled from Mbembe’s nine books.
The first, which includes one of the few mentions of Israel in his work, contains an incidental comparison of the Israeli occupation to apartheid; the second proposes the Holocaust as an extreme example of “the manifestation of [a] phantasy of separation” – making him suspected of “Holocaust relativization.” Mbembe was marked.
Things quickly lurched out of control. The media pounced on the “Mbembe question” with rare intensity. Articles on the subject appeared daily in all the major newspapers for months. The question of the philosopher’s antisemitism soon morphed into the question of Stefanie Carp’s antisemitism, as it was she who had invited him to speak. A Jerusalem Post reporter asked her whether she was ready to admit to being a “modern antisemite.” The accusation continued to spiral, powered only by guilt by association.
Within weeks Dr. Felix Klein, Germany’s antisemitism commissioner, weighed in, asserting that the invitation to Mbembe should be canceled.
“I called him up,” Carp says. “My impression was that he had not read one line of Mbembe personally. I read him whole pages on the phone – the context of these quotes – and that made him fall a bit silent, but then he said, ‘Yes, but I still think he’s antisemitic.’” The official seal of disapproval had been given.
Which was followed by the moral seal. Josef Schuster, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, called for Carp’s dismissal. “Josef Schuster is the highest moral instance in the German guilt narrative. If he says someone is antisemitic, and should not serve as an artistic director, that is something you cannot ignore,” Carp says.
But for Carp the real reason is clear: “cowards,” she calls them. Her defense of Mbembe despite the adverse reactions means that she has entered a professional limbo. Her term as the festival’s artistic director ended two months ago, and she is convinced that no one in Germany will offer her a public position.
“Colleagues are scared to be seen with me, to be close to me,” she says. “Some people have said that if I were on a podium, they wouldn’t want to be there with me – not because they really think I’m antisemitic, but because they fear for their own careers. Even colleagues I know very well.”
Many of the interviewees noted the grating silence that prevailed in circles that could have defended Mbembe and Carp when the episode occurred. “So great is the sense of insecurity that there were no voices from the world of culture and art to be heard supporting Carp publicly,” says Dr. Bernd Scherer, director of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of the World’s Cultures) in Berlin, one of the most important centers for contemporary arts in Germany.
“A great many people sympathized with her situation,” he continues. “I know that many conversations were held on the subject. But not one voice in public. That is something that must not happen, for people to be afraid that they will be branded antisemitic even though they have no connection with that. The danger is developing that in the bureaucracy, in the government ministries and in the cultural institutions, there will be an atmosphere of suspicion, insecurity and self-censorship. This has to be stopped.”
We are meeting in his spacious office in the Haus der Kulturen, an iconic modern building in the west of Berlin that hosts the finest concerts, exhibitions and lectures with participants from around the world.
“I was truly baffled when Carp was attacked,” Scherer recalls. “I thought that if Achille Mbembe could be termed antisemitic and the demand made of public institutions that they no longer invite him, then there would be many other important thinkers and artists we would not be able to invite. Because I and my colleagues from the cultural institutions are in constant touch, it quickly became apparent that almost everyone was dealing with this problem, and also that it was such a basic issue that we had to join together… to confront the matter.”
That’s what they did. The leaders of the initiative, whose first stage is a public statement, but which they plan to follow by a series of public events, believe that their action will stir broad support from a large number of organizations and institutions across the country. Scherer, like all the participating directors of institutions, emphasizes repeatedly that he is against BDS. However, he noted, “This must not bring about the exclusion of significant players from the discussion, or, in other words, respond to a boycott with a boycott.”
There is of course reason to be concerned about the rise of antisemitism in Germany. The far right is making inroads, both politically and in the general atmosphere, and the authorities report a significant increase in attacks on Jewish individuals and institutions over the past two years. The coronavirus crisis provides fertile ground for conspiracy theories, some of which build on the old antisemitic tropes about the Rothschilds, the Soroses and the other “Jews who rule the world.” The violent attack by a neo-Nazi on the synagogue in Halle, on Yom Kippur of 2019 (which left two bystanders dead), brought home the danger beyond any doubt.
The issue that is bothering the critics of the Bundestag resolution is whether the extension of the concept of antisemitism to encompass criticism of Israel is not actually adversely affecting the battle against antisemitism. The argument is that the ease with which the accusation is leveled could have the effect of eroding the concept itself.
It was precisely that concern that a number of Israeli and German scholars expressed in an open letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel last July. They deplored “the inflationary, factually unfounded and legally unfounded use of the concept of antisemitism,” and maintained that it “distracts attention from real antisemitic sentiments… that actually endanger Jewish life in Germany.” The criticism is aimed primarily at Felix Klein, the antisemitism commissioner.
In the wake of Klein’s intervention in the Mbembe affair, a group of 37 scholars and artists, most of them from Israel and identified with the left there, but also from a number of prestigious institutions internationally, demanded his dismissal in a letter last April to the German interior minister. Klein, they wrote, is “clearly obsessed” with the subject of BDS, which has a “minuscule footprint” in Germany, and he devotes more time to it than to the “acute danger Jews in Germany face due to the surge in far-right antisemitism.”
The antisemitism czar, the letter charged, is working “in synergy with the Israeli government” in an effort “to discredit and silence opponents of Israel’s policies” and is abetting the “instrumentalization” that undermines the true struggle against antisemitism.
The highly personable Klein, 52, is a lawyer and former diplomat who since 2018 has been the personification of official German efforts to fight antisemitism. Klein takes criticism against him very seriously, he assures me in a telephone interview, but also rejects the attempt “to hierarchize goals” in the battle against antisemitism. “There is no harmless antisemitism, all types must be fought against equally,” he says. “We must seize antisemitism at the root, even when it appears in the center of society and in academia, not only when Jews are attacked.”
As for the Bundestag resolution, despite the concern it arouses about restricting freedom of expression, it is for the most part beneficial, in Klein’s view. It is “an unequivocal statement against antisemitism, including in its most widespread form in Europe – the Israel-related antisemitism – and an expression of solidarity toward Israel and against the attempts to delegitimize and demonize it.”
But it appears that the excessive use of the term “antisemitism” bears implications that go far beyond the realm of culture and art. Roderich Kiesewetter, a member of the foreign affairs committee of the Bundestag from Merkel’s CDU party, thinks that the extensive invocation of antisemitism could have significant bearing on Germany’s diplomatic activity.
“Germany is trying, apparently always in coordination with Israel, to soften and neutralize resolutions against Israel in international bodies by taking part in them. In the past, Germany contributed a great deal in this regard,” Kiesewetter says. “One needs to understand that Germany makes an effort with its diplomatic corps, in the World Health Organization and other organizations, to help see to it that antisemitic and anti-Israeli formulations are revised or neutralized.”
The irony is that, according to Kiesewetter, Germany is then rewarded for its efforts by being “accused for having taken part in the vote.” As a consequence, he says, “I believe that there will be significantly lower interest in continuing like this in the future.”
One of the key figures attacked in this regard, by such institutions as the Simon Wiesenthal Center, is Christoph Heusgen, who served as Merkel’s foreign affairs and security adviser between 2005 and 2017.
Since then, Heusgen has served as Germany’s envoy to the United Nations, during which time he earned the dubious distinction of being included in the Wiesenthal Center’s list of perpetrators of the 10 worst antisemitic acts of 2019. The reason: He voted in favor of 25 “anti-Israeli” resolutions at the UN, and had the audacity to call for the protection of civilians on both sides from “Israeli bulldozers and Hamas missiles” in the same sentence.
It’s unlikely that Germany alters its foreign policy on the basis of public protests of this kind, but Kiesewetter’s comments do suggest that the antisemitism accusations can have a wearying effect.
“From what I hear, people are tired of this constant hostility,” against purported antisemites, he says, noting that this has already led to nothing less than a “paradigm shift” in the country’s voting pattern in international forums: “The reason is that one tries to tone down toxic, evil and mistaken formulations, and amid this one is placed in the antisemitic corner. I think that it will no longer be like that in the future.”
‘Maybe I don’t know I’m antisemitic’
Back to Stefanie Carp. The first attack on her came in 2018, in her first year as artistic director of the Ruhr festival, before which, she says, she wasn’t even familiar with the term BDS. At that time she had invited a British pop group, Young Fathers, that supports the boycott of Israel, to appear at the festival. “It was terrible,” she says, “and since then I have been on their radar.” Carp was accused of being antisemitic and actually had to declare her unwavering support for Israel’s right to exist in a letter to the state parliament of North Rhine-Westphalia.
“Before the festival, when they were all against me and asked how I could have invited that band, I had to travel somewhere,” she recalls. “I sat on the train and thought, ‘Scheisse’ [shit], I made a mistake. Maybe I am antisemitic and don’t yet know it. I felt truly awful. I thought that maybe there was something in the Germans, in my generation, something that was repressed and is now emerging.”
The Young Fathers episode led to the local state parliament passing, in September 2018, a resolution declaring that BDS is an antisemitic movement and must not be given support in any form. The event was a watershed in terms of behavior in cultural institutions.
“The politicians expect us, the directors of the institutions, to do the censoring,” Carp says. Any online evidence regarding one’s ties with the BDS movement became a cause for disqualification. “From that day on, the management [of the festival] exerted incredible pressure on my whole team. ‘Did you survey this artist? Did you find something? You have to check everybody!’ they would say. And I always had to be on guard, to tell them: ‘This is my department, not yours, they do not engage in censorship inquiries.’”
In one case, she recalls, she used a quotation – unrelated to Israel – from Naomi Kleinin a statement of support for artists during the period of the coronavirus crisis. Klein, a Canadian journalist and intellectual of Jewish origin, has spoken in support of BDS in the past. To her surprise, the statement did not appear on the festival’s website. “They didn’t dare to publish the message, they were all afraid they would get into trouble. After a few days the CEO told me, ‘You have to take out the Klein quote, otherwise I won’t sign.’ In her mind she wanted to help me and avoid trouble.”
Carp, too, soon found herself also checking the background of artists in order to avoid trouble. “It’s that terrible self-censorship,” she says. And she has a host of examples. In 2019, the premiere of a Belgian performance group, Needcompany, was set to take place.
Carp: “At one point in the performance, which also appears in the [promotional] trailer, Jan Lauwers [the group’s founder] says, ‘I was in Hebron and I was shocked.’ There was a whole debate in the Ruhrtriennale about what would happen if [certain bloggers] were to hear that sentence. And then a text in the program [of the performance] described in greater detail why he was shocked.
“Management called to say that he has to skip these and other sentences. I thought maybe they’re right, we should try to avoid trouble, and tried to explain it to Lauwers. He shouted at me, ‘This is censorship! If this text is not published I will go back to Belgium!’ Management backed off and nothing happened. Everything went as planned. But that was our daily life. There was this atmosphere of fear hanging over the festival.”
The pressure is also felt vividly in the academic sphere. Stefanie Schüler-Springorum, 58, the director of the Center for Anti-Semitism Research of the Technical University, Berlin, is well acquainted with it. As a non-Jewish professor of Jewish history, she has always been compelled to explain her choice of specialization. “My second field is Spanish history – I was never asked about that,” she says. “The question is often heard, how can a non-Jew really understand antisemitism. It’s an implicit charge against the center, most of whose employees are not Jewish.”
For her, the recent initiative by the cultural institutions is an opportunity not to have to stand alone any longer in the line of fire. “If we place the grim atmosphere and the bad nights to the side,” she says, when asked about the situation’s impact on her center’s work, “the center’s employees are caught up in insecurity and there is a type of self-censorship,” she explains. “Sometimes one thinks, ‘To go to that conference?’ ‘To invite this colleague?’ Afterward it means that for three weeks, I’ll have to cope with a shitstorm, whereas I need the time for other things that I get paid for as a lecturer. There is a type of ‘anticipatory obedience’ or ‘prior self-censorship.’”
The pressure also seeps into the relations between faculty and students at the institution, says Schüler-Springorum. Two years ago, for example, students from the center distributed an anonymous leaflet against the lecturers, who in their view were overly engaged with questions of “classic” antisemitism. “We want to be prepared to join the debate on the theories and current characteristics and phenomena of antisemitism like anti-Zionism, Islamic and Islamist antisemitism,” they wrote, identifying themselves only as “Young Scientists for Israel.”
“Events like that damage the trust on which the teaching is based,” Schüler-Springorum says. Implicit in the leaflet was the accusation that the academic staff is not wholeheartedly committed to the fight against, or even willing to tolerate, antisemitism. Since then she has stopped holding study tours abroad, which call for closer proximity with the students. “I feel that I no longer want to do those things, not knowing whether there are people who can vilify me as antisemitic afterward. In this regard I am cautious to an extreme, and also in general.
“Honestly, the resignation of Peter Schäfer was a major turning point for me,” she continues. “I asked myself what the future cultural and academic freedom was, if such a well-known scholar could lose his job.”
‘Talmud scholars support German goy’
Stefanie Schüler-Springorum was not the only person who spoke with Haaretz who mentioned the case of Peter Schäfer, a highly esteemed professor of ancient Judaism and Christianity studies, seeing it as a watershed. His resignation, in June 2019, as director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum, came a few weeks after the Bundestag resolution and for many signaled the exponential leap that the resolution entailed.
Schäfer, 77, has refused requests for interviews for the past year and a half. A few days after he resigned, in the midst of the media furor, the expert on antisemitism (among other things) who was accused of being antisemitic himself sat himself down and started to work intensively on a book about the history of antisemitism. “That saved me,” he says now in a telephone interview, upon the publication of the book, which he wrote with record speed. “The writing helped me overcome all that and not to fall into a deep hole.”
The events that led to his resignation drew the protest of 95 museum directors and curators and 445 Jewish studies scholars, from around the world. But the letter of support that moved him most came from 45 Talmudists, not necessarily people who hew to the consensus. “The most important and best-known hakhmei Talmud [Talmud scholars] supporting a German goy!” he says with a laugh.
Schäfer first found himself on the radar of the anti-BDS warriors with the Jewish Museum’s exhibition “Welcome to Jerusalem” and its accompanying program.
Initial reactions to the show were uniformly excellent, “and then suddenly it turned topsy-turvy,” he relates. A volley of tweets from the former MP and ardent Israel supporter Volker Beck, along with a series of articles in the conservative daily Die Welt set the tone.
The exhibition – whose offense seems to have been presenting Jerusalem from the perspective of the three monotheistic religions with a presence there, which meant including a Muslim narrative – was a “historical distortion,” the museum is “anti-Israeli” and the conferences it holds are swarming with BDS supporters and people close to the Muslim Brotherhood.
“A reporter for The Jerusalem Post sent inflammatory emails,” Schäfer recalls, “with questions like ‘Did you learn the wrong lesson from the Holocaust?’ And, ‘Israeli experts told me you disseminate antisemitism – is that true?’
Josef Schuster, the German Jewish community head, also joined the protest. “We talked about the exhibition,” Schäfer says, “and he complained that it was one-sided, that things can’t go on like this and what a pity, etc. Later, during the same conversation, my jaw dropped when he said he hadn’t actually visited the exhibition.”
The criticism gained momentum – a condemnation even arrived from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Schäfer experienced a barrage of attacks, some of them personal and particularly vicious. In the end, though, it was a critical tweet about the Bundestag resolution, issued by the museum’s spokesperson, that opened the gates of hell.
“The atmosphere was very heated,” Schäfer recalls. “That was the point at which things became so inflated that I decided that it didn’t make sense anymore, that incitement would go on and on. I could have fought back, but I knew that would hurt the museum.” Schäfer decided to resign.
“It was my own decision,” he says, “but I can say also that I no longer had backing from the political arena. When things reached the boiling point, the politicians said that this really didn’t make sense and that it would be better if I resigned. That was indeed said to me.”
The final chapter in his new book, “A Short History of Antisemitism” (in German), is devoted to BDS and the Bundestag resolution. “The whole debate over BDS was rife with the clear instrumentalization by some of the accusation of antisemitism in order to liquidate undesirables, to destroy their reputation,” Schäfer says. “The accusation of antisemitism is a club that allows one to deal a very rapid death blow, and political elements who have an interest in this used and are using it, without a doubt.”
Schäfer too attests to the ongoing pressure that was felt in the museum due to the accusatory atmosphere: “More and more, with every guest we invited, we would consider whether we would get battered again. This person is a BDS sympathizer, maybe we should drop the idea of inviting him. The museum staff gradually entered a state of panic. Then of course we also started to do background checks. Increasingly it poisoned the atmosphere and our work.”
Schäfer is convinced that the resolution was accompanied by a significant danger. “The Israelis and the Jewish colleagues who tried to block the resolution maintained that it didn’t only fight antisemitism, but in the end was liable even to strengthen antisemitism, and I think they were right. It is liable to distract attention from the true antisemites and from the issues they promote. They can say that it’s all only political, it’s a political game. That’s a danger.”
The attacks directed at cultural and art institutions and at the academic world have not passed over the media, too, in particular journalists who dared to cover the episodes critically. Last May, for example, Stephan Detjen, chief correspondent of the Deutschlandradio, criticized the handling of the Mbembe affair by the antisemitism commissioner, Felix Klein.
In response, Klein told Der Spiegel that the correspondent was now getting what he deserved, hinting that there were demands that he be fired. An inquiry by them to the government ministry in charge revealed that no such demands had been made.
“I never saw a situation in which an official in the Interior Ministry, a commissioner of the federal government, speaks about a demand to fire a journalist because of a remark he didn’t like,” Detjen says in a telephone interview. But he is well aware of the implications of dealing with the issue of antisemitism.
\“When you speak out on these subjects you need to know that there will be a frontal attack. The attacks can go beyond content; some are personal and are intended to damage your reputation. The result is the creation of heavy pressure.”
What happened between 11:27 and 4:19
It’s recently become clear that even Israelis living in Germany aren’t immune. A year ago, a group of Berlin-based Israelis decided to establish a discussion group to study the Zionist narrative on which they were raised.
Last October, the group organized a series of online lectures in conjunction with the Weissensee Academy of Art Berlin, under the title, “The School for Unlearning Zionism.” A few dozen people tuned in, and the organizers also planned to mount a small exhibition. For a week the project proceeded uninterrupted in a modest Zoom window on the margins of the web.
And then someone said “BDS.”
The sequence of events that catapulted the local initiative onto the agenda of federal government agencies illustrates the larger story vividly. On November 7 at 11:27 A.M., Israeli journalist Eldad Beck tweeted about “an anti-Zionist curriculum funded by the government of Germany.” Two hours later, a tweet in German referred to “a bunch of BDS supporters who are meeting in a public institution.”
At 1:53 P.M., the former politician Volker Beck tweeted about the “scandal,” and reported that he had already contacted the culture minister about the matter. At 4:19 P.M., a particularly volatile email landed in the offices of the art academy. A reporter from Die Welt was asking where the academy stood on BDS.
The next day the project’s site was blocked by the academy hosting it, and the small budget it had been allocated was canceled. The German Education Ministry rushed to state that the financing had not come from public funds. In an official statement, the Israeli embassy termed the project “antisemitic.”
The American Jewish Committee condemned “Israel’s delegitimization.” A central foundation for combating antisemitism added the project to the list of antisemitic events it documents – between swastikas on a sports field in Leipzig and a violent attack on a student wearing a kippa at the entrance to a synagogue in Hamburg.
The group of organizers, some of whom are not from an activist background, spoke of a “sense of betrayal.” “The project has no connection with BDS,” says Yehudit Yinhar, one of the organizers. “But we refuse on principle to allow the question of ‘BDS yes-or-no’ to be the framework within which every conversation about Israel and Palestine takes place. That is so simplistic.”
Yinhar, 35, a former kibbutznik and active in the Combatants for Peace NGO, and these days an activist and an art student in Berlin, adds that “the Bundestag resolution is something that can be pulled out every time a Palestinian or a non-Zionist Israeli wants to speak.”
The resolution also hampers the participation of Jewish and Israeli left-wingers who want to take part in political forums. “It is very difficult to invite a large segment of the progressive Jewish population, people on the left or critics of the occupation, if they call for some sort of political action,” says a senior figure in a German political institute, someone with a Jewish-Israeli background, who asked not to be identified by name.
“After all, people don’t come just to say, ‘Oy, this isn’t good.’ We’re all political people, and this is a problem that has to be solved, the occupation has to be stopped… If you can’t talk about that, what do you say? ‘Oy, it’s so hard, oy, it’s so good that the Israeli left is fighting’?
“If that’s what’s happening,” he added, “everything becomes totally nonpolitical. All your work no longer has political meaning, it’s voided of content. It looks like a series of evening talks for retirees.”
Antisemitism claims mask a reign of political and cultural terror across Europe
By Jonathan Cook, reposted from Jonathan Cook blog 11 December 2020
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has run a fascinating long report this week offering a disturbing snapshot of the political climate rapidly emerging across Europe on the issue of antisemitism. The article documents a kind of cultural, political and intellectual reign of terror in Germany since the parliament passed a resolution last year equating support for non-violent boycotts of Israel – in solidarity with Palestinians oppressed by Israel – with antisemitism.
The article concerns Germany but anyone reading it will see very strong parallels with what is happening in other European countries, especially the UK and France.
The same European leaders who a few years ago marched in Paris shouting “Je suis Charlie” – upholding the inalienable free speech rights of white Europeans to offend Muslims by insulting and ridiculing their Prophet – are now queuing up to outlaw free speech when directed against Israel, a state that refuses to end its belligerent occupation of Palestinian land. European leaders have repeatedly shown they are all too ready to crush the free speech of Palestinians, and those in solidarity with them, to avoid offending sections of the Jewish community.
The situation reduces to this: European Muslims have no right to take offence at insults about a religion they identify with, but European Jews have every right to take offence at criticism of an aggressive Middle Eastern state they identify with. Seen another way, the perverse secular priorities of European mainstream culture now place the sanctity of a militarised state, Israel, above the sanctity of a religion with a billion followers.
Guilt by association
This isn’t even a double standard. I can’t find a word in the dictionary that conveys the scale and degree of hypocrisy and bad faith involved.
If the American Jewish scholar Norman Finkelstein wrote a follow-up to his impassioned book The Holocaust Industry – on the cynical use of the Holocaust to enrich and empower a Jewish organisational establishment at the expense of the Holocaust’s actual survivors – he might be tempted to title it The Antisemitism Industry.
In the current climate in Europe, one that rejects any critical thinking in relation to broad areas of public life, that observation alone would enough to have one denounced as an antisemite. Which is why the Haaretz article – far braver than anything you will read in a UK or US newspaper – makes no bones about what is happening in Germany. It calls it a “witch-hunt”. That is Haaretz’s way of saying that antisemitism has been politicised and weaponised – a self-evident conclusion that will currently get you expelled from the British Labour party, even if you are Jewish.
The Haaretz story highlights two important developments in the way antisemitism has been, in the words of intellectuals and cultural leaders cited by the newspaper, “instrumentalised” in Germany.
Jewish organisations in Germany, as Haaretz reports, are openly weaponising antisemitism not only to damage the reputation of Israel’s harsher critics, but also to force out of the public and cultural domain – through a kind of “antisemitism guilt by association” – anyone who dares to entertain criticism of Israel.
Cultural associations, festivals, universities, Jewish research centres, political think-tanks, museums, and libraries are being forced to scrutinise the past of those they wish to invite in case some minor transgression against Israel can be exploited by local Jewish organisations. That has created a toxic, politically paranoid atmosphere that inevitably kills trust and creativity.
But the psychosis runs deeper still. Israel, and anything related to it, has become such a combustible subject – one that can ruin careers in an instant – that most political, academic and cultural figures in Germany now choose to avoid it entirely. Israel, as its supporters intended, is rapidly becoming untouchable.
A case study noted by Haaretz is Peter Schäfer, a respected professor of ancient Judaism and Christianity studies who was forced to resign as director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum last year. Schäfer’s crime, in the eyes of Germany’s Jewish establishment, was that he staged an exhibition on Jerusalem that recognised the city’s three religious traditions, including a Muslim one.
He was immediately accused of promoting “historical distortions” and denounced as “anti-Israel”. A reporter for Israel’s right-wing Jerusalem Post, which has been actively colluding with the Israeli government to smear critics of Israel, contacted Schäfer with a series of inciteful emails. The questions included “Did you learn the wrong lesson from the Holocaust?” and, “Israeli experts told me you disseminate antisemitism – is that true?”
The accusation of antisemitism is a club that allows one to deal a death blow, and political elements who have an interest in this are using it, without a doubt… The museum staff gradually entered a state of panic. Then of course we also started to do background checks. Increasingly it poisoned the atmosphere and our work.
Another prominent victim of these Jewish organisations tells Haaretz: “Sometimes one thinks, ‘To go to that conference?’ ‘To invite this colleague?’ Afterward it means that for three weeks, I’ll have to cope with a shitstorm, whereas I need the time for other things that I get paid for as a lecturer. There is a type of ‘anticipatory obedience’ or ‘prior self-censorship.’”
Ringing off the hook
There is nothing unusual about what is happening in Germany. Jewish organisations are stirring up these “shitstorms” – designed to paralyse political and cultural life for anyone who engages in even the mildest criticism of Israel – at the highest levels of government. Don’t believe me? Here is Barack Obama explaining in his recent autobiography his efforts as US president to curb Israel’s expansion of its illegal settlements. Early on, he was warned to back off or face the wrath of the Israel lobby:
Members of both parties worried about crossing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Those who criticized Israeli policy too loudly risked being tagged as “anti-Israel” (and possibly anti-Semitic) and confronted with a well-funded opponent in the next election.
When Obama went ahead anyway in 2009 and proposed a modest freeze on Israel’s illegal settlements:
The White House phones started ringing off the hook, as members of my national security team fielded calls from reporters, leaders of American Jewish organizations, prominent supporters, and members of Congress, all wondering why we were picking on Israel … this sort of pressure continued for much of 2009.
He observes further:
The noise orchestrated by Netanyahu had the intended effect of gobbling up our time, putting us on the defensive, and reminding me that normal policy differences with an Israeli prime minister – even one who presided over a fragile coalition government – exacted a political cost that didn’t exist when I dealt with the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Japan, Canada, or any of our other closest allies.
Doubtless, Obama dare not put down in writing his full thoughts about Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu or the US lobbyists who worked on his behalf. But Obama’s remarks do show that, even a US president, supposedly the single most powerful person on the planet, ended up blanching in the face of this kind of relentless assault. For lesser mortals, the price is likely to be far graver.
No free speech on Israel
It was this same mobilisation of Jewish organisational pressure – orchestrated, as Obama notes, by Israel and its partisans in the US and Europe – that ended up dominating Jeremy Corbyn’s five years as the leader of Britain’s leftwing Labour party, recasting a well-known anti-racism activist almost overnight as an antisemite.
It is the reason why his successor, Sir Keir Starmer, has outsourced part of Labour’s organisational oversight on Jewish and Israel-related matters to the very conservative Board of Deputies of British Jews, as given expression in Starmer’s signing up to the Board’s “10 Pledges”.
It is part of the reason why Starmer recently suspended Corbyn from the party, and then defied the membership’s demands that he be properly reinstated, after Corbyn expressed concerns about the way antisemitism allegations had been “overstated for political reasons” to damage him and Labour. (The rightwing Starmer, it should be noted, was also happy to use antisemitism as a pretext to eradicate the socialist agenda Corbyn had tried to revive in Labour.) It is why Starmer has imposed a blanket ban on constituency parties discussing Corbyn’s suspension. And it is why Labour’s shadow education secretary has joined the ruling Conservative party in threatening to strip universities of their funding if they allow free speech about Israel on campus.
Labour leaders, having crushed free speech in their own party and screwed over the Palestinians, now want to force British universities to follow suit, as the Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, explains in the Jewish Chronicle https://t.co/EnaKp5U0xz
— Jonathan Cook (@Jonathan_K_Cook) December 8, 2020
Two types of Jews
But the Haaretz article raises another issue critical to understanding how Israel and the Jewish establishment in Europe are politicising antisemitism to protect Israel from criticism. The potential Achilles’ heel of their campaign are Jewish dissidents, those who break with the supposed “Jewish community” line and create a space for others – whether Palestinians or other non-Jews – to criticise Israel. These Jewish dissenters risk serving as a reminder that trenchant criticism of Israel should not result in one being tarred an antisemite.
Leading Palestinians warn: 'The fight against antisemitism has been increasingly instrumentalised by the Israeli government and its supporters in an effort to delegitimise the Palestinian cause and silence defenders of Palestinian rights' https://t.co/Shu1Z7XYM1
— Jonathan Cook (@Jonathan_K_Cook) December 1, 2020
Israel and Jewish organisations, however, have made it their task to erode that idea by promoting a distinction – an antisemitic one, at that – between two types of Jews: good Jews (loyal to Israel), and bad Jews (disloyal to Israel).
Haaretz reports that Jewish officials in Germany, such Felix Klein, the country’s antisemitism commissioner, and Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, are being allowed to define not only who is an antisemite, typically using support for Israel as the yardstick, but are also determining who are good Jews – those politically like them – and who are bad Jews – those who disagree with them.
Despite Germany’s horrific recent history of Jew-hatred, the German government, local authorities, the media, universities and cultural institutions have been encouraged by figures like Klein and Schuster to hound German Jews, even Israeli Jews living and working in Germany, from the country’s public and cultural space.
When, for example, a group of Israeli Jewish academics in Berlin held a series of online discussions about Zionism last year on the website of their art school, an Israeli reporter soon broke the story of a “scandal” involving boycott supporters receiving funding from the German government. Hours later the art school had pulled down the site, while the German education ministry issued a statement clarifying that it had provided no funding. The Israeli embassy officially declared the discussions held by these Israelis as “antisemitic”, and a German foundation that documents antisemitism added the group to the list of antisemitic incidents it records.
Described as ‘kapos’
So repressive has the cultural and political atmosphere grown in Germany that there has been a small backlash among cultural leaders. Some have dared to publish a letter protesting against the role of Klein, the antisemitism commissioner. Haaretz reports:
The antisemitism czar, the letter charged, is working “in synergy with the Israeli government” in an effort “to discredit and silence opponents of Israel’s policies” and is abetting the “instrumentalization” that undermines the true struggle against antisemitism.
Figures like Klein have been so focused on tackling criticism of Israel from the left, including the Jewish left, that they have barely noted the “acute danger Jews in Germany face due to the surge in far-right antisemitism”, the letter argues.
Again, the same picture can be seen across Europe. In the UK, the opposition Labour party, which should be a safe space for those leading the anti-racism struggle, is purging itself of Jews critical of Israel and using anti-semitism smears against prominent anti-racists, especially from other oppressed minorities.
Extraordinarily, Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, one of the founders of Jewish Voice for Labour, which supports Corbyn, recently found herself suspended by Starmer’s Labour. She had just appeared in a moving video in which she explained the ways antisemitism was being used by Jewish organisations to smear Jewish left-wingers like herself as “traitors” and “kapos” – an incendiary term of abuse, as Wimborne-Idrissi points out, that refers to “a Jewish inmate of a concentration camp who collaborated with the authorities, people who collaborated in the annihilation of their own people”.
In suspending her, Starmer effectively endorsed this campaign by the UK’s Jewish establishment of incitement against, and vilification of, left-wing Jews.
The aggressive purge of Jews from the Labour Party under the repressive rule of @Keir_Starmer marches on.
I haven't seen a sustained campaign of overt anti-Semitism quite like the effort of Labour centrists to create lists of Good Jews & Bad Jews and purge the latter. https://t.co/wVwnu47QJP
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) December 3, 2020
Earlier, Marc Wadsworth, a distinguished black anti-racism campaigner, found himself similarly suspended by Labour when he exposed the efforts of Ruth Smeeth, then a Labour MP and a former Jewish official in the Israel lobby group BICOM, to recruit the media to her campaign smearing political opponents on the left as antisemites.
In keeping with the rapid erosion of critical thinking in civil society organisations designed to uphold basic freedoms, Smeeth was recently appointed director of the prestigious free speech organisation Index on Censorship. There she can now work on suppressing criticism of Israel – and attack “bad Jews” – under cover of fighting censorship. In the new, inverted reality, censorship refers not to the smearing and silencing of a “bad Jew” like Wimborne-Idrissi, but to criticism of Israel over its human rights abuses, which supposedly “censors” the identification of “good Jews” with Israel – now often seen as the crime of “causing offence”.
Ok, we've now officially moved from Alice Through the Looking Glass into the Twilight Zone.
Ruth Smeeth, ex-Israel lobbyist for Bicom and a key player in outlawing solidarity for Palestinians in the Labour party, is the new CEO of free speech group Index on Censorship! https://t.co/UmHXbTQETS
— Jonathan Cook (@Jonathan_K_Cook) June 15, 2020
Boy who cried wolf
The Haaretz article helps to contextualise Europe’s current antisemitism “witch-hunt”, which targets anyone who criticises Israel or stands in solidarity with oppressed Palestinians, or associates with such people. It is an expansion of the earlier campaign by the Jewish establishment against “the wrong kind of Jew”, as identified by Finkelstein in The Holocaust Industry. But this time Jewish organisations are playing a much higher-stakes, and more dangerous, political game.
Haaretz rightly fears that the Jewish leadership in Europe is not only silencing ordinary Jews but degrading the meaning – the shock value – of antisemitism through the very act of politicising it. Jewish organisations risk alienating the European left, which has historically stood with them against Jew hatred from the right. European anti-racists suddenly find themselves equated with, and smeared as, fledgling neo-Nazis.
If those who support human rights and demand an end to the oppression of Palestinians find themselves labeled antisemitic, it will become ever harder to distinguish between bogus (weaponised) “antisemitism” on the left and real Jew-hatred from the right. The antisemitism smearers – and their fellow travelers like Keir Starmer – are likely to end up suffering their very own “boy who cried wolf” syndrome.
Or as Haaretz notes:
The issue that is bothering the critics of the Bundestag [German parliament] resolution is whether the extension of the concept of antisemitism to encompass criticism of Israel is not actually adversely affecting the battle against antisemitism. The argument is that the ease with which the accusation is leveled could have the effect of eroding the concept itself.
The Antisemitism Industry
It is worth noting the shared features of the new Antisemitism Industry and Finkelstein’s earlier discussions of the Holocaust Industry.
In his book, Finkelstein identifies the “wrong Jews” as people like his mother, who survived a Nazi death camp as the rest of her family perished. These surviving Jews, Finkelstein argues, were valued by the Holocaust Industry only in so far as they served as a promotional tool for the Jewish establishment to accumulate more wealth and cultural and political status. Otherwise, the victims were ignored because the actual Holocaust’s message – in contrast to the Jewish leadership’s representation of it – was universal: that we must oppose and fight all forms of racism because they lead to persecution and genocide.
Instead the Holocaust Industry promoted a particularist, self-interested lesson that the Holocaust proves Jews are uniquely oppressed and that they, therefore, deserve a unique solution: a state, Israel, that must be given unique leeway by western states to commit crimes in violation of international law. The Holocaust Industry – very much to be distinguished from the real events of the Holocaust – is deeply entwined in, and rationalised by, the perpetuation of the racialist, colonial project of Israel.
In the case of the Antisemitism Industry, the “wrong Jew” surfaces again. This time the witch-hunt targets Jewish left-wingers, Jews critical of Israel, Jews opposed to the occupation, and Jews who support a boycott of the illegal settlements or of Israel itself. Again, the problem with these “bad Jews” is that they allude to a universal lesson, one that says Palestinians have at least as much right to self-determination, to dignity and security, in their historic homeland as Jewish immigrants who fled European persecution.
Keir Starmer needs to listen to the 'proudly pro-Israel' Americans for Peace Now. They reject the IHRA definition for 'weaponising' antisemitism and allowing 'McCarthyite witch hunts' of Israel critics. Only those living in a 'black hole' could support it https://t.co/mNCj0LqCky
— Jonathan Cook (@Jonathan_K_Cook) December 6, 2020
In contrast to the “bad Jews”, the Antisemitism Industry demands that a particularist conclusion be drawn about Israel – just as a particularist conclusion was earlier drawn by the Holocaust Industry. It says that to deny Jews a state is to leave them defenceless against the eternal virus of antisemitism. In this conception, the Holocaust may be uniquely abhorrent but it is far from unique. Non-Jews, given the right circumstances, are only too capable of carrying out another Holocaust. Jews must therefore always be protected, always on guard, always have their weapons (or in Israel’s case, its nuclear bombs) to hand.
‘Get out of jail’ card
This view, of course, seeks to ignore, or marginalise, other victims of the Holocaust – Romanies, communists, gays – and other kinds of racism. It needs to create a hierarchy of racisms, a competition between them, in which hatred of Jews is at the pinnacle. This is how we arrived at an absurdity: that anti-Zionism – misrepresented as the rejection of a refuge for Jews, rather than the reality that it rejects an ethnic, colonial state oppressing Palestinians – is the same as antisemitism.
Extraordinarily, as the Haaretz article clarifies, German officials are oppressing “bad Jews”, at the instigation of Jewish organisations, to prevent, as they see it, the re-emergence of the far-right and neo-Nazis. The criticisms of Israel made by the “bad Jew” are thereby not just dismissed as ideologically unsound or delusions but become proof that these Jews are colluding with, or at least nourishing, the Jew-haters.
In this way, Germany, the UK and much of Europe have come to justify the exclusion of the “wrong Jew” – those who uphold universal principles for the benefit of all – from the public space. Which, of course, is exactly what Israel wants, because, rooted as it is in an ideology of ethnic exclusivity as a “Jewish state”, it necessarily rejects universal ethics.
What we see here is an illustration of a principle at the heart of Israel’s state ideology of Zionism: Israel needs antisemitism. Israel would quite literally have to invent antisemitism if it did not exist.
This is not hyperbole. The idea that the “virus of antisemitism” lies semi-dormant in every non-Jew waiting for a chance to overwhelm its host is the essential rationale for Israel. If the Holocaust was an exceptional historical event, if antisemitism was an ancient racism that in its modern incarnation followed the patterns of prejudice and hatred familiar in all racisms, from anti-black bigotry to Islamophobia, Israel would be not only redundant but an abomination – because it has been set up to dispossess and abuse another group, the Palestinians.
Antisemitism is Israel’s “get out of jail” card. Antisemitism serves to absolve Israel of the racism it structurally embodies and that would be impossible to overlook were Israel deprived of the misdirection weaponised antisemitism provides.
An empty space
The Haaretz article provides a genuine service by not only reminding us that “bad Jews” exist but in coming to their defence – something that European media is no longer willing to do. To defend “bad Jews” like Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi is to be contaminated with the same taint of antisemitism that justified the ejection of these Jews from the public space.
Haaretz records the effort of a few brave cultural institutions in Germany to protest, to hold the line, against this new McCarthyism. Their stand may fail. If it does, you may never become aware of it.
The fraudulent 'Labour antisemitism' controversy has empowered the most thuggish elements in the organised British Jewish community.
Case in point: the Campaign Against Antisemitism effectively calls for Professor David Feldman to keep quiet or be sacked. https://t.co/QWvNg84c2E
— JamieSW (@jsternweiner) December 4, 2020
Once, the “bad Jews” have been smeared into silence, as Palestinians and those who stand in solidarity with them largely have been already; when social media has de-platformed critics of Israel as Jew-haters; when the media and political parties enforce this silence so absolutely they no longer need to smear anyone as an antisemite because these “antisemites” have been disappeared; when the Jewish “community” speaks with one voice because its other voices have been eliminated; when the censorship is complete, you will not know it.
There will be no record of what was lost. There will be simply empty space, a blank slate, where discussions of Israel’s crimes against Palestinians once existed. What you will hear instead is only what Israel and its partisans want you to hear. Your ignorance will be blissfully complete.
Jonathan Cook is a journalist covering Israel-Palestine, self-appointed media critic. Winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism
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