DER SPIEGEL ASKS: ARE GERMANS ALLOWED TO CRITICIZE ISRAEL? A DEBATE
A Great Debate
Are Germans Allowed to Criticize Israel?
Germany’s relationship with Israel has never been easy. How much criticism from Germany is allowed? And at what point does it become anti-Semitic? SPIEGEL reporters Erich Follath and Henryk M. Broder conducted a heated debate on this thorny German issue in the following exchange of e-mails.
It all began with a SPIEGEL ONLINE editorial that SPIEGEL correspondent Erich Follath wrote about “racist” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman — using criticism he attributed to the German foreign minister. The article triggered a strong reaction, not least from fellow SPIEGEL journalist Henryk M. Broder. Follath next wrote an essay about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in which — albeit not equating them in moral terms — he called the two leaders “spiritual twins” who were “trapped by the absoluteness of their demands, both of them obsessed with a messianic mission.” Broder again reacted very critically on his Web site, ‘Achse des Guten’ (Axis of Good). This prompted Follath to send his colleague an e-mail that opened the door to a series of letters to and fro that may not initially have been intended for public scrutiny, but which the two men have since permitted SPIEGEL and SPIEGEL ONLINE to publish in part.
Dear colleague Broder,
Whatever happened to the self-mocking Broder who used to be so critical of Jewish right-wing extremists, the author of ‘Die Irren von Zion’ (Zion’s Lunatics)? Why, dear colleague, do you now go so far as to defend politicians like that racist rabble-rouser Lieberman when you must surely know he is a disgrace to the Israeli foreign ministry? This is a man who by his own accounts wanted to “drown Palestinian prisoners in the Dead Sea” and blow up the Aswan Dam. Why should only Israelis like the historian Tom Segev be allowed to speak the minds of all those who travel through Israel with open eyes, namely that the country is drifting to the right at breakneck speed, that indifference to the plight of the Palestinians is constantly growing, and that Lieberman’s party is “promoting xenophobia”?
With best regards,
Dear Mr. Follath,
Your words epitomize the eternal German concern about whether Israelis have truly learnt the lessons of history. While Scud missiles were raining down on Tel Aviv, this concern was voiced in the demand that Israel refrain from firing back lest the situation escalated and possibly led to war. Then as now, the unquestioned assumption is that non-retaliation is a time-honored Jewish tradition. After all, the world likes dead Jews and is prepared to erect monuments to them. Yet at the same time it chastises them for not permitting themselves to be erased from history for the sake of world peace.
You ask me what has happened to the Broder of the past. I’ll gladly tell you. For the first time since the Six-Day War, Israel’s very existence is under threat. Having proposed that Ahmadinejad’s genocidal fantasies should be seem “metaphorically,” you then seem surprised that I cannot follow your line of reasoning. I’ll also gladly explain to you why Israel has drifted to the right: Ahmadinejad had been in office for four years when Bibi (editor’s note: Benjamin Netanyahu) was elected. For four years, Israel looked on as the Iranian president played cat and mouse with Europe, the US and the UN, as one sanction after another was threatened while he expanded his nuclear potential and degenerate so-called “experts” like islamicist Udo Steinbach claimed Europe had no reason to feel threatened. Bibi is the reaction to Mahmoud, not the other way around.
Dear colleague Broder,
Nestling among the elegantly-worded barbs in your text I found a remarkable and highly debatable passage in which you explain why you think Israel’s existence is now more comprehensively under threat. This is something we should discuss without all the polemics.
We should discuss whether this existential fear of terror and of the man in Tehran is justified to this degree. Or whether another power is more threatening to Israel; namely the state of Israel itself through its policy of occupation, its excessive armaments including nuclear weapons, and its “we don’t care about the world because everyone’s against us anyway” attitude.
Did you really mean it when you wrote “The world likes (only) dead Jews”? Isn’t that an obsession? And another key question: How harshly may/can/should Germans criticize Israeli politics? I wrote that Germany’s guarantee of the Israeli state not only goes without saying but is a basic political premise. You disparagingly called that “lip service.” I can imagine that, had I not written those words, you would have demanded them along the lines of “He can’t even bring himself to say it.”
Dear Mr. Follath,
I am convinced that Europe says one thing and does another. Of course there is “solidarity” with Israel. Some politicians (e.g. German Chancellor Angela Merkel) even mean it. But there is also something else: Europeans (not only Germans) feel guilty about the Jews. They have some unfinished business that they would like concluded; a desire that someone would finish the job the Nazis couldn’t finish. Israel is a troublemaker in several ways. Firstly its creates trouble in the Middle East, secondly it troubles Europeans by constantly reminding them of what they did or tolerated in the past. So if, God forbid, Ahmadinejad were to attack Israel, it would be doubly pleasing for Europeans: Firstly the second-last Holocaust would disappear under the dust of the latest one. Secondly they could make up for what they failed to do between the time Hitler came to power in 1933 and the end of the Second World War: close ranks with the Jews.
Alongside this is the incredible popularity that certain Jewish pensioners, dimwits, masochists, and jackasses are currently enjoying in Germany, including Alfred Grosser, the political scientist from Paris. People are giving a voice to Jews who have problems with themselves and with Israel. That’s far more elegant than stepping into the ring oneself. All the Segevs, Burgs, Ozes and Avnerys are the useful pawns of the guilty consciences of the good Germans. Ahmadinejad has generously suggested moving Israel to Germany. Give the Jews Schleswig-Holstein, and all will be well again.
Dear colleague Broder,
You write that Europeans cherish the “desire that someone would finish the job the Nazis couldn’t finish.” As outlandish as this seems, you then actually proceed to build upon the train of thought. When I read it again and then a third time, I realized these aren’t the words of Henryk M. Broder, the tongue-in-cheek, playfully provocative easy rider of the German language, a kind of ‘BÃ¶rne to be wild’, but of a man who is deadly serious. That is why we should talk about it — without, I hope, calling in the men in the white coats. The problem is that the Israelis and Palestinians should finally put themselves in each other’s shoes and see what they are doing to one another. That’s not possible in times of heightened tension in which each accuses the other of everything except good will.
Of course the Israelis have every right to elect an ultranationalist government, and can afford to appoint a foreign minister whose basic positions are just to the right of Genghis Khan. But where in the world do so many Israelis get the idea — and indeed the expectation — that no one in Europe should criticize this?
You say Europeans permanently “feel guilty” about Israel. I don’t know where you get that from. At least, my generation doesn’t do so. Shame, yes. Shame about what was perpetrated in the name of the German nation, shame about what other European nations historically couldn’t or wouldn’t prevent. But guilt? Guilt is hypocritical and inappropriate for those who alone in terms of their age couldn’t have played any part in the Holocaust. My dear Mr. Broder, why do you think Israel’s true friends are those who do not criticize Israeli politicians harshly? Wouldn’t you say the true anti-Israelis are more likely to be those who consider the country a sanctuary for Holocaust survivors and therefore beyond reproach?
Dear Mr. Follath,
You are a clever man, an experienced writer, and a seasoned observer. Why then do you pretend not to understand me? Why do you pretend that what we can see on the surface is all there is to see? If you will follow me briefly, we will both be able to do without the services of a shrink.
You cannot assume that Jews are the only ones who have a problem with the Holocaust because they were the victims, and because nearly every family has at least one photo of relatives who were killed. On the other side you often get photos of Granddad or Dad in his Wehrmacht or SS uniform. In my experience, these families have an even greater problem, no matter what Granddad really did. It’s enough thinking about what he might have done.
On the one hand the Germans are increasingly perceiving themselves as the victims. That’s why a new “taboo” is broken every three months, be it the “expulsion” of ethnic Germans, the Soviet torpedoing of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff, or the “bombing holocaust” (editor’s note – the Allied bombardment of German cities in World War II). As a result, the Jews — who are now known as Zionists — are moving further and further into the perpetrators’ camp, treating the Palestinians the way the Nazis treated the Jews. You could say that the guiltier the Jews/Zionists become, the less guilty the Germans/ex-Nazis feel. That’s simple, isn’t it?
Suffering doesn’t elevate anyone onto the moral high ground. Not even the Jews. It’s not enough that the Germans can’t bear the memory of what they (or their parents and grandparents) did to the Jews. They find it even harder to imagine that the Jews could be morally superior to them because they suffered so much. But that’s not all. There are also bad Jews; rabble-rousers like Leon de Winter and me, who can’t stop opening old wounds.
Dear colleague Broder,
You say “Suffering doesn’t elevate anyone onto the moral high ground, not even the Jews.” That is absolutely correct. That’s why it’s nonsense to expect the “sensitized” Jews who have allegedly been sanctified by pain to have a higher standard of human rights than the people of other nations. The contrary position is also true: Pain endured in the past does not give people the right to withdraw from international standards and norms. Yet Israel is permanently playing the international prima donna, and every UN resolution on settlement policy is considered an affront, every Red Cross report on human rights violations condemned as “criminally one-sided.”
Do Israeli politicians believe this nonsense, or do they deliberately don the mantle of the victim to avoid being judged by their own democratic standards?
Time and again, our discussion has returned to this one question: When does criticism of Israel become anti-Semitic in its nature? Who decides that? And if I may add another new question, does anti-Semitism differ from other forms of xenophobia, especially hatred of all things Muslim? If you are willing to accept Israeli human rights violations that would be condemned anywhere else, for instance the use of cluster bombs or simply the exclusion of the people of Gaza, if you treat Israel as a special case, are you not promoting anti-Semitism yourself?
I have been to Dachau and Yad Vashem. Nobody can absolve me from the shame I felt. But nobody need absolve me from the guilt I did not feel. So please, although there may be the (self-) absolving anti-Semitism you are so keen to find, don’t pin it on me. A hundred years ago Karl Lueger, the anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna, said “I decide who is Jewish!” Please don’t now turn the tables and say, “I decide who is anti-Semitic.”
Dear Mr. Follath,
I suggest we go for a meal together, shout at one another, and the first one who loses his voice pays the bill. Agreed? Chinese, Thai, or Vietnamese?
Dear Mr. Broder,
I will gladly accept your suggestion for a meal on non-kosher premises! Given the great entertainment value our contributions have had for the editors whom we copied in on all our e-mails, we can charge it as an information-gathering expense.
Best regards, EF
You’ve got yourself a deal.
And it had better be non-kosher, or I’m not coming.
Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt
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