Kate Davison is a Berlin-based journalist, writer and activist. She obtained her Masters in English Studies from the Freie Universität Berlin, and currently works as a researcher. We speak to Kate about her life in Berlin and her essay, ‘My German Question’, which appears in the latest issue of Overland.
You’re based in Berlin, is that right? Can you tell us a little about your work there, and what made you interested to write this essay for Overland?
Yes, I’ve been living in Berlin for over six years. It is a fascinating place to live, though it has its fair share of peccadilloes too. I work as a research assistant and have a side job doing night watch at a psychiatric care facility. The main gig in my life is my political involvement. I’m active in a number of campaigns, most of which focus on racism. Racism is an issue everywhere, but at the moment in Europe it is really commanding a lot of attention due to the worsening conditions of the economic crisis. There is also a related political or reputational crisis for imperialist countries at the moment, which I think is one of the reasons the Israel debate is beginning to shift in Germany. I wanted to share this with Overland readers, as I understand there have been a number of spot-fires involving the Australian Zionist lobby lately.
Why do you think criticising the actions of Zionists and the Israeli military is so taboo?
There is obviously the … uh … historical factor. Well, this is how it is justified at least – i.e., that it is understandable in the land formerly known as Nazi Germany that a majority of people would feel reticent to openly criticise a country which is still seen as a ‘safe-haven’ for Jews, and whose military is seen as a protective force for a persecuted people. But in reality it’s not that simple. In the 1970s and 1980s there was actually a very vibrant Palestinian solidarity movement in Germany. Several prominent leftist groups openly supported the Intifada. But that support came under heavy attack and the Zionist lobby in Germany grew in influence. Today, there are a lot of people who are convinced of the Hitler’s Willing Executioners thesis – the idea that all Germans were complicit in the genocide and the gas chambers. It can be enormously difficult, particularly for young people, to extract themselves from the seeming consensus, to go out on a limb and raise criticisms. If you speak favourably of the Boycotts-Divestments-Sanctions campaign for example, you may be accused of reactivating the calls of ‘Don’t Buy From Jews’ made under National Socialism.
You mention that after the Mavi Marmara massacre an increasing number of Germans started to criticise Israel and show their support for Palestine. What do you think it was, specifically, about the massacre that changed people’s attitudes?
Sadly, I think it was the fact that international activists – non-Arabs – were attacked. The friendly mask of the Israeli Defence Forces as a somehow progressive organisation protecting Jews from persecution was torn off to reveal the brute force behind the propaganda. These boats were carrying aid, medicine, vital materials. It was a peaceful action aimed at trying to alleviate suffering in the Gaza strip, and for that, nine of its activists were shot point blank. This really shook the myth of Israel-as-victim to its core. To me it seemed as though the fog of national guilt, which only serves as a shroud to mask reality anyway, thinned out momentarily. People were looking at the situation for what it was, rather than what Germany’s own national myth told them about it.
In your opinion, what does it mean to be an ‘anti-Semite’ and why do you think the term is bandied around so heavily?
An anti-Semite is a racist. Anti-Semitism is a form of racism specifically directed against Jews. However I think the confusion comes from the constitution of the state of Israel. Israel works very hard to ensure that ‘Israel’ as a national entity is understood to be synonymous with ‘Jewishness’ or ‘Judaism’. It has explicitly constructed itself both ideologically and formally as a Jewish state. The strategy behind this is clear – if Israel and Jewishness are seen as indistinguishable, then anyone criticising that nation-state can be accused of criticising the core of Jewishness, and hence of being anti-Semitic. This trivialises anti-Semitism. However, the accusation of anti-Semitism carries immense moral and ideological weight especially in Germany, and to their great shame, it is used by many for ideological purposes. Some people evidently find it easier to accuse a critic of Israel of being anti-Semitic than it is to find a moral justification for the actions of the Israeli Defence Forces and of Israeli state policies.