My German question

Shortly after I arrived in Berlin in late 2006, I moved into an explicitly leftist and queer-friendly shared apartment. In my first few weeks in the city I was not yet aware of the phenomenon of absolute support for the state of Israel across many sections of the German Left. It was no great surprise that the centre-Right and centre-Left support a pro-Zionist stance, just like the Australian Liberal and Labor Parties back home. Angela Merkel’s phrase ‘unconditional solidarity’ pretty much sums up their attitude. I also knew about the Nazis – numerous, well-organised, with a bona fide pedigree stretching back to Hitler, and with representatives in the Saxony state parliament.

But on the Left there exists a different kind of German exceptionalism, if you like, in which the notion of Sonderweg (literally, ‘special path’ – the idea that a unique historical trajectory meant that Nazi Germany was a sure thing, a pre-determined fate) is repackaged to enable special German interpretations of all sorts, like that Germany is the absolute worst out of all the nations on earth, or that antisemitism has really always been an especially German beast.

On my second day in the apartment I started to get an inkling of the issue. One of my housemates, an activist in the anti-fascist network Antifa, came home exhilarated from a class discussion at university on antisemitism.

‘I used to think that antisemitism was an ideology a bit like racism,’ she exclaimed, bright eyed, ‘but now I realise just how much deeper and worse it is than racism!’

I was confused. Deeper? Worse? Was this a lost-in-translation moment?

A little while later, we received our communally subscribed, weekly edition of Jungle World, an ostensibly far-Left newspaper with strong autonomist leanings. I had not paid great attention to it, not yet knowing enough German to make reading the paper not feel like homework, but this edition contained a full-page image of an Israeli flag that drew my attention. To my surprise, the article wasn’t critical. Instead, it decried the poisonous menace of Israel-criticism within the German Left, a cancer of latent antisemitism that needed to be rooted out.

I asked another housemate, an anarcho-syndicalist, for an explanation. ‘I thought this was a left-wing newspaper,’ I said.

He gave a little laugh, as if to say, Is that a serious question? Looking at me quizzically, he explained how there were some people on the German Left who saw no problem with calling the Israeli state into question, supposedly because of its treatment of those nasty anti-Semitic Arabs who kept launching rockets. Blinded by their support of Palestinian nationhood, they were unable to be balanced on the question. On the other hand there were anti-Germans, radical anti-nationalists (whose new version of the famous Weimar slogan – Nie wieder Krieg! – substituted the word ‘Germany’ for ‘war’ to become Nie wieder Deutschland!) who are against all states and nations … er, with the exception of Israel, due to … well … obvious reasons.

I happened to notice over the coming months and years that this exception occasionally also extended to the US, whose flag I would see popping up at anti-Nazi demonstrations alongside the Israeli flag, a fluttering combination of stars and stripes. It seemed an impossible contradiction, a feat of definitional acrobatics, to manage being anti-nationalist and anti-state while waving a big US flag! How did they do it?

Later I discovered that the contradiction wasn’t just a matter for the anarchist or autonomist Left, but that anti-Germanism was to be found lurking among socialists and communists too. Despite the deaths of almost 1200 Lebanese and 165 Israelis, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006 seemed to have done nothing to dent Germany’s unconditional solidarity with Israel. (In retrospect, the Lebanon invasion may have been the moment that it started to crumble.)

A few years later, I was riding past the East Side Gallery, a preserved section of the Berlin Wall popular with tourists, who can neatly slot in a snapshot-stroll beneath its cool shadow on the way from Friedrichshain to Kreuzberg. It stands as a permanent gallery of large-scale murals, many of them painted as part of a healing process during German reunification. In this prominent spot in one of the busiest pedestrian junctions among youthful leftists, bohemians, punks and students, there had been for some time a large-scale merging of three flags: side by side stood painted renderings of the Palestinian and German flags, bound together in the centre by a blue Star of David. A matching stripe at top and bottom completed the composition to form one huge Israeli flag superimposed over the other two.

I had always chosen to interpret it in the most positive way possible – a monument to reconciliation, peace and possibly even a future vision of a democratic and pluralistic state that had come to terms with its past traumas and made its peace with Germany, the historic aggressor-turned-penitent. I had also hoped its positioning at the East Side Gallery was an attempt at a clever, if slightly awkward, comment on the various walls that divide and oppress.

Now, as I rode past, I noticed that the mural had been given a new lick of paint, its retouched image sparkling in the sun. But the Palestinian colours had vanished. Wiped off the wall, so to say, with the florid, bombastic stripes of black, red and gold that were still superimposed with blue stripes and the Star of David centrepiece.

I later discovered that the Palestinian flag had only ever appeared as a temporary ‘peace action’ from 2004–09. The mural, ‘Vaterland’, by painter Günther Schaefer, had been restored to its original design on the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the wall. I also learnt that the original composition had been intended to carry an anti-Nazi message. Until I knew this, however, I had honestly feared the worst – that the atmosphere surrounding the Israel/Palestine conflict in Germany had become so stifling that even this small gesture of reconciliation had to be erased.

I’m glad I was wrong about the restoration, but to understand my pessimism it is necessary to understand that this was in 2009, the year following the bombing of Gaza during which 1417 Palestinian and 13 Israeli lives were lost. The ferocity of Operation Cast Lead saw, on the one hand, the first ever sizable demonstrations openly expressing solidarity with Palestine, with weekly demonstrations continuing for over a month and a half. One or two spokespeople from the Left Party even had the courage to come along and diplomatically express their commitment to human rights.

On the other hand, although these demonstrations were a brave beginning, the tide had not turned. The bombing campaign also saw a prominent representative of the Left Party (as well as other parliamentary parties) speaking at a ‘Solidarity with Israel’ demonstration called to support Israel against the ‘terror of Hamas’.

This was also the year in which the critical Jewish Israeli historian Ilan Pappé was invited to speak in Germany, then banned by the Munich City Council after a successful lobbying campaign by groups claiming that his book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine was tantamount to anti-Semitic hate speech. Soon afterwards, similar campaigns resulted in the cancellation of speaking engagements in both Munich and Berlin by the Jewish American professor Norman Finkelstein. Venues cancelled their bookings, and two of the major research foundations on the Left, the Heinrich Böll Foundation (close to the Greens) and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (close to the Left Party), issued statements withdrawing their support for a speaker who was simply ‘too politically explosive’.

Yet cracks were beginning to appear in Germany’s wall of ‘unconditional solidarity’. Around the same time, four MPs from the Left Party remained seated after Israeli President Shimon Peres’ address to the German parliament on Holocaust Remembrance Day, saying they could not acknowledge a Holocaust memorial speech from a man who was himself waging a war in the occupied territories. They were ripped apart in both the centrist and the leftist press for ‘behaving like the NPD’, the Nazi party, despite the fact that Peres’ invitation had been criticised (for precisely the same reasons) by the group Jews for a Just Peace.

But it was in 2010, in the wake of the Mavi Marmara massacre, that the cracks really began to open. In May that year nine activists on board the aid flotilla to Gaza were shot to death by Israeli soldiers. Video footage left no doubt of the soldiers’ ruthlessness. The shock was deep and the change palpable.

I remember the months following that incident not so much for the sadness and outrage, but rather for the radical shift in atmosphere – suddenly you could start conversations with people, work colleagues even, openly expressing condemnation of the IDF’s actions without being immediately placed under suspicion. People felt compelled to pull out the keffiyehs they would normally be too nervous to wear, in a clear show of solidarity for Gaza.

Among those who would normally have sat on the fence there was a mood of ‘this time they went too far’. I attended a meeting addressed by a panel of five or six public figures, some of whom had been on the flotilla, and, after each of them openly criticised the actions of the Israeli state, no-one got up to protest, no-one offered the standard rebuke that this claim was one-sided. The accusation of self-hatred or antisemitism was not raised once.

None of the usual anti-German arguments would fly. Everyone knew that the state of Israel had just killed nine unarmed peace activists, some at point-blank range. This new wind meant that Haneen Zoabi, the only female Arab member of the Israeli Knesset, could speak in Berlin later that year and draw a supportive crowd. In 2011, Norman Finkelstein was finally able to speak without the venue cancelling. The meeting was packed.

I have observed a similar shift in atmosphere in the queer scene. The phenomenon of ‘pink-washing’ – in which Israel appeals to Western liberal sympathies by claiming to be the only non-homophobic state in the region – has been well documented elsewhere. In Berlin, it manifests among other things in pink versions of the Israeli flag being distributed en masse during Pride Month, along with Israel-sponsored condoms bearing the reassuring slogan ‘It’s still okay to come’.

At Christopher Street Day (the German LGBT parade) in June 2010, one month after the Mavi Marmara murders, I and two friends had been enjoying the parade from the Left Party float after handing out party newspapers to the crowd. It seemed a good opportunity to show our solidarity by holding up placards reading ‘Free Gaza’.

We were told to pack them away or get off the truck.

The following week, another friend and I were thrown off the alternative, anti-capitalist radical queer parade for the same reasons, this time by some rogue members of the organising collective who reminded us that ‘We don’t support nations here’.

‘What nation?’ we replied. Like, that was the point.

When one trans-activist friend of mine heard the news, he got up on the stage and criticised those who had told us to pack up our lovingly handcrafted ‘Freedom for Palestine’ flags and a few months later the collective publicly apologised. Something had shifted in the queer movement.

Which brings me to Judith Butler.

Like Ilan Pappé, Noam Chomsky and other prominent Jewish anti-war intellectuals, Butler has always been a thorn in the side of Zionists everywhere. But for many anti-Germans she represents a particularly difficult conundrum, especially those who see themselves as belonging to the anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist, queer milieu – which in Berlin, a well-known alternative-culture capital, is not insignificant. Ironically, given her work challenging taken-for-granted categories, the anti-Germans simply do not know where to put her. More correctly, it cracks their noodle trying to figure out how they can simultaneously love the Bodies that Matter Judith and hate the Critique of Zionism Judith.

That same year, Butler had been invited to accept the annual mainstream CSD Civil Courage Prize, awarded each year to a queer person or group who has made significant contributions in the struggle against homophobia. Butler attended, and took the stage, but the speech she gave wasn’t in acceptance of the prize. She criticised the organisers of CSD for latent racism and Islamophobia, denouncing their consistent failure to recognise the untiring, decade-long work of groups like Gays and Lesbians from Turkish Backgrounds and LesMigraS, a migrant lesbian advice organisation. She passed the prize on to them instead.

In the press discussion that followed this dramatic snub, much was made of her critique of the Israeli occupation.

In late May 2012, Butler was again announced as the winner of a prize – the highly respected Adorno Prize, to be awarded in September by the city of Frankfurt. Jungle World, which I now knew to have been established by a pro-Zionist split from the older leftist daily Junge Welt, carried the headline ‘Adorno Prize for Hamas Fan’ and suggested sarcastically that another philosopher, the Nazi sympathiser Martin Heidegger, might posthumously be just as deserving.

Complaints about her nomination flowed in from the Simon Wiesenthal Center in the US and the conservative Central Council of Jews in Germany. Petitions both for and against Butler were sent around. Protests were held out the front of the ceremony by the newly formed group ‘No Adorno Prize for Anti-Semites’. To their great credit, the Jewish Museum in Berlin still invited Butler a few months later to participate in a debate: ‘Does Zionism Belong to Judaism?’

Again, it’s indicative of the changing atmosphere that such a debate was even held, rather than suffering the same fate as Pappé’s and Finkelstein’s talks three years earlier. Still, it created choppy international waves. The Jerusalem Post described it as ‘the first anti-Israel event held in the Jewish museum since its opening in 2001’. The venue was full to bursting and only written questions from the audience were permitted.

Afterwards, Butler was viciously – but predictably – criticised as a self-hater by conservative opinion-maker Henryk M Broder.

Dubbed a ‘gifted polemicist’ by fans, Broder is, I would say, like a more intellectual version of Andrew Bolt or a less hysterical version of Glenn Beck. But, actually, despite an uncanny and frankly disturbing physical likeness to Terry Eagleton, he bears a far closer resemblance to Keith Windschuttle, both in his political trajectory and in his attempts to disguise right-wing politics in what he passes off as intellectual debate. Having become political as a student leftist in the late 1960s, Broder changed course in the late 1970s and began attacking ‘anti-Americanism’ and ‘anti-Zionism’ on the German Left. Later, he vocally supported the Iraq invasion and has since become one of the most prominent and articulate public agitators in Germany against ‘Islamism’ – supporting, for example, Switzerland’s ban on minarets.

In his latest showpiece, Broder also attacked the Left-liberal editor Jakob Augstein. Augstein has been a moderate but vocal critic of the Gaza blockade and Israel’s settlements policy, publishing regularly in Der Spiegel and his own weekly paper, Der Freitag. He had drawn the frothing wrath of Broder this time by describing the Gaza Strip as ‘a prison, a camp’.

On his blog, The Axis of Good, Broder wrote:

Jakob Augstein is not a salon anti-Semite, he’s a pure anti-Semite … who only missed the opportunity to make his career with the Gestapo because he was born after the war. He certainly would have had what it takes.

This pithy expression of vitriol was to have international consequences. At the end of December 2012, the Simon Wiesenthal Center ranked Augstein ninth on its annual list of the world’s worst anti-Semites, putting him in the company of Hungary’s fascist Jobbik Party and Holocaust-deniers from Greece’s Golden Dawn. The ranking was based largely on Broder’s blog.

Augstein’s appearance on the list sparked a flurry of responses within Germany.

But what was truly surprising – odd, even – was that those who jumped to his defence included many prominent political figures from across the political spectrum, ranging from the ruling conservative Christian Democratic Union’s Julia Klöckner through to the Left Party’s Gregor Gysi. Even Salomon Korn, the vice-president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, sought to distance himself from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which he described as being ‘very far away from the reality in Germany’.

On 11 January 2013, Broder, whose regular radio show was cancelled in the fallout, issued a partial apology to Augstein. Only a partially satisfying outcome, to be sure, but a significant moment in German domestic politics, nonetheless. What it showed is that it was no longer possible in Germany for the accusation of antisemitism to be used to suppress legitimate criticism.

It wasn’t just the media controversies surrounding Augstein and Butler that made 2012 a big year. The policy of unconditional solidarity has begun to weaken in the political mainstream as well. In March, Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the Social Democrat Party, travelled to Hebron and came back describing what he saw there as an ‘Apartheid-regime’. In April the left-liberal poet Günter Grass, a personal friend of ex-chancellor Gerhard Schröder, published ‘What Must Be Said’. Skirting dangerously close to the borderline between poetic art and prosaic political commentary (and that’s being aesthetically generous), the poem was a sharp criticism of Israeli foreign policy. Despite the usual howls about Grass’ self-exposed past as a member of the Waffen-SS, the poem’s message also received significant public support. And in September, an exhibition of photographs from the ex-Israeli soldiers’ group Breaking the Silence was held at Willy Brandt Haus, the Social Democrat HQ.

Finally, a real public debate has opened up, and it’s become possible for critical voices to be heard. It is clear that in my six years in this country the mood has switched from the Sonderweg of ‘Germans can’t talk about this’ to ‘Germans must talk about this’. I hope that the one-sided wall of silence continues to crumble.

Kate Davison

Kate Davison lives between Melbourne and Berlin and writes on the topics of racism, religion and sexuality in Europe.

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