Germany’s Top Anti-Semite?
Journalist Jakob Augstein appears alongside Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on a top 10 list of the world’s worst bigots
A list of the world’s top 10 anti-Semites would no doubt include Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and Nation of Islam Leader Louis Farrakhan. Few, however, would think to include a relatively unknown German publisher and political columnist among the dubious honorees. Yet that’s just what the Simon Wiesenthal Center did when, late last month, it named Jakob Augstein, proprietor of the far-left weekly newspaper Der Freitag and a columnist for the website of the venerable magazine Der Spiegel, on a list of individuals and groups responsible for the “Top 10 Anti-Semitic/Anti-Israel Slurs” of 2012. Augstein appeared as No. 9—after the Greek neo-Nazi Golden Dawn Party, yet before Farrakhan.
For Augstein, his inclusion on the list only confirmed his own previously stated claim that Jews tend to use the label promiscuously, as a smear against legitimate criticism of the Jewish state. Last April, when Günther Grass published his now infamous poem “What Must Be Said,” alleging that a “general silence” had descended over Germans on the subject of Israel because “the verdict ‘Anti-semitism’ falls easily,” Augstein was, aside from neo-Nazis, one of his few defenders in the country. “Grass knew that he would be chided as an anti-Semite, a risk taken by any German critic of Israel,” Augstein wrote at the time.
Is Augstein right? While most of Germany’s intellectual class and commentariat—along with a slew of prominent politicians—sided forcefully against Grass nine months ago, this latest episode has produced almost exactly the opposite reaction. As Spiegel characterized Augstein’s presence on the list: “It seemed like a completely unexpected stab in the back—a startling assault from someone who is generally considered to be harmless.”
The list, thanks to the Wiesenthal Center’s overzealous approach, has ignited the most contentious debate about anti-Semitism that the country has witnessed in more than a decade. (Perhaps fittingly, the last such contretemps was caused by Augstein’s biological father, the writer Martin Walser, who in 1998 delivered a speech condemning the supposed use of Auschwitz as a “routine threat,” “tool of intimidation” and “moral cudgel” against Germans.) And in siding with Augstein, most German media voices are lending credence to the contentious claim that was the conceit of Grass’ poem so many of them denounced last year: that Jews bully Germans (and others) with unfair accusations of anti-Semitism in response to legitimate criticism of Israel. That claim is almost always false, cynically employed by obstreperous critics of Israel to portray themselves as brave dissidents addressing a taboo subject all the while risking “McCarthyist” smears. In reality, they are echoing a conventional wisdom that is neither courageous nor bold to express.
Consider the evidence. To prove its case against Augstein, the Wiesenthal Center highlighted five excerpts from his articles over the past year. In one April column, Augstein alleged that “the president [of the United States] must secure the support of Jewish lobby groups” in order to stay in office. In the same column, he wrote that “the Netanyahu government keeps the world on a leash with an ever-swelling war chant.” In another column from November, Augstein wrote that, “the Jews also have their fundamentalists, the ultra-orthodox Haredim,” who are “cut from the same cloth as their Islamic fundamentalist opponents. They follow the law of revenge.” In that same piece he referred to the Gaza Strip as a “lager,” a German word meaning “prison camp” which is redolent of the Nazi era. And then, in a piece endorsing Grass, he wrote that “Israel’s nuclear power is a danger to the already fragile peace of the world.”
All of these statements are unoriginal in the world of anti-Israel polemicism. But arguably the worst of Augstein’s columns was one from September that initially garnered the Center’s attention. The subject was the riots that erupted in response to the crude video lampooning the prophet Muhammed:
The fire is burning in Libya, Sudan, Yemen, in countries that are among the poorest in the world. But the arsonists sit elsewhere. The angry young men, who burn the American—and more recently, German—flags are as much victims as the dead of Benghazi and Sana’a. Who benefits from such violence? Only the madmen and the unscrupulous. And this time also—as an aside—the U.S. Republicans and the Israeli government.
Arguments resorting to “Cui bono?” usually have a conspiratorial odor, and this one was no exception. Once again, the lazy moral equivalence characteristic of Augstein’s writing was apparent in his comparing the murdered American Ambassador Chris Stephens with the rent-a-mobs, who regularly ignite American flags at an imam’s whim, as analogous “victims.” Augstein’s rant also displayed an astonishing unfamiliarity with regional politics, for if he knew the first thing about the Israeli government he so despises, he would be aware that it is hardly made up of people enthusiastic about the changes the so-called Arab Spring has wrought.
Today, as Israelis vote, the religious Zionist theology of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and his son looms large