Germany’s Top Anti-Semite?
Journalist Jakob Augstein appears alongside Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on a top 10 list of the world’s worst bigots
That said, the Wiesenthal Center’s sensationalist approach—in the first place, even publishing a Letterman-style list, and then inserting a middling European magazine writer alongside a slew of individuals with actual political power—was cartoonish and self-defeating. Its categorization of the offending remarks as “Anti-Semitic/Anti-Israel,” rather than just anti-Semitic unnecessarily conflated the two and played right into the hands of those who, like Augstein, deliberately try to blur the two. While Augstein’s obnoxious Israel-obsession might have been intended as a stand-in for a continent-wide problem afflicting much of the European left, his “slurs,” anti-Semitic or not, hardly rise to the level of those other groups and individuals on the list, which include Hungary’s neo-fascist Jobbik Party.
But just because Augstein does not deserve to be on a list of the world’s top 10 anti-Semites does not render him innocent of the charge. Nor does it make him worthy of the righteous defense he is receiving from so many prominent figures in German media, who are ignoring the content of what he wrote in favor of lampooning how silly it is to list him alongside the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Indeed, perhaps the most problematic aspect of the German debate illuminated by the Augstein affair—and one that Broder unwittingly played into by likening Augstein to Julius Streicher—is the tendency to view anti-Semitism as the exclusive province of the extreme right. Contrary to Broder (who ended up apologizing for the Streicher remark, but nothing else), one can be a “salon anti-Semite” and express views that are little different from those of a goose-stepping brown-shirt, even if said views are articulated in a more subtle or erudite manner. This phenomenon, dubbed by my Tablet colleague Lee Smith as “The Hitler Test,” artificially raises the threshold of what constitutes bigotry to a level that simply does not apply to any other minority group. “According to this standard, if someone wants to eliminate the Jewish state, then they’re just an anti-Zionist,” Smith wrote. “It’s only when that sentiment comes from someone wearing a swastika and who has the resources to slaughter Jews wholesale that they’ve crossed the threshold into ‘real’ anti-Semitism.”
A recent article in Spiegel about the aftermath of the Augstein affair illustrates the double standard that adheres to anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry. “Is someone an anti-Semite if they say Jews have too much influence in Germany?” the authors ask with genuine curiosity. “Or if they express agreement with the opinion that Jews never look after anyone but themselves and their own?” The mere fact that the authors would question whether such statements are prima facie evidence of anti-Semitism proves the double standard. As Malte Lehming, the opinion editor of the Tagesspiegel and one of the few German writers to publicly place himself more or less on the side of Broder, wrote, “resentments change, usually from crude to subtle.”
As for Augstein, he has responded in the wounded, “Who, me?” manner typical of many virulent Israel critics, who knowingly dance precariously close to the line of what constitutes outright anti-Semitism only to raise their voices in high dudgeon the minute someone criticizes them for going too far. This self-defense is then invariably followed by the accusation that the person lodging the claim of anti-Semitism is “cheapening” the fight against “real” anti-Semitism. Writing on his Facebook wall that he has nothing but “respect” for the Wiesenthal Center, Augstein complained that “the struggle” against anti-Jewish bigotry is “weakened when critical journalism is defamed as racist or anti-Semitic,” as if a man who uses Nazi imagery to describe the Jewish state, endorses Günther Grass, and suggests that Jews were behind the offensive video that set the Muslim world aflame was genuinely concerned about combating anti-Semitism. Calling out these statements collectively for what they are isn’t “chiding,” and critics of Israel— German or otherwise—hardly “risk” being called anti-Semites merely for criticizing the Jewish state. If there is something that “needs to be said” in Germany right now, it is this.
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