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.
In any case, it was this column that led Henryk Broder, a sui generis German-Jewish polemicist who is the most confrontational and controversial voice in German media, to label Augstein a “little Streicher,” after the Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher. “Jakob Augstein is not a salon anti-Semite, he’s a pure anti-Semite,” wrote Broder, going on to allege that Augstein is “an offender by conviction 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.”
Broder’s position was unique among German commentators. In an article for Berlin’s Tagesspiegel titled, “I also want to be on the anti-Semitism list!” the journalist Harald Martenstein concluded, “If Jakob Augstein were Germany’s worst anti-Semite, then this means that in Germany there is no more really dangerous anti-Semitism.” The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung chimed in by stating, “The choice of Jakob Augstein for ninth place on the list of the 10 worst anti-Semites is a serious intellectual and strategic error made by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Not only has a critical journalist been placed in a group into which he doesn’t belong, the nine other people and groups who have justifiably been pilloried can now exculpate themselves by pointing to such arbitrariness.” And Dieter Graumann, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, acknowledged that while Augstein’s writings about Israel were “horrible” and “hideous,” naming him alongside the likes of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the entire “Iranian Regime” belittled the effort of naming and shaming anti-Semites.
The Wiesenthal Center’s list so perplexed the editors of Spiegel that they asked the organization’s associate dean, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, if he would sit for a public conversation with Augstein on the topic of anti-Semitism. Cooper said he would accept the invitation only on the condition that the German apologize first. (Ultimately, the magazine hosted a contentious debate between Graumann and Augstein.) But these petty demands from the Wiesenthal Center fed perfectly into the victimization narrative offered last year by Grass and endorsed by Augstein and lent some validity to the narrative that Jews—and American ones in particular—enjoy bullying well-intentioned Germans with hysterical allegations of anti-Semitism.
“Just because he is a journalist, we are not giving Mr. Augstein license to say what he wants and to hide behind journalistic integrity,” Cooper said in an interview with the German news agency DPA. “His statements are incorrect and baseless.” Cooper is indeed correct that Augstein’s writings about Israel are “incorrect and baseless.” But are they anti-Semitic? Claiming that Israel’s nuclear capability poses a threat to world peace—while ignoring its crucial function as a long-time deterrent against an array of Arab states that have been openly committed to its destruction, not to mention the nuclear-weapons-seeking regime in Tehran that denies the Holocaust while promising another—is naïve and idiotic. And to single out Israel’s nuclear capacity, which threatens no one, while ignoring Pakistan’s, which hangs precariously close to the hands of messianic extremists, reveals a fixation with Israel that is unhealthy, to say the least. But it is not necessarily anti-Semitic.
Yet add up all of Augstein’s writings, and one finds an obsession with Jews and their country that render the outraged responses on the part of his defenders, who portray him as a martyr, over the top. Augstein’s critics point out that he hardly ever writes about foreign affairs, yet when he does, it is usually to condemn Israel. Augstein’s use of Nazi terminology to describe Gaza would be considered anti-Semitic in any context (including by the European Union’s working definition of anti-Semitism), and all the more so in Germany. (Augstein later acknowledged that the phrase was “an unfortunate choice of words.”) Drawing a parallel between the Haredim, (who, while ultra-religious, are not pledging genocide against Muslims), and the Iranian mullahs, (who have a military wing responsible for the deaths of many innocents) is worse than sloppy. His attempt to blame Israel for the “Innocence of Muslims” demonstrates a knowing willingness to validate the blatantly anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that originally tried to pin the video on “100 Jewish businessmen” when it was, in actuality, the work of a single Coptic Christian.
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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James Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a columnist at Tablet magazine and the author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age. He is writing a history of gay Washington, D.C. His Twitter feed is @jkirchick.