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Repeat Offender?

Germany’s ever-evolving struggle with anti-Semitism

Gal Beckerman
June 05, 2008

Was there ever a more favorable time to be an American in Germany? I wasn’t here during the Berlin airlift as the sky filled with small parachuted packages of raisins floating down from U.S. bomber planes. So maybe then. But the symbolic weight of Obama’s win seemed to redeem us all in German eyes. On the eve of the election, the editor of Der Spiegel captured the consensus when he said that America was seen here by most as “a horrendous country that betrays its own values every few years.” Overnight, it seemed, this disdain had changed into jaw-dropping awe. My German landlord sent me an excited email in the early hours of November 5, writing, “A new period of american government style! I’m keen to see the changes in your home country!” The best part? That broken toilet my wife and I have been bugging him to change? “Now I’m refreshed and fit again. So on Friday or Monday the Hausmeister will pass to see and judge the toilet ‘system’…”

Underneath all these good vibes, though, I detected something else as well: jealousy. The scene from Chicago earlier this month was so moving because it signaled that American democracy had matured. It was a giant collective stride—through tens of millions of pulled levers—toward overcoming our nation’s greatest birth defect. For Germans, as anyone spending time here could quickly tell you, there is a constant and obsessive self-examination of their own burdensome history. Not a night passes without a Holocaust documentary on television. Memorials abound. Schools have integrated the war into all levels of their curriculum. Yet, still, this heightened awareness does not seem to have lessened the fear of an ever-resurgent anti-Semitism. There will most likely never be a Jewish chancellor here to provide, in one fell swoop, an immediate rebuke to the past. But that’s not the problem. It’s the nature of anti-Semitism itself that always seems to be shifting. And a little-covered debate that roiled the German parliament this past month—overshadowed, as most things were, by the Obamania—showed once again the slipperiness of the particular prejudice Germans are fated to continue confronting.

Two weeks ago was the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht. German society, now expert at such commemorations, gestured in all the appropriate ways. Angela Merkel visited the newly renovated Rykestrasse synagogue. Mozart’s Requiem was performed at the Gendarmenmarkt. All the newspapers featured reviews of a new exhibit about the burning and pillaging that augured worse to come. The public centerpiece of all this memorializing was to be a standard resolution, a statement of concern, really—unanimously supported by all the members of the Bundestag—decrying anti-Semitism and calling for renewed vigilance. It almost didn’t happen. When a vote finally took place on November 5, it was only after the ruling coalition of Christian and Social Democrats and the extreme left party had engaged in a brutal round of accusatory historical regurgitation. Der Spiegel said everyone concerned in the episode “should be red in the face with shame.” In the end, to avoid what would have been a full-blown fiasco, two separate statements for the dueling factions were produced and passed.

Why did this no-brainer of a resolution create such problems for German lawmakers?

Since January, representatives of the five major parties in parliament had been working on the bill, which would establish a panel of experts to present regular reports on anti-Semitic activity in Germany. This had begun to seem even more urgent lately. A survey in September indicated an increase in such incidents, with 530 anti-Semitic acts in the first half of 2008, or—as it was dramatized here—an average of one Jewish cemetery vandalized every week. This was, in a way, a known evil. It’s been a long time since anyone, German or Jew, was surprised anymore by the works of the active but small neo-Nazi presence here. For the most part, besides their sound and fury, they do little more than annoy Germans concerned with polishing any remaining swastikas off of their good name.

The problems came from another direction. Early last month, the Christian Democrat representative proposed to add—to the standard elegiac language remembering the Holocaust—a clause that instantaneously upended the negotiations: “it must be recalled that Israel was never recognized by East Germany, that Jewish businesspeople were dispossessed by the East German government and had to flee, and that East Germany broke international law by delivering weapons to an anti-Israeli Syria in 1973.”

The political party that governed East Germany didn’t disappear after the wall fell. It became Die Linke, a small but vocal opposition force in the Bundestag. The Christian Democrats didn’t hide their objective. Bringing up the East German past was their way of sabotaging any chance of a joint resolution. After months of negotiating, the conservatives decided they would rather not add their names to any document, even one as anodyne as an anti-anti-Semitism resolution, if it also bore the signature of their socialist archenemies.

While the move might have seemed a cynical, political ploy on the part of the Christian Democrats—and was criticized as such, by no less than the Jewish community’s governing body—they had their history, for the most part, right. From at least 1967, the Communist world was officially anti-Zionist. East Germany, like its Soviet overlord, offered financial and propaganda support to belligerent Arab regimes. Cartoons in newspapers depicted Israeli soldiers as Nazis and the state sheltered PLO militants. The Zionist entity was an imperializing force, an oppressor whose existence should be mercilessly opposed.

The question was whether this history lesson belonged in a resolution condemning more clear-cut forms of anti-Semitism like swastikas and skinheads.

Here was an issue quite familiar to Americans in the past few years—and particularly so on university campuses, with their Walt and Mearsheimers. To what degree is there, as Abraham Foxman of the ADL consistently reminds us, a “new anti-Semitism” masking itself as anti-Zionism? Or, in the terms it was debated here in the past weeks, could one march in solidarity with Hezbollah, as some Left parliament members did during the summer war of 2006, attend a rally that demanded “Death to Israel,” and still claim in good faith to be an opponent of anti-Semitism?

The resolution was almost abandoned over this divisive question—the Left arguing that their legitimate criticism of Israel was being used against them as a cudgel and the Christian Democrats affirming that the German state had to be unambiguous in its defense of Israel. Eventually, fearing embarrassment, both sides agreed to a compromise: There would be two separate resolutions, but their language would be absolutely identical. The East German history was dropped. In its place, a statement that still angered enough of the rank and file leftists that eleven parliament members of their party refused to sign: “Those who take part in demonstrations where Israeli flags are burned and anti-Semitic slogans are shouted are not a partner in the fight against anti-Semitism.”

Protestors walk behind a banner reading “Stop the War” while holding up pictures of the Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and waving Lebanese flags as they protest against the conflict in the Middle East, July 21, 2006, in Berlin.

How to deal with Israel is, of course, not a new problem for Germany. While the Communist East maintained its anti-Zionist position, West Germany spent the post-war years rebuilding international goodwill through the hundreds of millions of dollars it threw at the Jewish state in the 1950s and ’60s. Even after the Six Day War, when the rest of Western Europe soured on Israel, West German governments were hardly ever heard to utter a critical word. If left-wing groups like the Baader-Meinhof gang were known to support their Palestinian revolutionary counterparts, the mainstream German public and their conservative and liberal governments never spoke in the harsher tones of, say, France. Reunification was, in many ways, a subsuming of the East by the West, a dynamic that was true also of the new Germany’s approach to Israel. This was evident as recently as the 2006 Lebanon War. A Pew poll found that even as Europeans’ views of Israel plummeted, twice as many Germans as French still viewed Israel more favorably than the Palestinians.

To listen to the voices out of the Israeli foreign ministry, this might be changing. Germany is “becoming more ‘European’ in its attitude towards Israel,” one official anonymously told Yediot Aharonot last month. Of particular concern to the Israelis is the German unwillingness to follow America’s condemnation of Ahmadinejad’s nuclear ambitions—a stance that might end up putting a serious damper on their Obama fever when the new president makes his first move on this issue. By including anti-Israel sentiment in their definition of anti-Semitism, Germans now have to ask themselves this tricky question: Given the Iranian president’s well-articulated views about Israel’s future place on a world map, could German accommodation of Iran be considered anti-Semitism?

The issues raised by the resolution were more than just political. As Germany becomes more “European,” abandoning some of its reflexive pro-Israel positions—Iran being only the most obvious example—the resolution perhaps represented a first awkward attempt at drawing a border between acceptable and unacceptable forms of criticism of the Jewish state. If the Left was offended, it was because it never cared much for these borders to begin with. But for the vast majority of Germans and their government representatives, it’s clear that figuring out how to oppose Israel without being accused of the “new anti-Semitism” is not so simple.

Asked about this dilemma, Andreas Nachama, a historian, rabbi, and managing director of the Berlin museum Topography of Terror, responded that if criticism of Israel were a measuring stick for anti-Semitism, most Israelis would also be considered anti-Semites. And yet, he continued, “it’s not so easy to distinguish” exactly what does cross the line. “There is here in Germany also a thoughtless, one could say unreasonable, critique of Israel, that does enter the realm of anti-Semitism.”

So which is it? It’s safe to say, at the very least, that there is some confusion, even for German Jews. How much more so then for all the other Germans? Just when they thought they had gotten it all down—when to bow their heads, how to look Jews in the eyes, when to produce anger and when tears—it now seems something as elemental as the words, “anti-Semitism” might have to be redefined once again.

Gal Beckerman is a writer living in Berlin. His history of the Soviet Jewry movement will be published in the fall of 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Originally published on November 26, 2008.

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