Germany’s reckoning with its history of atrocities began as an undertaking by left-leaning German civil society. Today it has become a highly bureaucratized lever of the state that increasingly serves a reactionary agenda. In the lead up to the seismic events of this year, three controversies in Germany involving allegations of antisemitism reshaped the state’s relation to its memory culture, Israel, migration and colonial past.
In the summer of 2020, Cameroon-born philosopher Achille Mbembe was poised to be disinvited from the Ruhrtriennale Festival by Germany’s antisemitism commissioner amid reports that Mbembe had compared Israel to Apartheid South Africa and was a supporter of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) principles. The allegations proved correct in the first instance and inexact at best in the second.
In the summer of 2021, a fierce debate flared up in the wake of a polemical article – published in response to Mbembe’s treatment – in the Swiss online journal Geschichte der Gegenwart by A. Dirk Moses, the Australian scholar of genocide. Moses observed that people like Mbembe would be persecuted if they questioned certain articles of faith, such as the German state’s uncritical support of Israel, which form the basis of post-war German identity. Likewise, Moses argued that one risks being barred from public discourse in Germany today if one questions the uniqueness of the Holocaust or links it to Germany’s genocidal colonial past. Moses dubbed these articles of faith the ‘German Catechism’.
In the summer of 2022, additional disputes erupted around antisemitic imagery in a large political banner created by an Indonesian art collective and displayed before the main venue of Documenta, the contemporary art exhibition staged every five years in Kassel. While the banner (which contained hundreds of figures) focused on injustices of the US-backed Suharto regime, two of its subjects were depicted in a manner consistent with classic European antisemitic propaganda. After the banner was withdrawn from the exhibition, the lapse in curatorial judgment that allowed it to be exhibited became a rallying cry against not only Documenta as a whole, but also the wider discourse of post-colonialism in Germany.
On 20 July George Prochnik spoke with Emily Dische-Becker and Eyal Weizman – two researcher-activists – for the print edition of Granta. On 1 November, amid the ongoing Israel aerial bombing and ground invasion of Gaza, and simultaneous state crackdown on German civil society, Prochnik spoke to Dische-Becker and Weizman again.
For the second interview, which discusses the post-October 7 situation in Germany and Israel, see here.
Emily, can you begin by describing how Germany’s memory politics have repurposed the country’s antisemitism controversies to advance a right-wing agenda? What is the historical context for this startling turn of events?
German state memory culture flourished in the aftermath of German reunification in 1990, which had to do in part with the need for a new kind of statecraft. The reunified German state had to communicate that it was neither a threat to other countries nor to Jewish communities, and that meant showing that it was dealing with its past, since there were concerns that a reunified Germany would mean a menacingly powerful one. Memory culture didn’t have much to do with Israel at the time – that came later and was exemplified by Merkel’s 2008 speech in front of the Knesset declaring Israel’s security to be Germany’s Staatsräson (‘reason of state’).
In another historical twist, an increasingly aggressive version of Israeli hasbara – that is, propaganda – takes its legitimacy from Germany’s memory culture. To borrow a term from our friend the philosopher Adi Ophir, the state of Israel has established a ‘discursive Iron Dome’. While the original Iron Dome was an anti-missile defense system capable of shooting down rockets mid-air, the discursive equivalent is a pre-emptive practice of delegitimization, meant to shoot down critiques of Israel before they cause damage.
While support for, or assumed proximity, to BDS is deemed antisemitic by Germany, the Israeli government has designated, without evidence, six Palestinian human-rights organizations whose main function has been to collect evidence against Israeli crimes for use in international forums as ‘terror organizations.’ Among the groups on this list is the Palestinian human-rights group Al-Haq, with which Forensic Architecture (FA) has formed a long-term partnership and co-investigated the case of last year’s targeted killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. While no other country accepted this designation, and even the CIA acknowledged that there is no evidence for it, Germany’s Minister of the Interior, Nancy Faeser, is pushing the German government to accept the label. Whether by being designated ‘antisemitic’ abroad, or ‘terroristic’ inside Palestine, positions offering legitimate opposition to Israel are thus branded as ‘beyond the pale’.
If we can step back for a moment: how was the German reckoning with the past handled by German Jews before it became co-opted by the state? One has the sense that the 1980s was a crucial period of realignment.
Two opposing trends involving prerogatives of history and memory became visible in the 1980s. On the one hand, this is a moment when, for the first time since the Holocaust, the Jewish community in Germany acquired a real public voice, when they arguably became true political subjects. Two events that happened within six months of each other made this new agency legible. First, in May 1985 the Jewish community of Germany refused to participate in President Ronald Reagan’s trip to Bergen-Belsen that had been hastily arranged after Reagan’s visit to the Bitburg cemetery – where SS members were buried among Wehrmacht soldiers – began to provoke criticism. The aim of the trip was to create the impression that the President’s commemorative activities were balanced. The Jewish community resisted the pressure to go along with the German state’s program being carried out in their name. They understood that the commemoration was being conducted to promote German goals of historical forgetting.
Second, in the fall of 1986, representatives of the Jewish community stormed the stage at the Frankfurt premiere of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s controversial play, Garbage, the City and Death, which featured a character called the Rich Jew. Fassbinder himself had already been dead for four years. When he was still alive, he maintained that the play should be understood as a critique of lingering strains of antisemitism within German society. The local Jewish community refused to accept that argument and that the right of freedom of expression as articulated in this instance by the Left superseded that of the dignity of the victims.
Of equal importance is the way that the German press reacted to both these controversies. In the case of Bitburg, the conservative press in Germany actually tried, for lack of a better term, to warn the Jews off from rallying against that visit with the excuse that it would not be a good idea to stir up antisemitism. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the country’s leading conservative newspaper, said that the result of taking part in the protests could only be detrimental for the Jews and Israel. In the case of Garbage, the City and Death, the press was happy to vilify Fassbinder as a dangerous antisemite, adding to a charge sheet already packed with his other well-known vices.
Now, there’s no doubt that Fassbinder naming one of his characters the Rich Jew meant that his play stepped into the precincts of antisemitism. There are different things one can say about the context for that move, which might include intertextual relations with the larger history of theatre, and other Jewish characters that appear in Shakespeare, Marlowe, Bulgakov and elsewhere – both loathed and humane – but I completely understand why the Jewish community felt threatened by this play. Whether it is or is not an antisemitic play, it inhabits the Western antisemitic tradition of depictions of the Jew. But more interesting to me is the way the German press simultaneously claimed that this work, coming from the Left, lies outside the bounds of civilized discourse, even while they legitimized their own wish for forgiveness of the Nazis as exemplified by Chancellor Helmut Kohl who, in his efforts at national reconciliation, made the point that the Nazis are also our children, hence we must accept them.
The question of antisemitism thus became part of an internal discussion within Germany about German identity. And that conversation marked the beginning of a trend of using antisemitism as a political football between Left and Right, which continues till today, with little regards to the Jewish community in Germany and elsewhere. In other words, Germany’s relation to antisemitism is not about the Jews.
I think that Fassbinder’s Rich Jew and the Taring Padi caricature of the Jew in their banner at the entrance of Documenta, in the summer of 2022, are also related. The banner depicted an Orthodox Jew with bloodshot eyes and an SS insignia on his hat, nefariously plotting in the background of an otherwise anti-Suharto montage of imagery.
I was offended alongside the Jewish community in Kassel. We all wanted this picture taken down. The curators of this exhibition, an Indonesian collective named Ruangrupa, which had not taken proper account of the banner’s contents beforehand, agreed with this judgment. They removed the picture. But on the back of that outrage, a sweeping project of closure and repression was launched, led primarily by opinion writers in the German media along with certain German politicians. It was as if the banner validated what the state had been saying all along about left-wing antisemitism: that post-colonial thinking as such is, by definition, antisemitic. (In Germany, the term post-colonialism applies to both anti- and decolonial thought and practice.) In this charged atmosphere, we had the sense that physical violence would invariably ensue. And soon enough surely it did. The exhibition spaces of our Palestinian friends at Documenta were raided and defaced with graffiti that contained death threats.
Ultimately, the Documenta episode proved instrumental in enabling the Right to claim that there’s a slippery slope between speaking about the history of colonialism, including Germany’s own colonial history of genocide in Namibia – and making a critique of Israel that invariably breeds antisemitic tropes.
Both Fassbinder’s Rich Jew and Taring Padi’s caricature are based on antisemitic themes travelling across time and generations. What the controversies around them reveal, however, is that the mainstream German attitude to antisemitism is about choosing which manifestations of antisemitism to contest and which to protect. Close to the time at which the Documenta controversy was unfolding, a German court refused to remove a thirteenth-century antisemitic mural of ‘the Jewish Sow’ in the Wittenberg Stadtkirche, despite campaigns and legal action.
Most documented attacks of an antisemitic nature come from white supremacist individuals and groups, but the German state focuses on antisemitism on the Left – which does exist. They use these examples to vilify the entire ideology of Leftism, as well as to contain migration from the Global South, acting as if antisemitism is only being imported to Germany from the outside.
The controversy around the Fassbinder play pitted the notion of freedom of expression against the dignity of victims. What do you make of that clash as it relates to the present-day debate?
I don’t think it’s controversial to say that freedom of expression needs to be measured in relation to hate speech, and the safety and dignity of survivors. Memory is always instrumentalized in the way that you process and narrate the past, and it is always articulated in a relation to intervention within present political social affairs. I do not want to enter the debate of whether this play should or should not have been staged. What is significant for me in this case is that it was the Jewish community, independent of Israeli politics, that led the response to the event in the 1980s. Given Israel’s promotion of extreme Right parties across Europe today, I wonder what some Israeli ministers would have said if Reagan and Kohl had asked them to join the Bitburg cemetery visit.
At present, Germany’s alignment with Israel means that German nationalism has begun to be rehabilitated and revivified under the auspices of German support for Israeli nationalism.
The trouble with German memory culture in its current manifestation is that it no longer offers an effective subversion of German nationalism. Instead, memory culture has become axiomatic to state-sanctioned national identity and, in that capacity, a tool to discipline and exclude undesirable minorities and troublesome ideas. I’m drawing a distinction between the early post-war decades when German memory culture represented a civil-society initiative aimed at confronting Germany’s refusal to face its crimes, and what it is today: a vehicle for projecting Germany as the most civilized nation by virtue of its having committed genocide and then having reckoned with that gargantuan atrocity. Coupled with an approach to fighting antisemitism that assumes antisemitism to be ubiquitous among opponents of Israel, it is Palestinians who (because of their opposition to the self-declared Jewish state) are positioned as the greatest danger to Jews. I’m being a bit hyperbolic here, but I do see this basic dynamic as a key factor in the trend whereby German memory culture ceased to be self-critical, and became instead a reflexive, self-congratulatory posture. Worse than pro forma, it has become a platform from which to lecture other people – including Jews – about their need to embrace Jewish nationalism.
Here’s one example of what I’m talking about: in 2020, at the Weißensee Academy of Art Berlin, a group of Jewish, Israel-born students developed a reading group called the School for Unlearning Zionism, made up of people of various political persuasions, or levels of politicization, who’d come together to grapple with the national mythology they’d grown up with. One of the students made the group’s premise the subject of her graduation project. Various overeager functionaries who now consider it their duty to manufacture scandal around any kind of criticism of Israel as antisemitic raised a furor. Funding for the students’ graduation exhibition was withdrawn, and this event was subsequently included in the chronology of antisemitic incidents for that year published by the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, one of Germany’s leading anti-racist organizations. So you have a reading group of Israeli students listed alongside incidents that include a Jewish prayer-goer being hit over the head outside a synagogue in Hamburg and Jewish graves being defaced with swastikas. In an interview a couple of months later, Felix Klein, Germany’s Federal Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight Against Antisemitism – who’s been in this position since it was created after an Israeli flag was burned at a Berlin protest over President Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in 2018 – asked that left-wing Israelis please show some sensitivity toward Germany’s historical responsibility and be measured in how they speak about Israel while in Germany.
Scholars who’ve weighed in on these debates have spoken to me about the panic induced in Germany by the hard-right turn of Israeli nationalism – the erosion of a particular figuration of the Jew – and about what it’s been like for them to be lambasted by non-Jewish German Zionists for whom criticism of Israel is a sign of weakness, while dissent from the dominant historical narrative is a symptom of inauthenticity. Such experiences typify that of many targets of the so-called ‘Anti-Deutsche’, who sprang up after the fall of the Wall. At first, the Anti-Deutsche was a nominally leftist movement determined to prevent the rise of a Fourth Reich in a united Germany. In practice (and increasingly in recent years), the movement views Germany’s special responsibility to the Jews as a blanket commitment to protect Israel from all criticism.
Once again, one could say that Germany is engaged in a monolithic mythologization of Jewish identity, and once again, as A. Dirk Moses’s essay suggests, the end result of this process is German redemption on the new world stage. The redemption is achieved through a valorization of the Jews that requires the exclusion of other traumas: in particular, the Palestinian trauma inflicted by Israel.
In a stunning lecture-performance last year, Eran Schaerf, an Israel-born artist who’s been living and working in Germany for forty years, said that many Germans can’t imagine that they don’t star or feature in all Israeli Jews’ memories – that there are other memories, also of violence, that aren’t about Germans. It is almost as if there’s a monogamous relationship between Jews and Germans, as Jewish Studies scholar Hannah Tzuberi put it, and everyone else is an interloper.
It should be noted that many German Jews, including Jewish officials in state-sponsored organizations, also react with fury whenever Israelis in Germany weigh in on cases where individuals or groups have been accused of antisemitism because of their stances on Israel. These officials claim that the Israelis in question aren’t representative of German-Jewish opinion and don’t understand antisemitism. Growing up as the dominant group and majority in Israel is very different from the experience of living in post-Holocaust Germany. But Israelis do know Israel, which to many German Jews is primarily an idealized insurance policy.
Can you provide examples of how German memory culture becomes even more regressive in an overtly political sphere?
One instance would be the change of attitude toward antisemitism that’s become prominent in the extreme-right Alternative for Germany’s (AfD) discourse. Beyond their use of dog-whistle antisemitism in opposing Holocaust commemoration, they also attempt to make their form of racism and proto-fascist attitudes more palatable by forming an anti-Muslim alliance. They propose that antisemitism is an import to Germany, arriving like a virus through the channels of migration. This tendency to exteriorize the origins of antisemitism exists well beyond the AfD, manifesting across the political spectrum (as well as in other extreme right-wing organizations in Europe and elsewhere) and results in migrants being regularly targeted with accusations of antisemitism. The pro-migration Left, which is accused of fostering antisemitic tendencies, is caught up in this as well. All this condemnation is of course deployed to fuel resistance to the arrival of migrants themselves, who then come to embody the demographic shift away from a European white consensus, which now says ‘No to immigration, Yes to Israel’. As a Jewish person in Germany, I find this trend dangerous, politically and personally.
You and Emily seem to be identifying a conflation between Israel and the Holocaust that goes beyond ways that the Holocaust has become associated with Israel’s own raison d’état, as a safe haven for Jews suffering persecution in the diaspora, into something more conjunctive and sacrosanct, whereby Israel exists as a kind of memorial state to the Shoah perpetrated by Germany. There is the abyss of the Holocaust and then Israel becomes the edifice mirroring that void extrusively and unassailably. Within these terms of discourse, Israel’s existence becomes a tool for advancing different autocratic endeavors worldwide, including the GOP’s USA and Tory Britain. All these models represent the effort to circumscribe ‘evil’ within the trope of antisemitism, and to demonize, concomitantly, anyone who challenges the identification of Israel with the Holocaust as contaminated by antisemitism, thereby opening more space for the implementation of autocratic, repressive agendas. Hannah Arendt wrote a famous essay on the Jew as Pariah, but in an inversion of that notion, Israel becomes a Pariah-Saint to rally and ring-fence neo-nationalistic endeavor.
We’ve established the appeal for Germany of the logic whereby Israel is designated an exceptional nation state that practices a ‘good’ nationalism and praiseworthy militarism. But what does Holocaust commemoration achieve today? Very few survivors remain, so it’s not about their feelings, nor about justice for them. We continually observe ways that this memory culture is not actually about justice, since there are material things that could be done by the state that are not being done. For example, Christian Lindner, Germany’s current finance minister, who is the head of the neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), which has championed the anti-BDS cause on the grounds that it is antisemitic, recently attempted to cut pensions to Holocaust survivors. Two weeks later, he went out for a photo op, lighting the world’s biggest menorah at the Brandenburg Gate – a favored stunt of German career politicians. So if it’s not about justice for victims is it then about preventing a resurgence of exclusionary nationalism? Extraordinary resources are being poured into memory culture as part of the state-sanctioned program for the fight against antisemitism. Berlin alone currently employs five antisemitism commissioners representing different institutions and constituencies. It’s fair to ask, then, what is the efficacy of all this?
While the fight against antisemitism has been escalating, the AfD, a neo-fascistic party, has begun polling ahead of the ruling Social Democrats, and at the same time there’s been a rise in far-right terrorism that is often bound up with the police, army and intelligence services, many of whose agents harbor right-wing sympathies and connections to right-wing terror networks. Yet these developments are rarely discussed in the context of antisemitism. It is apparently not within the mandate of Felix Klein, Germany’s Federal Antisemitism Commissioner, that there are German police officers sending each other Heil Hitler text messages every morning as a greeting. Rather than addressing the things that are actually a threat to the life and limb of all racialized minorities in Germany, the commissioner prioritizes policing anti-Zionism among artists.
There is also a sneaking revisionism afoot at the moment. I’ll give you a recent example of something I found shocking, and which no official Jewish community group in Germany has spoken about. On the occasion of the celebration of Israel’s seventy-fifth ‘birthday’ (as the Germans refer to it), Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commissioner and a German Christian Democrat, said that in the wake of ‘the greatest tragedy in human history’ – not crime, note, tragedy – ‘we see the “miracle” of Israel’s birth’.
It’s a very Christological position in the sense that the crucifixion makes possible the birth of humanity’s – or in this case Germany’s – redeemer. But what should one do instead? If you were to address a progressive group in the United States or Europe about what should happen in such a reckoning, what would you propose?
Rather than looking at the Holocaust in a Christological way – a second sacrifice – it’s critical to look at historical continuities in all their dimensions. There is by now a growing scientific-historical consensus – however unrecognized in Germany itself – that elements of German and European colonialism more generally helped establish the ideological grounds for the racial politics and extermination of Jews in Europe. In addition to metabolising other historical forms of antisemitism, the Holocaust has an imperial-colonial ingredient to it. German memory politics, as it is presently configured, simply has no space for this connection to be drawn explicitly. The Holocaust remains historically atomized, and sacred.
Would it not be more productive to see the Palestinian Nakba as a continuation of the crime of the Holocaust, extending all the way to 1948 and 1949, and to understand that Europe and Germany bear some responsibility for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine? Instead there is an immaculate break after the end of the war in Europe, and the Palestinians are cast out of the narrative – just as the continuous repression of Algerians by the post-war French government has for years been eliminated from the official French narrative of its role in the European conflict.
All this shows how the German state bolsters its legitimacy by elevating a narrowly circumscribed slice of its past into an object lesson. Germany’s political history is rife with examples of leaders and parties demonstrating their excellence at making distinctions, at circumscribing and selecting, lecturing everyone else about what the right path is, what the right memory is, what counts as being civilized. In this way, Germany universalizes its provinciality. It analyzes the world through the filter of its own history and makes its very particular trajectory into a general law that enables it to discipline others. Germany is very invested in the idea of being the best at being the worst. Being an antisemitic perpetrator is thus projected as a form of moral expertise to be shared with the world.
You’ve spoken about the notion that there is an official, state-engineered project of building a post-Holocaust Jewish community in Germany, along with a separate, organic process whereby a Jewish community has begun taking root there on its own terms. What do you mean by this?
There are multiple Jewish groups and communities inside Germany today. In the 1990s, after reunification, Germany encouraged Jewish peoples to migrate from the former Soviet Union and settled them in different cities. In its attempts to revive Jewish life, it sponsored the construction of synagogues, community centers and schools, despite many of the former Soviet Jews not having had an experience of Jewish communal life or strong national or religious inclinations. These state-organized communities became aligned with Israel through the consulates and the embassy. Israel’s national holidays were prominently celebrated as a matter of course. But early in the 2000s, another type of migration became manifest: Palestinians and Israelis, including many artists and writers, migrated to Germany, and especially to Berlin, independently. Israeli Jews who moved to Berlin may have valued or rediscovered facets of their Jewish identity, but they were not being organized or represented by official Jewish communities. They were certainly not aligned with Israel. Many of these individuals were non- or anti-Zionists. Some discovered that in Germany they could build more equal relations with Palestinians, unmediated by the skewed platform of contemporary Israeli Apartheid.
Isn’t one of the challenges, however, that along with the manipulation of the concept of antisemitism you’ve both been elucidating, there are also instances of genuine antisemitism arising from the ostensibly progressive side of this conflict?
As with Documenta, there unquestionably are very disturbing, very real antisemitic tendencies that emerge in different forms in parts of the anti-colonial Left.
In identifying a parallel with the Taring Padi banner imagery and Fassbinder’s Rich Jew, you suggested that the mobilization of these stereotypes may have an over-arching target that are not Jewry itself. But the conspiratorial association of Jews with power – behind-the-scenes power with malicious objectives – is still there and can still have consequences for the Jewish community, regardless of their true targets. And of course opportunistic antisemitism has its own pedigree.
But you also note that when the identification of real instances of antisemitism becomes the rationale for larger campaigns with reactionary agendas, the charge of antisemitism is hollowed out into a new form of McCarthyism – as happened in the wake of Documenta: ‘Are you, or are have you ever been an antisemite?’
Documenta certainly represented a turning point, after which antisemitism became de facto categorized as a kind of ‘permanent emergency’, like the ‘war on terror’, requiring not just the cancellation of plays, prizes and exhibitions at an alarming rate, but also the amending of citizenship laws to exclude people from Germany altogether if they had ever participated in antisemitic demonstrations – a category that encompasses any Palestine solidarity event. German state authorities now ban such gatherings pre-emptively on the grounds that antisemitic utterances have been made at such events in the past. This year, for example, Berlin authorities outlawed all Palestinian demonstrations to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Nakba. They cited, among other things, their concern that protesters might describe Israel as committing the crime of ‘apartheid’. Such comprehensive silencing is a perversion of Germany’s self-image as a liberal democracy.
One last point regarding the cultural memory project of so-called anti-antisemitism: It grants to the heirs of perpetrators of the Holocaust and of colonial massacres, as well as contemporary perpetrators of racist exclusion, the sole moral authority to enforce the lessons they choose to draw from their own history of violence. On the basis of what we’re seeing today, this translates into the effort to ensure that certain continuities of dehumanization, mobilization of popular resentment and German self-victimization aren’t acknowledged, even as solidarity among different racialized communities is disrupted. The lessons of German history have to remain static. They are reduced to the negative exceptionalism of ‘Never Again Auschwitz’, lest they offer us any guidance to fighting injustice in the present, or elicit further demand for reparations in the case of a place such as Namibia.
You’ve identified a panorama of instances in which the instrumentalization of antisemitism and Zionism for select political aims poses a danger to Germany’s vulnerable populations, including migrants, Palestinians and Jews. These miscarriages of justice are becoming more blatant and contentious. Do you feel that the attention this problem has begun generating is going to trigger any significant pushback?
It’s now apparent that the issue of anti-antisemitism represents a laboratory for larger anti-democratic policies, functioning as a precedent for prohibiting other forms of protest as well. First they canceled the Palestinian demonstrations, now they prevent other demonstrations mounted by the Left. For example, the government has begun cracking down on environmental activists with measures such as preventative imprisonment. The German police also recently declared Letzte Generation (‘Last Generation’) – an environmental protest group – to be an organized-crime syndicate. The police have behaved atrociously and illegally – banning, for instance, anti-fascist demonstrations in Leipzig after the sentencing of Antifa militants in May 2023. We’ve unsurprisingly also witnessed an increase in police violence – of racialized people being murdered by police in Germany, something that had formerly been considered inconceivable in unified Germany.
All of this brazen, wide-ranging repressive activity means that there is an opening for people to connect the dots. The people who have a first-hand understanding of authoritarianism and the people who cherish democratic freedoms most are people who have a history of being on the receiving end of political violence. There are many people in Germany today with that background.
Another area where opposition to these negative trends can be located is in the struggle for Jewish identity itself that is now taking place in Germany – that’s to say the resistance to the Israeli state model of a national-ethnic state in favor of a diasporic one, which is non-nationalist and sometimes non- or anti-Zionist.
It’s not that similar struggles aren’t being fought in Britain, in the US, and in other places, but it’s inflected differently in Germany because of its history and because of the responsibility that Germans have toward Jews. I do not deny that special responsibility; I just do not think that it’s for the Germans to say to us what kind of Jews we should be, what kind of project we should be part of. Both Emily and I, as Jewish intellectuals in Germany, find ourselves occasionally being deplatformed, being publicly disciplined – being lectured by the children and grandchildren of the perpetrators who murdered our families and who now dare to tell us that we are antisemitic.
The Jewish identity question in Germany breaks down into two main factions: those who believe Jewish well-being and safety derives from appeals to the moral authority of the perpetrator-heirs, and Jews who see Jewish well-being and safety in solidarity with other minorities. That’s the dividing line. You can call it Left or Right but that’s the crux of it.
With respect to Germany as a whole, if the state takes a more rightward turn, via its assumption of national singularity, that will be the worst outcome conceivable for vulnerable populations, even beyond Germany’s borders. Germany is the arbiter in Europe when it comes to both antisemitism and migration. If Germany says it’s fine to drown people in the Mediterranean, then it’s fine to drown people in the Mediterranean because the people who are the most sorry for their past treatment of minorities and have learned the most from their abuse of racialized people say it’s fine. If Germany says the people trying to get to Europe are a danger to Jews so it’s fine to deny them entry, then it’s fine to turn them away.
In its more extreme form, German overidentification with Jewish nationalism means that the Germans arrogate to themselves the right to project how they would feel if they were Jews. So for a particular kind of German who has strong feelings about Israel, the response to a Jew who isn’t gung-ho about Israeli militarism is one of visceral disgust.
The alternative Jewish responses to the contemporary landscape that Eyal and I have been advocating violate the Jewish identity that Germans have been imagining for themselves. Faced with this German exercise in inhabiting Jewish history and sensibility, I just feel like saying, Go fuck yourself. I have no gratitude. Not for Germany, and not for Israel.
Once again, Germany defines who is a Jew, right? The irony that the German state would actually classify who is a Jew, and what’s a legitimate Jewish position, and how Jews should react, is just beneath contempt.
Photograph © Matan Radin
In November 2022, a group of Jewish protesters in Berlin attempted to join the annual Antifascist march but were physically obstructed from participating in the demonstration due to their banner by Antideutsche protestors, who accused them of being Anti-Zionist agitators. In December 2023, following the judicial overhaul in Isreal undertaken by the Netanyahu government, the banner was hoisted again at a rally in front of the German Foreign Ministry.