In Germany, the Fight Against Antisemitism Turns into a Witch Hunt

Some journalists and intellectuals are the target of strong campaigns in Germany against their supposed antisemitism. But in addition to the unbridled Islamophobia that these media denunciations reveal, it is in reality voices critical of Israel, including Jewish and Israeli ones, that find themselves pilloried.

Gelsenkirchen, 14 May 2021. Vigil in front of the synagogue in Gelsenkirchen, two days after a series of demonstrations against Israeli policy. On the sign: “Fight antisemitism/no matter where it comes from/#never again”
Ina Fassbender/AFP

Germany’s vigilance against antisemitism would seem admirable. The German state and civil society seem to have achieved something remarkable: linking an institutionalized culture of remembrance to an ongoing, collective effort to prevent antisemitism from reemerging in new, contemporary mutations. The American, Berlin-based philosopher Susan Neiman indeed argued in her 2019 book that Americans have much to learn from German Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, or “working through the past.”

But Neiman herself has been compelled to revise this argument of late. In February of this year, seven Arab and Muslim journalists lost their jobs at the state-owned broadcaster Deutsche Welle due to accusations of antisemitism in German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. In the context of reporting on those firings, Neiman told Alex Kane at the American Jewish magazine Jewish Currents that “what has emerged in the past two years is atonement gone haywire, with straightforward McCarthyite practices in which many people … have been forced from their jobs, and many others have been denied funding, prizes, or performance space.”

Journalists describe a shadowy culture of surveillance and intimidation around them. Maram Salem, a Palestinian originally from the occupied West Bank who was one of the first fired by DW, told Currents, “You think in Germany you’re a journalist who is protected, but you live in fear. It reminds me of dictatorships. And I come from a region where journalistic views and journalistic freedom of speech have always been attacked. It feels exactly the same.”

“Atonement gone haywire”

The alleged antisemitism of Salem was never quite clear. The German newspaper referenced a Facebook post, written by Salem during the Israeli army’s bombing of Gaza in May 2021. Salem had explained on Facebook that she had to encrypt and delete some of her posts for fear of censure (or worse) at work. That was apparently enough for the Süddeutsche Zeitung reporter to label Salem an antisemite. Readers were apparently meant to fantasize a web of associations on their own. This kind of highly specious reduction illustrates the “atonement gone haywire” described by Neiman. It also displays the sleight-of-hand in which German publications enlist the public in a conspiratorial and self-satisfying scheme. By imagining an atavistic hatred lurking behind Palestinian criticism of Israel, Germans can assuage their own guilt for Opa and Oma’s Nazi past while also reconstituting themselves as noble warriors against antisemitism.

Palestinians (and Arabs and Muslims in general) are not the sole targets in this McCarthyite climate. But they are made out to be a sort of radioactive nucleus, contaminating anyone plausibly in their orbit. The renowned philosopher Achille Mbembe was to give the keynote address at the 2020 Ruhr Triennial cultural festival in North Rhine-Westphalia. But in March of that year, local politician Lorenz Deutsch from the center-right liberal Free Democratic Party wrote an open letter to the festival director demanding Mbembe’s cancellation. Deutsch accused the Cameroon-born philosopher, who now teaches in South Africa, of having supported the nonviolent Palestinian movement to Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) the state of Israel. The BDS movement works to pressure the state of Israel to comply with international law.

An anti-BDS resolution by the Bundestag

In Germany, “BDS proximity” has become enough to trigger cancellation, censorship, and dismissal — partly because the Bundestag in 2019 passed a non-binding resolution that classified the BDS movement as inherently antisemitic. In the wake of the resolution, the head of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, distinguished scholar of Jewish antiquity Peter Schäfer, was forced to resign. His crime? He had shared an article on his Twitter account that reported on a letter by 240 Jewish and Israeli scholars opposed to the Bundestag’s anti-BDS resolution.

Deutsch followed his charge that Mbembe supported BDS with accusations of both antisemitism and Holocaust relativization. The latter accusation of “Holocaust relativization” derives from the 1986 Historikerstreit, or historians’ dispute. Then, liberal German philosophers and historians accused their more conservative counterparts of “relativizing” Nazi crimes (and thus German responsibility) by drawing comparisons to Stalinist oppression and violence. As scholars of Holocaust memory such as Michael Rothberg have argued, the replication of the same charge today works in the reverse direction: progressive and leftist scholars who draw comparisons between Nazi crimes and those of colonial regimes — German or otherwise — are accused of diminishing or evading German responsibility.

Deutsch-based both charges, of antisemitism and of Holocaust relativization, on citations from Mbembe’s 2016 English-language essay The Society of Enmity. In the course of that essay, Mbembe compared South African apartheid to the “Israel separation project,” notably emphasizing key differences. Additionally, Mbembe argued that both South African apartheid and the Holocaust were manifestations of a “fantasy of separation,” while he underscored the unique extremity of the latter.

“The relationship between postcolonial studies and antisemitism”

Jealously guarding the uniqueness of the Holocaust and deploying the German notion of antisemitic “Israelkritik,” Deutsch demanded the festival disinvite Mbembe. Felix Klein, Germany’s Federal Commissioner for Jewish Life and the Fight Against Antisemitism, zealously joined Deutsch’s campaign against Mbembe. Klein took Deutsch’s concerns as an opportunity to cast more general aspersions on “the relationship between postcolonial studies and antisemitism.” In doing so, he hinted at a broader strategy of using accusations of antisemitism to deflect political critiques of the West. Klein refused to even consider Mbembe’s analytical perspective, instead retreating into a self-satisfied German provincialism: “Something that is wrong from the German perspective doesn’t become right just because it comes from elsewhere.”

Ultimately, the conference was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the “Mbembe Affair” did trigger a long dispute among journalists and scholars over whether Germany’s post-Holocaust memory culture had become dangerously dogmatic.

The case of Dr. Nemi El-Hassan is perhaps most emblematic of the ways German vigilance against antisemitism is instrumentalized for Islamophobic witch hunts. Last summer, El-Hassan — an award-winning physician-turned-journalist — was set to host the popular science program “Quarks” on WDR, a public television broadcaster in Germany. Born in Brandenburg to Palestinian and Lebanese parents, El-Hassan had developed a reputation for sharp and brave journalism, including her on-the-ground coverage in July 2017 of a rock concert “Against Foreign Infiltration” organized by a neo-Nazi activist and politician. But on September 21, WDR announced that it was suspending the planned start of El-Hassan’s hosting position, pending a “careful examination.” Then, on September 28, WDR decided that it would no longer allow El-Hassan to host the “Quarks” program at all. Why?

On September 13, the right-wing tabloid Bild had published an exposé — headlined “Islamism Scandal at WRD” — with images from 2014 that showed a twenty-year-old El-Hassan wearing hijab and a keffiyeh at the Al-Quds Day March in Berlin. The Al-Quds Day March has been criticized, including by the pro-Palestinian Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East, for antisemitic statements as well as ties to repressive regimes in Syria and Iran.

“I was ashamed of that time”

But the image published in Bild seven years later, and thus far removed from its immediate context, was enough to trigger a series of denunciations in mainstream German publications. Pro-Israel Jewish NGO the WerteInitiative (“Values Initiative”) also immediately protested “a potentially Islamist actor” at a public broadcaster, and other pro-Israel Jewish organizations such as the German-Israel Society expressed dismay and demanded clarification.

Three days later, in a lengthy and somewhat hostile interview conducted by Der Spiegel, El-Hassan apologized for her youthful actions and explained that her views have evolved since her 2014 attendance at the march. The inquisitorial direction of the interview became clear when El-Hassan was asked to explain why, when she was just 15 years old, she had visited a controversial mosque in Hamburg. Nonetheless, El-Hassan emphasized her record of anti-racist journalism work, and the headlined quote underscored that she was “ashamed of that time.”

El-Hassan’s apology and shame did little to quell the growing smear campaign. Some speculated that El-Hassan secretly remained a radical Islamist and her present lack of hijab was mere deception — a charge abetted by the media’s use of old photos of El-Hassan in hijab. On September 22, a second exposé in Bild revealed that El-Hassan had “liked” Instagram posts by Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist and pro-BDS Jewish organization based in the United States.

A ZeitOnline investigation ultimately revealed that the images published in Bild paralleled those used a month earlier by far-right youtuber Irfan Peci. Bild denied that Peci was the source for their story. This trajectory, however, suggests that mainstream German media’s appetite for accusations of antisemitism provides a channel for not only normalizing right-wing Islamophobia but repackaging it as an anti-racist defense of post-Nazi German society. The dizzying outcome: a reporter who courageously covered rising neo-Nazism was sacked for alleged antisemitism.

Demonization of solidarity

The witch hunt of El-Hassan demonstrates three important features of German anti-antisemitism today. First, the right-wing instrumentalization of German vigilance against antisemitism. Second, the dogmatic disqualification of Palestinian voices and activism by reducing them to atavistic Jew-hatred. And third, the demonization of Jewish and Israeli people engaged in Palestine solidarity activism.

As described by Palestine Speaks, an organization of leftist Palestinian Germans, and emphasized by Leipzig-based Israeli writer Michael Sappir in his reporting, the Islamophobic tenor of the initial Bild exposé and of subsequent media campaigns was apparent. Additionally, as Sappir reported, a far-right politician used the scandal to make campaign promises about weeding out “the rest.” Anti-antisemitism functions in such scenarios not only as a disguise for growing Islamophobia. It also rehabilitates post-Nazi forms of German nationalism, in which the accusers fashion themselves dutiful students of history and enlightened defenders of Germany’s greatest historic victims.

Finally, it is not insignificant that the ultimate reasoning given by WDR for El-Hassan’s dismissal was Instagram “likes” for a pro-Palestinian Jewish organization. While Germany effusively lauds its efforts to work through the past, it is obvious that only those Jews who assent to German expiation via Zionism are easily domesticated in post-Nazi German society. The “bad” Jews — many of whom are themselves Israelis — who challenge German support for the state of Israel’s violence against Palestinians are made to be toxic in German society precisely because they refuse the moral logic of German reparation and rehabilitation.

By conflating a reparative vigilance against antisemitism with a reflexive defense of Israeli policy tout court, this memory culture not only debases the fight against antisemitism. It also enables a convergence between the fight against antisemitism and rising anti-Muslim racism, dangerously (but seductively) claiming to fight one form of racism by amplifying another. A revision of Germany’s “working through the past” is sorely needed, one which would produce a robust and complex approach to ongoing antisemitic violence — to which Germany remains, unfortunately, no stranger — while preventing its recuperation by both those desperate to transcend the Nazi past and also those seeking to disguise a renewed nationalist politics of exclusion.