About three years ago, a former classmate from the US visited me in Berlin. We drank beer and ate pizza, talked about Trump and Angela Merkel, Germany and the United States. She had co-founded a union for student employees at the New York University where I had briefly studied. The university was considered progressive, but such a commitment to workers’ rights is almost radically left by American standards.
After a few beers, she told me in a sad tone that she had fought with a good friend, the argument was about Israel. He had travelled there. Puzzled, I asked what the problem was. The answer: “Why would you want to travel to Israel?”. I was taken aback. That same evening I told her that there was a pro-Israeli left-wing movement in Germany. She was stunned.
In leftist circles in the US, it’s so normal to call this country in the Middle East an “apartheid state”, an agent of Western imperialism, a colonial project, a land grab and an intrinsically genocidal idea, that all these rather harsh labels no longer require justification. They are rather buzzwords that lend themselves to any occasion. I also remember a demonstration in New York City in 2017 against Trump, shortly after his election, at which demo chants about tearing down walls “from Mexico to Palestine” were sung as a matter of course. Some of my university teachers, including distinguished professors in political science, joined in. Back then, Trump had hardly said a word about Israel or Palestine politically. Solidarity with Palestine was largely devoid of content. Rather, it served to express being on the “right” side, the side of the world’s oppressed.
It was the same story at the Women’s March on Washington, one of the largest demonstrations in the US since the protests against the Vietnam War. In 2017 and 2019, the Women’s March was led by, among others, Linda Sarsour, an avowed supporter of the BDS campaign to boycott Israel. Feminism and Palestine, for many protesters, fitted seamlessly together. The argument linking these two concepts, which at first glance seem quite different, goes: As a feminist, you must rise up against all forms of oppression against women, including that of the Israeli occupiers against Palestinian women. Therefore, anyone who feels troubled by the sexist US president should also be troubled by Israeli politics. On this year’s Labour Day, similar spectacles occurred at demonstrations in Germany, including in the form of queer-feminist solidarity with Palestine.
To me, the connection seemed contrived. Why does a feminist have to have an opinion on Israel at all? And shouldn’t queers instead take a stance against Hamas, which has made homosexuality punishable by death in Gaza, rather than against Israel, which is on the whole rather queer-friendly? To many of my classmates, however, this didn’t seem weird at all. They read the socialist monthly Jacobin and the liberal-left New York Times, they were fans of the intellectuals Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein – and all of them were of course “against” Israel and for a “free Palestine”.
Only in Germany?
Perhaps I had fallen victim to a phenomenon that the author Fabian Wolff recently summarised in a very long essay for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit entitled “Only in Germany” – published before the latest clashes in the Middle East. Only in Germany, according to Wolff, is there an Israel fetish among leftists that leads them to think this is a country somehow worth supporting. So much so that they even want to lecture Jews about it: “The plurality of Jewish life is under attack in Germany, most of all from the people who claim to be our strongest allies.”
The text has provoked many and emotional reactions, from over-the-moon praise for an overdue rebuke of the supposed “know-it-all Germans” to rejection. Wolff couldn’t have known that his essay would suddenly become even more topical a few days after publication. A newly inflamed conflict in the Middle East not only put people in Gaza and Israel in a life-threatening situation, but antisemitic furore also broke out on the streets of the world. In New York City – where left-wing students find it ethically unacceptable to spend even a single shekel on holiday in Israel – the Jewish community was attacked and insulted on the streets every day for weeks.
Also in Germany, Spain, the UK – in several Western countries, parallel to the new Gaza war, Jews were being held responsible for a military conflict in a completely different part of the world. Synagogues were set on fire and Israeli flags were burnt. In Berlin’s Neukölln district, fireworks hit a journalist at a pro-Palestinian demonstration while she was speaking Hebrew. Most recently, there was an arson attack on a synagogue in the city of Ulm. Many Jews in Germany have never visited Israel, let alone considered it necessary to identify with the country and its politics. This connection takes place solely in the mind of antisemites.
Antisemitic crimes such as these were swiftly condemned, in Germany and elsewhere. Empathy usually extends that far. But the fact that being “against antisemitism” can simultaneously mean “pro-Israel” is a German peculiarity. Does that make it wrong? Don’t these incidents show that it’s too easy to openly speak out against antisemitism but then rather stay out of the Israel question?
Communists alongside ministers
Just how special the German attitude towards Israel can be could be observed a few weeks ago at the Brandenburg Gate, when top politicians from almost all Bundestag parties gathered for a pro-Israel rally. Several hundred participants accompanied the demonstration, waving flags, cloaked in the blue Star of David or donning suits and ties. Communists applauded alongside reporters of the tabloid Bild. Such an event would have been unthinkable in Britain or the USA.
For some, a gruesome sight. The rally moved the Israeli author Tomer Dreyfus, among others, to leave the left-wing party Die Linke. In his opinion, party co-chair Dietmar Bartsch’s commitment to Israel demonstrated that he supported “the lie of Israel’s ‘right to self-defence’”. Similar quarrels, positionings, resignations and hostilities have been taking place for weeks, and not just on social media. How could it come to this?
First, a confession: “Only in Germany” isn’t just an illusion. Due to its historical genesis, the Israel solidarity movement in Germany can ironically seem terribly German, even if it is still bandied about with the attribute “antideutsch” (anti-German). But there is a fundamental difference between the Israel solidarity of the German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier or Ulf Poschardt, editor-in-chief of the conservative daily Die Welt, and a leftist, anti-fascist or even communist version of it. It lies in the fact that the former justifies the necessity of the state of Israel “because of” Germany and the other “against” Germany.
A statesmanlike solidarity with Israel is one of big words. One is often “deeply affected” when another “disgusting” attack has occurred – and nothing else. The director of the Anne Frank Educational Centre in Frankfurt, Meron Mendel, dubbed this “solidarity on demand” in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
The left-wing movement that shows solidarity with Israel in Germany, on the other hand, usually does so because it considers the Jewish nation state a necessary lesson of Hitler’s fascism. Because its supporters wish to recognise that a protective space for Jews is needed for as long as antisemitism exists and the conditions that enabled the Shoah persist. The movement sees history as a sequence of facts that can make one thing possible and another impossible. In other words, from their perspective, Germany isn’t finished. The beast is merely slumbering. In terms of realpolitik, therefore, only a nation state in which Jews are always safe can prevent a new catastrophe. And that implies a state that can, in doubt, defend itself.
This movement has existed in a subversive form since the 1990s, sometimes in the form of autonomous groups, university departments or subcultural centres, and, as the list shows, it is anything but a movement with mass appeal. The idea that “criticism of Israel” can be antisemitic, however, is also shared in Germany by more substantial institutions such as the Amadeu Antonio Foundation or the Jewish Forum for Democracy and Against Antisemitism (JFDA). This position even spills over into the cultural sphere on occasion, as can be seen in the campaign Artists Against Antisemitism, while still remaining a minority position here too.
Amplifier of hate
Many of these groups and institutions differ from a statesmanlike solidarity with Israel because they don’t limit themselves to symbols and ceremonial speeches, but rather conduct research and educate. In doing so, they often come to conclusions that aren’t at all palatable to the bourgeois milieu in Germany. The same applies to antisemitism research, which for historical reasons is and has been conducted more intensively in Germany than in almost any other country, for example at the Centre for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University in Berlin.
This stance also differs from being shallowly “against Nazis” because it sees anti-fascism as a concrete political demand instead of a symbolic statement. It also differs from what is understood by “solidarity with Israel” in the Axel Springer high-rise, home to the newspapers Die Welt and Bild, as well within the ranks of the far-right AfD party – which is at best a particular way of being pro-Western and pro-capitalist, and at worst an amplifier for agitation against Muslims, migrants and refugees. This hypocritical solidarity with Israel and criticism of antisemitism is empty. It can therefore be directed against anyone who doesn’t fit into the neoliberal agenda, as the recent attacks against the German journalist Carolin Emcke show.
And yet: people are often insulted and threatened for their pro-Israeli stance and critical work against antisemitism, not only in Germany. Because if there’s one thing that antisemites such as the former vegan celebrity chef turned far-right conspiracy guru Attila Hildmann hate at least as much as Jews, it’s Germans who ally themselves with Jews. They smell the “Israel lobby” behind every non-Jew who defends Israel or speaks out against antisemitism, because they simply cannot imagine that non-Jews would do such a thing without having their brains washed or receiving something in return. This is how they resolve the identity conflict in their minds.
The head of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, Anetta Kahane, is regularly the target of defamation and violent threats. The former elite soldier Franco A., currently on trial in Frankfurt, is accused of planning an attack on her. Fabian Wolff writes: “In Germany, it is not taboo to love Israel. It does not require any courage to declare your support for and solidarity with that country”. This may apply to lip service solidarity with Israel, but it doesn’t apply to practical and anti-fascist solidarity.
Left-wing pro-Zionism has never been able to achieve consensus in Germany, not even within its own ranks. The anti-German movement has also already gone through its own process of splintering. Those still wishing to use this label today to describe themselves can be sure of their political loneliness as well as their enemies left, right and centre. Those who do this publicly, live at least with the potential of danger.
Meanwhile, it’s no coincidence that adherents of a statesmanlike solidarity with Israel prefer not to dwell too long on the findings of antisemitism research. The findings are painful. For decades, they have indicated that it does not matter at all whether someone is German, Jewish, Arab, Muslim, gay, bi, trans or vegan – because antisemitism doesn’t arise from these labels alone. It grows out of a particular way of resolving the contradictions of the modern world in which we all live. The naive dichotomy – oppressed good, oppressors bad – then no longer works. And it is precisely at this point that leftist movements often run into a predicament, especially when they want to unconditionally support migrants and workers.
The publicist Mirna Funk recently pointed out in an essay for Die Zeit that young progressive movements once more want to perceive Jews and Israelis as oppressors against whom they can stir up hatred without hesitation. “For many Jews of the younger generation,” Funk said, a “new era” is beginning: one in which it is made clear to them that in alliances like Migrantifa, they are “not only excluded but treated as the final boss.”
Climate protection and Palestine
Israel is now rarely a matter of content, but more often a matter of identity. Regardless of whether people are demonstrating for trans rights, climate justice, better wages or animal protection – in the end, many movements are confronted with the question of whether they in their fight for “good” should in fact also defend Palestinians. Even Fridays for Future Germany went through this experience recently when their parent organisation suddenly discovered its solidarity with Palestine in the wake of the Gaza war: “As climate justice organizers, we call for the overhaul of the systems that have disenfranchised communities, created the climate crisis and which are built on colonialism and imperialism.” They continued: “Our hearts are with all the martyrs and lives lost.” Fridays for Future Germany, as to be expected, distanced itself from the statement.
It is part of the strategy of anti-Israel movements like BDS to wring a statement about Israel from those who neither know much about the Middle East conflict nor wish to get involved in it (see Belltower.News). And this strategy works if the moral pressure it builds up is great enough. But there is another reason why these conflicts are coming to a head now and in this way. Identitarian labels are playing an increasingly important role in political disputes. This is not bad per se, because in many cases marginalised people can only make themselves heard if they come together and insist on this right. But when this leads to a “whoever is A must also think B” logic, it gets stupid.
At some point, all these discourses fail because of the very thing Fabian Wolff considers threatened in his essay: plurality. There are the “Jews in the AfD”, there are Jewish Holocaust deniers, right-wing conservative Israel lovers and left-wing antisemites. There are Muslims who are gay and those who hate gays; feminists who are against prostitution and those who are for it. You can’t escape the realisation: wrong doesn’t become any more right when it is said by the right person – and vice versa. The position of who is speaking can lend more power to a stance, but it is never a quality seal for truth.
That makes the situation complicated, but that can’t be an excuse. It is possible. It’s possible to show solidarity with Israel from an anti-fascist position, without applauding every step of the Israeli government. It’s possible to take the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank seriously without blaming Jews all over the world, without regurgitating the antisemitic propaganda of Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran. It’s not a contradiction to stand up for refugees and to call out antisemitism among migrants. And it is possible to do all this as someone who has no identitarian connection to any of these groups.
Identiarian arms race
The fact that this can also be used to argue against Jews in and outside of Israel is not a contradiction, on the contrary: it is an indicator of a political position that functions independently of the person speaking, a position that does not require the prefix “As feminists we condemn” or “As Germans we must”, but stands for itself – even though it is of course immensely put to the test by precisely this friction.
Identitarian arms races (“But I even know a Jew who sees it that way!”) are not only an undignified spectacle but also politically and intellectually underwhelming. And it is a deplorable win on points for all antisemites when the fundamental view that Israel is a good idea is equated with unconditional support for current Israeli government policy. They have been working on this discursive inseparability for years.
The Israel question has never been a yes-no question, but always a question of prioritisation and differentiation. The Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz writes in her anthology Israel: “To remain a just and universalist political project, Zionism demands an unprecedented capacity to stretch the boundaries of our political imagination. Rather than throwing mud at each other, Jews inside and outside Israel, with the help of non-Jewish political philosophers and activists, must mobilize themselves to face up to this challenge.”
If being left can be reduced to a common denominator at all, then a large part of it is surely the ability to empathise with others and to derive political consequences from this, especially if one does not share their experiences. If this is omitted, all that remains is ice-cold liberalism and thus loneliness instead of solidarity: everyone just takes care of their own discrimination, everyone only talks about that which concerns themselves. What happens to Jews is then their problem – and the Germans are off the hook. Fortunately, these times are over. They shouldn’t return.
Translated by Nicholas Potter. This article was originally published in German in the weekly newspaper Der Freitag.