The lost honour of Nemi El-Hassan

On 10 September, WDR, the public broadcaster in Germany's most populous western state, introduced the 28-year-old journalist Nemi El-Hassan as the new presenter of its popular and respected science programme "Quarks". Then German tabloid giant "Bild" got involved and everything changed. A commentary by Stefan Buchen

Essay by Stefan Buchen

It was accusations of anti-Semitism that moved WDR to reverse its decision that 28-year-old journalist Nemi El-Hassan would present the science programme "Quarks". WDR Director-General Tom Buhrow explained to WDR's broadcasting council that recent "problematic likes" by her had been found on social media. In his view, the problem was "not so much" Ms El-Hassan's participation in the Quds demonstration in Berlin in 2014, an action from which she had since distanced herself. He went on to say that the WDR was, however, "considering" allowing El-Hassan to continue working for "Quarks" as a writer, in other words behind the camera, not in front of it.

Subsequently, numerous members of the council came forward and demanded "with an overwhelming majority" that El-Hassan should not work for WDR in any capacity. She could have no place there, either in front of the camera or behind it, they said. Broadcasting council chairman Andreas Meyer-Lauber said: "Anti-Semitic standpoints cannot and will not be allowed to have a place at WDR." There could be no compromise in this respect, he said.

This was how the dpa reported the story on 28 September. And so, the narrative was set in stone: WDR would have been happy to be more lenient, if it had just been a matter of the youthful transgression of taking part in a demonstration against Israel organised by the Iranian regime seven years ago. But unfortunately, just this summer past, Nemi El-Hassan had raised suspicions of anti-Semitism by "liking" certain Instagram posts. Such positions must not be tolerated, the narrative went on. In view of this online evidence, which had only recently come to light, her apology for joining the demonstration appeared in a quite different light. She had not been genuine when she distanced herself from her actions, which means there could be no place for her at WDR.

Case dismissed? Not a bit of it!

The reader has no further questions. It all seems to make sense. WDR carried out a thorough investigation of the case and didn't take its decision lightly. According to Director-General Buhrow, the discussion had been "difficult, difficult" and in the end, the well-founded decision to bar Nemi El-Hassan from appearing on screen had been taken.

Case dismissed? Not a bit of it! The problem is that this narrative, sealed with the stamp of objectivity ("as reported by the dpa"), is being accepted without question in Germany in 2021. The fact that it was the tabloid giant "Bild" that circulated the "incriminating evidence" against Nemi El-Hassan has almost been forgotten. You couldn't even tell this story to the marines: it has too many holes and comes to a wrong conclusion.

The biggest hole is called Palestine. Nemi El-Hassan may have been born in Germany, but her grandparents were neither concentration camp guards, nor did they denounce German, Polish or Hungarian Jews to the Gestapo, herd them into cattle wagons or shoot them in eastern European forests. Her grandparents were driven out of Palestine.

When someone is shaped by the refugee story of his or her own family and the resulting sense of identity, is that reason enough for them to be branded, marginalised and banished from public life? Do people of Palestinian heritage have to delete their perspectives if they want to succeed in Germany in the year 2021? Are they obliged to remain silent?

Former Israeli ambassador to Germany Avi Primor (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Avi Primor (pictured here) was Israel's ambassador to Germany from 1993 to 1999. Together, he and historian Moshe Zimmermann issued a statement about the Nemi El-Hassan case in which they focus on the three controversial posts "liked" by El-Hassan. One of these posts, they point out, was about a boycott of Israeli goods from the Palestinian territories. Primor and Zimmermann do not consider this to be an anti-Semitic act: "The differentiation between goods from Israel itself and the occupied territories is also made by the International community (also by the EU)". In Israel, journalists who "liked" similar posts to Ms El-Hassan would not have been persecuted, they said, adding that Israel is not Hungary or Poland and that they hope the Federal Republic also stands for freedom of expression

WDR and its broadcasting council didn't even ask themselves these questions. Instead, they chose to dwell on the accusation of anti-Semitism. "Problematic likes" and "anti-Semitic positions" – such phrases should be enough to ensure that someone like Nemi El-Hassan is out of the picture.

But WDR is effectively hiding behind the dpa report. In a dry statement, the broadcaster added that Nemi El-Hassan's appointment to the role of presenter would result in "an inappropriate politicisation" of the science magazine "Quarks".

But on what exactly are the accusations based? The three posts the journalist "liked" are exclusively concerned with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They celebrate the escape of six Palestinian prisoners from an Israeli jail, call for a boycott of Israeli products, and call for a state between the Mediterranean and Jordan where Jews and Palestinians have equal rights. According to the post, this state would have to be different to the State of Israel in its current form.

These are views commonly held among Palestinians. They are evidently highly critical of the balance of power in the land between the Mediterranean and Jordan. These are views that Germans with different grandparents to those of Nemi El-Hassan should definitely avoid. The author of this article, for example, does not share these political views. And unfortunately, there are incorrigible Germans who bellow "solidarity with Palestine" as a way of expressing their hatred of the Jews.

Joint declaration by Avi Primor and Moshe Zimmermann

But is Nemi El-Hassan anti-Semitic when she "likes" these views? Two well-known Israeli intellectuals reject this accusation. Former ambassador to Germany Avi Primor and history professor Moshe Zimmermann from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem wrote a joint statement about the El-Hassan case. And it pulls no punches.

According to this statement, Nemi El-Hassan's likes were not an expression of anti-Semitism. Primor and Zimmermann also noted that support for the boycott related to goods produced by Israeli companies in the occupied territories, which, they said, is not an anti-Semitic act. They pointed out that even the European Union differentiates between goods produced in Israel and those produced in the occupied territories.

Primor and Zimmermann deem the attempt to use such accusations to prevent El-Hassan from working as a presenter on WDR to be "not legitimate". They feel that the object of the campaign was to "discriminate against a woman with a Palestinian background." Speaking to, Moshe Zimmermann stressed that "the case of Nemi El-Hassan shows how the fight against anti-Semitism can be steered in the wrong direction."

We should be able to assume that not only WDR but everyone knows that a bitter bi-national conflict over territory is raging in the Middle East – a conflict that is regularly played out through killing on both sides. It is rightly regarded as normal that Jews in Germany back Israel. But what do we think about people of Palestinian heritage who live here and who feel allied with Palestinian positions? Is "zero tolerance" called for in this instance? Do allegations of anti-Semitism have to be made? Are Palestinians more or less born anti-Semites? In the case of the journalist Nemi El-Hassan, the accusation is absurd. In a reportage for ZDF, one of Germany's two national public broadcasters, she exposed neo-Nazis who deny the Holocaust.

It is evident that there is still a huge amount to discuss, debate and analyse. To date, this discourse has not yet taken place in relation to the Nemi El-Hassan case. That is a great shame, because the journalist and qualified doctor has emphatically shown that she is ready for dialogue and receptive to criticism. What more does majority society want?

Historian Moshe Zimmermann (photo: DW/Sarah Hoffmann)
Prof. emer. Moshe Zimmermann (pictured here) is former director of the Richard Koebner Minerva Center for German History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In their joint statement, he and Avi Primor said that the attempt to use accusations of anti-Semitism to prevent El-Hassan from working as a presenter on WDR as "not legitimate". They felt that the object of the campaign was to "discriminate against a woman with a Palestinian background." Speaking to, Moshe Zimmermann stressed that "the case of Nemi El-Hassan shows how the fight against anti-Semitism can be steered in the wrong direction"

"Bild" campaign

Following the emergence of the accusations against Nemi El-Hassan, WDR announced that it would examine the case "without pressure from any quarter". As it turns out, this statement was hypocritical. It could also be described as a downright lie. Essentially, the public service broadcaster allowed itself to be goaded by the "Bild" newspaper and its editor in chief, Julian Reichelt, who was himself recently removed from his post because of a very different scandal. It was "Bild" that "uncovered" the story that the presenter chosen by WDR was an Islamist who gave "likes for anti-Semitism". This narrative enjoyed resounding success, although it lacks any factual basis.

Two weeks ago, WDR Director-General Buhrow then upped the ante in another newspaper, "Die Zeit". In a guest commentary published mid-October, he said that there should be more room for "uncomfortable attitudes" in public service broadcasting. In his call for more open discourse, he made no mention whatsoever of the Nemi El-Hassan case. It would seem that the pinnacle of hypocrisy has not yet been reached. Why doesn't Buhrow make Julian Reichelt the new presenter of "Quarks"? After all, Reichelt needs a new job and has shown that he is a man for "uncomfortable attitudes".

Ruthless dismantling of a reputation

Meanwhile, beyond the horizon of the WDR and its broadcasting council, matters take their course. Islamists have seized upon the story and are milking it for all it's worth: look, says Salafist preacher Pierre Vogel, for example, this society will never accept you. And at the same time, the fight against the hatred of Jews degenerates into a cheap instrument that is being used to reach other political goals, whether it be the delegitimisation of Palestinian self-assertion or the hampering of the career prospects of young professionals with a migrant background.

"In every respect a very radical person who cleverly succeeded in deceiving us" was how 27-year-old Katharina Blum is described in the newspaper the "News" in Heinrich Böll's famous 1974 story of a young woman branded radical, dangerous and cunning by societal prejudice. Böll's book "The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum" describes how fearless reporters from the "News" ruthlessly dismantle the reputation of a woman with an "opaque past".

The foreword to Böll's story states that similarities between the "journalistic practices" described in the novel and those of the "Bild" newspaper are "neither intentional nor fortuitous, but unavoidable". The fact that Böll's story is set in Cologne – where WDR is based – should perhaps be seen as a sign by the WDR director-general and his broadcasting council.

The WDR and the general public appears to have skipped its German lesson and learned little. Unmoved, they are allowing fiction to be repeated in reality.

Stefan Buchen

© 2021

Stefan Buchen studied Arabic language and literature at Tel Aviv University from 1993 to 1995. He then worked as a journalist in Israel and the Palestinian territories until 1999. He now works as a journalist for the ARD television news magazine Panorama.

Translated from the German by Nina Coon.