Fighting the empty phrase

In Germany, public statements about Israel often lack quality. The quality of media discourse comes from knowledge and precise observation, but also from controversy and a diversity of voices. When it comes to Israel, something else sets the tone: the empty phrase

By Charlotte Wiedemann

This is particularly striking today because two events demand precise consideration: firstly, the failed show of resistance by Israel′s government to the nuclear agreement with Iran, and secondly, the arrival of a huge number of refugees from Syria, where hatred of Israel is no more than common courtesy. Is there a connection there? We′ll see.

"It is 1938, and Iran is Germany." Iran, according to Benjamin Netanyahu, is preparing for "another Holocaust". He could not have used any stronger words. But in Germany they faded away without creating much of an echo; even the Central Council of the Jews merely expressed "scepticism" about the agreement.

Warring opinions over the Iran deal

The reason for the reticence is obvious: Germany′s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, helped negotiate the Vienna agreement. The lack of response, however, remains a message: Israel′s right wing brought up the Holocaust, and Germany didn′t ignore it. So it seems to depend on who says what, when and why – even when it comes to this most sensitive of subjects.

For months now, there has been a war of opinions raging in the USA over the Iran deal. The losers here are the conservative organisations closely allied with Israel′s Likud, first and foremost the once-mighty American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Their massive "no" campaign was unable to gain support from a majority of US Jews, to the surprise of its initiators; instead, it provoked an unprecedented row within the Jewish community. To mention just one detail: 340 rabbis addressed Congress in an open letter to express their support for the agreement.

Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on 1.10.2015 in front of the United Nations General Assembly (photo: AFP/Getty Images/J. Samad)
Wordless criticism: on 1 October, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu used a silent protest to denounce the international nuclear agreement with Iran before the United Nations. Netanyahu accused the UN of wordlessly accepting Iran′s threats to his country

Jewish voices in the US are now talking of an epochal change. The Jewish Journal sees "a continuing divide between American-Jewish and Israeli-Jewish opinion". Jonathan Chait, a writer for the New York Magazine, summarised: "There is no more Israel lobby". Today, Jewish Americans are divided into political camps; the majority, he says, support the Democrats.

Failed no-deal campaign

Chait also sees a second reason behind the no-deal campaign′s failure: the foreign policy debate in Israel has moved steadily to the right over the past 15 years. The US Jewish establishment, which has gone along with this shift, therefore now stands to the right of the Jewish majority in America.

Naomi Dann, a spokesperson for the "Jewish Voice for Peace", even believes there can now be a discussion on whether the Jewish character of the State of Israel takes sacrosanct priority over the demand for equal rights for all its citizens.

Is it naive of me to want a similar plurality and liveliness in the debate in Germany, the country of the Holocaust? Or to put it another way: if in the USA, Israel′s most important ally, even Jews are increasingly distancing themselves from the actions of the Israeli government, isn′t it also about time to try a new discourse in Germany?

Of course, the Jewish communities here live in a country too burdened by history to be capable of, or to want, the kind of plurality of opinion the USA has. And in any case, official Germany prefers to think of its Jews as figurines in a glass case.

New spaces for public thought

But there are the beginnings of something new: when for example Jews living in Neukölln dispute the description of the migrant district as a no-go area – and with it the view of the Berlin Jewish community′s antisemitism officials. And there are young Israelis living in Berlin today who condemn Israel′s settlement policy, its warring and its treatment of asylum seekers so harshly it stops some Germans in their tracks.

New spaces for public thought and speech about Israel must be created by Jews and non-Jews together. This is already long overdue – and is now really necessary as a response to the most recent fears that the arrival of the Syrians will bring more anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish feeling to Germany. The new arrivals, according to Central Council president Josef Schuster, must be introduced to "enduring German values." With all due respect: I fear it won′t work. Not in such a static way.

Charlotte Wiedemann (photo: DW)
Political journalist and author Charlotte Wiedemann lived in Malaysia for several years and travelled to numerous Islamic countries in Asia and Africa. Her works investigate, among other things, the recent social turmoil in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. Her book Ihr wisst nichts über uns! Meine Reisen durch einen unbekannten Islam (You people know nothing about us! My travels through an unknown Islam) was published in 2012. Her latest book, Vom Versuch, nicht weiß zu schreiben (Trying not to write white) has been published by Verlag PapyRossa

Germany as a land of immigration still has to draw lessons from the Holocaust – this is part of Germany′s identity. But we have to develop a new consensus on what lessons those are, and how they are experienced. When the children of migrants take part in an excursion to Auschwitz, they have different feelings from young people whose ancestors might have been involved in the murder of the Jews. 

This is not a new observation, and for a long time now there have projects and studies on how teachers can deal with the absence of empathy. Yet the lack of empathy is not just a problem for migrants.

Anti-Zionism doesn′t have to be anti-Semitism

Most anti-Semitic crimes are committed by (right-wing) Germans; this isn′t a hatred that comes from immigrants. Anti-Zionism can be, but doesn′t have to be, the same as anti-Semitism. Synagogues in Iran don′t have to be guarded like they are in Germany. But it′s also true that a lot of Arabs can only imagine a Jew in an Israeli uniform.

So how will Germany as a country of immigration speak about Israel in the future? It′s difficult to defend Israel′s right to exist to a Syrian Palestinian, without talking about the legitimacy of its borders. Where we take refuge in cliché, we are not credible. Nobody is going to integrate into our clichés.

Today, people speaking out against those who set fire to refugee accommodation are putting into practice the lessons learned from the Holocaust. It isn′t the answer to everything. But if they are going to convince others, it′s a good starting point.

Charlotte Wiedemann

© 2015

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin