The bell of Gaza

Scene in Gaza City after an Israeli army bombing raid
"The bell of Gaza, a death knell for so many people, also heralds a new beginning under the black veil of mourning: nothing can remain as it is, as it was," writes Charlotte Wiedemann. The image shows a scene from Gaza City after an Israeli army bombing raid (image: Majdi Fathi/Nur Photo/picture-alliance)

With its fossilised premise of "raison d'etat" Germany is damaging itself. It is time for change – for constructive partnership in a concerted effort to overcome the Israeli-Palestinian catastrophe

Essay by Charlotte Wiedemann

The German translation of "The Hundred Years' War on Palestine" will be published soon. In his book, Rashid Khalidi, a U.S.-Palestinian historian, contemporary witness and political advisor, tells the story of Palestine through the lens of a double tragedy: oppression coupled with failed strategies for liberation. Eminently critical of past and present Palestinian leaderships, Khalidi leaves no doubt that everything must now be put on trial; we need a new vision of equality between two peoples.

The bell of Gaza, a death knell for so many people, also heralds a new beginning under the black veil of mourning: nothing can remain as it is, as it was. This applies to Israel, to the occupation, to the sclerotic Palestinian Authority, but also to Germany, to an understanding of raison d'etat that is wreaking considerable damage on our country, our international reputation and what is possible for our society. 

It is time to admit to this clearly and to change it – not least so that Germany can be a constructive and fair partner in overcoming the Israeli-Palestinian catastrophe. 

Cover of "The Hundred Years' War on Palestine"
The German translation of Rachid Khalidi's book on the history of the Middle East conflict, published in the USA in 2020, will appear in May 2024. The Financial Times wrote: "Khalidi, intellectual heir to Edward Said, has written one of the great books on the Israeli-Palestinian question" (image: Profile Books)

"Strangely boastful detachment from the world"

What has happened? Germany has allowed itself to go down the slippery slope of misunderstood exceptionalism: by narrowing down the consequences of its responsibility for the Holocaust and its corresponding exceptional obligations to an unquestioned commitment to the structure of the Israeli state and its politics. And by telling others what they should think about Israel as soon as they set foot on German soil.

The outcome is an oppressive mixture, a strangely boastful detachment from the world. We invite people in, to invite them to leave again. And we reserve the right to offend, because as the ex-evil masterminds, we are the only true good guys. 

At the same time, lectures, guest professorships and award ceremonies are in most cases not "cancelled" because those responsible are convinced that anti-Semitic voices would otherwise be heard in their own institution, but because they are afraid they could be accused of it. So they instead wash their hands of it all, professing innocence at the expense of others. Acknowledging historical German guilt has mutated into an insurance policy: I avow my purity by denouncing others.

"Authoritarian management of the official message"

This is sad, yes – and even sadder against the backdrop of real suffering in Gaza. Some of what is happening in Germany seems ridiculous, erratic, pathetic. But there is also something dark and unsettling about it; too often, the imperious do-good attitude ends up penalising prominent Jewish women.

However, I also see a different face of Germany. Just as, after the outbreak of the Gaza war, the majority opinion soon shifted and no longer shared the government's stance, the fossilised view of the German raison d'etat is a phenomenon limited mainly to the political elites (and those who would like to be counted among them). Even in memorials, for instance, people are rethinking things. Rather than censorship, I prefer to speak of careful authoritarian management of the official message and of intellectual self-amputation. 

There is a wealth of literature available on Israel/Palestine in German bookshops and libraries, but only a narrow corridor of legitimate views is condoned in public forums. Our Middle East studies landscape is rich, yet the list of experts being passed around among our institutions as "risk-free invitations" is pitifully short.

Doing justice to a new complexity

Germany is thus cementing its ignorance, while there is a growing need to find ways to navigate the new complexity of the situation. A case in point is right-wing extremism in Israel: long before 7 October, many Germans were finding it difficult to grasp this phenomenon cognitively and ethically, and yet this confusion and uncertainty scarcely formed the basis for any public debate. When those in opposition in Israel spoke of Jewish fundamentalism, even fascism, German politicians covered their ears. 

It is now time to recognise how large minorities of young Jews in the USA are distancing themselves from Israeli policy, readily labelling the conditions in the West Bank apartheid and taking the Palestinians' side more radically than ever before. The term "ethnic supremacy", which prompted Cologne University to withdraw a visiting professorship from philosopher Nancy Fraser, is being uttered by many, even Israelis, to critically describe the reality of a Jewish state that denies equality to non-Jews.

Omri Boehm, an award-winning philosopher in Germany, likewise calls for this concept of the state to be redressed. Arguably the most interesting among the Israeli-Palestinian initiatives advocating for a binational solution ("A Land for All") is based on recognising that both peoples have a sense of home extending "from the river to the sea". Why are we not actively taking part in such thinking? 

Author Charlotte Wiedemann
The journalist and author Charlotte Wiedemann primarily focusses on societies outside Europe and their conflicts with the West. Her most recent publication in German is "Den Schmerz der Anderen begreifen: Holocaust and World Memory" (image: Propyläen 2022)

Everything could be so different. Thousands of people in Germany can draw on years of experience in Israel-Palestine, through church initiatives, NGOs and as human rights observers. There are 200,000 Palestinians and an estimated 30,000 Israelis living among us. What resources! And what a spectacular waste not to take advantage of them.

Instead of attracting attention through intolerant moralism, Germany could be where everyone goes for open, creative and constructive debate. Public diplomacy on Israel-Palestine that embraces all those involved: a feasible utopia. And it would be in keeping with a historical responsibility conceived in inclusive terms to understand Israel, Palestine and Germany as a triangle.

Something else to think about: resistance to equal rights for all unites the AfD with the Trump camp in the USA and radical Zionism in Israel. Anyone preferring this narrative should say so, and then they had better not invoke lessons learned from the Shoah.

Charlotte Wiedemann 

© 2024 

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor