Theorizing Modernities article

Germany’s Split Identity: Liberal at Home, Reactionary on Palestine

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (German: Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas), also known as the Holocaust Memorial (German: Holocaust-Mahnmal). Photo Credit: Daniel Foster, via Flickr. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

It is not easy to summarize the rich, highly nuanced, and very timely The Moral Triangle: Germans, Israelis, Palestinians, by Sa’ed Atshan and Katharina Galor. This book sets out to understand the knotted relationship between Germans, Israelis, and Palestinians in the cosmopolitan city of Berlin in the second decade of the twenty-first century. It is a very important book because, as it notes, Berlin’s Palestinian community has become in recent years the largest in Europe, while the Israeli community is one of the largest outside Israel and probably the youngest (demographically). Hence the book’s attempt to present this complicated relationship systematically and “from below”—essentially by means of a series of interviews with Germans, Israelis, and Palestinians living in Berlin, which are discussed within broad political and cultural contexts—is extremely important.

In this short essay, I will not review or summarize the book, but rather “think with” it. What emerges from this engagement, at least from my perspective as an Israeli Jew reading it in Jerusalem, is a deep split in current German liberal identity. This split seems to cast some doubt on the alleged success of the big post-world-war German identity formation project of “coming to terms with the past” (Vergangenheitsbewältigung).

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

On the one hand Germany (and particularly Berlin), viewed from Jerusalem, seems to be a stronghold of freedom and liberal-democratic culture and politics, and on certain issues (such as LGBTQ+ cultural and social inclusion, and climate change), even progressive. Germany’s strength and democratic stability are particularly evident when viewed (despite the rising of the AfD in recent years) against the backdrop of rising right-wing populist regimes both within and outside Europe. Germany is also seen as the unifying element in the European Union at a time of crisis in which it is in danger of breaking up. It is this liberal image of Germany (together with other more materialistic reasons) that has turned it, since the 1990s, into a desirable destination for tens of thousands of young Jewish Israeli migrants many of whom see it as a tolerant and open alternative to Israel. Generally speaking, these migrants have felt very welcome by Germany, especially in Berlin. At the same time, Germany has become an attractive destination for migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers from the MENA region, particularly following the citizenship reforms that were put into place at the beginning of the 2000s. Angela Merkel’s decision in 2015 to take in a million refugees and asylum seekers, mostly from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, made Germany exemplary. And although, as the book portrays, these refugees were often met with implicit and explicit racist and Islamophobic attitudes, as the book also asserts: “Despite the significant increase in xenophobia and criticism of Merkel’s policy […] a tangible welcoming culture has emerged in Germany and more specifically in Berlin” (45). Holocaust survivor and literary scholar Ruth Kluger, who spoke at the German Bundestag to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, 2016, praised Merkel’s decision, calling her slogan Wir schaffen das, “we can do this” (absorb that many refugees, see 42), heroic. The connection she made to the Holocaust and the admiration she expressed were shared by many.

Meanwhile, it seems that in everything relating to the Palestinian criticism of Israel’s colonialism and occupation, Germany’s conduct—at official levels and also in civil society and even academia—is the most reactionary in all of Europe and the west. This too, as is evident in many of the book’s sections, is framed as learning the lessons of the Holocaust, lessons which have fashioned the DNA of the country’s political culture since the nineties and culminated in Merkel’s 2008 Knesset address asserting that due to its past, Israel’s security is Germany’s “reason of state” (Staatsräson) (36).

It might be enough to recall some of the events of recent years. In May 2019, the German parliament voted for a motion equating the BDS movement—which enjoys an overwhelming support among Palestinians—with antisemitism, and thus implicitly criminalizing all Palestinians as antisemites. Practically speaking, this motion made it very difficult for BDS supporters to get access to public spaces or funding in Germany (see also, 95–96). In a distortive way, the boycott of the state of Israel (a nuclear power, an occupier, an oppressor trampling the rights of others) reminds many Germans of the boycott of Jewish businesses in the 1930s by the oppressive Nazi state (see 151 – this association was explicitly included in the motion itself). Nowhere in Europe or indeed the world are anti-Israel stances or criticism of Israel identified so strongly with antisemitism as in Germany. This tendency is consolidated by, among others, Felix Klein, who since 2018 has been the federal commissioner for combatting antisemitism and strengthening Jewish life in Germany. He has done so with the encouraging support of Israeli officials. (Thus, for example the Israeli spokesperson of the Israeli Embassy in Berlin is quoted saying that it is in Israel’s “interest to maintain German guilt about the Holocaust” [150].)

Atshan and Galor describe well in their book the oppressive and antidemocratic outcomes of this atmosphere. Atshan, a Palestinian from Ramallah, was himself a victim of a persecutory position of this sort when, in August 2018, his invitation to lecture at the Jewish Museum in Berlin was cancelled. These tendencies reached a grotesque level of absurdity, when, following Felix Klein’s charge of antisemitism against the German-Jewish left wing and BDS-supporting organization Jüdische Stimme für gerechten Frieden in Nahost (Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East), the German Bank for Social Economy (Bank für Sozialwirtschaft) decided to close their bank account (109).

These policies effect all spheres of life and effectively shape a very biased public discourse. But perhaps the most extreme example of this German trend towards discriminatory and antidemocratic behavior, intolerance, and racism, occurred after Atshan and Galor’s book was published. In September 2021, the broadcasting station WDR decided to cancel an employment contract with the physician and journalist Nemi Al-Hassan, who was supposed to present a popular TV programme on science. El-Hassan, the German-born daughter of Palestinian refugees, was accused of antisemitism because in 2014 she took part in the Al Quds march against Operation Protective Edge in Gaza (during which according to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem 2202 Palestinians were killed, 1391 of who were unarmed and 526 of whom were under the age of 18), and because she “liked” a post by the US anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace at the time of the “Guardian of the Walls” operation in Gaza in May 2021 (in which 256 Palestinians were killed, 66 of whom were children and at least 128 of whom were civilians). She was also a target of a vicious public attack led by the Bild tabloid and was subject to numerous death threats.

This then is the German split. On the one hand, it is a state with liberal-democratic and even progressive tendencies which attracts Israeli and Palestinian migrants. On the other hand, it is a reactionary state that cancels and criminalizes as antisemitic Palestinian protest and actually the very Palestinian discourse and narrative, and shields the state of Israel from any substantial criticism, even as the latter engages in occupation, expulsion, and systematic violation of Palestinians national, human, and civil rights. This split is to my understanding what constitutes the infrastructure of The Moral Triangle.

The Split between Two Global Narratives

In my mind, this split is related to a more general, perhaps global, narrative split. As the historian Charles Maier points out, the end of the twentieth century saw the development and proliferation of what he calls two great “moral historical narratives” in the west and beyond to explain modernity. Both are stories of historical catastrophe: the story of the Holocaust and the story of anti-/post-colonialism and imperialism. According to Maier, the former focuses mostly on issues of memory, whereas the latter centers on issues of (ongoing) domination and exploitation.

Most Israelis and Germans understand Israel and Zionism through the prism of the story of the Holocaust and paradoxically it functions as a story of redemption. For the Israelis, the state of Israel is the Jewish people’s decisive answer to the Holocaust and to antisemitism, the place where Holocaust survivors were able to rehabilitate their lives and their human dignity. For them, it is the only guarantee that a further Holocaust won’t happen in the future. It’s a redemptive story of “Holocaust and rebirth,” as the Zionist slogan puts it. For the Germans too—as the German-Israeli psychoanalyst Iris Hefetz has recently portrayed in a very nuanced article in the Berliner Zeitung—the story of the Holocaust is a part of a drama of redemption. The support for the state of Israel, ever since the Reparations Agreement, has been a way for the Germans to redeem themselves from their past and gain recognition as the new Germany. As a story of redemption, it is fundamental to the national identities of the two peoples, and any opposition to it is met by a very harsh response.

The Palestinians and many progressives around the world, meanwhile, understand the political reality in Palestine-Israel in the frame of the post-/anti-colonial narrative, which, like the Holocaust narrative, has also become global since the 1990s. Israel figures in this story mainly as the perpetrator of cruelty and violence in a story of settler colonialism where indigenous Palestinian inhabitants are the victims. This narrative holds that under the protection of the imperial powers, and in order to solve Europe’s antisemitism problem, Palestine was stolen from its original inhabitants, who underwent ethnic cleansing (the Nakba), becoming a minority in their homeland. These processes didn’t end in 1948 and are ongoing.

The Palestinian intellectual Raef Zreik articulated this rift very precisely: “The Europeans see the back of the Jewish refugee fleeing for his life. The Palestinian sees the face of the settler colonialist taking over his land.” These two perspectives cannot be more remote from each other than in the German case. Most Germans find it very difficult to accept the legitimacy, let alone the relevance, of the anticolonial perspective in relation to Israel, despite a prodigious historical research literature about it. For many Germans, referring to Israel as a settler colonial state, even as a historical analytic perspective, is a form of antisemitism that negates the lessons of the Holocaust. The abyss between these two historical narratives in general and with regard to Israel in particular seems unbridgeable in Germany, though the urgent challenge is indeed to bridge them. In my own work with Bashir Bashir we tried to suggest a way to bridge this rift.

 Coming to Terms with the Past while Denying the Present

Recently the philosopher Susan Neiman published a much-discussed book, Learning from the Germans (2019). In it, she praised the Germans for their Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past), which includes taking moral responsibility for the past and compensating its victims. She further suggests that Germany should serve as a model for the Americans in coming to terms with their own dark past. Indeed, this national project that emerged from Germany’s politics after the war, but also from admirable grassroots activism during the eighties and nineties, seemed for many years to set a model for the whole world to show how nations should deal with their own criminal past. However, The Moral Triangle, portraying the complex situation in Germany of the second decade of the twenty first century, casts some doubt on this often-celebrated Vergangenheitsbewältigung (a doubt, which I think Neiman has recently also come to share). The various dichotomic unbridgeable gaps and splits which emerge so forcefully from The Moral Triangle are to my mind anything but an indication of a successful process of working through the past.

A current unfolding affair in Germany seems to prove this point. The Alliance Against Anti-Semitism Kassel (supported by some mainstream liberal media) accused some artists who were supposed to present in Documenta—one of Germany’s most important and prestigious international contemporary art events in Kassel—as being antisemitic. One of the “sins” attached to a Palestinian artist—Yazan al-Khalili—was that he was associated in the past with a cultural center in Ramallah named after the Palestinian intellectual Khalil Al-Sakakini. Al-Sakakini, who had fled his home in Jerusalem during the 1948 Nakba, indeed sympathized (like many other anti-colonial leaders and intellectuals around the world—from Africa to India) with Nazi Germany in its war against imperial Great Britain. In fact, Al-Sakakini was a much more complex figure, but this is really beside the point. Because as Elke Buhr noted, it was not Sakakini—who died in 1953—who was invited to Kassel. Nor was it the cultural center named after him. An artist who was associated with the center was the invitee—and that was enough to declare him antisemitic and create a havoc. This does not seem to me a healthy process of “coming to terms with the past.” This looks to me more like a very dangerous ritual of exorcism, de-contamination, and scapegoating.

Personal and collective identities always hold tensions, ambivalences, paradoxes, and even contradictions. But when these become so extreme that the gaps cannot be negotiated, mitigated, bridged, or even discussed, they become a reason for deep (political) concern. To my mind, as a Jewish Israeli, this is characteristic of Zionism and of current Jewish Israeli identity. The contradiction between being “Jewish” and being “democratic” has become apparent and unbridgeable. What I have learned from Atshan and Galor’s book is that despite the nuances and complexities they portray, this can also be said, to a large extent, for Germany. Its democratic values and its alleged pro-Israelism—both lessons learned from the Holocaust—cannot be reconciled anymore.

I wish to thank Yehudit Yinhar and Prof. Stefanie Schüler-Springorum for their helpful comments. Obviously, I bare the sole responsibility for everything written in this essay.

Amos Goldberg
Professor Amos Goldberg teaches Holocaust Studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Goldberg's work is interdisciplinary in nature, combining history, cultural studies, and psychoanalysis. Among his recent publications is his book Trauma in First Person: Diary Writing During the Holocaust (Indiana University Press, 2017) and his co-edited volume together with Bashir Bashir The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History (Columbia University Press, 2018). Goldberg is active in fighting the abuse of “the fight against antisemitism” for suppressing Palestinian rights. His recently co-authored article together with Alon Confino and Raz Segal was published in the Berliner Zeitung.

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