When I first got interested in Israel and the conflict in the Middle East I felt like a renegade. It was during the second intifada and Ariel Sharon was one of the most hated men in Germany. It was not easy to get objective information about the situation; it was time- and work-intensive, and I often felt very lonely.
Unfortunately, in the last years the tide is turning against Israel in Germany. Recent polls suggest a strong anti-Israel sentiment among the German public. A 2011 survey by the social democratic Friedrich Ebert Foundation found that 47.7% of Germans think that Israel is conducting a “war of annihilation” against Palestinians. A recent poll by the German magazine Der Stern revealed that 59% consider Israel “aggressive,” an increase of 10% compared to three years ago.
Whereas the historic crime committed by Nazi Germany against the Jewish people had kept those sentiments in check for many years and resulted in a “special relationship” between Germany and Israel, one can sense a growing unease among Germans regarding the Jewish state.
After the Mavi Marmara incident, for example, the German Bundestag was the only Western parliament to unanimously pass a resolution condemning Israel. Two members of the leftwing party Die Linke who were on the Mavi Marmara were voting with conservatives, liberals and social democrats. The Jewish-German publicist Henryk M. Broder called this an “act of national self-discovery” and claimed that the “Jewish question” which had created a German feeling of national unity in the past has obviously now turned into the “Palestine question.”
It is been true that an aggressive anti-Zionism has not been as present in public discourses in Germany as it is in other Western nations. But campaigns to delegitimize Israel are getting more support than they used to. For example, an exhibition on the Palestinian “Nakba” has been touring through Germany for years now, making stops at centers of the Protestant church and in some cases even in public buildings. In the city of Cologne there has been an openly anti-Semitic exhibition on display for years, including a large cartoon of a person with a Star of David, and a fork and knife cutting a Palestinian kid into pieces.
There was also the recent poem by German Nobel laureate Günter Grass fantasizing about Israel’s plans to annihilate the Iranian people and the statement by the head of the German Social Democratic Party, Sigmar Gabriel, accusing Israel of implementing an “Apartheid regime” in Hebron.
And 2011 saw the introduction of the anti-Israel boycott campaign into Germany. Supported by Die Linke in the city of Bremen, protesters stood outside a supermarket demanding a stop to the sale of Israeli products. At that time the boycott campaign was limited to Bremen only.
Situation not hopeless, yet
But now, the German chapter of the Catholic NGO Pax Christi took up this call for a boycott of Israeli goods. The difference this time is that the group does not represents some radical elements from the Left, but rather, is closely tied to the Catholic Church and is national in scope. To boost their credentials they got an endorsement from the mayor of Jena, Albrecht Schröter, who was awarded a civil courage prize for his activities against neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism. He is also the first mayor of a bigger city and high-ranking member of the Social Democratic Party to support such campaign.
Nonetheless, Schröter has been known for his anti-Israel activities, including the participation in a rally against the security barrier in Beit Jala in 2008. Although the campaign is clearly crossing the lines into modern anti-Semitism, Schröter has claimed that he can’t be an anti-Semite because of his political activities and because of the support of Jewish and Israeli friends. In his most recent defense he even claims that he has been and will remain a “friend of Israel.” But it is telling that he only talks about Israeli “crimes” while remaining mute on Hamas rockets and grave human rights violations perpetrated by the Palestinian Authority.
Someone like Schröter is emblematic of the “new” anti-Semitism in Germany. It comes with a smile and claims to only care for “human rights.” It is a “new” form of the old hatred for the Jews because its advocates truly care about the remembrance of the Shoah, are active against neo-Nazism and are sympathetic to the small Jewish life in today’s Germany.
On the other hand, they completely lack compassion for Israel’s fight for its survival and see it as the “devil” in the Middle East. As the 2011 poll revealed, they consider Israel the Nazis of today, conducting some kind of genocide against the Palestinian people. They demonize Israel, use double standards against it and thereby delegitimize the only Jewish state in the world.
This moral remodeling of anti-Semitism makes it much harder for friends of Israel to oppose this anti-Semitism. Therefore, defending Israel today is as much work as it was when I first began. On the other hand, writing for the well-known German blog Die Achse des Guten and making the case for Israel on my own blog have created opportunities I hadn’t had before. They help in communicating the message to a broader public, rouse support for a campaign and present a pro-Israel perspective in order to counter opinions critical of Israel so overwhelmingly present in German national media.
As bad as it looks, I am convinced that the situation in Germany is serious but it is not hopeless – not yet.
Kevin Zdiara is a doctoral student in philosophy at the Max Weber Center for Advanced Cultural and Advanced Studies in Erfurt and is writing his thesis about the Jewish-American philosopher Horace M. Kallen. He is a deputy representative of the German-Israel Friendship Association in Erfurt
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This article was originally published in Hebrew