BERLIN - Even in the supposedly redemptive days of Barack Obama, Americans and Israelis traveling abroad have grown sadly accustomed to outbursts of anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism and worse.
But it's uncommon for Americans, Israelis and Jews to find themselves insulted in the pages of one of Germany's most respected magazines and news outlets. Take the case of Der Spiegel columnist Jakob Augstein. Late last month, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles included Augstein in its annual list of the "Top Ten Anti-Israel/Anti-Semitic Slurs," beginning Act II of the controversy German novelist and Nobel laureate Günter Grass began last year when he penned an infamous anti-Israel poem entitled "What Must Be Said."
The Wiesenthal Center's bill of particulars quotes Augstein claiming that United States foreign policy is run by Jews, and Israel's government is a warmongering whip master. "With backing from the US, where the president must secure the support of Jewish lobby groups, and in Germany, where coping with history, in the meantime, has a military component," Augstein wrote in his weekly "When In Doubt, Think Left" column. As a result, he concludes "the Netanyahu government keeps the world on a leash with an ever-swelling war chant."
Augstein, perhaps Grass' greatest cheerleader in the German media, expressed his gratitude to the Nobelist for leading the European charge against Israel: "One must, therefore, thank him for taking it upon himself to speak for us all."
When it comes to anti-American invective, Mr. Augstein is a buffet, and has even become something of a wire service for the Iranian regime in the Federal Republic. Despite mounting International Atomic Energy Agency reports and Western and Israeli intelligence assessments (including German) documenting Iran's work on nuclear technologies with military applications, he argues that there is no proof that Iran is working on a nuclear weapon.
Though he has no special expertise in the Middle East, the 45-year-old Augstein blames the US and Israel for all the evils of the region. "The fire burns in Libya, Sudan, Yemen…But those who set the fires live elsewhere…Whom does this all this violence benefit? Always the insane and unscrupulous. And this time it's the US Republicans and Israeli government."
It is perhaps not difficult to ascertain why Der Spiegel has expected little moderation of Augstein. His late father Rudolf founded the magazine, and he along with his family members own a significant shareholder stake in the Hamburg-based media company today.
After the Wiesenthal Center named Augstein on its list, the German journalistic establishment, from the left to the right, quickly came to his defense. The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ)deemed Wiesenthal's decision a "strategic error," adding that "a critical journalist has been placed in a group into which he doesn’t belong."
Unhinged hatred for Israel, US
If Israel intended to obliterate the Islamic Republic of Iran, that would be news. Yet Tehran's clerical rulers repeatedly announce their intention to "wipe Israel off the map" and it's considered business as usual - not least by some of the most influential members.
Earlier this month, the columnist Christian Bommarius , writing in the Berliner Zeitung and the left-leaning Frankfurter Rundschau, argued that the Polish-born Jewish journalist Henryk M. Broder was spared incarceration because of the of the post-Holocaust German legal system.
Mr. Bommarius was sore after Mr. Broder—a best-selling author and columnist for Die Welt—exposed Mr. Augstein’s diatribes against Israel, Jews and Americans in September. The Wiesenthal Center, which cited Mr. Broder as part of its rationale for naming Mr. Augstein on its list of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel slurs, has testified in the Bundestag on contemporary anti-Semitism in the Federal Republic.
Mr. Bommarius was, as a mainstream journalist, in essence, calling for Germany to imprison a Jewish journalist for exercising press freedoms for ostensibly the first time since the Holocaust.
The former editor-in-chief of the New Republic magazine, Marty Peretz ,once described Broder as a "dazzling" journalist and he deserves credit for bringing Augstein’s outrageous language to the fore. The Wiesenthal Center's invaluable decision to include Augstein on their list has helped trigger a long-overdue debate over left-wing anti-Semitism in Germany.
In fact, - Israel's Ambassador to Germany, Yaakov Hadas-Handelsman, weighed in on the dispute last week, saying "today we are observing a growing anti-Semitism from the Left." Commenting on Augstein's comparison between the Gaza Strip and a concentration camp, Hadas-Handelsman said "That is shameful." Augstein described Gaza as a "camp" which conjures up in a German language context a Nazi extermination camp. He also said, "Gaza is a place out of the end of times... 1.7 million people live there on 360 sq. kilometers. Israel incubates its own opponents there."
Augstein's oft-repeated defense is that the Wiesenthal Center has defamed "critical journalism" and weakened the fight against anti-Semitism and racism by including him on their list. Augstein has also compared the Jewish state to the former Apartheid regime in South Africa. He said he has never been to Israel and said he would not visit. It is an odd position for a critical journalist to take that he would not visit the subject of his intense preoccupation.
The Wiesenthal Center has demanded that Mr. Augstein apologize to his readers and the Jewish community. He has denied that he is an anti-Semite but did not backtrack from his unhinged hatred for Israel and the United States.
Augstein went to great lengths to defend Grass, and his assertion that "the nuclear power Israel endangers the fragile world peace." In his Spiegel column, he cited his special thanks to Grass for "taking it upon himself to speak for us all." Grass is, needless to say, not a moral authority, having confessed to serving in the Nazis' Waffen-SS in the closing months of World War II. Grass hid his membership in the Waffen- SS for over six decades.
Yet as Berlin's Tagesspiegel opinion page editor Malte Lehming puts it, Augstein and his supporters show an alarming tendency to apply old Nazi newspaper rhetoric — "The Jews are our misfortune" — to contemporary events in the form of bashing the Jewish state.
Sadly, Mr. Augstein's commentaries have tainted Spiegel's normally sober-minded editorials with bombastic and inflammatory rhetoric targeting Americans, Israelis and Jews. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center, is slated to speak at a press conference in Berlin on January 31. Let's hope German news organizations and elites pay close attention to his comments about the blind spots in the fight against anti-Semitism in the Federal Republic.
Benjamin Weinthal is a Berlin-based Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies