The Challenge of Defending Memory in Germany

A Berlin conference organized to combat right-wing appropriation of Holocaust memory faces enduring backlash over Palestine.

Joshua Leifer
July 7, 2022

Historian Jan Grabowski (left) and journalist Konstanty Gebert speak with philosopher Susan Neiman about right-wing Holocaust revisionism in Poland at the “Hijacking Memory” conference.

Still courtesy of Haus der Kulturen der Welt

“Hijacking Memory: The Holocaust and the New Right”— a conference hosted in Berlin from June 9–12 and organized by the philosopher Susan Neiman, writer and researcher Emily Dische-Becker, and historian Stefanie Schüler-Springorum—began with an air of anxiety. On opening day, the liberal German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that the conference center Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) had taken security precautions. But it wasn’t just the threat of physical disruption that loomed. Neiman, who directs the Einstein Forum, a cultural and intellectual organization founded after German reunification, joked during her keynote speech about the risk that her comments would be taken out of context and used against her, the Einstein Forum, and the conference.

Although Neiman seemed to revel in her acts of subtle transgression, the fear was real. Before the conference started, it had already generated social media buzz. German Israel advocacy groups tweeted that Neiman—an Israeli citizen and former professor at Tel Aviv University—was attempting to further a pro-BDS agenda, and intimated that the conference was facilitating the “relativization” of the Holocaust, long a major taboo in Germany where, in the state’s official Errinnerungskultur, or “memory culture,” the Holocaust stands as the unsurpassed instantiation of evil in the history of humanity. “Relativization” was once a charge wielded against conservative German historians such as Ernst Nolte, whose work equating Nazism with Bolshevism was widely seen as a minimization of German war crimes; in recent years, postcolonial theorists such as Achille Mbembe and Palestinian scholars such as Sa’ed Atshan have borne the brunt of the accusation for juxtaposing colonial violence with Nazi violence.

The “Hijacking Memory” conference aimed to bring together a range of academics, journalists, and activists to discuss what its organizers called “a troubling development”: Across the world, from Hungary to Israel to Britain to the US, right-wing and xenophobic groups have attempted to position themselves as defenders of Holocaust memory, even as they often whitewash European collaboration with the Nazis and pursue racist and xenophobic anti-migrant politics. Frequently, they also point to their ardent support for Israeli policies in order to rebut charges of antisemitism. In Germany, for instance, where the far-right once rejected civic pieties about the Holocaust, the right-wing-populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party’s representatives now introduce anti-BDS resolutions and cultivate ties with the Netanyahu family. Against the backdrop of the increasing intolerance in Germany for criticism of Israel and the shrinking space for Palestinian political expression, the conference organizers asked: How might this phenomenon be challenged?

Yet as backlash to the conference has slowly mounted in the weeks since its close—coming not only from the precincts of German opinion where hostility was anticipated, but from conference attendees themselves—it appears the opponents of the new right may be too divided to coordinate a response. After Palestinian scholar Tareq Baconi argued in a speech that European Holocaust guilt must not be used as a pretext to deny Palestinians freedom and equality, Polish historian Jan Grabowski and journalist Konstanty Gebert denounced Baconi from the conference stage and then in the German press, accusing him of antisemitism. This division reflects the reality that many of those who oppose right-wing European governments’ revision of Holocaust history often do not challenge the notion that Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish state is requisite recompense for the Holocaust—even if that means indefinitely denying Palestinians their fundamental rights. Now, a conference intended to address the instrumentalization of antisemitism risks becoming an object lesson in how such a process unfolds.

On the second night of “Hijacking Memory,” Hannah Tzuberi, a Berlin-based scholar of Jewish and Islamic studies, argued in a talk that Europe’s incomplete process of coming to terms with its past—what the Germans call Vergangenheitsbewältigung—had resulted in Europeans projecting their own guilt for the Holocaust onto Palestinians. In the 21st century European imagination, Tzuberi said, Germans and other Europeans had, through their support for Israel, absolved themselves of culpability for the Holocaust: It was now the Palestinians, resisting Zionist colonization in Palestine, who had become the Nazis. “The birth of a morally improved German polity, made of citizens who have learned their lesson and now wish to protect what their ancestors failed to protect, goes [along] with an inscription of Palestinians as perpetrators and of Jews as their victims,” Tzuberi said.

Indeed, over the last several years, this impulse has translated directly into German government policy. The country has adopted a series of measures shoring up support for Israel and clamping down on criticism of Israeli policies. In 2018, the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament, voted to declare Israel’s existence to be part of Germany’s national interest. In 2019, the parliament passed a non-binding resolution—co-sponsored by a range of parties, including the right-wing Christian Democratic Union (CDU)—that designated the BDS movement as antisemitic.

Palestinian activists and journalists as well as anti-Zionist Israeli artists and activists have faced a wave of repression following these measures. Many have lost their jobs or seen their public appearances canceled and their projects defunded. Palestinian activists charge that Germany’s culture of zealous support for Israel has morphed into a kind of anti-Palestinian racism. And such animus is not limited to the German center or right. The German left has long featured the idiosyncratic partisans of an ideological tendency known as “anti-Deutsche” (literally, “anti-German”), which merges antifascist militancy—black balaclavas and red and black banners—with ardent Zionism and glorification of the Israeli Defense Forces.

The combination of state and grassroots hostility to Palestine solidarity activism means that conversations now commonplace on the US left remain almost unheard of within the German context. On the second day of the conference, for instance, Jewish Currents editor-at-large Peter Beinart debated with former 1960s student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit about the BDS movement, the ethics of armed struggle, and the feasibility of a two-state solution. The talk was spirited but familiar by American standards; still German observers, including a Süddeutsche Zeitung reporter, expressed surprise that they managed to speak without mutual accusations of antisemitism. “I don’t think there’s ever been as open a conversation on [Israel/Palestine] on a German public stage before,” Neiman told the crowd following the discussion—her remark a testament to how dramatically circumscribed public discussion of Israel in Germany has become.

The limits of German discourse would soon come into stark relief. On the third day of the conference, Palestinian scholar of international relations Tareq Baconi directly addressed the repression of Palestininan activism in a speech titled “Palestine and Holocaust Memory Politics.” Baconi began by outlining how the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, adopted by the US under Trump and by governments around Europe, has become a tool for shutting down criticism of Israel. While Israel’s defenders had long brandished the accusation of antisemitism against Israel’s critics, Baconi observed that the IHRA and its widespread adoption represented a new phase, which he dubbed “Hasbara 3.0.” (“Hasbara” literally means “explanation” and is a term for Israeli propaganda.) The endgame of this strategy, Baconi argued, was not simply to rebut criticisms of Israel but to deem them illegal. At the very moment when Israel has given up any pretense of moving toward a territorial compromise, Israeli government-aligned groups, often in partnership with right-wing political parties, have successfully framed even naming the apartheid, one-state reality for what it is as an attack on Jews.

There was no doubt Baconi’s talk stood out. Across five days and dozens of lectures, he was the only scheduled Palestinian speaker, and he spoke consciously about the need to bring the Palestinian perspective into a space focused on the misuses of Holocaust memory—“to inject, for clarity and for the sake of moral and political defiance, our own narrative directly into this space.” He was alone in offering an implicit critique of the Jewish-centric nature of the conference itself. For too long, Baconi said, Palestinians have been “nothing more than a backdrop, silent at best, a nuisance at worst,” in conversations about antisemitism and Israel/Palestine. “I sometimes find myself thinking that Palestinians are just the canvas against which Jewish psychodramas play themselves out,” he said.

To rectify this, Baconi proposed shifting the focus onto Palestinians themselves. Palestinians did not choose the Jews as their adversaries, Baconi stated: “Let us be clear: If Palestinians were being colonized by a non-Jewish state, we would still be resisting our colonization.” Yet European guilt for the Holocaust has made impossible any recognition that Israel’s founding resulted in the Palestinian Nakba; the insistence on the exceptionality of one atrocity effaced, in practice, the memory of another atrocity. In the German context, even the mere presence of Palestinians as political actors, testifying as survivors to the destruction of Palestinian society that Israel’s founding entailed, has come to be seen as prima facie antisemitic. It did not take long for the response to Baconi’s speech to illustrate his point.

Palestinian scholar Tareq Baconi addresses the “Hijacking Memory” conference.

Still courtesy of Haus der Kulturen der Welt

The day following Baconi’s speech, Polish historian Jan Grabowski and journalist Konstanty Gebert, who were both also speakers at the conference, took to the stage to read a statement rebuking him. Grabowski is a well-respected scholar whose research on Polish collaboration with the Nazis has brought him into direct confrontation with the right-wing Polish government, which passed a law in 2018 denying any Polish responsibility for crimes committed by Nazis during the Holocaust and designating it a civil offense to attribute such crimes to Poles. (An earlier version of the law would have made it a criminal offense, but it was amended after a widespread international outcry and pressure from the Israeli government). Gebert rose to prominence as a reporter and pro-democracy activist against the Polish Communist regime in the 1980s.

Together, they denounced Baconi as “out of place” at the conference and more appropriate for a meeting on “Palestinian activism.” “We fail to see,” they said, “how his remarks may contribute to the subject of this conference,” adding that Baconi’s talk should’ve been counterbalanced by a representative from the Israeli embassy. They took issue with Baconi’s use of the words “apartheid” and “colonial” to describe Israel, and accused him of calling Israel a “child-killing” entity. (On this last count Baconi had said no such thing; he had, however, enumerated a short list of Israeli human rights abuses, such as the killing of 243 Palestinians, “including 67 children” during the May 2021 war in Gaza; the killing of 13 Palestinian children by the Israeli Defense Forces in 2022; and Israel’s detention of more than 400 Palestinian children this year.) As if to demonstrate the mode of argument that the conference had sought to critique, Grabowski and Gebert equated Baconi’s description of the realities of the occupation with an antisemitic blood libel. If the European response to the Holocaust had relegated Palestinians to “nothing more than a backdrop,” as Baconi put it, denying them a voice in the debate over their own fates, Grabowski and Gebert seemed to want to keep it that way.

In the days after the closing session, Grabowski continued his offensive against Baconi. In a Facebook post that has since been removed, Grabowski repeated the charge the Baconi had called Israelis “child-killers,” referred to him as an activist rather than a scholar, and called Baconi’s speech “uncompromising, biased, one-sided to the extreme, and rather brutal.” (He also misspelled Baconi’s first name.) On June 14th, the right-leaning broadsheet Die Welt published an interview with Grabowski in which he called Baconi’s talk “propaganda, militant, violent.”

What had disturbed him the most, Grabowski told Die Welt, was that the audience—which he described as “200 representatives of the German intelligentsia”—had reacted to Baconi with clear approval, applauding “when Israel was labeled a child-murderer, the Holocaust as a ‘Jewish psychodrama.” (In fact, while there were many Germans in attendance, there were as many, if not more, non-German scholars and journalists, including a large contingent of left-wing Jewish writers and activists from the US, the UK, and Israel.) For Grabowksi, this approval reflected “the tidal wave of self-righteous leftist, post-colonial revolution” that has swept the Western academy, converging, he claimed, with the extreme right in its condemnation of Israel.

Yet the loudest clapping during the speech had not come after Baconi’s denunciations of Israeli policies, but after his insistence that the Holocaust must not be used as justification for the Nakba, and that the instrumentalization of Holocaust memory by the right in Europe and the US cannot be separated from Israel’s ongoing efforts to maintain a multi-tiered regime of ethnonational hierarchy and separation. Contrary to Grabowski’s claim, the relevance of Baconi’s speech to the conference seemed, at least to many others in attendance, self-evident in a conference specifically designed to examine the instrumentalization of the Holocaust.

In the weeks since the conference, articles criticizing its organizers and participants have trickled steadily through the German press. In a piece for the weekly Die Zeit, Natan Sznaider, a German-born professor of sociology in Tel Aviv, derided the conference as an exhibition of “cosmopolitan” folly, with attendees content to revel in an insular, left-wing bubble. He used stronger words in an article for the Judische Allgemeine, the right-leaning Jewish communal newspaper. What the conference showed, Sznaider wrote, was that “the descendants of the perpetrators [of Nazi crimes], together with their helpers, are now turning this country [Israel] into a bogeyman, turning the victims into perpetrators, robbing the Jewish people of their legitimacy and demanding their surrender.”

In another piece for Die Welt, journalist Jan Alexander Casper concurred with Sznaider, arguing that the enthusiastic reception received by Baconi, whom he accused of being a Hamas apologist, reflected a worrying rise in anti-Israel and antisemitic sentiment among the German cultural elite. (Baconi published a scholarly monograph on Hamas with Stanford University Press in 2018.) “The fact that in the summer of 2022 in Berlin, such sentences [as Baconi’s] are not simply uttered, but met with clear approval, is no surprise,” Casper wrote, “but probably also a consequence of the desire to no longer see the Jews as victims, but as perpetrators.” In tandem with this criticism, the German Tikvah Institut, headed by former Green Party politician Volker Beck, suggested on Twitter that the conference venue—which, like almost all German cultural institutions, receives support from the state—should be defunded.

It was precisely this type of threat of state intervention that the “Hijacking Memory” conference intended to address. And it did. But in so doing it also illuminated the fissures in the fragile coalition that it sought to assemble. There is, on the one hand, the camp represented by Grabowski and Gebert: those who oppose the instrumentalization and revision of Holocaust history by the right in places like Poland, but who also seek to uphold the status of Jews as exceptional or exemplary victims in the West. Then, with much less power and visibility, especially in Europe, there is the camp represented by Baconi and Tzuberi: those who seek to show not only how the insistence on sanctity of Jewish victimhood has become a way of shielding Israel from criticism, but also how European guilt over the Holocaust has facilitated the perpetration of another ongoing atrocity against the Palestinians

The promise of the conference this month in Berlin was that these two camps could, and should, be brought together in generative conversation, without provoking a punitive response from the state. Earlier this week, 24 conference speakers (not including, of course, Grabowski and Gebert) signed an open letter, published in the center-left daily Berliner Zeitung, in support of HKW and the Einstein Forum affirming that “right-wing appropriation and instrumentalization of Holocaust commemoration harms not only the fight against anti-Semitism—but also the fight against racism around the world.” But even if the controversy over the conference dissipates without the organizers or the venue facing the worst-case ramifications, it remains a grim indication of the ever-narrowing boundaries of the German debate on Israel/Palestine.

Correction: A previous version of this article listed the AfD as a co-sponsor of the anti-BDS resolution passed by the Bundestag. It was not. The AfD introduced a motion of its own for an enforceable ban on BDS, which was not adopted.

Joshua Leifer is a Jewish Currents contributing editor and a member of the Dissent editorial board. His essays and reporting have also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Jacobin, +972 Magazine, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book about American Jewish identity. He lives in New Haven, CT, where he is a history PhD student.