Arielle Angel: Hi, welcome back to On the Nose, the Jewish Currents podcast. I’m Arielle Angel, the editor-in-chief of Jewish Currents, and today I’m joined by two very special guests based in Germany: Emily Dische-Becker and Michael Sappir. This is part of a two-part episode focusing specifically on Germany. This episode, we’re going to be talking, really, about the overall dynamics, memory, culture and Jews, as that relates to politics around Israel in Germany. And then next time, we’re going to be talking about the crackdown on Palestinian identity in German media and German public life. So I’m just gonna kick it to both of you, just to tell us a little bit about yourselves. Emily, do you want to start?
Emily Dische-Becker: Sure. I’m Emily Dische-Becker. I’m based in Berlin most of the time, currently in upstate New York. I grew up in Germany and I’ve also lived in the US and in Lebanon, and have worked as a journalist, film producer, curator of public programs, and am currently working on a book about the German anti-antisemitism discourse of the last couple of years.
Michael Sappir: I’m Michael Sappir, I’m based in Leipzig in East Germany. I grew up in Israel, and I’m currently a writer and editor of a leftist student newspaper. I’m a left organizer and I’m part of a group of oppositional Jewish Israelis living in Leipzig called JID, which is short for Jewish Israeli descent, in German. Yeah.
AA: Yeah. And actually, we have a great interview with Michael on the site by Isabel Frey, and you can find it there–we’ll put it in the show notes. I wanted to talk to you guys today because there has been a lot of activity around these issues in Germany recently. We’re not going to get into everything here, especially as I noted we’re going to have another episode. But around Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing, there were a lot of protests in Germany and they were very severely repressed. And then Emily, you put on a conference with some others in Berlin, called the Hijacking Memory conference. And that conference, there was a fair bit of controversy, which Josh Leifer, who was in attendance, wrote about on Jewish Currents, but we’ll talk a little bit about that today. And also, there’s the Documenta art fair that’s been going on, and has also been a site of controversy.
So I wanted to–maybe before we get into all of these layers of different events, and different headaches for all of you in Germany–I wanted to maybe zoom out and see if we could talk a little bit, or try to set the stage for Americans who may not know exactly what the dynamics are. I know that it’s very, very difficult in most of the Western world to get accountability for Israel at the governmental level. But I wanted to hear, specifically, about what makes it particularly difficult in Germany, since I know that it’s been a little more intense over there than in most other places. And Emily, maybe I’ll start with you.
EDB: Yeah, I think the most important thing–the most distinctive thing about the German Jewish relationship–is obviously the Holocaust. But more recently, perhaps, that we have one central body called the Zentralrat, the Central Committee for the Jews in Germany, that represents Jewish life in Germany, vis-a-vis the state, and encompasses all the Jewish communities in Germany. So this body, per contract with the state, is the official representative. And so, that means that there’s very little sense of there being Jews outside of the Zentralrat’s position, and that their positions might differ, particularly those who are on the left or to the left of the Zentralrat. Which would be probably, I mean, I would assume 70 to 80% of American Jews would be to the left of the Zentralrat. It’s pretty, fairly conservative, and I would say, in some cases, also right wing.
So that is the first thing that makes the German Jewish conversation what it is. But the Jews represented by the Zentralrat are only half the Jews living in Germany. So, what’s happened in the last few years is there’s been a lot of Israeli Jewish, I would say exiles, who have moved to Germany, and the situation in Israel/Palestine has also gotten worse, in some way. So that’s been a factor for Jews to question their relationship to Israel. And this has run afoul, or rather run into problems, with the Zentralrat’s position, which wasn’t always this way. The Zentralrat used to try to kind of distance itself from the policies of Israel, but in the last few decades, particularly the last few years, certainly hasn’t. So what’s happened since 2015 is that, when a large number of refugees from the Arab world came–from Syria in particular–the Zentralrat said that they were for upper limits on immigration from that part of the world, because there was a problem–an ethnic problem–of antisemitism in that part of the world. And I think that has set the tone for some of what has happened since.
The other important factor in Germany is that we have, for the first time in many decades, like a real neo-fascist party in Parliament, and we also have a rise in far-right terrorism that is very organized and has networks that extend into the army, the police, the intelligence services, and Parliament. And this is sort of like, consistent discoveries of right-wing terror and connections to the Parliamentarians, be it through people who work as researchers, be it through whatever else. And obviously, this right-wing party–the AFD–has a wing of the party, or has certain politicians, who will say inflammatory things about the Holocaust, diminishing its importance, but also will say antisemitic things: globalists, yada, yada, the sort of alt-right usual thing.
But moreover, they have figured out in the last few years that, in order to not absolutely run afoul of German sensibilities around Jews, they should be pro-Israel. And indeed, maybe they just are for other reasons–as we know, with the alt-right in other countries, where there is some admiration for a politics of ethno-nationalism, the Richard Spencer-type of like, “I’m a white, Christian Zionist,” or whatever. So I’d say, basically, in the last few years, we have the rise of far-right, xenophobic, racist politics in Germany. And at the same time, we have a collusion, I would say, between the official representatives of Jewish life in Germany with a very broad spectrum of political players who are centering the problem of imported antisemitism from the Arab Muslim world.
And this phenomenon changes names, right? It’ll be migrant antisemitism, imported antisemitism, Muslim antisemitism. Then it became post-colonial antisemitism, and now we’re at the stage where left-wing, antisemitism is the issue. And then, of course, with left-wing antisemitism, you get left-wing Jews who are, currently, almost at the center of the current campaign of, I would say, German conspiratorial anti-antisemitism. Because it has very antisemitic traits, the accusations made against left-wing Jews being, basically, a conspiracy to undermine the German sense of itself vis-a-vis Israel, which is a sort of mirror.
AA: Right. I mean, there’s a lot to dig into here. I wonder, actually, if Michael, you could jump in about the experience of Jews kind of being a flashpoint in this, particularly left-wing Jews. Both from your work with JID and also, maybe you could tell us a little bit about, for example, the School for Unlearning Zionism and what happened there.
MS: Yeah, well, maybe we’ll start with the School for Unlearning Zionism. This was a project of some Jewish Israelis in Berlin. It’s actually, I think, an ongoing group. But this was a public project of theirs that was gonna get some support from an art school in Berlin. And they wanted to have public talks with some speakers on these topics, especially Jewish Israelis, but not only. And some right-wing journalists caught wind of this and made a stink out of it, and it escalated very quickly, and led to this art school pulling its support, which was very modest support, but just suddenly pulling it and not even telling the people involved. And there was this whole big scandal. And you have these antisemitism watchdogs who have a list of antisemitic events, and you’ll just find, you know, like, gravestones smashed or graffitied, a man in a yarmulke being attacked with a knife, and then the School for Unlearning Zionism, just in line with these as if it was another antisemitic incident.
As far as what we’ve experienced in Leipzig, it’s much more small scale. I mean, it is one of the ten biggest cities in Germany, but it’s a bit provincial. And here you have a lot of these, like, micro scene conflicts within the left, so I think that’s maybe something worth getting into a little bit. One of the most unusual things about situation in Germany is that you have a significant faction on the radical left–at least in sociological terms. I think politically, there’s a lot to question here about whether they’re still part of the radical left–but in the radical left spaces, they’ll call themselves communists and anarchists and things like that.
And there is something called anti-Deutsch–anti-Germans–which is a movement within the left that has, over time, developed this basically neo-conservative, pro-America, pro-Israel position that can be really extreme. Like for those of us coming from Israel, the things they say sound a lot like the right and far right in Israel, not even just like, centrist-Israeli politics or left-Zionist, but really like extreme, anti-Palestinianism. And you’ll have things like party spaces, or bars, or whatever it is, any kind of leftist spaces–also political spaces–where if you come in with a keffiyeh or any kind of recognizable symbol of Palestine Solidarity, you’ll be asked to leave, sometimes pretty aggressively. And you have a leftist faction that will just basically aggressively attack any display of pro-Palestinian sentiment as if it were the most extreme antisemitism.
So it actually can be very hard for Jewish leftists to find a place in Germany, because the normal left spaces are–not all, but often–have this kind of presence in it. You’ll go into an info shop and see a big Israel flag there. And especially for those of us who grew up in Israel, this is just not something that we can feel comfortable with and feel at home with.
AA: It’s a very interesting situation. I mean, I was in Berlin for the conference–which we’ll talk about later in this episode–and a friend of mine told me about a leftist space in Berlin called ://about blank and took me to their website. And all you see on the website is a calendar of events and an FAQ about Palestine and Israel and about their relationship, trying to basically hold the space together, both for anti-Deutsch–the anti-German faction that you were describing, that has kind of come around to being pro-Israel as a way of not being antisemitic–and people taking a more anti-colonial, anti-imperial kind of approach. And it’s kind of mind blowing, especially because of the way that things work on the left in most other places.
AA: But I think what’s even more interesting is the way that these kinds of politics have been mainstreamed. So, Emily, you were starting to talk a little bit about the ways that, of course, the far right, who’s very antisemitic, has picked up a sort of pro-Israel politic. But this kind of exists across the left, and we have this in the Green Party, which, I don’t know how you would describe it. Left liberal? Does that sound right?
AA: That is also very invested in these politics. So I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the ways that this politic has been adopted across the board.
EDB: Sure. The political spectrum issue, or the fact that this cuts across the political spectrum, I think is probably manifests, as an example. The best example of this would be the BDS resolution that was passed by the Bundestag, the German Parliament in 2019, which basically declared the methods of BDS to be antisemitic; as the resolution says, because it unequivocally conjures up the Nazi boycott of Jews, Jewish stores, Jewish businesses. And this was a resolution that was first introduced by the AFD. It’s a legally non-binding one, which actually wanted to make BDS, in fact, illegal.
AA: This is the right-wing party?
EDB: Yeah, the right wing party. Yeah. And then all the other parties–pretty much, I mean, the Greens, all the centrists, we call them the bourgeois parties, the bürgerliche Parteien, the acceptable parties–did a resolution together, drafted one together, passed a resolution together, that then declared the methods of BDS to be antisemitic, and demanding that cultural institutions, or any publicly funded institutions, don’t give space to the BDS movement. And effectively, all culture and education in Germany is publicly funded. So that would just mean, yeah, it basically amounts to deplatforming people who support BDS.
And of course, because it’s not legally binding, it’s been kind of overzealously interpreted and led to a lot of insecurity and fear. But the reason that this can catch on across the political spectrum, I think, is that if you put the name “fighting antisemitism” on something, people will feel very uncomfortable questioning it. For good reason. And what I was trying to say earlier, is that the sort of unquestioning-ness of it is, essentially, because the identity of how to be a decent German is to fight antisemitism.
AA: Well, what’s been really interesting for me, as I’ve been learning about this stuff– and mostly from the two of you and some other folks–is that it is not really about Jews so much. I mean, it’s really very much about Germans. And in fact, I think I heard a story recently where each German state has a kind of anti-antisemitism czar.
MS: Not all of them, but–
AA: Not all of them, but many of them. And then there is kind of a national one, right? Felix Klein. And when people have complained to them about certain kinds of enforcement, they’re like, “Well, can’t you understand how it is for us as Germans?” Like, don’t you understand that we need to do this? And I wonder if you could talk maybe a little bit about that. Even just personally, what it’s been like to navigate the German psyche on these issues. It really seems like Jews in Germany are a symbol. They’re not flesh and blood individuals with a range of ideas, they’re kind of an ideal. They’re like an ideal victim on some level. And so living Jews really complicate that picture, very significantly, in these ways that we’ve been talking about. So I wonder if you could talk a little bit about about that.
EDB: So the thing about the antisemitism czars, or anti semitism commissioners, is that they’re called Commissioners for Jewish Life and Against Antisemitism, which already shows the inherent conflation of the two. Like antisemitism and Jews, there’s nothing more really beyond that. And the reduction is inherent to that. I think I’ve gotten used to it, finally, but it’s taken me a while, because this is something I didn’t experience as a child growing up in Germany. And then I left for many years, basically came back in my 30s. And that Germans so much centered everything around their feelings about it, and did so kind of openly. I think the first time was like, some Green Party politician was like, “Well, of course, it’s worse for me as the daughter of an SS officer,” or whatever, to have to deal with antisemitism than like–obviously, you’re not as sensitized to it.
But of course, you know, that was some random, local politician on Twitter. But the antisemitism commissioner–the federal one, Felix Klein–has actually said, you know, “I wish Israelis would be more sensitive to the German sense of historical responsibility.” The left-wing Israelis. To which I was wanted to say, “Suggest something concrete, Felix, like, should they have reeducation trips to like, Bergen-Belsen? I don’t know, what do you have in mind?” It’s kind of like under Trump, there’s nothing that is funny, or satirical, or satirizable, about how far out of touch some of these manifestations of German, emotional, big feelings can be, and how alienating that is. Because everything is kind of possible in that way. It sort of feels like a kind of mass hysteria at times.
And I’m not saying that antisemitism is, but the fear of losing control of what the German relationship to itself can be, having figured out a kind of formula for redemption through support for Israel as a Jewish state. So then anybody who tampers with equal rights, or anything like that, automatically puts that on shaky ground. So it basically is an issue of German identity politics at the end of the day, right? And another interesting aspect of this, I think, is–some scholars have worked on this, and I’ve been reading this scholarship, recently–about Holocaust education for migrant youth, where they take them to the sites of concentration camps. And this is also sometimes punitive, I think, like there’s various aspects of this, right? There’s regular education, and then there’s like: you’ve done something wrong. Maybe you did graffiti, or you had a fight with somebody, or you said a slur. I don’t know, but there’s definitely an aspect of this, that sort of reeducation.
But what this one scholar was writing about was that the guides at these concentration camp sites, these memorials now, really get upset when migrant youth identify with the victims and not the perpetrators. Their response to learning about Nazi crimes against Jews is expressing fear that Germans could do similar things to them. And that is part of the pact of becoming German for migrants, and Germany has a 40% population of migration background, which I think is sort of the larger spasm of culture war. That’s the background to that, is Germany’s changing identity, in that way. That German guides in these concentration camp memorial sites would be very angry about this, because you’re not supposed to identify with the victims, you’re supposed to identify as potential future perpetrators.
MS: Just thinking that the piece that Emily spoke to before, about the role of the Central Council of the Jews of Germany, is actually important to all this because it enables this debate to be very much structured around German institutions and German feelings, while at least imagining itself to be responding to the Jewish community. Like it’s responding to this official body set up by the state that represents, at best, the organized religious community, but in no way can be said to actually represent all the Jews in Germany, because it’s literally the umbrella organization of the synagogues and curricula. It’s not something that like I, as a non-practicing person of Jewish background, have any influence on.
And even within the organized community, it’s really unclear how decisions are made there, to appoint people. It’s like it’s not a democratic, transparent, representative body. But it gives this institutional veneer of like, “Here, we have a speaker for the Jewish people, that we are we’re responding to what they’re saying.” So we’re responding to their fear of immigrants, we’re responding to their identification with the State of Israel. And I think this is thin, but I think it’s just a piece of how Germans can at least tell themselves that they’re responding to Jewish needs, when really these needs are constructed already, institutionally, in a way that’s convenient, and fits into the way Germany works, and into German society and self understanding.
AA: Right, and there’s two things that I would hope that you guys can speak to. One is also about the kind of strange makeup of the German Jewish community itself, and the high incidence of converts from German, non-Jewish background, and the extent to which people who become rabbis in Germany, many of them are of German, non-Jewish background. And, of course, it’s a very sensitive subject. And it’s not to suggest that converts are not Jews. But it does seem that this is also part of a particular kind of dynamic, as well as the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union. So I wonder if you could talk just a little bit about that dynamic as well, and how that affects the communal politics.
MS: It seems to me that a big part of this is that the German perception of Jewishness is very flat. It’s very much about squishing a few different things together. So that’s Judaism as a religion, the Jewish people and our history of trauma–specifically our trauma at German hands–and the State of Israel. So all these things are identified in a way that isn’t really separated out a lot in the public perception. And the public debate about this, very often, will have these categories just being mixed for one another. As a way to speak sensitively about people of Jewish background, people will speak of people of Jewish belief, of Jewish religion, which of course doesn’t apply to all of us, and doesn’t map onto who are actually victimized by antisemitism, specifically in Germany. Especially Nazi antisemitism, unlike other forms of Jew hatred, was really not about the religion.
So that leads to this situation where you can kind of convert into this history of trauma, and then you can speak for–I’m individualizing this and it’s not an individual issue–but like a person could be speaking for the victims of their own grandparents, just through this act of conversion. And I also would not like to call into question anyone’s sincerity in converting, or the legitimacy of a person claiming Jewishness through conversion. But within this context of Jewishness being understood in a very simplistic way, pushing together all these different categories creates this problem that people are speaking basically for others, or for an experience that they’re not part of in the same way.
EDB: What’s also more common than conversion, I think, is sort of a kind of coquetry, a kind of insinuation of Jewishness. That happens a lot of the time. People will call their child Shlomo or whatever. Like some right-wing journalist at Die Welt, his son’s middle name is Shlomo, you’ll add David to your middle name, just to insinuate that you might be Jewish. Particularly if you work in the burgeoning anti-antisemitism field, where there’s a lot of jobs for experts, but a little insinuation of Jewishness goes a long way. The Antisemitism Commissioner of Berlin, Samuel Salzborn, people assume that he’s Jewish, because his name is Samuel.
AA: Felix Klein as well. And Felix Klein has not really done that much to dispel that.
EDB: Yes, that’s the thing. You don’t dispel it. You play the violin, you know, you do things that seem Jewish to Germans. I mean, he does. All he does is talk about antisemitism and how much he loves playing the violin. And people think he’s Jewish.
MS: And there is there’s also a related phenomenon–I don’t know how much the overlap is–but of these very much non-Jewish people in the anti-antisemitism space claiming antisemitism when they’re attacked and criticized. So I don’t remember exactly who this was. It could have been Michael Blumer, the anti-antisemitism guy for the state of Baden-Wurttemburg, who’s a particularly clowny commissioner, on Twitter. Might not have been him though, but you’ll see these people being criticized, often by Jews, and then being like, “This is antisemitism. How could you? How dare you criticize my antisemitism work.” The logic is often just like, “I’m doing anti-antisemitism work, so anyone who criticizes it must be pro-antisemitism.”
AA: Yea. There have been some very large kerfuffles, and I was hoping we could summarize those very quickly, as a means of providing the backdrop for the conference itself–the Hijacking Memory conference. So maybe thinking about what was happening at the Jewish Museum, and also the attack on post-colonial scholars.
EDB: Basically, after the BDS resolution of the German Parliament was passed in 2019, we saw more people losing their jobs, in fact, and the first prominent one was the director of the Jewish Museum, who had to resign after the official Twitter account for the museum linked to a news article about 240 Israeli scholars who had criticized the recently passed resolution against BDS and said that it was a bad idea. So he had to resign for that.
And that was the first of a number of these kinds of incidents–of people being stripped of prizes, of people being disinvited–who either had supported BDS or had not sufficiently distanced themselves from BDS, as was the case with the Lebanese American artist Walid Raad, and so on and so forth. And then, in 2020, the Cameroonian intellectual and philosopher Achille Mbembe was invited to hold a keynote at a festival, and because the anti-Deutsche started this campaign against him, it quickly became kind of a national affair that lasted for many months, accusing him of antisemitism. Initially, a reading of his work–or people who didn’t understand his work, I would say, including Felix Klein–would say, “Well, he mentioned the Holocaust and South Africa, and then South Africa and Israel in one paragraph. So he’s comparing the Holocaust to Israel, which is antisemitic,” this level of guilt by association and antisemitism bingo.
And that has, since then, resulted in cultural institutions–the largest cultural institutions in Germany, including the sort of transnational things like the Goethe-Institut–who came out as a coalition in December 2020 and said that the BDS resolution makes it kind of impossible for them to work internationally. And that counter-boycott is not a solution to BDS, and that while they don’t support BDS at all, they also don’t think the counter boycott is useful. And so, since then, they have basically been called antisemites, by the Zentralrat, who has focused their anti-anti semitism, that the Jewish quality of life is primarily undermined by the cultural institutions who tolerate BDS or promote it. And so, that basically is the story behind what has been happening this summer, where we’ve seen a really dramatic escalation of all this around Documenta, and the Hijacking Memory conference that we co-organized, or that I co-organized.
AA: And even the Goethe-Institut, some people may have seen in the news that they recently disinvited Mohammad El Kurd from a talk that he was going to give there, and then a number of people pulled out of the conference that was going to take place, in solidarity. So even a group like them, who signed on to this, who came out and said, “You know, we can’t work under these conditions,” is still subject to those kinds of pressures and is still responding to them.
EDB: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I don’t think that the cultural institutions were aware of the extent of how political this battle is. On the one hand, I don’t think they anticipated how intense the backlash would be against them, otherwise, they wouldn’t have done it. And so in, in many ways, I think that that coalition was not a success, because even the elementary work, of refusing to do the kind of censorship or disinvitation things that they were complaining about, that hasn’t happened. Individual institutions have done this, and so it has been a very effective chilling effect on this. Not to say that the Goethe-Institut isn’t responsible for its own decisions, but I think that you’d rather disinvite somebody than face a backlash for something this person may have said on social media.
AA: And to face the loss of funding, since so much of the funding is government funding.
AA: Just to underline it, because it’s so different than our American context in which there’s no funding for anything.
MS: Yeah, and I think it’s also worth just repeating–Emily said this from the very beginning, but I think it’s really important. The background of all this, there’s an increasingly real and present danger of murderous, Nazi violence. We had, in the next town over from here, in Halle, there was a shooting attack on a synagogue, three years ago on Yom Kippur. And this is the backdrop on which both the German state and its conservative allies that lead the institutions in the Jewish community are choosing to focus on: foreigners, and not on German Nazis, as the the problem for Jewish life in Germany.
AA: One thing that I will say that I learned from you all at the conference was, while in the US there’s there’s quite a lot of money–I mean, it’s very big business in the US to counter BDS. A lot of our communal organizations are spending a lot of money, some of which may or may not come from the Israeli government. There’s certainly evidence that some of it does. It’s really trying to shape public opinion around this, putting money into our elections to defeat anyone who even breathes in the direction of BDS, like AIPAC is currently doing.
But what’s interesting about Germany is that you actually don’t need money to do this, that German society is doing this on its own, and that people are quite happy actually, for example, in a legal context, to take on these kinds of cases pro bono. I remember at the conference, we asked a question–the Americans asked a question–that was basically like, “What are the funding networks for this kind of thing?” And the answer was basically like, “Well, they don’t need any money.” I mean, a lot of the money comes from the German government. A lot of the money comes from people volunteering to, quote-unquote, fight antisemitism. And so it’s not the same situation as it is in the US. But I want to transition us to talking about the conference, and talking about Documenta and the fallout from this. I’d love to hear from you, Emily, just about why this conference and what what you were hoping to achieve with it.
EDB: Sure. Me and my two coorganizers, Susan Neiman and Stefanie Schüler-Springorum. Susan runs the Einstein Forum in Berlin, she’s an American-born philosopher, and Stephanie Schüler-Springorum runs the Center for Antisemitism Research at the Technical University Berlin, which is the oldest and most prestigious and serious institute for the study of antisemitism in Germany. So we wanted to do this conference for a number of reasons, but in part because we had observed some of the things that were just being ignored in the fight against antisemitism in Germany, which was what was happening in Orbán’s Hungary, in terms of antisemitic campaigns, and in Poland, in terms of renationalized memory laws and the fallout from that.
So combining the interest in that, with what was happening under Trump in the US, with the sort of evangelical Zionists, and the antisemitic evangelicals that do exist, like Pat Robertson, and stuff like that, and their support for Israel because of some sort of Messianic project thing. We just thought that it would be interesting to try to connect the dots and see: What are the ways in which remembrance of the Holocaust, in particular, is being instrumentalized, or manipulated, or changed? Because the idea is, especially in Europe, that a generalized remembrance of the Holocaust–and all the things that come with it, including public education, and that kind of thing–will help prevent a resurgence of exclusionary nationalism, racism, and antisemitism. And that’s been the foundation for the liberal, post-Cold War order, in particular, has been this idea that that is what liberal democracy, that’s sort of a safeguard for liberal democracy.
And yet, we were very alarmed by the many ways in which liberal democracy was being undermined, and what role was being played, in particular, by either support for Israel or people who would give lip service to Holocaust remembrance–including in Germany–but then use it to basically weaponize a discourse or incite against other minorities. And so, we got together to plan this conference and invited people from a truly broad spectrum of both countries, who work on different places, but also, politically, quite diverse, I think. And I think the overall point of the conference was–in fact, what we also got, which has been largely ignored in the media, and maybe wasn’t even really present so much in the piece that Josh wrote–that this was really a sort of self-critique of many of the people who have been very invested in Holocaust Remembrance culture–this is what it’s called in Germany–and its ability to prevent the resurgence of exclusionary nationalism and all these things.
And so, that was kind of the overall point, and I think also what we got. And of course, the issue of how this is done–what policies the Israeli state pursues, in regards to both having a right-wing settler run Yad Vashem,m or weaponizing antisemitism to undermine the Palestinian struggle for Palestinian rights. So those were the things that we knew would be kind of controversial. But in the end, yeah, the conference was kind of discredited in advance by the people who said–before it even started–the German media said, “Oh, this conference only wants to point out to a right-wing antisemitism.” One journalist said, “When are you going to do a conference on the left-wing instrumentalisation of the Holocaust?” Like, never. Because I think you have to fight right-wing strategies, and this was a conference about the strategies and identifying them. And I think that left-wing strategies should be discussed and fought about among leftists, and he’s not included.
So yeah. So before the conference, there was criticism. And then, after the conference, there was a severe attack on the conference, in part because two of the participants–the two Jewish Polish scholars who presented on Poland, Jan Grabowski and Konstanty Gebert–got very upset about a presentation by Palestinian scholar, Tareq Baconi, and then also went to, in the case of Jan Grabowski, went to the right-wing press–who we’d even had a presentation on in the conference, because they’re so instrumental to instrumentalizing antisemitism in Germany–and gave them an interview in which he claimed that 200 members of the German intelligentsia basically clapped in some sort of–the insinuation was that it was some sort of rabid atmosphere–when Israel was defamed, and put a number of false quotations in Tareq’s mouth, and basically ignored the larger gist of Tareq’s talk.
And so, that was then used, and fortuitously for, I would say, the opponents of our conference who did not attend the conference. And also, some people even wrote numerous articles without having attended the conference, to criticize it, saying that it was basically an attempt to relativize the Holocaust, and it was all about colonialism, like things that were so patently untrue. But you know, this is the level of how dishonest you can be when it comes to this issue.
But what happened, then, is the conference was one week before Documenta opened. And that then became one giant snowball and issue. Documenta is certainly Germany’s most important and prestigious contemporary art event. It takes place every five years. Arguably, it’s maybe the world’s most important, next to the Venice Biennale. And this edition was curated by an Indonesian collective called ruangrupa, whose entire approach was to invite other collectives, and showcase what it would be like to develop ways of working where you share resources in different ways, as a sort of alternative economy and another ways. But so, a very different approach to what the art market is usually used to. Like, not big names, but collectives inviting sub-collectives. And at the end, there were 1,500 artists involved.
So Documenta opened two weeks after Hijacking Memory. But Document had already been bogged by accusations of antisemitism since the beginning of the year, which were started by basically, a one man show in Kassel, where Documenta takes place, in West Germany, calling itself the Alliance Against Antisemitism Kassel. I think he’s an insurance salesman in his late 50s, who wears ADF t-shirts and like, just loves the Israeli military, and has said transphobic and racist things, and is generally not somebody who you should just respectfully cite. But he made some claims against the curators and artistic team of Documenta. Namely, that they had signed letters that put them in the proximity of BDS. Some open letters, including the letter against apartheid, and another open letter by artists in December 2020, where they basically just criticize the BDS resolution.
So, this was picked up by the big German newspapers, repeated without any kind of fact checking. There were other claims made about some of the artists, the Palestinian artists, that were completely false and totally preposterous. And then this became a scandal in January already. So none of the accusations, apart from the fact that there were people who had signed open letters that were in support of Palestinian rights, that use the word apartheid, in the case of one of the letters, were true. And if you don’t think those things are antisemitic, there was no antisemitism at that point.
But in June, when Documenta opened a week after the Hijacking Memory conference, there was a banner displayed on the central square in Kassel. A massive banner–I don’t know what the American measurements would be, but eight by 12 meters, huge–by an Indonesian activist, agitprop art collective called Taring Padi. And it was a work from 2002, which included a, in my opinion–and in most people’s opinion, I think, I think there’s no disagreement about this, in fact–a kind of classical, antisemitic caricature of an Orthodox Jew with fangs. And so, this work from 2002, which was kind of the symbolic image of these protests that brought down the Suharto dictatorship, it was called People’s Justice. It has, on the left hand, the bad guys–which is all the intelligence services that colluded with the Suharto dictatorship, the Australian, Israeli, the American CIA–as pigs. And then on the right side, the kind of people who will get justice. It’s sort of like a massive mural drawn by dozens of different artists, and had been displayed in various places, but never in Europe. And then it was put up in Kassel, the day that Documenta opened, and then the next day, somebody discovered the Orthodox Jew in this massive picture. And then, basically, what happened then is that the narrative became: this happened because the accusations of antisemitism in January weren’t taken seriously, the BDS accusations. Here’s evidence that if you tolerate proximity to BDS, you get classical antisemitism, and Hijacking Memory is part of this antisemitic, BDS-normalizing conspiracy, basically.
AA: So Emily, you’ve been now at the center of this. The attacks have really focused, specifically, on you. There was a video that was leaked, of you orienting–actually, I’ll let you speak about about the video and the leaks and the attacks, because I think that that’s a very particular dimension. And then I will want to kind of zoom out and bring Michael into this, and talk about the implications of this and what we’re learning.
EDB: So about 10 days ago, or two weeks ago, the director of Documenta–which always has kind of a managing director, but the curators are, in fact responsible for the edition–and so, she’s German, Sabina Schormann, she published the fact that me and my team of a few people had been advising Documenta on how to deal with the accusations of antisemitism in January. And she did this against our agreement, and certainly in violation, I think, of our contract, without telling us in advance. And then, because the media had spent the last month basically saying, “What’s going on?” There was this antisemitic banner that was taken down, there was an apology by the artists, there was an apology by the curators, but it was not enough. There was a Parliamentary hearing, where the Managing Director of the Central Council for the Jews called for German cultural institutions to undergo a process of self-cleansing, and basically lumped Hijacking Memory, and the people who run it, who ran the conference, who organized it, into this process where they need to be reviewed, if they’re actually the right people to keep their jobs.
So what happened, when my name was published, was that the conspiracy became, “Oh, look at this person. Organized Hijacking Memory, was thanked by the cultural institutions in December 2020 who came out against the BDS resolution–at the bottom of their statement, they thanked a number of people for advice and whatnot, among them, me. And then, now, is being revealed by the disgraced director of Documenta–who, three days later, was forced to resign–has been outed as the person who was advising Documenta. Which was not entirely fair, I think, because my role was not to look at any of the works or review for antisemitic content, but was in fact to actually program a series of debates and discussions, after the accusations in January, that could maybe try to bring together the various perspectives–the German perspective on post-colonialism, that it doesn’t recognize the specificity of antisemitism, vis-a-vis racism, and the Holocaust, vis-a-vis other colonial crimes. And we’ll also look at anti-Palestinian racism, because the artists in Documenta, who had been accused of antisemitism, felt that this was a manifestation of anti-Palestinian racism. And I would agree.
So our main job was to kind of program a response to this, but it sounded like I was responsible for checking on antisemitism. And then a video was leaked, in which I was speaking to guides of Documenta, who had been trained for a month, including a three-day schooling by the Anne Frank Educational Center, on antisemitism. I was there to share my perspective on the diverging view of Israel/Palestine and antisemitism, but when the video was leaked, the Süddeutsche, who it was leaked to, basically said, “Here’s how the Documenta guides are schooled on antisemitism,” and attacked my perspective on on antisemitism.
I was basically just trying to explain what the various viewpoints on things are, because I was explaining to the guides how they could maybe try to think about talking to visitors who might be upset by some of the content. And by some of the content, I meant, I actually named the examples that I knew. There was a Palestinian artist who refers to settler colonialism in her project. And so I explained that settler colonialism, in the German context, is viewed as delegitimizing Israel, and isn’t necessarily antisemitic, but that there are scholars who use this term as a historical analytical one, and that it’s not just a slur, because other countries are settler colonies too. And they also happen to be democracies, in the case of Australia or the US like, it’s not just a slur. It’s a description of something. And then I said, the third position is that Israel could have both settler colonial aspects and have been a country that gave refuge to Jews fleeing persecution. So this was the nature of what I was doing.
But this is considered completely unacceptable in Germany. This is considered, I think the head of the Deutsche Israelische Gesellschaft, which is a main German-based pro-Israel group, accused me of brainwashing poor youth, and said there was a big market for this kind of work, and I should get like advice on how to invest my income, and this kind of thing. So this is at the point where people started to notice that maybe the focus on me, and also trying to sort of discredit me as an antisemite, may be going off in the wrong direction. And then, what happened right after that, was there were like three or four days, or a week, where there were maybe 80 articles written about me. And one of them, in fact, in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, claimed that I was close to Hezbollah in Lebanon, because I, according to the article, worked there until 2015. In fact, I wrote one article for Al Akhbar–cowrote one article for Al Akhbar–which was a newly founded and exciting left-wing newspaper, in 2006. And I had worked as an editor at Al Akhbar English, which had a separate and independent editorial policy, from 2010 to 2012, at which point I had left, also over disagreements with the politics of the newspaper, which had become increasingly pro-Assad, after the uprising in Syria basically split the Arab left.
So then, suddenly, I was now not only just like a bad person and ruining the kids, but I was also close to an illegal, in Germany, organization, a terror organization. And so, this became kind of a more serious issue. I’m suing these newspapers. The first newspaper I sent an injunction, to my lawyers sent an injunction to, Die Welt, immediately accepted to publish a correction. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has not done that yet. Their Editor in Chief actually watched my training video, my two-hour training video, and wrote a review about it. Like, they’re so obsessive. I’m sure someday they’ll be like, “Hey, maybe this was a little much. I don’t know why we went after this person. And maybe we should think about it.” But yeah, for now, I’ve joined the ranks of people–it’s a humbling experience–who have been kind of caught up in the machinery of conspiratorial anti-antisemitism, of the German variety. And so I’m in good company.
AA: Yeah. So I just want to zoom out just a little bit, because I do want to think about, also, why you are so dangerous right now. Why this focus on you? And I think that there is something here. When I think about when things started to change in the United States, in terms of the conversation around Israel/Palestine–and of course, we’re not so far down this road. I mean, there’s still a lot of power arrayed against us–but I think we’re in a fundamentally different position than the European Communities, both in Germany and in the UK. And when I think about what is going on here, I really think about the fact that there is a homegrown American Jewish left opposition to what is happening, both in our community and in the government apparatuses that that claim to be representing American Jewish interests. So I don’t know. I mean, there’s a way in which the German community is so fragmented and so strange–the German Jewish community–that it becomes difficult to gather this group. But I do think that you, Emily, have been sort of a central address for some of these things for a long time. And I wonder if you have any thoughts. Or Michael, maybe we could even start with you, for coming from the outside, about what is at work here. What is the thing that makes Emily, in particular, a target in this moment, and why that’s important to think about.
MS: Okay, so I think there’s all kinds of things at play here. Definitely a big factor is that there is a healthy urge in Germany, among many people, to be extremely vigilant against antisemitism. That’s of course a good thing. But it’s come to be channeled in ways that are unthreatening to the status quo. You know, what I was just describing is a huge amount of effort being put into this kind of witch hunt, finding any shred to prove that Emily, and ruangrupa, and everyone involved in Documenta, and so on and so forth, that these are all dangerous antisemites. And Germans might say like, “Well, of course, everyone knows the Nazis are bad.” Yeah. But like, why aren’t these efforts being put into uncovering them in the same way? And why? Why aren’t the same standards actually being applied, within German society, where antisemitism is more dangerous?
So one of the things that came up in the in the lead up to Documenta was the connection of these artists to a cultural educational center in Palestine, a Palestinian institution named after Khalil Sakakini, who was a progressive educator, who had like a couple of positive notes in his diaries about the Nazis. And this was given as a reason for anyone associated with this institution to be considered an antisemite. If that alone, as a pattern of recognizing dangerous people were applied within Germany, a lot of people would be out of a job. There’s major institutions here named after actual former Nazis, or even more after people who expressed clear antisemitism or that kind of sympathy towards antisemitic movements. Like that is was not unusual here. Obviously, for a certain generation, or for several certain generations, you have all this commemoration of people like Luther, who was a very violent antisemite, who has contributed so much to modern antisemitism, and to the early modern anti-Jewish sentiment that led up to modern antisemitism. He’s honored in so many ways. The city that he worked or lived in was actually named after him, now it’s called Lutherstadt Wittenberg. And Richard Wagner, there’s a central plaza named after him here in Leipzig, because he, I think, was from Leipzig.
All these figures, who were implicated in antisemitism in significant ways, are still honored institutionally. And you don’t see people who are affiliated with that kind of stuff being demonized the way that someone affiliated with the Sakakini Center is. So this is clearly not the same standard being applied. And I don’t know, this might go back to the early days of denazification, where there there actually was a big degree of solidarity amongst the Germans. They didn’t want Nazis to be persecuted because they, I guess, mostly felt they were complicit in one way or another, and that this was against them as well.
I mean, of course, Germany has gone through massive, and serious, and deep processes regarding this, since the late 40s. I don’t want to diminish that. That’s one of the reasons I live here. It’s definitely not the way it used to be. But I think there’s some impulse there that’s similar to like, not shake the boat too much. And when you have people to target who can be construed as not part of us–people who don’t have a lot of institutional power, especially refugees and other migrants, but also just anyone who’s marginalized. Even just as as a leftist, you know, the left is marginal here–is a much more convenient target. And then when you have Jewish people coming in and taking a position that is contrary to the official version of “here’s how we distance ourselves from antisemitism,” like that’s obviously going to set off some kind of dissonance, and some kind of need to make it perfectly clear that people like Emily–or like me, or other progressive Jews–aren’t entitled to speak as Jews, even. Not even to speak for the Jewish people, just to speak as Jews. Like no, we’re the enemy of the Jew, in heavy quotation marks, as understood by German society. We can’t be allowed to speak for this collective in any implied way.
EDB: I would just like to add to that. I think one of the accusations that was made against me, in the last few days, was that I was importing discourse–left, academic discourse–from the US and Israel–this was in the press–that was basically undermining the German status quo sense of itself, and that this was particularly dangerous. I was also called a well-known author in the post-colonial milieu. But I think there’s two things, and one of them is an Israeli friend remarked a couple of years ago that Israel seemed to be a Holocaust happy ending for Germans. And so, the reality of the occupation–and of, I would say, the increasing fascistization of Israeli politics, and the post-Oslo consensus basically no longer being a reality, at all, for some time–that is something that has to be vehemently denied for Germans. And that just means, basically, if you name a reality then you’re an antisemite, right? And that has also become a thing, where this sort of image of the State of Israel is what has to be protected, more than actual Jewish life. And you’ll hear this from some of the German functionaries, who will call Israel “the Jew among the states.” That’s the first thing.
And then the second thing, the second dynamic–I think that Rivkah Brown from Vashti Magazine in the UK said this, and I think it really captures it well–she said that nothing scares the right more than the prospect of Jewish people withdrawing their collective consent to be used as a battering ram against other minorities. Refusing to accept that our safety must come at the expense of others. And so, I think the dual aspect, both in terms of the image of Israel, the foreign policy of Germany–the Staatsräson of Germany, because Germany’s reason of state is Israel security, as Angela Merkel said–and both the threat posed by left-wing Jews in Germany, who oppose the policy of, let’s say, the Zentralrat, which appeals to the moral authority of the perpetrator-heirs, and their institutions, in order to settle their disagreements with other minorities and with Jews that they don’t like, all the time. If they’re willing to throw us under the bus, then the Germans will be the most gleeful to do that.
And so, as soon as they’re given any kind of permission to do that, and add to that kind of anti-left development, that obviously pleases people who have an anti-progressive agenda in the many ways that exist. Be it anti-environmental change and using anti-semitism as a battering ram against that, criticism of capitalism being considered antisemitic, all these things. That these things together–that’s where perhaps I, as someone who’s really not that important but feel very much committed to Jewish wellbeing and Jewish safety, and believe that Jewish life in Europe needs to be in solidarity with other minorities, and that we can deal with antisemitism and racism and other things like that, without calling the cops on each other.
AA: Yeah, I mean, there’s a few things that strike me from this. One is that, really, we already know the ways that philosemitism and antisemitism kind of come together. I mean, part of what I hear both of you saying–Michael, you’re saying, on the one hand, you see the extent to which Germans think of Jews not as Germans, in their willingness to attack them for certain kinds of things. And I think, Emily, you’re saying almost a similar thing, basically talking about the ways that Jews are only allowed to be ambassadors of a certain kind of politics that benefits German policies– especially towards migrants, but not only–and also the ways that Jews become avatars for the State of Israel, which, of course, is an antisemitic idea, that Jews in the diaspora are agents of the Israeli state. So there is this very interesting way, of course, that all of this circles back around into basic antisemitism. But then, also interesting ways in which the idea of the perfect victim, in the form of the Jew–and this is something that Hannah Tzuberi talked about really wonderfully at the conference, at the Hijacking Memory conference–the way that the Jew as perfect victim makes it so that migrants, particularly from the Arab world, again, are perpetrators as opposed to victims of discrimination in their own right. So all of that, I think, is very worth underlining, based on everything that you all have said.
I want to close just with one question, which is sort of like: Where do we go from here? I mean, I’ve heard different people talking about the attacks of the last couple months and saying, you know, “Maybe we should cool it.” Or, you know, just trying to understand what would be the best way to interact with the German political situation now. And I’ve also heard you, Emily, say, like, “No, this is proof that that what we’re doing is working.” And this is kind of a positive development. But I guess I’m sort of wondering like: Where’s the opening? Where do we go from here?
EDB: Well, my sense is–and I think it’s always an interesting thing to keep in mind and worry about–is how much backlash can we tolerate? Right? I mean, I think that there is a full authoritarian backlash now underway in Germany, where the actual demands now are that the BDS resolution, which was not legally binding, now be enforce. Either become a law, and that the Zentralrat also be involved in the personnel decisions of who runs cultural institutions, and stuff like that. So maybe we’ve contributed to the backlash, is something that I would ask myself, self-critically, because I’d hate to win the battle and lose the war. And I worry about that in terms of my own approach to things.
At the same time, I don’t feel like we have a choice, then, to continue doing the work that we’re doing, in part because I do feel that the way that antisemitism is being weaponized is being used to undermine any kind of progressive policy or project. So we can’t let that happen. Because already, I think we see a kind of belated Americanization of our political culture in Germany. It’s like lagging 20 years, so we’re basically right after 9/11 now. Documenta was 9/11–kind of–like the Patriot Act coming up. They won’t invade anywhere, maybe. But so, that’s one aspect. I do think we have no choice but to continue.
And the main thing is to fight antisemitism, because the situation of Jews in Germany is different than the situation of Jews in the US, where it’s kind of normal to be Jewish. And it isn’t that way in Germany, and antisemitism is a serious problem. And in order to fight it, which is also something that I’m committed to, I do think we also have to fight its instrumentalization. So basically, doing the work that is not being done is our job. And the other part of that is just doing the work of protecting the communities that we’re involved with and care about, and building coalitions with them. And I think that we’d be doing that anyway. If we can’t work with cultural institutions anymore, then we won’t. Like I don’t care if Germany wants to destroy its soft power, globally, by making only German art allowed. Be my guest, like, I’m not invested in German soft power at all. And I’m ungrateful, frankly, for the politics of redemption, and I think I will continue to be that.
MS: Yeah, I totally agree. Like, we really don’t have much of a choice. And I think it’s not just specifically Germany. We’re in a moment of major, multiple crisis in the world. And this is another of the many reflections of that, and more specifically, of the fact that the situation in Israel/Palestine is getting worse. Any idea that things there are headed towards some kind of peaceful, democratic resolution, that idea is losing anything in reality that could give it substance, by the day, and has been for last few years. That’s a big part of what’s going on here, that the situation is becoming much more symbolic because the reality doesn’t support the symbolism that Germany needs.
And this crisis is making clear where things stand. It’s making clear that this German idea of anti-antisemitism, and of supporting Israel as a national project, that this is a deeply anti-progressive stance. And these past couple weeks have really made that much clearer to anyone who’s willing to see this. There are people who are unwilling to see this, I don’t believe that this is going to just like, make all the good Germans open their eyes and be like, “Oh, damn, we made a mistake. We’re going to turn around and change now.” But I think it does make much clearer what taking sides on this issue means and implies.
AA: Have you seen more backlash? Like backlash to the backlash? Are there people who are speaking up who didn’t before?
MS: Definitely some. Like there were some people. I mean, even the same guy that I think we didn’t mentioned by name– but Emily mentioned a couple times, or at least once–the head of the German Israeli Society who attacked Emily, like a couple days before that he was defending her, because some of these smears were so obviously disgusting. Other people from that spectrum also, which doesn’t mean that they’re changing sides. But just like, there were some clear moments, at least–
AA: There’s a limit for them.
MS: Yeah, some lines were crossed, even for people in that kind of space. And I think, well, time will tell. But when you look back the last couple of years, things like the School for Unlearning Zionism and the Mbembe affair were big, eye-opening moments for a lot of people in Germany. Because if you’re not really deeply steeped in the discourse that led to this, it doesn’t make any sense to shut down an Israeli education project, to tar a major African philosopher in that way. These things do make people go like, “Oh, what’s going on here?” And I think that’s something that has potential to at least sharpen the opposition to these to these tendencies.
EDB: I’d say one more thing. I think that the German model of reinventing itself as a new form of German superiority–its sort of negative exceptionalism, of having been the most genocidal–is a relevant problem for everyone who’s involved in the battle for a better world. Or against white supremacy, for example, because I mean, obviously, that’s not the condition in many other places. But it’s also a way that this kind of system can, in fact, redeem itself. And it raises a lot of questions about what we actually want in terms of concessions, right? Like if you’re going to be the bad guys, but you’re going to use that to basically project that onto other people and turn it into a civilizational fault line–where we, the Germans, have become civilized by virtue of committing genocide, and the people who are uncivilized are the ones who have not yet recognized their genocidal intentions toward Jews, which is Palestinians, Muslims, people from the Global South–then it sort of raises questions in general about what our demands are, politically, in terms of structural reparations, and changes, and things like that. And so, I think the German model, as a negative model but also one with positive aspects, is something that we can talk about forever, frankly.
AA: Yeah. Well, thank you both so much for joining us. This has been another episode of Jewish Currents podcast On the Nose. Thank you to Michael and Emily for joining us today. If you liked this podcast, please share it with your friends, leave us a review. And if you liked it, you might also want to donate to Jewish Currents, and you can find a link to do that at our website, JewishCurrents.org. And now’s a great time to subscribe because you will get our Summer 2022 issue, which deals a lot with psychoanalysis. It deals with a deep dive into the meaning of apartheid and a lot of other really, really great stuff. So please, please subscribe, donate, and tell your friends about the Jewish Currents podcast. Thanks a lot. See you next time.