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In Germany, the weight of historical guilt silences protests for Gaza victims

Defending Israel’s security is considered a ‘reason of state’ in the country, where there is practically no public criticism of Netanyahu’s government. Meanwhile, statements in favor of Palestinian human rights are censored

Olaf Scholz
Olaf Scholz (left) attends a Hanukkah celebration in Berlin on Thursday.CLEMENS BILAN (EFE)

The Gaza war has opened a wound in Germany. The country responsible for the Holocaust is now at the crossroads, where it must balance its history, guilt and sense of responsibility with its political response to the current conflict. Eight decades on, the murder of six million Jews still weighs enormously on Germany, both in its foreign relations and its internal management of pro-Palestinian protests and criticism of Israel. Such criticism has practically disappeared from public discourse, with politicians and the media falling silent. Those who dare to speak out against Israel’s response to the Hamas attacks of October 7 are often branded as antisemitic and canceled from fields ranging from culture and art to academia.

“Free Palestine from German guilt.” That’s the message on several posters for the pro-Palestinian protests that have been organized since October in cities such as Berlin. These messages are seen in places where there have been demonstrations: in other places, rallies have been banned out of concern that there would be calls in favor of Hamas. The police closely monitored the authorized protests and have gone so far as to remove posters — and arrest those carrying them — with the “quite neutral” slogan of “From the river to the sea, equality for all,” recalls Christa Waegemann, Middle East Regional Director of the NGO Media in Cooperation and Transition. Waegemann, who defines herself as “half-Jewish, half-German,” regrets that the shadow of Nazi crimes is silencing public debate. “I have many conversations with friends and colleagues about the increasing impossibility of criticizing Israel,” she says.

Germany is one of the countries that is offering unwavering support to the Israeli government. German chancellor Olaf Scholz constantly invokes the country’s right to defend itself. Politicians from across the parliamentary spectrum also show their unconditional support, recalling that Israel’s security of Israel is Germany’s Staatsräson its “reason of state.” This expression, which is difficult to translate into practice, has become common since former chancellor Angela Merkel made it in a historic speech in 2008 before the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament. “Germany, which attempted to annihilate Jewish life during the Nazi regime, feels obligated to ensure a safe haven for Jews, which it considers to be Israel. That reason of state was invoked again after the Hamas attacks and is what is guiding German policy,” explains historian Jürgen Zimmerer, a professor at the University of Hamburg specializing in historical memory.

Slight shift in discourse

Only very recently, this week, has there been a slight change in the German position. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock publicly called on Israel to respect human rights in Gaza. “Too many Palestinians have already died,” she said on an official visit to Slovenia on Tuesday, in her most critical statements of Israel so far. “The fact that Hamas continues to attack Israel from civilian infrastructure does not absolve Israel of its responsibility to alleviate this incredible suffering in Gaza and protect the civilian population: children, families,” she insisted. However, Berlin continues to refuse to call for a sustained humanitarian ceasefire on the grounds that it would benefit Hamas.

Meanwhile, there are many cases of high-profile figures being cancelled for defending Palestinian civilians, even if they also clearly condemn the bloody attacks by Hamas. This happened, for example, to Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek during the opening of the Frankfurt Book Fair. Part of the audience booed him and left the room when he recalled the suffering of Gaza’s civilians. A few days ago, the Saarland Museum in Saarbrücken canceled the exhibition of South African artist Candice Breitz due to her “controversial statements” about the Gaza war. Breitz, who is Jewish, explained that she has always spoken out against Hamas terrorism, but maintained that “the lives of Palestinian children are worth the same as those of Jews.”

Germany’s public broadcaster ARD even went so far as to remove from its program the Palestinian film Wajib, the winner of several international awards, which tells an intimate story about the relationship between a father and a son. Despite having nothing to do with Islamist propaganda, the network decided to withdraw it at the end of November “in view of recent events in the Middle East,” arguing it could “be misinterpreted.”

Pro palestinian protest
Two participants in a pro-Palestine protest held in Berlin on December 2, holding a sign with the slogan "Bombing children is not self-defense."LISI NIESNER (REUTERS)

Demonstrations, symbols and banners have also been banned on the grounds of Staatsräson. The slogan “Bombing children is not self-defense” was recently removed at a protest in Frankfurt. “The problem is that people of Palestinian or Arab descent feel that they cannot express their concerns and criticisms. We will see in the future if this leads to a radicalization of certain groups and also to a permanent fracture of society,” Zimmerer warns. The possibility of this happening is very real, the historian insists, because the extreme right has mixed the debate about Israel and Palestine with the discourse on migration.

“The demands to withdraw German citizenship from pro-Palestinian protesters of Arab descent have further poisoned public discourse,” he says. This same week, the state government of Saxony-Anhalt (led by the Christian Democrats, in coalition with Social Democrats and Liberals) announced that all residents in that eastern state who want to adopt German citizenship must sign a document that expressly recognizes Israel’s “right to exist.”

Germany is going after antisemitism, but judging by the messages of authorities, it is focusing especially on antisemitism in the Muslim community in the country, which numbers around 5.5 million. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier called on people of Arab origin to clearly distance themselves from hatred of Jews and Hamas. Similar statements have been made by Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, who called on Islamic organizations to adopt a “clear stance against antisemitism.” Both clarified that Muslims should not be the subject of general suspicion.

“We are not allowed to say ‘stop genocide’ in the country that perfected the concept,” laments Deborah Feldman, author of a memoir that inspired the well-known Netflix series Unorthodox. Feldman, who was born in the United States, fled an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn and settled in Berlin, where she has participated in numerous protests since October 7. “It is a terribly sad and desperate time for us,” she says, referring to progressive Jews. Her appearance on one of the most prominent political debate programs last month caused great impact because she was one of the first voices that said on public television that only one lesson can be drawn from the Holocaust: “The absolute and unconditional defense of human rights for all.”

In statements to EL PAÍS, she recalled that Germany’s vice-chancellor, Robert Habeck from the Green party, said her position in that debate showed “admirable moral clarity.” But according to Feldman, Habeck said that he could not support it as a politician from a country that committed the Shoah. “This means that we have reached a point in German discourse where the Holocaust is used as a justification for abandoning moral clarity,” says Feldman.

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