Opinion

Germany Is Betraying the Fight Against anti-Semitism

The Bundestag mixed up the struggle against anti-Semitism with support for the most right-wing, populist government ever to rule Israel. Will Germany's government now make the same dangerous mistake?

Visitors walk inside the glass dome of the Reichstag building, the seat of the German lower house of parliament Bundestag in Berlin, Germany. January 12, 2018
\ Hannibal Hanschke/ REUTERS

1948 was a milestone in world and Jewish history.

Three years after the Holocaust and the end of WWII, the State of Israel was founded and immediately absorbed more than 600,000 immigrants, many of them refugees from Europe and Holocaust survivors.

For many of them, the new-born state would represent the ultimate response to the horrors they experienced. They were proud to fight for it, and they built new homes and rehabilitated their lives.

Jews and non-Jews throughout the world, including non-Zionists, supported the founding of Israel because they saw it as a haven for Jews in a world in which Jews were targeted as scapegoats time and time again.

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However, the same war that led to the birth of the State of Israel caused a catastrophe for the Palestinians - the Nakba. Some 750,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homeland and not allowed to return. Hundreds of Arab villages were demolished, their urban centers emptied and crumbled.

Within an incredibly short historical period, the Palestinians were transformed from a majority to a minority in their own homeland, with endless refugees in the Arab countries and all over the world.

This was a defining moment in the history of the conflict in Israel/Palestine, a conflict still far from being resolved.

In December 1948, the UN General Assembly approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

These were universal covenants expressing the understanding that the international community must unite in order to prevent the reoccurrence of the horrors of WWII, such as the Holocaust, as well as committing to a set of values and norms that would protect all human beings from the arbitrariness of violent regimes and prevent such immense suffering and pain.

With the creation of the European Union by the Maastricht treaty 45 years later, human rights were enshrined in its constitutional and moral codes, as part of the heritage of Holocaust remembrance. Thess ethics of memory was approved by the 2005 UN General Assembly resolution designating January 27th as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The resolution opens with a clear, detailed reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is mentioned seven times in the resolution.

Inauguration of the memorial to the Sinti and Roma murdered by the Nazis in WWII, designed by Dani Karavan: a well with retractable panels with information about their persecution. Berlin, Oct 24, 2012
AP

These events are the foundation of the dual responsibility of Europe and especially Germany, ever since the end of WWII: the historical responsibility to guarantee the well-being of Jews, combat anti-Semitism  and support the State of Israel. At the same time, Europe and Germany committed themselves to fighting all forms of racism and supporting liberal democracies that respect human and civil rights.

Unfortunately, in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, balancing these duties has become increasingly difficult for Europe, and in particular for Germany.

On the one hand, Germany has a special relationship with Israel. On the other, it has become more and more aware of the massive abuse of Palestinian human rights and the Israeli government’s systematic derailment of any possible peaceful solution to the conflict.

Last month, the Bundestag gave up what was left of the balance between these two duties and abandoned the ideal of human rights, opting instead for blind support for the Israeli government - the most right-wing and populist government ever to rule Israel, whose current values are in direct contravention to all the values that Germany of the 21st century claims to support.

The Bundestag declared that the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which campaigns for Palestinian rights, is anti-Semitic and therefore illegitimate. Following the vote, the Israeli government has been lobbying the German government to adopt the motion, as reported in Haaretz. 

Anti-Semitism is real and should be confronted in Germany and any other place, using all legal means. However, there is nothing anti-Semitic about BDS as such. Non-violent popular campaigns launched to hold states to account for severe discrimination and grave violations of human rights, are a legitimate and established practice. Think about apartheid South Africa.

Israeli Arabs and their supporters take part in a rally to protest against Jewish nation-state law in Rabin square in Tel Aviv, Israel  August 11, 2018.
REUTERS/Ammar Awad

We ask the German government: do you really think there is any similarity between boycotting a bottle of wine produced in the occupied territories on lands stolen by settlers who are protected by the army of the strongest regional power – and boycotting the store of a defenceless Jew during Nazi Germany?

Drawing this comparison defiles the memory of the Holocaust and strongly undermines the balance of Germany’s post-war duties.

Worse, the decision deeply harms the fight against the real anti-Semitism, which originates from European nationalism and today also comes from parts of the Muslim communities in Europe.

The decision by Bundestag mixes up the struggle against anti-Semitism with support for an Israeli nationalist agenda, thereby alienating large populations that could be otherwise supportive of the fight against Jew-hatred in these very communities.

Moreover, the Bundestag motion restricts freedom of thought and expression, the pillars of every liberal democracy. Germany has a variety of bodies that are loyal to its post-war commitments and the EU’s liberal traditions, which can determine what are the limits of criticism of Israel and when such criticism represents real anti-Semitism.

But the Bundestag voted to bypass all of these cornerstones and arbitrarily and falsely determined what anti-Semitism is. By doing so, it intervened in the open market of ideas. This is a very dangerous and slippery slope.

A boy hops from one to another of the 2711 stellae at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany. October 28, 2013
Getty Images

The Israeli government was quick to celebrate this huge achievement. Lacking any balance, the Bundestag rallied behind a government that does its very best to prevent any political solution to the conflict through the ongoing construction and expansion of settlements. A government which declares that it hopes to annex the occupied Palestinian territories and limit the power of the High Court of Justice to block undemocratic laws.

We know, from German history, how dangerous such a move can be. Bezalel Smotrich, who is expected to receive a senior post in the new government, has implied that ethnic cleansing could be a possible "solution" to the conflict.

This is the government that initiated the Nation State Law, which discriminates minorities in a manner unparalleled in any other western democracy. On top of that, the Israeli government is doing its best to divide and weaken the EU and build alliances with populist leaders worldwide.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is one of the staunchest supporters of the notion of "illiberal democracies." Does this reflect the lessons of the Holocaust? Is endorsing this the right way to combat anti-Semitism?

We’re sorry to say it, but the Bundestag has betrayed its duty to fight anti-Semitism in a principled and honest manner. It has betrayed its liberal and democratic values, as well as its duty to promote human rights and the rule of law, in Germany and Israel. It actually betrayed its duty as a true friend of Israel as well. It betrayed the crucial legacy of 1948.

We hope the German government itself will not follow suit.

Avraham Burg is a former Speaker of the Knesset and Head of the Jewish Agency

Dani Karavan is a recipient of the Israel Prize and a sculptor, whose work includes the Memorial to the Sinti-Roma in Berlin and the Way of Human Rights in Nuremberg