Germany's pro-Israel Left Has a New Target in the Crosshairs: Jews

Ideas and opinions that can be voiced freely in Israeli academia will spark a big backlash in Berlin, led by the Antideutsche movement

A pro-Israel rally in Berlin, in 2014.
Markus Schreiber / AP

I met Thomas, an ardent young German, more than a decade ago at a radical-left demonstration in Berlin protesting the commemorative celebrations of the anniversary of Germany’s reunification. Because the official event was packed and rife with security that year, I preferred to go to the protest rally, which also sounded more interesting. It was billed as an anti-nationalist demonstration warning against the dangers of patriotic discourse about “national unity.” But when I got there, I was surprised to see that many of the protesters were waving Israeli flags. Thomas was one of them. He ran through the street draped in the blue-and-white flag. The presence of the Israeli flag puzzled me – after all, for decades the German state he was demonstrating against had been one of Israel’s biggest supporters. Thomas explained: “I am anti-nationalist and I hate every flag, other than the Israeli flag, because Israel is the answer to fascism.” He then joined the other demonstrators in roaring, “Grandpa, Grandma, stop whining – you’re criminals, not victims.”

That was my introduction to the political phenomenon known as Antideutsche – anti-Germans. It started in the late 1980s as an exotic offshoot of the Maoist left, whose members denied the very legitimacy of a German nation after Nazism, under the slogan, “Germany, never again.” But for the past two decades, Antideutsche has had one primary focus: an unrestrained attack on anyone who is critical, even a bit, of Israeli policy. According to their amazingly simplistic approach, anti-Semitism is the source of all evil, Israel is the answer to anti-Semitism, and thus constitutes absolute good. Hence, at demonstrations and in Facebook posts of this left-wing group, there have even been calls to drop a nuclear bomb on Gaza – that is, calls for genocide.

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The absurdity doesn’t end there. Even a call for regulation of Germany’s financial markets constitutes anti-Semitism in the eyes of the Antideutsche, because they believe it hints at a conspiracy of “Jewish bankers” and “international Zionism.” Intellectuals in this group also assail women’s meditation gatherings, where participants hold hands and connect with the Great Mother, defining them as pagan rites aimed against Jewish monotheism.

The Hebrew-language Wikipedia terms the Antideutsche an “anti-nationalist communist movement.” But it’s hard to define them as communists, much less anti-nationalists. Antideutsche people don’t come only from the left; many come from the neoliberal economic right and some are even willing to stand with the extreme-right AfD party, because it supports Israel.

All this sounds like a description of a bizarre ideological cult. Indeed, the Antideutsche number a few thousand activists at most. But in the current global political climate, the marginal becomes central and the central, marginal. As a result, in recent years, the worldview espoused by these people has become a phenomenon that transcends the anecdotal. It wields considerable influence in civil society and on the editorial boards of the most important newspapers in Germany, and now also in Austria and Switzerland. More particularly, it has become increasingly evident in Berlin, where there is an especially large concentration of Antideutsche. Thomas, the enthusiastic demonstrator, has since become an academic and an editor of an influential cultural column in a German paper.

Antideutsche sympathizers are now the driving force behind journalistic and social-media attacks on institutions in Berlin, notably those dealing with Jewish history and even anti-Semitism research. Thus, the Jewish Museum Berlin became the object of a particularly ugly offensive. The institution’s director, Peter Schaefer, a Jewish studies scholar, was vilified by pro-Israel activists to the point where he was compelled to resign last June. In the wake of the museum’s sharing on Twitter of a story that implied support for the BDS movement, it was claimed that Schaefer personally supports BDS and is therefore anti-Semitic.

Subsequently, the denunciations focused on another senior official of the institution, Yasemin Shooman, who was accused of having dared to compare anti-Semitic attacks to attacks on Muslim migrants. For his part, Thomas Thiel, a senior editor at the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, wrote an opinion piece alleging that Shooman had turned the museum, which features exhibitions focusing on Jewish history and the Holocaust, into an active center of “political Islam.”

In fact, intellectual and academic discourse in Germany today is consistently skewed toward the Israeli right. When the subject is Israel, the most distinguished media and academic platforms publish items that look like they could have been culled from the Israeli right-wing site Mida. Even the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism, one of the most important institutions of its kind in Germany, has been caught up in a public storm and accused of anti-Semitism.

The Antideutsche want everything having to do with anti-Semitism to be subjected to their uniform and dogmatic line. Paradoxically, ideas and opinions that can be voiced in Israeli academia with no special problem, foment a huge ruckus in Berlin. Incensed Germans, some of them descendants of Nazis, don’t hesitate to attack Jewish and Israeli left-wingers. Scholars who have devoted their lives to Jewish studies tread carefully for fear they will say something that is not consistent with this absurd conception of reality.

‘Iran Day’

It looks like no one is able to stop the madness of the Antideutsche, who are reminiscent of pro-Israel evangelicals or extreme-right groups. Things have reached a pass where, even if the Israeli government were to decide to expel all the Palestinians, or to annex Lebanon – its staunch defenders in the German media might well bar publication of any criticism of the move.

In fact, Israel’s German defenders aren’t truly interested in Israel: The Jewish state appears to be the center of their world, but their knowledge of Israeli politics and society is usually very limited. What does interest them is cultivating their own self-righteousness, which reaches shocking proportions. Because the Nazi past and the Holocaust constitute the foundation of postwar German identity, they are intent on projecting their selfhood onto the whole world.

The atmosphere now pervading Berlin, once the capital of the Third Reich, is particularly instructive when pondering the state of discourse about anti-Semitism 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz. The conflation of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism is growing ever tighter. Any other viewpoint is rejected aggressively. The gathering of world leaders this week in Jerusalem to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz embodies this conception of reality, which subordinates history and morality to the present-day interests of the Israeli government. Thus Holocaust Day becomes “Iran Day.” According to the new version of the Holocaust, Hitler was merely the precursor of Ali Khamenei, and Benjamin Netanyahu is the contemporary personification of Anne Frank.

But Israel is not the whole story. Underlying the new German ideology is apparently a single imperative, which originated with the philosopher Theodor Adorno: the obligation to do everything to prevent Auschwitz from recurring. It sounds good, but at the present time, that necessity is revealed to be a poor compass – those who subscribe to it will stumble along the way. If your entire worldview revolves around the effort not to repeat one crime – even if it is the most horrific crime in history – you are liable to arrive at absurd conclusions.

It turns out that under the banner of the struggle against anti-Semitism, it’s possible to justify murderous actions, violate freedom of expression, besmirch Jews, and above all make a mockery of reason.