Sawsan Chebli and her husband get into a taxi in Tel Aviv on the way to visit friends. “Where are you from?” the driver asks. “From Germany,” they reply. “Ahh, Germany,” he says. “They’re so dumb – those Germans. They took in all the refugees, the whole of Europe changed. How do they plan to integrate all those Muslims into society now?” Chebli’s husband gives her a wary glance; he knows what’s about to happen. “Uskuti (be quiet),” he mutters in Arabic, but in vain.
“How can you say that?” Chebli scolds the driver. “We are Palestinians and we were refugees, too, and it’s a good thing Germany took us in! And where are you from, anyway?” she goes on. “From Yemen?! You see!?”
Chebli, 40, laughs loudly as she tells me this story the next day. “I have the feeling that his day was ruined,” she says. “But I can’t remain silent in the face of injustice. I am not silent! I can’t be. I don’t want to be.”
Sawsan Chebli doesn’t remain silent, and speaking out has taken her a long way so far. Born in Berlin to a poor family of asylum seekers that originally came from the Galilee, Chebli was stateless until the age of 15. Today she is a state secretary and represents Berlin in the federal government. Her father was illiterate and even after decades in the country, both he and his wife couldn’t speak German. Chebli was deputy spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry until not long ago. Chebli is also a leader in the struggle against anti-Semitism in Berlin, and in coalition negotiations with Angela Merkel last year, she was even mentioned as a possible candidate for federal government commissioner for the fight against anti-Semitism.
Chebli is one of the most controversial politicians in Germany today. Her every tweet stirs up a furor, and she tweets relentlessly: defending sharia law, condemning Israel, trading blows with the far-rightists of the Alternative for Germany party, and also when her image appears on the social networks – the member of the Social Democratic Party who grew up in an impoverished home in Berlin, one of 13 siblings, wearing a shiny Rolex.
Chebli cries, laughs, gets angry, becomes emotional. Her expression is as far from the poker face of Merkel, or any other German politician, as East is from West. She’s the embodiment of identity politics – a collection of contrasts, an endless challenge. The media obsess over her, but have no one answer to the question of who Sawsan Chebli is. Or to the equally important question: What is Sawsan Chebli doing to German politics?
The Jewish lawyer
Chebli doesn’t generally give interviews for profile articles. Remarks she’s made in the past have apparently caused her superiors no little trouble. Interviews must thus be confined to her areas of direct responsibility: the foreign relations of Berlin, a city state within the German Federal Republic; Berlin’s representation in the Bundesrat, the Upper House of the German parliament; and its residents’ engagement in civic affairs. On any other subject, one can accompany her to official appearances and ask a couple of questions before or after the event. Nonetheless, the idea of an article in Haaretz intrigues her.
Chebli and her dozen sisters and brothers grew up in a three-room apartment in the Moabit neighborhood of what was until 1990 West Berlin. They were a family of stateless refugees, without work permits, legal protections or stability. Their visas had to be renewed every few months. Her father was expelled three times and returned illegally each time. Only Arabic was spoken at home. Chebli only started to learn German when she entered school.
A childhood memory: Ahead of the annual school outing, the teacher is checking that everyone has a passport. Sawsan, 12 at the time, explains that she is a stateless Palestinian and doesn’t have one. The teacher doesn’t understand and suggests that she bring her Palestinian passport. Chebli cries all the way home. What does it mean, being stateless, she thinks. We’re nothing.
Chebli’s parents were not political people. Their primary occupation was survival. In Lebanon, where they’d lived before arriving in Germany, they barely took any interest in religion. Once in Germany, however, they drew close to Islam, read the Koran together, prayed five times a day. Her parents cultivated a rich community life. Their door was always open, and their small apartment was like a second home to many of the neighborhood’s Palestinians.
With zero integration in German society, the Chebli family could be considered the nightmare of modern immigration policy makers – but that was actually part of the policy. In the 1980s, the German government made prodigious efforts to reduce the number of asylum seekers, and one means used to deter potential migrants was to make social integration difficult. Chebli’s older siblings were not subject to compulsory education and could not formally matriculate from high school.
The person who fought for the Cheblis to receive a residency permit, who once got Sawsan’s father released from detention and saw to it that the family was eventually granted German citizenship, was a Jewish lawyer of Lebanese origin.
“I think that’s one of the reasons my father was always very open regarding Jews,” she says, recalling that the day her family received their passports was like a holiday. Sawsan was 15. Their first trip was to the refugee camp in Lebanon where her family had lived.
Chebli often recounts the story of her childhood. Too often, some say. For example, in an event with her on the subject of “Civic Engagement in the Age of Populism,” held one evening in a luxurious hall overlooking the Hackesche Höfe shopping and cultural complex in downtown Berlin. Chebli is sitting on a leather sofa, wearing a boho-chic dress and brown leather boots; she sports shiny lipstick and a gold bracelet, and totes a fancy leather bag. When did she start to take an interest in politics, the interviewer asks.
“Politics has shaped the whole course of my life,” she replies. “My parents fled from Palestine against a background of political decisions. They lived in a refugee camp for 20 years as a result of political decisions. I was born here and I was stateless for 15 years because [the German] politicians decided that Palestinians needed to leave at some point, which was absurd, because there was nowhere to go.
“You grow up in surroundings like that and you think: I don’t want others to decide about my life anymore. I want to be part of the decision about my path, about what I will be and what my future will look like. Very early on I told myself: I do not want to be poor like my parents, and I don’t want politics to determine the course of my life. And if it does, I don’t want to sit on the side and criticize it, but to influence it.”
After studying political science at university, Chebli embarked on her professional career, beginning as an assistant to members of parliament from the Social Democratic Party, then as a consultant for intercultural affairs in the Senate of Berlin. Her breakthrough, however, came in 2014, when Frank-Walter Steinmeier, today Germany’s president, became foreign minister for the second time. “Sawsan, I am taking you here because I want you to get ahead,” he told her. She was appointed deputy spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry, the first Muslim to hold that post. It was a media sensation.
Chebli has become a source of inspiration for young refugees in Germany. Her Cinderella story is also appreciated by Social Democrats, who still address one another as “comrade” – ostensibly proving that a person can advance based on talent and skills alone. But Chebli admits that her background also helped her career trajectory.
“For a long time I resisted saying that I am part of a quota,” she says. “But if I weren’t a woman, and with a migrant background – I don’t know if I would have received that job [at the ministry]. I also got it because I am good at it, but also because Steinmeier wanted Sawsan and not Sabrina. Migrants take it hard sometimes – the fact that they are considered to be part of a quota. We need to discard that feeling. Affirmative action helps us approach equal opportunity. It’s all right to be part of a quota.”
When Chebli wants to chill out she walks home – an hour and a half from her office on Jüdenstrasse (“Street of the Jews”), near Alexanderplatz, to Charlottenburg, listening to Umm Kulthum on the headphones. The many “haters” around her don’t make life easy. There are threats, curses, endless harassment. The hate messages she gets can’t be printed in a newspaper. And they’re always related to Islam.
From the outset of her political career, some people called her the “Trojan horse of the Islamists.” Her enemies left no stone unturned in their efforts to find hidden ties between her and the Muslim Brotherhood. In her earliest interviews with the media, she made it clear that she sees herself as conservative Muslim, a pious one. Her brother was an imam in Malmo, Sweden, and her mother and her five sisters wear head coverings. She decided to forgo that because of her career, she said on one occasion, even though she sees it as a religious obligation.
Conservative but modern, a devout Muslim and also a career woman – Chebli frequently complains that it’s hard for people to accept her because they can’t fit her into any slot. In 2016 an interviewer asked her about the phenomenon of young Muslims who prefer sharia to the German Constitution.
“Why is it always presented as a conflict?” she said. “Everyone talks about the sharia, but no one knows what it means. It primarily deals with the personal relationship between God and humans. It addresses things like prayer, fasting and alms. That presents no problems for me as a democrat; it is absolutely compatible.”
She has tried any number of times since then to explain herself, acknowledging that certain aspects of sharia are not consistent with the Constitution. But in vain. The “sharia quote” was branded on her for all time. These days she’s careful with quotes in articles like this one: She insists on approving them before they are published, having the opportunity to remove any ambivalence, defuse any mines. In some cases the published remarks end up pale and cautious, far from the direct and uncompromising assertions of the real Chebli.
In mid-March the Senate of Berlin, the executive body that governs the city state, approved a project aimed at combating anti-Semitism. Chebli is the central figure behind this local initiative. “The message is: Berlin does not look on idly when anti-Semitism spreads, poisons the social fabric and endangers democracy,” she told the daily Der Tagesspiegel. The plan includes educating teachers and social workers about anti-Semitism and how to counter it in educational institutions, introducing new curricula, appointing a commissioner to spearhead the struggle against anti-Semitism, and monitoring attacks and assisting their victims.
Chebli has been dealing with the subject of anti-Semitism for some time. Last year, she suggested that every German should visit a concentration camp at least once – and that includes refugees and migrants. “Visiting concentration camps should be part of the integration course,” she told the German magazine Bild. That quote made headlines around the world. Jewish organizations lauded the initiative. The Palestinian politician from Berlin moved to the forefront of the discussion on anti-Semitism. An article in The New York Times about the suggestion featured her along with others including Ron Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, and Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.
This was happening during the coalition negotiations between Merkel and the Social Democrats. It was leaked from private talks in the chancellor’s bureau, according to the magazine Cicero, that the Social Democrats wanted to make Chebli the government commissioner responsible for the fight against anti-Semitism. Jewish organizations in Germany had misgivings, the magazine claimed, and the idea was dropped. Chebli denies this outright. If there were any such initiative, no one talked to her about it, she says.
Chebli was a guest on a special television program marking the anniversary of Kristallnacht. She cleans Stolpersteine – the “stumbling stones” embedded in Berlin sidewalks as small memorials, next to the homes of Jews who perished in the Holocaust. She hosted Berlin high-school students at a gathering in advance of a visit to Auschwitz at the end of this month, in which she will participate. Do her own origins obligate her to speak out so persistently against anti-Semitism, I ask Chebli on one occasion. “Absolutely not,” she replies instantly. “It comes from deep conviction.”
She continues: “Anti-Semitism has always been around. But now it is more aggressive, more vociferous. Islamophobia is also on the rise. In the past, my mother was never attacked for wearing a head covering. Now she is constantly subjected to hostility.” There are parallels between these two phenomena, she explains: Anti-Semites are usually Islamophobes too, and vice versa. But there are also clear differences: anti-Semitism among leftists, for example, plus anti-Semitism that is tied to Israel and is quite widespread, she says. There is anti-Semitism in the Muslim community and among migrants, which is often nurtured by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A taxonomy of hatred, and Chebli is deep into the details.
In regard to Israeli politics, however, Sawsan Chebli prefers to be silent. “People are just waiting for an opportunity to accuse me of anti-Semitism or of Israel-hatred,” she says. But Chebli can't really be silent. Some time ago she said she finds it hard to believe that there will ever be two states. She followed the recent election closely – and asks that I quote her only as saying, “I hoped for a different result.” Of the Beresheet spacecraft that Israel launched to the moon recently, which crashed upon landing, she tweeted: “To the moon and beyond? Nein. Weder Frieden noch Mond (No. Neither peace nor moon).” She received 450 comments, dozens of accusations of anti-Semitism, and a condemnatory article in the Jewish paper Jüdische Allgemeine, titled “Israel, Chebli and the Moon.”
“It was a joke, and it just shows how sick the reactions to me are and how they are driven by hatred,” she explains. Where does all that come from, I ask.
Chebli: “I am immediately accused of malice. I am tired of justifying myself. I don’t have to prove to anyone that I am sincere in my struggle against anti-Semitism or in my wish for conciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. There’s the guilt complex in Germany, but I don’t have it. My parents and my grandparents didn’t murder Jews and didn’t look on as their Jewish neighbors were deported.”
Chebli’s views and identities do not seem mutually contradictory when discussed pleasantly, during a slow evening stroll to a U-Bahn station in west Berlin. But the whole mixture is so rare, especially among politicians, that Chebli finds herself alone in the fray time and again.
“The problem is that I am attacked by certain people in the Palestinian community because I try to keep an open mind about Israelis, the Israeli ambassador, for example.” (Says Israeli Ambassador to Germany Jeremy Issacharoff: “Chebli is a senior figure in the State of Berlin and we definitely maintain friendly working relations.”) Chebli continues: “Israel is an existent reality, and I believe that all those who want peace should unite against those who are against peace. And from the other side, I am accused over and over of opposing Israel’s right to exist. It’s an absurd situation, but it shows me that I’m doing the right thing.”
Parade of tweets
Chebli’s Twitter account is never boring. “The sun is shining, Berlin, April 12,” she tweets. The tweet receives 250 comments, among them: “If you were German, you would know that this is how it is in Germany in April.” And, “If that doesn’t suit you, go home.” In October, someone posted an image of her wearing a Rolex that costs 7,300 euros. “Here’s everything you need to know about the state of German social democracy in 2018,” he wrote. The social media went wild; the German press dealt with the subject intensively. #Rolex suddenly dominated public discourse, which related to everything – racism, sexism, the failure of the German left. Chebli tweeted: “Who of you haters has shared two rooms with 12 siblings, slept and eaten on the floor and on weekends collected trees because coal was too expensive? No one will teach me what poverty is.”
In August, far-right demonstrations in Chemnitz, in eastern Germany, lurched out of control. Video clips of neo-Nazis chasing and beating up dark-skinned people in the streets shocked the country. Angela Merkel was quick to respond – as was Chebli. “We are (still) the majority. But we are too quiet, too soft, too split, too unorganized, too hesitant… We are not radical enough,” she tweeted, and a new headline was born.
“I meant radical in our commitment to democracy and the rule of law,” she added later. But to no avail: That tweet has accompanied her in every interview and profile article since. “When other politicians used that expression, it didn’t bother anyone,” she says now, bitterly. “But Sawsan Chebli as a Muslim is of course calling for violence.”
Chebli’s Twitter feed is a megaphone for issues on the margins of the public agenda. How does a German with an immigrant background feel when asked time and again where he or she is “really” from? Why is every article about Jews accompanied by a photograph of a person wearing a skullcap? Why is an attack on a Muslim woman wearing a head covering reported as an example of xenophobia if she is not a foreigner? Sawsan Chebli is too much noise for the moderate, prudent, taciturn German political establishment. To the raucous and crude far right she is a red flag. But out of the melee she frequently stirs up, a debate develops, views are exchanged, new angles are illuminated. The public dialogue progresses, one tweet at a time.
In early April Chebli and her husband, Nizar Maarouf, a manager at a healthcare company in Berlin, who is also of Palestinian descent, visited Israel. His parents – originally from the village of Deir al-Qassi, in the Upper Galilee, where Moshav Elkosh is now located – joined them. They still have the key to their house, Chebli says. This was going to be their first visit to their village since their departure in 1948. “No chance,” she replies immediately when I ask if I can accompany them. “It’s going to be very personal and emotional.”
We meet in Tel Aviv a few days later. We cried a lot in the north, relates Chebli, who had paid a similar visit last year to the site of her mother’s village, Khirbat al-Kasayir, near Haifa: “It was an intense experience, very sad. I didn’t feel hate, only unfathomable sadness. Sadness because we don’t have a state.”
As a girl, Chebli was raised on the story of the flight of her mother and her family in 1948, the rumors of looting and rape, fear of the pre-state Haganah militia, the hasty departure from the village, the belief that they would soon return. “Next week, next week and next week became 20 years,” she says, about her family’s life in a refugee camp near Baalbek, Lebanon. Her parents met while working together in agriculture near the city of Zahlé, and fell in love. Eleven of her siblings were born in the camp.
Her father heard about Germany from friends. There is work there, they told him; you can build a future for the children there. He went to Berlin, submitted a request for asylum and brought over the rest of the family. Sawsan was born in 1978 in a three-room apartment in Moabit.
When we met it was summery in Berlin and cold in Tel Aviv. We were both a little disappointed by the latter, and in between Chebli’s meetings we paused to warm up in the sunshine. “I envy the Israelis for having a state. It’s a beautiful thing that one has a state of one’s own. The older I get, the greater that desire becomes,” she says.
Her tweets suggest that she enjoyed the visit to Israel. She enjoyed the sea (“peace of mind”), her Israeli friends (“We resolved the Middle East conflict”), Abu Hassan’s hummus, in Jaffa (“divine”).
“The loveliest experiences take place in a taxi in Tel Aviv,” she tweets. “The driver, who is of Libyan descent, is also a cantor and has just sung me songs by Farid al-Atrash.”
“So, why not stay there?” someone tweets back.
Itay Mashiach (@itaymash) is an independent journalist and data journalist based in Berlin.