It’s hard to determine exactly when the term “a different Germany” entered Israel’s public discourse – or who introduced it. Journalist David Witzthum, who recently published a book about Israel’s early relationship with West Germany (“The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship? The Reconciliation between Israel and Germany, 1948-1960” (Schocken; in Hebrew), speculates that talk about such a Germany began with discussion of the 1952 Reparations Agreement.
The desire to prove that the so-called different Germany had indeed arisen and was being built, stemmed from a desire by German immigrants living in Israel to reconnect with their homeland, which they had been forced to leave in the 1930s. Later, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer would adopt this term, which suited their shared political goals.
Ever since, this term has been used to describe the great revolution Germany underwent after the defeat of the Nazis when, on their ruins, a stable, economically thriving democracy arose – one that accepts responsibility for the crimes of its past, is tolerant and sensitive toward minorities, compensates the survivors of the genocide and consistently supports Israel.
But this “different Germany” has recently been facing a difficult test. Suddenly, almost 75 years after the collapse of the Third Reich, anti-Semitism has resurfaced as an issue around which virtually the entire German political system has united.
Almost all the members of the Bundestag – Social Democrats, Free Democrats and the Greens – voted recently in favor of a resolution that defines the BDS movement as anti-Semitic. Following that sweeping decision, Germany has become a leading member of the coalition of “distorters of anti-Semitism.” Fellow members are leaders like Viktor Orban of Hungary, Matteo Salvini of Italy and Heinz-Christian Strache of Austria. All are lovers of Israel, serious racists and also, if necessary, anti-Semites.
That is how a country where anti-Semitism was a political tool that contributed to the rise of the Nazis’ murderous enterprise became a country that promotes distortion of anti-Semitism as a tool to facilitate the political persecution of a nonviolent movement that fights the occupation, the oppression of the Palestinians and the war crimes Israel perpetrates in the territories.
Germany is unique in that pressure from Israel’s government has influenced the political mood to the point where, with support from some of the local Jewish community, a witch hunt has erupted there. At present it is aimed at the director of the Jewish Museum Berlin, Peter Schaefer, a leading intellectual in the field of Jewish studies, who has come out against undermining the freedom of expression and warned of the danger of branding anyone who criticizes Israel as “anti-Semitic.”
Several Holocaust researchers in Israel and abroad have recently pointed out the danger posed by what they call “Holocaust distortion.” Not denial, but distortion. In their view, the trend emerging today in several places in Europe, particularly among far-right populist parties, isn’t denying the Holocaust, but twisting its events or significance in order to adapt them to a national historical narrative and to shape the particular collective memory they are promoting.
Though these scholars haven’t voiced an opinion about a similar process taking place with regard to the very definition of anti-Semitism, the equation they have proposed with regard to the Holocaust also seems to be brilliantly suited to what is happening in Germany and other places with regard to anti-Semitism.
Traditional, familiar anti-Semitism was characterized by a multifaceted hostility to Jews and Judaism, the demonization of Jews, a preoccupation with their collective traits and their business dealings, and myths and stereotypes that painted the Jew as the devil incarnate. The new anti-Semitism of today’s European nationalist populists – whose definitions Germany has adopted – could be defined as functional anti-Semitism. It is based on the principle that anyone whom certain Jews want to define as anti-Semitic will be defined as such.
In other words, this is no longer anti-Semitism that distinguishes between Jews and non-Jews based on criteria like religion, culture, nationality or race – but one that makes a distinction between anti-Semites and non-anti-Semites, based on criteria set by the Israeli government and by Jews and non-Jews who support it, in Germany and other countries.
What is happening here is no less than a historical revolution in the understanding of anti-Semitism: No longer do anti-Semitic Germans define who is a Jew that must be ostracized from society, but rather certain Jews define who is an anti-Semite or who is a philo-Semite, and the Germans adopt their view.
Functional anti-Semitism defines Jews and non-Jews alike as anti-Semites, based on an array of specifications and traits that suit Israel’s current nationalism. And because functional anti-Semitism also needs some kind of document or organization that defines its boundaries – since it’s inconceivable that anyone should decide for himself who is anti-Semitic and who isn’t – it has resorted to the Ten Commandments of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
IHRA was established in 1998 after an uproar in Sweden over a survey (whose results later turned out to be wrong) that found that the younger generation of Swedes wasn’t familiar with the events of the Holocaust. Sweden, one of the European countries that have a strong, organized, neo-Nazi right, decided that the way to deal with these troubling conclusions was to set up an international organization to perpetuate remembrance of the Holocaust and to inculcate its lessons in the school system. Israel, of course, became a leading member of this organization, and Holocaust scholar Prof. Yehuda Bauer became its first academic adviser.
That is how an unnecessary, destructive organization was born – one that has turned Holocaust education and remembrance into a powerful, worldwide concern. Its successes aren’t particularly impressive if, after 20 years of activities, discussions and conferences around the world, anti-Semitism has had a revival today such as it hasn’t experienced for years.
But food spurs the appetite, as the saying go. From an organization that was supposed to focus on remembrance and educational activities, IHRA, which has international status because of its 27 member states, has become a drafter of documents and formulator of definitions, but it’s not clear what interests lie behind them or who exactly is driving them.
The most prominent example is the scandalous document IHRA approved in May 2016 on the definition of anti-Semitism. It states that an anti-Semite is anyone who denies the Jewish people’s right to self-determination by claiming that Israel is a racist enterprise; anyone who applies double standards to Israel by asserting that it must act in a way that isn’t demanded of other democracies; or anyone who compares Israel’s current policies to those of the Nazis.
Comparisons between Israel’s policies vis-a-vis Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and German policies toward Jews in Poland’s ghettos are indeed harsh and disturbing. But is that anti-Semitism? And should it be the Bundestag’s job to determine if a group that suggests such ideas is or isn’t anti-Semitic?
The claim that Israel’s establishment rests on a racist worldview is also hard to swallow. But who made IHRA responsible for historically significant decisions of this type, and why is this binding on the parliament of a democratic European power?
Furthermore, why has the Bundestag become a doormat for an organization whose activities and recklessness fit the classic anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jewish domination and of the Jews’ ability to drive the international political system to work on behalf of their interests – in this case, those of Israel? Why did the Bundestag almost unanimously adopt a definition of anti-Semitism written by IHRA, a group that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exalts and glorifies because of its role in the battle against BDS?
The god of history must be laughing at this absurdity. The Nazi movement, as we know, flirted with Zionism quite a bit in the 1920s and ’30s. Alfred Rosenberg, one of the main Nazi ideologues, wrote at the time about the nature of the Zionist movement and about what the German nationalist movement’s correct attitude toward it should be. In his 1920 book “Die Spur” (“The Jews’ Trail Through the Ages”), Rosenberg suggested encouraging and supporting the German Zionist movement in order to promote the exodus of German Jews to Palestine. He noted that the Zionists were a group with a potential for short-term cooperation with national-socialist Germany, since both were interested in halting Jewish assimilation and integration, and promoting Jewish emigration.
Rosenberg also planned to use Jewish claims as a legal justification for – and proof that Jews also supported the idea of – denying German Jews their civil rights. The Zionist claim to the effect that there was a separate Jewish community with its own unique cultural and national interests, which were not identical to those of other Germans, was also in keeping with the Nazi policy whose implementation began after 1933.
There is a bitter historical irony to indiscriminately labeling anyone in Germany who criticizes Israel’s present policies as anti-Semitic. This is how Germany is serving the brutal and racist concept of Zionism of present-day Israel, just as that Germany previously served the needs of Zionism, to encourage Jewish isolationism and to promote Jewish emigration as much as possible. Members of the Bundestag are apparently blind to the tremendous difference between the desperate situation of German Jews in the 1930s and today’s Jewish state.
That, of course, doesn’t bother the Israel of Netanyahu and of Gilad Erdan, the minister in charge of the incitement and the witch hunt in the so-called Ministry of Strategic Affairs. In the spirit of the well-known declaration by Hermann Goering, who said that “in the Luftwaffe I decide who is a Jew,” Israel and IHRA are the ones who now define who is an anti-Semite.
Both Viktor Orban, an admirer of Admiral Miklos Horthy, the leader of Hungary during World War II who sent hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, a murderous ruler who takes pride in wiping out drug addicts just as Hitler wiped out Jews – could be honored guests in Israel and allies of its prime minister.
And a great scholar of Talmud and Jewish philosophy, who taught at Princeton University, directed Berlin’s Jewish Museum, was in charge of an exhibition about Jerusalem that also touches on the Palestinian component of the city, and dared to oppose the silencing and the witch hunt enabling the Bundestag decision regarding BDS, leaves his job.
To the glory of the State of Israel.
Prof. Daniel Blatman is a Holocaust era historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and chief historian of the Warsaw Ghetto Museum