Germany struggles to talk about Israel

Illustrated | REUTERS, iStock

On May 11, when German Green Chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock tweeted her response to escalating violence in the Middle East, her statement may have appeared to many as an unremarkable call for peace: “I strongly condemn the ongoing rocket attacks by Hamas. These must be ended immediately. The spiral of violence shows how urgent it is to resume peace negotiations,” she wrote.

Yet she was met with furious criticism. The tweet was in line with the mainstream German response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which supports the Israeli government by focusing primarily on the violence of Hamas. However, the term “spiral of violence” was enough to inspire many people to correct her. “What spiral of violence? It’s all Hamas’s fault!” “Anna, you seem to be missing the #standwithIsreal hashtag in your tweet!” “What, exactly, do you want Israel to do? Negotiate with terrorists?” “Israel has the right to defend itself.”The editor of the newspaper Die Welt opined that her use of the term demonstrated ignorance and naïveté. Such a strong reaction to a statement that might just imply there is violence and blame on both sides of the conflict tells you everything you need to know about the general German discourse on Israel.

In 2008, during her speech to the Israeli Knesset, German Chancellor Angela Merkel famously stated that responsibility for Israel’s security “is part of my country’s raison d’être.” But what does this mean, exactly? The idea of Germany sending in troops to help defend Israel is improbable. Israel neither needs nor wants such assistance, and Germany is characterised by military reluctance — another part of its historical responsibility. While Germany does support Israel with arms and technology, it also officially advocates for a two-state solution to the conflict. Along with the rest of the EU, Germany provides millions of euros in aid to Palestine every year.

No, this responsibility is felt most in German society, where the memory of the Holocaust drives an ever-present nervousness and hypervigilance around the topic. Last month, Israel’s right to defend itself was reiterated time and again by politicians across party lines. Illegal burnings of Israeli flags and other anti-semitic incidents were rightly and swiftly condemned. However, anyone like Baerbock who even tepidly criticized or questioned Israeli attacks on Palestinian hospitals, media outlets, and civilians risked being lumped in with those incidents.

This dynamic, although particularly pronounced in Germany, is one that can be seen throughout Western politics and media. National leaders, from German Chancelor Angela Merkel to President Biden condemned Hamas but remained silent about the Israeli military attacks that contravene international law. This is largely because the West, and Germany most of all, continues to see Israel through the narrow lens of the Holocaust and the Second World War, meaning that any criticism of the state falls under suspicion of anti-semitism. Take for example a recent Twitter thread posted by the international climate activist group Fridays for Future, in which it expressed solidarity with Palestine.

The German Fridays for Future account quickly distanced itself from the position, calling it anti-semitic.

This conflation of criticism with anti-semitism is paired with a casual tolerance of Islamophobia throughout the West, which still suffers from a pervasive case of orientalism. The Arab world, its people, and its history aren’t seen as worthy of equal consideration, which is why Germany’s foreign minister can express concern for “how serious the situation is that the people of Israel find themselves in,” but not express similar care for the civilians of Gaza. It’s why a prominent Merkel ally in the legislature can praise Israel’s “great lengths to prevent the loss of civilians in Gaza” despite 67 children being killed. This refusal to let in other perspectives can have damaging consequences.

First, the unconditional support of Israel by countries like Germany, the U.S., and the UK enables Israel to act with impunity. Unless they face consequences for bombing civilians in Gaza and killing over 200 people including those children, Israel will continue to commit war crimes. Unless the international community upholds international laws, they have no meaning and people will continue to suffer and die.

Second, the Western stance on Israel not only delegitimizes international laws, but the credibility of leaders like Biden and Merkel on the international stage. In 2016, upon the election of Trump, Merkel was named by The New York Times as the “Liberal West’s last defender.” Germany has been well placed to take on more of an active and moral role on the world stage, but the cognitive dissonance of its pro-Israeli rhetoric is profound. Likewise, Biden, who came to power on the heels of a national reckoning over racism in America, does not look any more progressive than Trump when it comes to his posture toward Palestinians.

Ultimately, unless Germany, the U.S., and other western democracies change their rigid stance on Israel, discontent will brew in their own societies. Germany, to its great credit, took in about 800,000 refugees as a result of the Syrian Civil War. Many of these people joined protests in support of the Palestinians, as they evidently felt empathy with people being bombed out of their homes. Likewise, the last month saw an unprecedented show of support for Palestine in the U.S., with demonstrations in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta and other major cities that recalled the racial justice protests of last summer.

The rise of social media, which offers more of a global perspective as opposed to the tunnel-vision of traditional mainstream media, offers an alternative to the censorious elite discourse. Politics, too, are changing: Young Democrats such as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) are changing the way the conflict is discussed in Washington. Meanwhile, there is a general urge in Germany to take on a new, positive identity as a nation.

The dark side of this can be seen in the rise of the right-wing nationalistic AfD, a party that discards the shame and guilt of the war. There is, however, a way for Germany to progress and forge a new identity, without forgetting or diminishing the Holocaust. Many young Germans could be seen at mostly peaceful pro-Palestinian protests in Berlin and Frankfurt, standing up for human rights everywhere. These voices must be heard. A shift in perspective will help save lives in our own societies, by making them fairer, more honest, and inclusive. After all, Germany of all places knows where marginalization, polarization, and racism can lead.


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