Anti-Semitism Without Anti-Semites

How far is the German public willing to accept anti-Semitic language and is it is willing to unmask the anti-Semitism of so-called “Israel critics”.

Kevin Zdiara, Germany,

Kevin Zdiara
Kevin Zdiara

The publication of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s 2012 top ten of anti-Semitic slurs has caused a big stir in Germany because one of Germany’s most prominent journalists, Jakob Augstein, editor of the weekly Freitag and columnist at most important German news site Speigel Online, was on the list. Interestingly, the reaction was not shock about the fact that a German journalist has written anti-Semitic diatribes but it was almost unanimous rejection of the accusation and vindication of the writer.

The fact that almost 70 years after the end of Nazi Germany again a German journalist could be found among the worst anti-Semitic leaders of the world didn’t make German politicians, journalists and public opinion think for one moment. To the contrary, instantly after the publication dozens of op-eds and statements appeared that exculpated Jakob Augstein and his despicable pieces.

Even more worrying is that Germany is shooting the messengers – namely the SWC and the German-Jewish journalist Henryk M. Broder – without understanding their message. There was a widespread feeling, particularly in the media, that one of their own was attacked by (foreign) Jewish trouble makers. One couldn’t help feeling that a strange mood of “Volksgemeinschaft” was forming amidst the debate.

This impression was reinforced by the fact that not one of the defenders of Augstein seemed to have actually read what he had written in his columns. Although many, like the vice-president of the Council of German Jews, Salomon Korn, accused the SWC of not having done a good job in researching Augstein’s writings, this simply isn’t true. As a matter of fact, the SWC has done a very good job and has actually omitted some of Augstein’s most vile statements.

To understand what it this German debate is all about, it is important to cite Augstein in his own words. So here are a few examples from his weekly column “When in doubt, think left” which appears on Spiegel Online:

“When Jerusalem calls, Berlin bows to its will.”

"Israel gets what itAnti wants [from Germany]. And Israel doesn’t even have to pay for it.”

“Gaza is a prison. It is a camp.”

“With backing from the US, where the president must secure the support of Jewish lobby groups, and in Germany, where coping with history, in the meantime, has a military component, the Netanyahu government keeps the world on a leash with an ever-swelling war chant.”

“Israel’s nuclear power is a danger to the already fragile peace of the world. This statement has triggered an outcry. Because it’s true. “

“Those people [Haredim] are cut from the same cloth as their Islamic fundamentalist enemies. They follow the law of revenge.”

From those few statements it becomes clear that Augstein is of the opinion that Israel is a sinister and omnipotent force that is able to make Germany and the US do what it wishes. One needn’t be an expert in anti-Semitism to recognize the century-old blood libel that the Jewish people engages in a conspiracy to rule the world.

Augstein, being a modern anti-Semite, knows that he can’t use the word “Jews”, so instead he uses Israel and thereby makes it appear “legitimate”. Not only does he obviously buy into conspiracy theories, additionally, he entertains the anti-Semitic theorem, first propounded in 1879 by the arc anti-Semite Heinrich von Treitschke, that “the Jews are our misfortune”. Calling Israel, not Iran, a threat to the “peace of the world” and claiming that Israel’s prime minister “keeps the world on a leash with an ever-swelling war chant” is nothing else than Treitschke’s dictum in a slightly different guise.

But there is an even more pernicious element in Augstein’s accusation against the Jewish state. He, as a German whose father served in Hitler’s Army, turns around the historical perspective and makes Israel into a commander of the modern camp called “Gaza”. Also here one doesn’t have to be a scholar of anti-Semitism, to realize that Augstein demonizes the Jewish state as today’s Nazi Germany.

To understand Jakob Augstein’s mindset it helps to look at his family background. He is the adopted son of Rudolf Augstein, the founder of the weekly magazine Der Spiegel. Augstein Sr. was for many years one of the leading voices of the moderate left in Germany. Looking at his writings from the 1990s reveals a strange obsession with Israel coupled with the exact same distorted fantasies about Israel like his son:

"It cannot be that the same people who try to burn the ramps of Auschwitz into our memory and in the memory of those who come after us [...] act like a master race towards the Palestinians.”

“Why should Arabs suffer for the crimes Germans had committed?”

“We shouldn’t accept it when Jerusalem curses us […] and then in Bonn [the former capital of Germany] it holds out its hand.”

“If 100 Million Dollars was the last Israeli demand, we could accept it. But they will demand more and will get more. How does Bonn want to stop secret military supplies to the Arabs when, at the same time, Israel gets its armaments officially and without paying for it? How to stop a new-old anti-Semitism, when one fuels it at the same time.”

So here we find the same defamation of Israel as today’s Nazi Germany and of Jews as a greedy and money-mad people. Like father, like son. And, even more perfidious, in the last statement Augstein Sr. tells us that it is actually the Jews (respectively Israel) who are responsible for the rise in anti-Semitism.

But what comes in the current debate as a bit of a surprise to some friends of Israel is the vehemence of the public defense of Jakob Augstein and the unwillingness of so many to see in him the anti-Semite that he is. Even leading German Jews, like Salomon Korn, Michael Wolffsohn, Micha Brumlik, were among those who exculpated Augstein.

Ultimately, the Augstein affair will prove to be a decisive moment for Germany because it is a battle about the sovereignty of interpretation in the debates about Israel, on how far the German public is willing to accept anti-Semitic language and whether it is able to unmask the anti-Semitism of so-called “Israel critics”.

Right now, it seems as if the defenders of Augstein and his libelous articles are winning the fight. And one explanation for this is the prevalence of a latent anti-Semitism in Germany. While classic Treitschke anti-Semitism is still mainly confined to neo-Nazis and therefore marginalized, one will find the “new” anti-Semitism of Israel critics among many ordinary Germans and particularly among German intellectuals.

With this “trick”, the fellow-travellers of Augstein, while harboring similar stereotypes, conspiracy theories and fantasies like Treitschke, have succeeded in creating an anti-Semitism without anti-Semites.