In the wake of the Hamas attack on 7 October, Germany was quick to pledge solidarity with Israel. On a visit to Tel Aviv last week, the German chancellor Olaf Scholz, categorically linked Germany’s existence to Israel’s. ‘The Holocaust demands no less,’ an editorial in Der Spiegel said. ‘Germany must stand on the side of the victims when depravity is used as a political tool.’ The Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin cancelled a performance of Yael Ronen’s play The Situation: ‘War is a great simplifier,’ the theatre said. ‘The terrorist attack of Hamas puts us on Israel’s side.’ Officials banned both the Palestinian flag and the keffiyeh in schools. The Social Democratic Party leader, Saskia Esken, didn’t attend last week’s German book launch for Bernie Sanders – whose father’s family was ‘wiped out’ by the Holocaust – because of his criticisms of Israel.
Pro-Palestinian marches have been banned in Germany. An article in the left-wing Tageszeitung described them as events where ‘hatred mobilises’ and ‘fantasies of annihilation and the justification of Islamist terror are a broad consensus among the participants.’ At one demonstration, Berlin police attacked a man holding a Palestinian flag and pepper-sprayed bystanders recording the incident. Many activists fear that their residency permits or citizenship may be revoked.
All of this has created a ‘climate of fear, anger and silence … done under the banner of protecting Jews and supporting the state of Israel’, as an open letter signed by more than a hundred Jewish artists, writers and scholars living in Germany argues. This is especially true for Arabs and Jews who support Palestine’s right to self-determination. In my case, as both a Jew and an Arab-American (my grandmother nearly died twice before her first birthday because of violence in Syria under the French mandate), the feeling of impotence is doubled. (I signed the open letter, though only after checking with my immigration lawyer.)
Demonstrations by Jews critical of Israel have also been banned. In response to this, Iris Hefets, a board member of Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East, stood alone on Hermannplatz on 14 October, holding up a sign that said: ‘As a Jew and as an Israeli, stop the genocide in Gaza.’ She was taken into police custody.
Contrast this with a demonstration I witnessed last year in Bayreuth, led by the neo-Nazi Sven Liebich. There were plenty of uniformed police officers, but they weren’t arresting the protesters (who were waving variations of the Nazi flag with the Euro symbol in place of the swastika) or wielding pepper spray. When I asked one of the police about the protest, he shrugged: ‘Normal,’ he said. He had a point: of the antisemitic incidents reported in Germany last year, 321 were attributed to right-wing extremism; only sixteen ‘could be attributed to an Islamic or Islamist background’.
To be Jewish is to ask questions. The traditional Passover seder revolves around the practice. The Talmud is an invitation to challenge, to cross-examine, to reason, to question. In Germany now, this quintessential aspect of Judaism feels under threat. It isn’t inherently antisemitic to question Zionism and Israel. It is, in fact, a moral obligation. Our doubt is more productive than our dogma.