The Charge of Anti-Semitism

Anti-nationalist graffiti. Berlin, January 2012.

When the Simon Wiesenthal Center published its 2012 Top Ten Anti-Semitic/Anti-Israel Slurs list, it comprised many obvious figures. #1 was Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which has routinely called for Jewry’s destruction. The apposite quality of this designation was further illustrated when comments made by Mohammed Morsi came to light, in which he described Zionists as “bloodsuckers.”

Likewise, a high place on the list is occupied by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad whose cynical Holocaust revisionism is coupled with his regime’s stated goal of annihilating Israel. Most of the other figures on the list are similarly uncontroversial selections: West Ham fans chanting Holocaust-themed slogans at their opponents, explicitly anti-Jewish political parties such as Golden Dawn in Greece, and Louis Farrakhan, whose record of openly anti-Jewish rhetoric goes back decades. But it was the inclusion of German journalist Jakob Augstein that has roiled the public sphere, raising questions about where the boundary lies between legitimate criticism of the policies of the Israeli state and the promotion of racial hatred.

The charges by the Wiesenthal Center appear to be a knock on effect of a September 2012 article written by Henryk Broder, a columnist for the conservative Die Welt newspaper. That same month, Augstein wrote in Der Spiegel of the street violence in Muslim countries following the release of the viciously anti-Islamic propaganda film The Innocence of Muslims, arguing that it ultimately worked to the benefit of the Republican Party and the Israeli government. Writing in his blog, Broder claimed this showed that Augstein was, “a flawless antisemite, an antisemitic muckraker,” and then compared him to the “viciously antisemitic Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher.”

Broder’s comments were cited in the PDF of the list issued by the Wiesenthal Center, along with a series of statements by Augstein purporting to demonstrate his anti-Semitic views. These included citing the influence of pro-Israel lobby groups on U.S. politics, criticizing Israel’s nuclear arsenal, the assertion that Israel was “incubating its own opponents in Gaza,” and a statement comparing Islamic and Haredi Jewish fundamentalists.

Augstein received public support from prominent members of the German political and media communities. Perhaps most tellingly, his defenders included Salomon Korn, the vice president of the Central Committee of Jews in Germany. In an interview broadcast on Deutschlandradio Kultur, Korn said, “Obviously the Simon Wiestenthal Center is kind of detached from German reality.” Korn criticized the Wiesenthal Center for simply following Broder’s intellectual wake. “One can’t always take what  (he) says literally,” said Korn, “and one can’t always take what he says seriously.” Even with such a defense, the accusation of anti-Semitism remains a serious matter for Augstein.

As a term of abuse, “anti-Semite” carries as much symbolic weight as any employed in the public sphere of the West. This is an element of the complex heritage of the Holocaust in Europe and North America. The Holocaust was the most singular event in the developed world during the 20th century. It was a grim recrudescence of modes of conduct which Europeans naively thought had been characteristic of less civilized times (or in the case of colonialism, less civilized places,) synergizing with those elements of Western culture (science, Taylorism) previously viewed as harbingers and evidence of progress beyond barbarism and superstition.

The relationship of the German left to Israel, and to Zionism, is a microcosm of problems of the left in general with questions of race and nation. This difficulty stems, at least to a great degree from the centrality of internationalism (and thus the rejection of nationalism and the politics of ethnicity) in Marxist socialism, the ideology that formed the central pillar of the politics of the continental European left in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The seeds of later problems were built into Marxist socialism at level of theory. Race and nation are, in an important sense, of a piece; both are elements of the ideological superstructure employed by the bourgeoisie to divide and disempower the proletariat.

The explicit commitment to the rejection of racism present in the ideologies of both social democrats and communists did not preclude the eruption of anti-Jewish sentiments and actions within their parties and governmental organizations. No figure embodied this contradiction more fully than Stalin, who was at the same time the leader of a party explicitly committed to combating racism and a notorious and vicious persecutor of Jews. But these represented a failure of consistency, and the inability of doctrine to overcome racial views powerfully inscribed in the cultures of the West. The intersection of Zionism, and the anti-nationalist dimension of the various strains of Marxism would not come to a head until after the Second World War.

Jakob Augstein. re-publica, 2011.
Jakob Augstein. Re-publica, 2011.

In the postwar era, the in-built instability of leftist politics’ relationship to questions of race and nationalism reemerged (on both sides of the Cold War divide,) particularly in relation to Israel. In the Western occupation zones, laws were passed stipulating that restitution be paid to Jewish victims of Nazism. In September 1952, Konrad Adenauer signed the Luxembourg Agreement, which committed West Germany to the payment of reparations to Israel for the subjection of European Jews to persecution and slave labor. Over the course of the next 14 years, West Germany would pay over 14 billion marks to that state of Israel.

Matters were different in East Germany. The national narrative of the DDR was that they (meaning the Communists) had been victims of Nazi persecution and, as such, that they were not responsible for paying reparations for the actions of the Hitler regime. When the issue of reparations was raised in the Eastern zone, a Communist Party circular from the Central Administration of Justice raised, among other objections, the following: “When we recognize [a right] to have damage replaced we only strengthen the Jewish capitalists.”

The willingness of the Communist leadership to rehearse this racist trope only three years after the collapse of the Hitler regime is indicative of their thoroughgoing failure to come to terms with questions of race. In light of this, it is hardly surprising that East Germany did not pay a single mark in reparations in the four decades of its existence.

The rise of the student left in West Germany in the 1960s once again illustrated the contradictions of the German left with respect to race. German anti-Semitism took on a wider role in the public sphere in the wake of the Eichmann trial in Israel and the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial from 1963 to 1965. A rising generation of young Germans became increasingly vocal in their criticisms of the actions of their elders during the Nazi period, and this formed an important cultural element of the rise of the varied radical political groupings that came to be designated as the Extraparliamentary Opposition (APO).

While anti-racism was an explicit element of the politics of the, more radical elements of the German left gravitated to support of the Palestinian cause, resulting in an accentuation of their political opposition to Israel. The opposition to Zionism became alloyed with what SDS activist Tilman Fichter designated “the anti-Semitism of the left.” The nadir of this development was the attempt by elements of Bommi Baumann’s Roaming Hash Rebels to bomb a Berlin synagogue on the anniversary of Kristalnacht in 1969.

This historical background strongly influences the ways that the discursive field comprising anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and political criticism of Israel is manifested in the public sphere. It has become a commonplace for defenders of Israel to assert that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are either one and the same, or that the one is commonly a cover for the other.

In his writings for Der Spiegel, Augstein has presented some very pointed criticisms of Israeli policy. In an interview published in Die Zeit, the Wiesenthal Center’s deputy director, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, specifically cited Augstein’s comparison of Haredim and Islamic fundamentalists as evidence of his anti-Semitism. This stemmed from a piece written by Augstein in Der Spiegel in November 2012, in which he wrote of an exchange of rockets and bombardments between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, “And once again: Hamas fires rockets. Israel bombards. The law of vengeance is borderless.”

The point of the article was that extremists on both sides were motivated by demands for revenge against the other. From Cooper’s perspective, Augstein was culpable for not including the claim that Hamas was worse because they engaged in suicide bombings. In the interview in Die Zeit, Cooper asserts, “We don’t expect perfection or political correctness. But: Augstein is prominent in the media and journalists bear the greatest responsibility in a democracy.”

In this interview, and in other statements, Cooper has slightly softened his position, arguing that he viewed Augstein’s statements as anti-Semitic, rather than Augstein himself. Yet he has refused to retract the list, the PDF version which features Broder’s claim that Augstein is, “an offender by conviction who only missed his opportunity to make his career with the Gestapo because he was born after the war. He certainly would have had what it takes.”

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the charges leveled against Augstein have been specifically constructed for the German public sphere. The underlying premise of the juxtaposition of Augstein’s criticisms of Israel and the accusation that he would have been an apt candidate for an organization responsible for the mass murder of Jews suggests that his views cannot merely be political misjudgments. They must also be evidence of hatred of Jews per se.

To make such a charge in the context of Germany, given its historical role in the Holocaust is particularly startling. It represents either a barely conceivable degree of naiveté, or an intense cynicism. Faced by profound regional challenges, as well as the rise of unabashedly anti-Semitic groups in Europe (several of whom also found places on the list,) neither naiveté nor cynicism do Israel, not to mention German Jews, any favors.


Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit and Re: Publica.


  1. I was startled by Augstein’s inclusion in the Wiesenthal list. I then became angry. I still am. The Wiesenthal centre has, by this inclusion, shredded a significant part of the extraordinary credibility and respect its important work has allowed it to garner over the decades. Worse, it has officially confirmed what has become obvious to many: “anti-Semite” is not the description of a loathsome inclination anymore. It has merely become a slur on a par with “nigger”.

  2. In the United States it is a virtual given that any criticism of Israeli policies will be labeled by many as a form of antisemitism. The rise of Christian fundamentalism here has made criticism of Israel heretical in some circles.

    I am old so I have the luxury of being able to say what I think on any subject.

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