For non-Zionist Jews living in Germany, the Star of David poses a catch-22. According to an overwhelming consensus across the German political spectrum, the Israeli flag, with its blue Davidstern on a white background, is simply the flag of the Jews.
Or so Germany’s Social Democratic minister of justice, Heiko Maas, seemed to think when he said: “Those who burn Israeli flags burn our values.” For Heiko Maas, it goes without saying—or at least without arguing—that to desecrate an Israeli flag is, by definition, a shameful act of “anti-Semitism.” Angela Merkel agreed, adding that “the state must do everything within the confines of the law” to stop this from happening.
Not only high government officials but the official representatives of Germany’s Jewish community are only too happy to make this identity of Israeli and Jewish symbols official doctrine. In the land that once murdered Jews by the millions, criminalising symbolic acts against Israel is the logical next step.
In December, Joseph Schuster, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, connected the dots: “Whoever burns Israeli flags undermines Israel’s right to exist.” But since burning the flags of foreign countries isn’t exactly illegal in Germany—only if it involves vandalism of official government property—Schuster demanded “urgent changes in the law.” It looks like his wish is now becoming reality.
The flags in question were burned this December at pro-Palestinian demonstrations near the American Embassy in Berlin against Trump’s universally condemned policy turn on Jerusalem. Since the wave of Syrian refugees began arriving in Germany in 2015, a steady crescendo of denunciations of a “new anti-Semitism,“ often called “imported anti-Semitism,” has echoed through the German media.
When the interior minister of the state of Hesse, Peter Beuth, warned darkly about “the next Intifada in our city streets,” he was expressing a commonly-held view. In 2017, the German parliament published its second Report of the Independent Commission in Anti-Semitism, a large part of which is devoted to Islamic and anti-Israeli “anti-Semitism,“ explicitly referencing the Al-Aksa Intifada of 2000 in its very first pages.
The intense media and governmental focus on the anti-Semitism of immigrants hardly correspond to the larger reality of anti-Semitism as a problem in German society. Die Linke (the Left Party), for instance, commissioned a study of “anti-Semitic criminal acts” based on police records in 2016. Among other results, it showed that, out of a nationwide total of 651 registered offences (violent and nonviolent), 609 (93,5%) were attributed to a right-wing (IE neo-Nazi) political motivation and only 20 (3%) were committed by “foreigners”. And yet, as early as 2012—well before hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees “imported” their “anti-Semitic” attitudes into German cities—the Center for Political Education of the State of Brandenburg published a study online in which anti-Semitism among Muslim youth is presented as a “serious danger to our democracy.”
With unintended irony, the author complains that “the anti-Semitism of Arab youth generally expresses itself in the context of the Middle East (i.e., the Arab-Israeli) conflict, since no distinction is made between Israelis and Jews.” Among the remedies proposed are corrections of a “one-sided” view of the Arab-Israeli conflict, recommending a series of pro-Israel talking points (IE “Jews were the largest religious group in Jerusalem well before 1948”). The Israelocentric hegemony in mainstream German politics could hardly be more glaring.
While we appreciate the historical context that leads Germany to err on the side of caution, they should avoid conflating anti-Semitism with opposition to Israel’s policy and actions. It’s like saying those who opposed the Nazi regime were anti-German. https://t.co/vswVpklDCR
— Paul Seligman (@PaulMSeligman) January 9, 2018
Ostensibly to counter growing anti-Semitism across the board, the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) have now sponsored legislation that may make “anti-Semitic” actions grounds for deporting unwanted migrants. Accordingly, “Jew-haters” such as those who burned Israeli flags in Berlin could lose their visas and, ultimately, face deportation. The specific wording makes it clear that there is no daylight between verbal attacks against Israel and those against all Jews: “Whoever rejects Jewish life in Germany or questions Israel’s right to exist, has no place in our country.” True to form, the Central Council has given its blessing to this draconian proposal.
As of Thursday, so have most of the other major political parties, including the Greens, the Social Democrats and the (neoliberal) Free Democrats. Together with the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), on 18 January they pushed through a resolution in Parliament entitled “Determined to Fight Anti-Semitism,” a grab-bag of proposals to counter (real and imagined) anti-Semitism in German society.
Measures both positive and anodyne, such as strengthening education about Germany’s historic crimes against the Jews or appointing a permanent commissioner for the study of anti-Semitism in Germany, are mixed with draconian calls to suppress Israel-critical speech, target Israel-critical migrants, and jump-start the machinery to criminalise BDS. Specifically, the bill calls for:
—“examining whether there are legal measures to criminally punish actions such as the burning of the Israeli flag „and other symbols of the Israeli state”;
— appealing to the Länder to lower their tolerance of immigrants who “call to hate against parts of society” (i.e., Jews and/or Israel), by recognizing such behaviour as „particularly grave“ in relation to possible deportation;
–condemning the BDS movement “in the sharpest way” and searching for ways to legally sanction its adherents.
Of the major political parties in the Bundestag, only Die Linke failed to support the measure, citing its “singling out” of immigrants on the one hand, and the lack of robust democratic debate, on the other. In the prepared speeches that preceded passage of this motion, all the other parties declared their adherence to the officially sanctified identity of Israeli and Jewish interests, with obligatory mantras about opposing those who deny „Israel’s right to exist.“ This included, of course, Beatrix von Storch of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), Germany’s rising neofascist party–which dutifully voted for the motion.
Von Storch expressed in naked form what the Christian Democrats still have to conceal in euphemisms: Germany is a “Judeo-Christian” society endangered by hordes of fanatical Muslim immigrants, who almost by definition are the only significant threat to the Jews. (Along the way she held Viktor Orbán up as a shining light of pro-Jewish/pro-Israeli purity.) Although the representatives of almost every other political party took it upon themselves to criticise either von Storch’s myopia or her hypocrisy, only the Left party had anything to say in defence of the rights of immigrants who might not like Israel–and that only in the vaguest of terms.
In Germany, the word Deportation belongs in an all-too-long list of words with macabre connotations, like Lager (camp, as in summer camp or concentration camp) or Endlösung (Final Solution). It belongs to the more bitter ironies of history that Germany’s official Jewish representatives have implicated themselves in measures to deport those deemed to be… anti-Semitic.
There is no doubt some truth to descriptions of a rising anti-Semitism in immigrant communities in Germany, especially ones with Muslim religious or Middle Eastern geographic backgrounds. But it’s equally true that the identification of Israeli interests with Jewish interests, or of anti-Israeli sentiment with anti-Jewish sentiment, is a political abomination. It has only too predictably become an instrument to repress political dissent among immigrants at home while framing it, cynically, as a pious effort to protect one endangered minority. As a member of that minority, I can only add my voice to the statement posted to Facebook by “Jewish Antifa Berlin,” which declared:
“While it is not so easy to deport Palestinian refugees (as making them return to their homeland would, in this case, be rendered impossible by the Israeli law of return), the Christian Democrats are more than happy to give another kick in the face to the victims of Israeli ethnic cleansing, who are already subjected to institutional discrimination in Germany. It is also much harder to make populist electioneering with a demand to deport all German antisemites to Saxony. Since even the Central Council of Jews in Germany supports this racist bill…, we have no other choice than to demand that it be first applied to us.”
Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.