Why I Was Censored from Talking About Israel In Germany

I arrived in Germany formally invited by members of a political party to speak about my reporting during the Gaza war. I left the country branded an anti-Semite and an insane scofflaw. With machine-like efficiency, German media cast me and my Jewish Israeli journalist colleague, David Sheen, as violent Jew haters, never veering from the script written for them by a strange American neoconservative working for an organization subsidized by far-right-wing casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, nor bothering to ask either of us for comment. Slandered as anti-Semites, we sought to meet with the left-wing politician who felt compelled to engineer the campaign to suppress our speech: Die Linke party chairman Gregor Gysi.

When Gysi refused to speak to us, we followed him as he ran from his office. The videotaped incident ended at a door outside what turned out to be a bathroom, sparking a scandal known as “Toilettengate.” We had violated the unwritten rules of a dour political culture where conflict normally takes the form of carefully composed pronouncements delivered through proper bureaucratic channels. Thus we aroused the outrage of Deutschland, from left to right nimbly manipulated through a neoconservative ploy.

According to the right-wing Die Bild tabloid, Sheen and I were “lunatic Israel haters” who had “hunted Gysi.” Various pundits on German public broadcasting declared that I was “known for [my] anti-Semitic way of thinking.” And the president of the Bundestag introduced a motion to ban us for life from the premises. As the freak-out escalated, the three Die Linke MPs who guided us to Gysi’s office— Inge Hoger, Annette Groth and Heike Hansel — delivered Gysi an abject public apology.

Our hosts’ whimpering only served to incite their enemies. More than 1,000 Die Linke members from the party’s “reformist” faction have signed a letter calling for the three MPs to be sacked. Titled “You Don’t Speak For Us,” the manifesto opened with an excerpt from a 2008 speech to the Bundestag by former Israeli president Shimon Peres in which he compared Iran to Nazi Germany and ended with an affirmation of Germany’s special relationship with Israel, as the cleansing of the Holocaust.

A Der Spiegel columnist named Sibylle Berg joined the pile-on with a crude piece of sexist psychobabble accusing Groth and Hoger of sublimating sexual lust for Palestinian militants into anti-Zionist activity. In Taggespiel, Die Linke MP Michael Leutert referred to us as an “anti-Semitic mob.” And in Die Zeit, another mainstream outlet, Elisabeth Niejahr cast Groth and Hoger as “Holocaust down players.” She had no evidence, but in German political culture, none was necessary. Either you are all-in with Israel’s policies, or you are an all-out anti-Semite.

The storm of controversy triggered by our presence in Berlin was the culmination of the Die Linke party’s long-running internecine conflict on Israel-Palestine. Since emerging as Germany’s main left-wing opposition party, Die Linke leaders have presided over a full-scale assault on the few party members who rejected Germany’s uncritical special relationship with Israel. Behind the attack is a group of putatively left-wing intellectuals allied with heavily funded neoconservative operatives. The most effective weapon of this left-right alliance in a society consumed with Holocaust guilt is what some Germans have begun to refer to as the Antisemitismus-keule, or the anti-Semitism club.

Smears and Suppression

The story of my and David Sheen's adventure as “anti-Semites” began even before our arrival to Berlin. I had covered the Gaza war and spoke about my reporting across Europe, often as the invited guest of members of parliaments—in London at the House of Commons, in Brussels before the European Parliament, in Oslo at the invitation of the Socialist Left Party, and in Copenhagen, where I was introduced by a member of the Danish parliament. Sheen has earned acclaim for his reporting on state-sponsored discrimination within Israel against Palestinians and African migrants and the right-wing attacks on them. Together, we produced an original documentary on racism against non-Jewish African refugees in Israel that has received over a million views on YouTube.

As we prepared for our flights, we were greeted with a November 6 article in the Berliner Morgenpost by a neoconservative writer named Benjamin Weinthal, announcing the cancellation of our planned discussion in the Bundestag. Die Linke party chairman Gregor Gysi claimed responsibility for terminating the talk, while Volker Beck of the Green Party and chair of the Germany-Israel Committee contributed his opinion to the writer that my work was “consistently anti-Semitic.” Weinthal, for his part, accused me of the “public abuse of Jews.”

The next day, Beck published a letter signed by Bundestag vice president Petra Pau (a key Israel lobby supporter in the Die Linke party) and German-Israeli Friendship Society president Reinhold Robbe demanding the cancelation of our event at the Berlin theater known as the Volksbuehne. The letter claimed our event would serve “to promote anti-Semitic prejudice by comparing the terror of the Nazis with Israeli policies.” Within hours, Volksbuehne officials pulled the plug. Weinthal took to his regular roost at the Jerusalem Post to announce the cancellation of an event that would “spread anti-Semitism.”

On November 9, the morning our Volkesbuehne discussion was scheduled to take place, we wound up speaking through a loudspeaker to 100 supporters gathered outside the shuttered doors of the theater. It was the 76th anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom and the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. To our adversaries, it was a date that somehow rendered any criticism of the state of Israel and its policies verboten — along with Hitler’s birthday and every other date remotely associated with the Holocaust. For us, it was the perfect time to explain how the legacy of the European genocide had inspired our work, to emphasize that “never again” meant never again to anyone.

In my address, I lamented that the most basic universal lessons of the Holocaust had been rejected by the German government in favor of a cheap absolution that took the form of discounted weapons sales to an army of occupation. Indeed, the German government recently sold Israel a fleet of Corvette attack boats at a 30 percent reduction to reinforce the siege of Gaza and enable further attacks on the coastal enclave’s beleaguered fishing industry. Next year, 250 German soldiers will drill at Israel’s Urban Warfare Training Center in counter-insurgency tactics, an unprecedented step in military collaboration. As a mere visitor to Germany, I was spared the long-term personal consequences of questioning how military aid to Israel honored the millions turned to ashes. When the famed German author Gunther Grass challenged the weapons sales in a polemical and arguably clumsy poem, he faced a tidal wave of character assassination attempts and the immediate loss of prestige. (Then-Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai declared Grass persona non grata, issuing a standing order to deny him entry to Israeli-controlled territory.)

After the protest, we marched to a cramped anti-war cafe a few blocks away to carry out our discussion on Gaza and state-sponsored Israeli racism as originally conceived. As we spoke to an overflow crowd in a catacomb-like basement, 500 neo-Nazi football hooligans marched nearby against the supposed threat of “Salafism.” Police dispatched by the city protected the marchers, dispersing a small counter-demonstration.

Meanwhile, Gysi stood by for instructions in the event that we were able to find a venue for our talk inside the Bundestag the following day. Though he was hardly a cheerleader for Netanyahu, he had proven himself an essential ally of his country’s Israel lobby, presiding over Die Linke’s transition from anti-Zionism into a full embrace of the country’s post-reunification consensus on Israel.

“Jewish Anti-Zionism As a Total Illusion”

Once the leader of the reformist wing of Erich Honecker's Socialist Unity Party (SED) in East Germany, Gysi supported the dismantling of his party even as he opposed reunification with West Germany. He has since emerged as one of the most charismatic figures of the current opposition in the German parliament, earning attention for his sharp oratory while waging an aggressive legal battle to suppress public discussion of his alleged role as a Stasi agent.

When Merkel’s right-of-center Christian Democratic Union (CDU) rose to power, Gysi began his efforts to reposition Die Linke as a potential coalition partner capable of allying with the Green Party and the Social Democrats. This meant adapting right-leaning elements inside Die Linke like the Forum Demokratischer Sozialismus that aimed to crush the party’s anti-war vestiges. (Most of the figures who signed the letter denouncing me, Sheen and our Die Linke hosts were affiliated with FDS.)

During an address before the Rosa Luxemburg Institute on the occasion of Israel’s 60th birthday in 2008, Gysi made his most public bid for mainstream respectability. Proclaiming that anti-imperialism could no longer "be placed in a meaningful way" within leftist discourse, Gysi railed against expressions of Palestine solidarity within his party. "Anti-Zionism can no longer be an acceptable position for the left in general, and the Die Linke party in particular,” he declared. He went on to describe “solidarity with Israel” as an essential component of Germany’s “reason of state.”

Following a stem-winding survey of the Zionist movement’s history and its criticism from within the left, Gysi concluded, “If we choose a position of enlightened Jewish anti-Zionism...we still have the problem of ignoring the worst experiences of the 20th century, which expose enlightened Jewish anti-Zionism as a total illusion.”

The Die Linke leader’s speech echoed an address delivered in Israel’s Knesset just a few months prior by Chancellor Angela Merkel in which she declared that preserving “Israel’s security…is part of my country’s raison d’être.”

In a sardonic assessment of Gysi’s foreign policy pivot, left-wing columnist Werner Pirker wrote, “Gysi admires the Israeli democracy not in spite of, but because of its exclusiveness… With his anniversary speech for Israel Gregor Gysi passed his foreign policy test.”

In June 2011, Gysi imposed a de facto gag rule on his party’s left wing called the “Three Point Catalog.” It read as follows: "We will neither take part in [political] initiatives on the Middle East which (1) call for a one-state-solution for Palestine and Israel, nor (2) call for boycotts against Israeli products, nor (3) will we take part in this year's 'Gaza-flotilla'. We expect from our personal employees and our fraction employees that they champion these positions.”

A month later, Die Linke’s executive board voted for the first time to recognize Israel’s “right to exist.” Among those who took credit for the vote, and for sustaining pressure on Gysi, was a recently formed pro-Israel organization called BAK Shalom.

The Anti-Germans

BAK Shalom drew its membership from adherents of the bizarre movement known as “die antideutsch Linke”—in short, the Anti-Germans. Born after reunification against the phantom threat of a second Holocaust and in supposed opposition to German nationalism, the Anti-German movement aimed to infiltrate leftist anti-fascist circles in order to promote unwavering support for the Israeli government and undermine traditional networks of leftist organizing. BAK Shalom’s manifesto pledges “solidarity with defense measures of any kind” against the Palestinians and backs American foreign policy on the basis of purely reactionary impulses: The US is Israel’s most aggressive patron and the ultimate target of Israel’s enemies, therefore opponents of “anti-Semitism” must lend it their total support.

Though many top Antideutsch ideologues emerged from Marxist and anarchist intellectual circles, they are united in their opposition to what they call “regressive anti-capitalism.” According to BAK Shalom’s manifesto, because “complex and abstract capitalist relations are personified and identified as Jews,” anti-capitalism is a subtle but dangerous form of Jew hatred. In 2012, Anti-German activists mobilized in opposition to the Blockupy movement that occupied the European Central Bank and the Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt, casting it as an inherently anti-Semitic movement simply because of its opposition to globalized capitalism. Incapable of viewing Jews as individuals or normal people with differing viewpoints, the Anti-Germans inadvertently advanced the anti-Semitic trope of Jewish control over world finance.

In 2003, hardcore Anti-German activists took to the streets in 2003 to support George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. At rallies in support of Israel’s assaults on Southern Lebanon and Gaza, Anti-German forces belted out chants alongside far-right Jewish Defense League militants and flew Israeli flags beside the red and black banners familiar to anti-fascist forces. One of the movement’s top ideologues, the Austrian political scientist Stephan Grigat, oversees an ironically named astroturf group, Stop The Bomb, that advocates unilateral bombing campaigns against Iran. Grigat collaborates closely with right-wing outfits like the Simon Weisenthal Center as well as ultra-Zionist BAK Shalom allies like Die Linke’s Petra Pau.

There might only be about several thousand Germans who identify with the Anti-German sensibility. The movement’s intellectual avant-garde, a collection of dour critical theorists and political scientists gathered around obscure journals like Bahamas, numbers at most in the low hundreds. According to BAK Shalom spokesman and Die Linke member Benjamin Kruger, his organization contains only 140 members. But thanks to the Holocaust guilt that consumes German society, these elements operate on fertile territory. As the translator and anti-racist activist Maciej Zurowski explained, by infiltrating Die Linke and the Social Democratic Party’s youth groups, along with key left-wing institutions like the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, “[Anti-German elements] are strategically well placed to promote ‘young talent’, while cutting off their opponents’ money supply.”

Previously limited to the top-heavy realms of the country’s political and financial establishment, it is through such sectarian groups that the pro-Israel lobby finally secured a base within the German left.

Good Jew, Bad Jew

In 2009, two years after the foundation of BAK Shalom, a witch-hunt forced a Die Linke member named Hermann Dierkes to quit his campaign for the mayor of Duisburg. He was accused of “pure anti-Semitism” by the Central Jewish Council for supporting the Palestinian-led BDS (boycott, divest, sanctions) campaign — a human rights campaign German supporters of Israel routinely equate with the Nazi-era boycott of Jews. The same year, Israeli lobby pressure forced Munich city authorities to cancel a talk by Ilan Pappe, the dissident Israeli historian. Pappe protested afterward that his father “was silenced in a similar way as a German Jew in the early 1930s.”

By 2010, BAK Shalom demanded the cancellation of a speech by Norman Finkelstein, a well-known political scientist highly critical of Israel’s policies, organized by a few anti-imperialist Die Linke MPs. BAK Shalom leaders accused Finkelstein, the son of Holocaust survivors, of “historical revisionism” and for being “internationally popular among anti-Semites”—guilt by association with unnamed villains. Weinthal amplified the attacks by claiming in the Jerusalem Post that Finkelstein was “pandering to subtle anti-Semitism.” With his events canceled by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and defunded by the Green Party-affiliated Heinrich Boll Foundation, Finkelstein canceled his plane ticket and stayed home in Brooklyn.

The same year, BAK Shalom stepped up pressure on its allies inside Die Linke to purge MPs Groth and Hoger. The two MPs had traveled on the Free Gaza Flotilla and spent time in an Israeli prison after Israeli naval commandos massacred nine passengers aboard the Mavi Marmara ship. After their return to Berlin, the two politicians were branded as Hamas allies and anti-Semites for their participation in the humanitarian mission. The attacks set the stage for the storm that would erupt when Groth and Hoger decided to invite me and Sheen to meet with them and speak at the Bundestag.

When the renowned Jewish-American scholar and outspoken Israel critic Judith Butler was awarded the city of Frankfurt’s prestigious Theodore Adorno Prize in 2012, Germany’s Israel lobby escalated its campaign to suppress free speech on the subject of Israel. At a protest outside the Frankfurt church where Butler was to receive her prize, the Anti-German academic and former Green Party advisor Matthias Kuntzel conjured the terrifying specter of a second Holocaust on German soil. He cast Butler as the key progenitor of a “new anti-Jewish discourse.” As the demonstrations were whipped up outside, Butler felt compelled to enter the ceremony in her honor through a back door.

With ruthless efficiency, Germany’s Israel lobby established a new code for Jewish behavior: Jews who supported Israel without reservation were necessarily “good,” while those who agitated for Palestinian human rights or expressed a universalist perspective on the Holocaust were absolutely “bad.” The good Jews would be showered with adulation and publicly fetishized while the Bad Jews (Finkelstein, Pappe, Butler et al.) could be boycotted and battered with the Antisemitismus-keule — the anti-Semitism club. Even the gentile grandchildren of Nazis were welcome to raise this blunt weapon against the Bad Jews. By suppressing critical discussion of Israel, they were purified of the taint of the Holocaust and able to play the role of judges in the old question: Who is a Jew?

Last year, I was labeled a Bad Jew on a blacklist that would serve as a singular guide to my work for Germany’s Israel lobby.

Adelson’s Man in Berlin

In December 2013, my name wound up on the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s 2013 list of the year’s top “Anti-Semitic/Anti-Israel slurs.” I was number nine, tied with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker and eight slots behind Ayatollah Khomeini. It was a ludicrous document of neo-McCarthyism filled with distortions, hyperbole and bizarre non-sequiturs. In the U.S., it was ignored when it was not mocked.

The listing was prompted by my recent book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, but did not dispute a single fact in the 450-page work. Instead of addressing the substance of my book, the Wiesenthal Center took issue with the titles of many of its chapters, claiming that I had drawn direct comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany, though those chapter titles were taken from quotations of people describing actual incidents in Israel. In fact, nothing I had written or said approached the stridency of recent comments by famed Israeli author Amos Oz, who called violent Jewish settlers “Hebrew neo-Nazis.”

While Oz was presented with the Siegfried Lenz Literary Prize this month by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, I was condemned as an anti-Semite by leaders of putatively left-wing German parties informed exclusively by the Wiesenthal list furnished to them by a neoconservative publicist, Benjamin Weinthal.

A former labor journalist who bounced around at marginal leftist journals, the unsuccessful Weinthal drifted until he found his calling as one of the Israel lobby’s most dedicated operatives in Berlin. His career has since been sustained by a neoconservative Washington DC-based think tank called the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Funded in part by the casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a top donor to the Republican Party and Israel’s right-wing Likud Party, who recently grumbled that he has no use for “democracy” in Israel and “doesn’t like journalism,” FDD has promoted the preemptive US invasion of Iraq and preemptive bombing of Iran along with Netanyahu’s expansionist policies in occupied Palestinian territory. Described on FDD’s website as “our eyes and ears on the ground in Central Europe,” Weinthal publishes regularly at the right-wing English language daily, the Jerusalem Post. (Its editor, Caroline Glick, is simultaneously affiliated with the far right U.S. Center for Security Policy, and author of a recent book, The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East, advocating the complete obliteration of Palestinian rights.)

In the days before our arrival, Weinthal phoned Gysi, Beck and a host of local Israel lobbyists to solicit statements condemning me and David Sheen and our hosts. Unable to speak or read English, Gysi had to rely on Weinthal, and by extension, his recitation of the Wiesenthal Center, as his translators. Gysi was obviously terrified and intimidated. When he falsely accused me in a press conference of referring to Israeli soldiers as “Judeo-Nazis,” it was clear he had never bothered to investigate the claims against me, never read my work and never sought to contact me. In fact, the phrase “Judeo-Nazis” was coined by the widely revered anti-establishment Israeli philosopher, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who was ranked by Israelis as one of the country’s most influential Jewish leaders of all time, and whom I profiled in my book. In his jeremiads against racism and militarization, Leibowitz warned Israelis against turning into their own worst nightmare. A frantic puppet dancing on the string of a neoconservative dirty trick, Gysi also revealed himself to be an ignoramus about Israel.

As soon as the Volksbuehne caved to Israel lobby pressure to cancel my talk with Sheen, Weinthal was on the phone with Simon Wiesenthal Center dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper. “Germans should be grateful that some key leaders of the Left [Party] have acted to forestall this desecration and perversion of memory,” Cooper proclaimed.

Then, when “Toilettengate” erupted, the German media reached for the Wiesenthal file, neatly provided by Weinthal, as its sole dossier on my work. Like Gysi, Der Spiegel falsely accused me of calling Israeli soldiers “Judeo-Nazis,” refusing to reply when I solicited a correction. None of the major outlets that reported on the incident made the slightest effort to call Sheen or me for comment. Instead, the German press was played, too, hammering away at our supposed “anti-Semitism,” never pausing to seek me out for reply or engage in a moment of skepticism about what any seasoned journalist could see was a transparent case of McCarthyism.  

The most aggressive attacks appeared in papers associated with Axel Springer, Germany’s version of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. A bastion of yellow journalism, Springer compels all of its employees to take an oath of loyalty to Germany’s special relationship with Israel. When the Springer-owned tabloid Die Bild described me and Sheen as “lunatic Israel haters,” a friend gave me the phone number of the paper’s political editor, Ralf Schuler. 

“Why didn’t you reach out to me for a comment?” I asked him.

“Because I don’t have to. I don’t want to talk to you or hear what you have to say,” Schuler said.

“So you were out to smear us?”

“Yes!” he declared emphatically. “And that’s how it is.”

Schuler asked in an accusing tone if I was, in fact, “an anti-Semite." Then he abruptly hung up.

The Exiles

My final talk in Berlin took place in an antiseptic classroom inside the cavernous main building of the city’s Technical University. During my presentation, I recounted the case of Ibrahim Kilani, a German citizen who was killed along with most of his family in Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip this summer. The German government did not condemn the massacre, nor did it bother to offer condolences to members of the Kilani family living in Germany. Instead, it merely asked Israel to clarify the circumstances of the family members’ deaths.

The government’s silence on the Kilanis roiled Germany’s 80,000-strong community of Palestinian immigrants. As soon as my talk ended, Nadia Samour, the young Palestinian-German lawyer who co-organized the event, commented that she no longer felt at home in Germany after witnessing her government’s handling of the killings. Her sense of alienation was almost omnipresent among the many educated and worldly Arab immigrants I encountered during my stay in Germany. And it was hardly surprising.

Under the Hessen citizenship tests proposed in 2006, immigrants are expected to affirm support for Israel’s “right to exist.” The country’s past chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder of the Social Democratic Party, openly pondered imposing loyalty oaths on immigrants, while the current leader, Merkel, declared that multiculturalism “has utterly failed.” In a 2010 poll, 55% of Germans agreed with the opinion that Arabs are “unpleasant people.” In recent years, the country’s media has filled with commentaries painting the Muslim and Arab immigrant community as a hotbed of potential recruits for groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS.

At every stop, immigrants to Germany are forced to pay heed to the Leitkultur, the national narrative that demands expressions of guilt for a Holocaust none of them participated in. For Palestinian-Germans, the Leitkultur serves to silence their own narrative of dispossession. As Ibrahim Kilani’s only surviving son, Ramsis, told journalist Emran Feroz, “In Germany, I get called an anti-Semite just for saying I’m Palestinian.”

While Palestinians are shut out of German public discourse, an unlikely immigrant group has asserted itself against the national consensus. Some 20,000 Israeli Jews have sought refuge in Berlin, fleeing a state overrun with militarism and religious fervor for life in a stable social democracy. Most are young, cosmopolitan and deeply opposed to the Netanyahu government. When Merkel and a cast of German political figures including Gysi organized a demonstration this summer against “anti-Semitism” that doubled as a rally in support of Israel’s war on Gaza, a group of Israeli exiles organized a counter-demonstration. They held up a large banner reading, “Merkel, give us passports, not weapons!”

Following my talk at the Technical University, one of those Israelis rose to speak. He introduced himself as a writer who had come to the depressing conclusion that he had no future in Israel. He said he feared raising his newborn son in an environment that Israel’s right-wing rulers had rendered “uninhabitable.” Relations between Israeli Jews and Palestinians were damaged beyond repair, he continued, leaving a two-state solution that permanently separated the two groups as the only option.

A middle-aged Palestinian refugee rose from his seat. “With your two-state solution, I can never go home,” he interrupted. “You have to understand that we Palestinians have no problem living with Jews. That’s not the issue. The issue is we have no right to live on our land.”

The Israeli writer did not object or recoil. Instead, he listened patiently as the next speaker, Abir Kopty, a Palestinian-Israeli activist from Nazareth pursuing an advanced degree in Berlin, made the case for a binational state. Several German activists joined in, articulating a vision of equality that Gysi's gag rule forbade Die Linke members from promoting.

As the discussion poured out into the hallway, whatever differences might have surfaced inside the lecture hall dissolved into the kind of camaraderie that always exists among outcasts. The Israeli exile and the Palestinian refugee had arrived in Germany as casualties of Western foreign policy, each victimized in his own way. Now they were struggling together for a free and open debate. And along with the rest of us, they reeled from the force of the national antisemitismus-keule.

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