In May 2023, an opinion poll commissioned from the polling company YouGov by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag found that the German people “are clearly on the side of the Palestinians. Only 13 percent see Israeli policy toward the Palestinians as (somewhat) just, 54 percent as (somewhat) unjust.”
This has dismayed Germany’s political elite, who are accustomed to lauding Israeli “democracy” without concern for the fate of its Palestinian victims. Omid Nouripour is the coleader of the Greens, who are currently in government with the Social Democrats (SPD) and the neoliberal Free Democrats. He expressed alarm at the survey findings and conflated support for Israel with opposition to antisemitism:
Less than half of Germans still perceive the special responsibility for the security of the State of Israel today . . . It is necessary for the law-bound state [Rechtsstaat] to adopt a clear stance against antisemitism in all its forms.
For the once-radical general secretary of the Social Democrats, Kevin Kühnert, “reason of state that only lasts until the next time a Knesset election result is perceived as unwelcome, is a worthless phrase.” The unwelcome result Kühnert had in mind was the election of a far-right Israeli government in December 2022.
Reason of state, he told Welt am Sonntag, is a promise that has to be kept, without paying attention to fluctuations of public opinion. This means that German democracy must dismiss public opinion that, far from “fluctuating,” has in fact been consistently negative toward German support for Israeli persecution of Palestinians.
For the former general secretary of the opposition Christian Democrats, Mario Czaja, the “duty of current and future generations” is to do justice to Germany’s “special responsibility toward the Jewish people.” For Czaja, Israel’s right to exist “is and will remain German reason of state.” Once again “the Jewish people” are equated with the state of Israel, while the fact that nobody has mentioned “Israel’s right to exist” is no obstacle to Czaja’s doing so.
Reason of State
We should note the obsession of German officialdom with the term “reason of state” (Staatsräson or Staatsraison). Twice in 2008, in her address to the Knesset and in Berlin on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, former chancellor Angela Merkel claimed that “protecting Israel’s security is part of Germany’s reason of state.”
In May 2019, the Bundestag passed a resolution condemning the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as antisemitic, while also stressing that “Israel’s security is part of the reason of state of our country.” On Israel’s seventy-fifth anniversary, Merkel’s successor, Olaf Scholz of the SPD, maintained that his government was doing its utmost “to combat antisemitism resolutely in all its forms, including Israel-related antisemitism. Likewise, the security of Israel is and remains reason of state for us.”
The Italian Jesuit polymath Giovanni Botero (1543–1617) originally coined the term “reason of state.” Soon it came to mean, as one reference work puts it, “a ‘Machiavellian’ disregard for legal, moral, and religious considerations when the ‘interests of the state’ or ‘necessity’ required it.”
In 1924, the Prussian historian Friedrich Meinecke sought to endow Staatsraison with a liberal humanist complexion. According to the neoconservative commentator Gertrude Himmelfarb, Meinecke saw it “as a compound of the ideal and the material, with the ideal — the reason of state — in danger of being corrupted by the material — the advantage of state.” Before long, the influential Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt had purged the concept of any lingering idealism, aligning it with such doctrines as the “state of exception” based on the identification of an official enemy by a sovereign leader.
In his work Education After Auschwitz (1966), the philosopher Theodor Adorno insisted on the need for “critical treatment” of “such a respectable concept as that of ‘reason of state’; in placing the right of the state over that of its members, the horror is potentially already posited.” Hannah Arendt, in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, suggested that the concept carried with it the implication that a state’s actions were “not subject to the same rules as the acts of the citizens of the country.”
The Israeli-born head of the German Anne Frank Center, Meron Mendel, suggests that “reason of state” is “fundamentally opposed to the law-bound state” and incompatible with the “enshrinement in the German Constitution of the preservation of the dignity and basic rights of the human being.” For Mendel, while German leaders always gave their support for Israel a moral justification, in reality it was often calculations of realpolitik that determined German policies — “a means of restoring Germany’s standing in the world” so that the country “did not have to deal with the failure to come to terms with its Nazi past.”
State of Exception
To sum up: Staatsraison is a form of cynical realpolitik whereby, in Meinecke’s terms, reason of state — democratic accountability and the rule of law — is supplanted by advantage of state — the suspension of democracy and law in a Schmittian state of exception. One can make the case, as Giorgio Agamben has done, that this exception is now in fact the rule. In Germany alone, however, is it paradoxically idealized as a form of atonement for past crimes.
Germany interprets its “special responsibility toward the Jewish people” as a responsibility toward the state of Israel, thus dehumanizing both Israel’s Palestinian victims and those Jews who see themselves as “guided by a vision of justice, equality and freedom for all people,” in the words of Jewish Voice for Peace. Since 2018, the German state has employed a small army of non-Jewish “commissioners” whose task it is “to fight antisemitism and promote Jewish life in Germany,” but whose public utterances tend to be spectacularly insensitive.
In October 2019, the political scientist Samuel Salzborn, shortly before his appointment as Berlin’s antisemitism commissioner, tweeted the following comment: “When people at the next table on the train start bringing up ‘Palestine’ as a topic for no reason at all, it’s either time to get off, put on headphones, or yell at them. #antisemitism.” For the Palestinian-American activist Ali Abunimah, this appeared to be “a pure expression of his disgust even at the thought of Palestine or Palestinians existing.”
These commissioners don’t reserve their disdain for Palestinians alone. Wieland Hoban is a spokesperson for the organization Jüdische Stimme für gerechten Frieden in Nahost (“Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East”), and he has criticized Germany’s “alarming behavior toward Jews — in many cases Israelis — who oppose Israel’s political practices and ideological foundations.”
Hoban cited the antisemitism commissioner for the state of Baden-Württemberg, Michael Blume. Blume sneered dismissively at Jüdische Stimme as a “supposedly Jewish” organization, as if the only authentic Jews are Zionists supportive of Germany’s unconditional alignment with Israel.
Most recently, Amos Goldberg, professor of Holocaust history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has accused Felix Klein, the federal government commissioner, of being “an ideologue who closes his eyes to reality and makes no secret of it” — the reality in question being the idea that Israel is an apartheid state, an accusation that Klein has dismissed as antisemitic.
The severity of Goldberg’s critique, along with its publication in Germany’s most respected conservative newspaper, represent a significant challenge to the state’s philosemitic status quo. Given that Staatsraison, by definition, has no interest in public opinion and that this indifference extends to the views of Israeli Jews who defend equal rights and political justice, it will be interesting to see how (and if) this challenge is met.
In her keynote speech in New York in August 2022, German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock of the Green Party proclaimed the need to “seize this transatlantic moment” and “engage in a partnership in leadership”:
Not just we as Germans and Americans . . . But we as Europeans and Americans. And it is for my country within the European Union to help lead the way.
The spectacle of a Green politician quoting a phrase from George Bush Sr (“partnership in leadership”) has long since ceased to be anomalous. In 1999, Baerbock’s Green predecessor Joschka Fischer shattered Germany’s post–World War II taboo against military adventurism by backing NATO’s bombing of Serbia without a UN mandate. Fischer managed to invoke the precedent of Auschwitz in justification while simultaneously asserting that “Auschwitz is beyond comparison.”
It would appear that Staatsraison has indeed proved to be “a means of restoring Germany’s standing in the world,” in Mendel’s words. Other Europeans, particularly those who once fantasised that the European Union might constitute a counterbalance to the US, must decide whether they truly wish to accept such a Führungspartnerschaft.
Ominously, both France and Britain have shown an increasing inclination to follow Germany’s lead with legal constraints on freedom of speech or protest. In this context, we must see YouGov’s finding that the German people “are clearly on the side of the Palestinians” as a sign of hope, although the hysterical reaction of politicians suggests their preference for Bertolt Brecht’s solution: “to dissolve the people / And elect another . . .”
By contrast, a more recent YouGov poll, which showed that the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has reached a level of support unequaled by any far-right party since the Third Reich, has evoked far less dismay. Perhaps this is because the AfD is passionate in its admiration for Israel, an ultranationalist and militaristic state ignoring the shaky norms of international law — a fixation of many far-right European parties, from Hungary to Poland and Italy, that never seems to trouble Israel’s German admirers.
Supporters of Palestinian rights who justifiably condemn the United States for its pro-Israel bias must condemn Germany equally. In his 1950 Discourse on Colonalism, Aimé Césaire gave short shrift to the moral pretensions of European leaders:
Europe is unable to justify itself either before the bar of “reason” or before the bar of “conscience” . . . increasingly, it takes refuge in a hypocrisy which is all the more odious because it is less and less likely to deceive.
Germany’s “reason of state” constitutes a regression from Kantian reason — what the philosopher called “Vernunft,” or the “supreme moral legislating authority” that “makes a state of peace a direct duty” — into the worst kind of unreason and cannot expiate the crimes of the Third Reich. Abandonment of this Staatsraison and of hubristic pretentions to leadership might enable Germany finally to come to terms with its criminal past.