Germany Is Weaponizing Its Historical Guilt to Demonize Israel’s Critics

Germany’s leaders have given unconditional support for Israel’s war in Gaza — but also demanded that immigrants do the same. The rhetoric of German atonement for the past is being used to silence left-wing Jews and blame antisemitism on immigrants.

German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock (L) and German chancellor Olaf Scholz (C) in Berlin, Germany, on June 14, 2023. (Emmanuele Contini / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Faced with the sheer scale and ferocity of the violence, it’s often hard to do much but look on in horror and outrage. We had the shocking brutality of Hamas’s terror attack, and then the unyielding and indiscriminate cruelty of Israel’s response — which, one month on, shows no sign of abating. Here in Germany, the horror and outrage are only intensified by the callous response from the country’s political class and a stunted, dangerous public discourse. Both are serving to silence Palestinians — and actively make life less safe for Jews, in Germany and abroad.

Leading figures in Germany’s ruling coalition like Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck have rushed to assert that Israel’s security is part of the Federal Republic’s raison d’être, highlighting the central role Israel plays in its understanding of both Judaism and antisemitism. Both in the context of the war in Gaza and the domestic discourse within Germany, antisemitism is equated with criticism of Israel; Germany officially defines manifestations of “hatred” toward Israel as antisemitic.

German politicians have been tripping over themselves to take as tough a stance as possible. Even as Israeli bombardment had already killed thousands of Palestinian children, Scholz was unashamed to claim Israel is “guided by very humanitarian principles” and that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would certainly abide by international law. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock argues that Germany’s abstention in a vote on the United Nations’ proposed cease-fire was warranted due to a “lack of balance” in the resolution. She was met with widespread criticism in Germany for abstaining, rather than voting directly against the cessation of hostilities.

We’re also now seeing the mere assertion that Palestinians are people itself being deemed somehow antisemitic or supportive of Hamas. German press did not hesitate to attack Naomi Klein (who is Jewish) for calling Israeli violence “genocidal” and failing to condemn Hamas in the same tweet. Nor have they thought twice about branding Judith Butler (who is also Jewish) as an antisemitic “Israel-hater” for “relativizing” Hamas’s violence and for her role in postcolonial studies more broadly. That using the state of Israel as a monolithic stand-in for all Jews is itself pretty antisemitic hasn’t seemed to dawn on most Germans.

Ironically, all this stems from Germany’s stated commitment to fighting antisemitism, born from a historic responsibility to atone for the Holocaust. Fighting antisemitism is always commendable and is good and necessary in the German case in particular. That is, if the country’s popular understanding for what constitutes antisemitism wasn’t incredibly superficial and flawed.

Mass Deportations… on Behalf of Jews?

Germany’s extremely narrow understanding of its responsibility to “protect Jews” is once again actually making life for Jews in this country more dangerous by strengthening right-wing chauvinism. In short, German guilt has been laundered into Islamophobia and xenophobia.

In prominent Green Party politician Habeck’s nearly ten-minute speech reiterating Germany’s support for Israel and calling out antisemitism, he directly references the crimes of his grandparents’ generation — before going on to argue that non-German citizens who praise Hamas could lose their residency status or face deportation. He failed to make it clear why exactly immigrants to Germany should have to atone for the crimes of his grandparents in the first place.

Social Democratic (SPD) interior minister Nancy Faeser has echoed her Green vice chancellor’s calls for deportations. Hamas’s grim violence is obviously indefensible, and German society has to take Islamism seriously. But given how loosely the term “Hamas supporter” is thrown around in German media, the prospect of deporting foreigners en masse in the name of fighting antisemitism isn’t ever so reassuring.

Some German Jews, like the head of Thuringia’s regional Jewish community, have voiced their support for these measures. Given the bleakness of our current moment, it’s not surprising that Jews in Germany don’t have one unanimous prescription for maintaining their safety. But it’s also not surprising that voices that are aligned with the German political mainstream are those likely to be listened to and cited, while those who cut against this grain are ignored by those in power. Such was the case of an open letter from leftist Jews in Germany, which critiqued Germany’s censorship of pro-Palestinian voices and broader xenophobia — an intervention that was celebrated internationally but largely ignored in German press.

It should also be no surprise that the Right has cynically jumped onto this bandwagon. If German society were interested in fighting antisemitism, it would be well served by at least attempting to reckon with the unchecked rise of its far right. The far-right Alternative für Deutschland party (AfD) continue to gain strength throughout the country, and when Bavaria’s deputy premier, Hubert Aiwanger (of the right-wing Freie Wähler), was credibly accused of neo-Nazi activities in his youth, he actually received a boost in the polls. But Germany’s discourse is so broken that Aiwanger was recently invited onto national radio in order to blame antisemitism in Germany on “unchecked immigration.”

Aiwanger, the Christian Democrats, and the AfD obviously do not care about the safety of Jews in Germany. Just days after the AfD condemned Hamas’s attack and warned of “imported Islamic antisemitism” in the Bundestag, one of their newly elected regional parliamentarians in Bavaria was arrested for owning Nazi symbols. But Germany’s dominant equating of Jewishness with Israel has allowed the Right to cynically pay lip service to fighting antisemitism — by blaming immigrants for it.

They do this even as their own movements threaten minorities in Germany, notably including Jews. Instead of taking a second to wonder why their views are difficult to distinguish from the far right’s, the Habecks and Faesers of the world instead help legitimize xenophobia as an outlet for their guilt. And given the ongoing rise of the Right, you don’t have to be particularly imaginative to envision these growing anti-immigrant sentiments eventually being turned around on Jews themselves.

This sickly cynical public debate has occurred while Germany’s “progressive” coalition is busy passing laws to speed up deportations and expand police powers against asylum seekers. It is getting ever harder to distinguish the immigration policy of Germany’s major parties as the SPD and Greens tack further to the right. It’s difficult to see how increased deportations and making it harder for those seeking asylum to arrive or stay in Germany could be good for Jews or in any meaningful way could be argued as a necessary element of Germany’s atonement for the Holocaust.

Atoning Our Way, or Not at All

If German leaders are going to repeatedly stress the importance of making amends for the country’s historical atrocities, they might want to listen to what Jewish people have to say about it, rather than make this all about processing their own guilt. But instead, all of this has created an environment so restrictive that Jewish voices in Germany are often stifled in the name of the national commitment to fighting antisemitism.

Berlin canceling Jewish-led demonstrations like “Jewish Berliners against violence in the Middle East” early in the war, on grounds of potential antisemitic messaging, illustrates just how dangerous this is. Jews that happen to be critical of Israel are silenced or painted as self-loathing in a vital moment for preventing the further escalation of the conflict.

When they are not simply canceled (as they often are), many protests calling for peace or demonstrating a shred of solidarity with the people of Gaza were violently suppressed. The recent mass demonstrations that have been allowed to take place have been frequently demonized by many outlets. Berlin prosecutors have criminalized the movement’s ubiquitous slogan “From the River to the Sea.” This stokes an actively perilous environment for Jews in Germany.

Equating all Jews with Israel doesn’t just target the pro-Palestinian Jewish left — or openly ignore Israelis who are critical of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government or against intensifying the atrocious violence in Gaza. It also tacitly encourages reprehensible acts like the attempted firebombing of a Berlin synagogue. A discourse that sees Israeli policy as a monolith standing for all Jews directly feeds the warped, dangerous — antisemitic — perception that attacking Jews or Jewish institutions is somehow resisting Israeli policy.

Just as the German view of Jews is a tokenizing, totalizing one, it has become alarmingly common to take the insidious line of equating anyone who supports Palestinian freedom with hating Jews and/or supporting Hamas. In fact, even saying nothing at all is also somehow antisemitic.

In Vice Chancellor Habeck’s speech on Germany’s perspective on the war, he criticized Muslim institutions for failing to distance themselves from Hamas and antisemitism — implying that unless otherwise noted, Muslims hate Jews and support terror. He went on to say that Muslims living in Germany “must clearly distance themselves from antisemitism so as to not undermine their own right to tolerance.”

This broad, lazy approach is widely shared by German politicians and media. Besides being Islamophobic, it does Jews a disservice in that it clearly demonstrates German society is not interested in doing the difficult, nuanced work of understanding and fighting actual antisemitism on the Muslim right — which is abhorrent and absolutely needs to be fought. Unfortunately, if you can’t differentiate between a keffiyeh (which Berlin is seriously weighing banning in schools) and an ISIS flag, your institutions might be ill-equipped at preventing Islamists from organizing. Then again, you don’t need a nuanced understanding of Islam and Muslim political movements and institutions in Germany if your solution is to just deport them all anyway.

Not Exactly Helping

Germany’s conflation of criticism of Israel with antisemitism isn’t just bad for Jews in Germany — it’s dangerous for Jews in Israel. Germany has staunchly refused to heed calls for a cease-fire in Gaza from an array of international organizations.

It should be fairly obvious that even if your only interest in this war is Israel’s security, voting to keep the war going will only mean more dead Jews. An extended ground war in Gaza will not be without Jewish casualties. And the longer the war goes on, the further it will exacerbate an already grim status quo in which Israeli Jews are unsafe despite living in a highly securitized state, or potentially spill over into a horrific regional war. Without real, lasting peace it’s impossible for Jews to be safe, and cheering on a fascist war machine won’t make that happen anytime soon. This does not even touch on the grim realities facing Palestinians, which are almost never considered by Germany’s politicians or media.

This is another glaringly shallow facet of Germany’s flawed commitment to anti-antisemitism. Given Israel’s security is supposed to be part of Germany’s “reason of state,” it’s shocking how little interest German politicians and pundits have in actually understanding politics in Israel or the region at large. German policy boils down to supporting whatever Israeli government happens to be in power, regardless of the consequences. That not all Israelis are Jews, that the Netanyahu government is deeply unpopular, or that there is growing dissent against this war within Israel are all somehow irrelevant.

As, of course, is the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Attempts to provide any form of context are shouted down as relativizing or somehow justifying Hamas’s terror. In practice, Germany’s commitment to Israel’s security means any response imaginable — regardless of its ruthlessness — is a justified answer to the October 7 attack. That roughly half of Gaza’s population is made up of children, that the ongoing blockade makes escape next to impossible, or that the West Bank is not indeed ruled by Hamas are all irrelevant.

And this is where the German stance on the war is truly repugnant. You don’t need a PhD in Middle East studies to acknowledge that children in Gaza are human. Hamas’s horrendous attack on Israel does not somehow justify a response that has already killed a ghastly four thousand children. Yet Germans fail to see the sickening irony of sanctioning the mass death of innocents and leveling of entire communities as a necessary act of atonement for the Holocaust.

If Germany had real interest in learning lessons from its appalling history, it would recognize that categorizing entire nations of people as inhuman and unworthy of sympathy or safety must be made untenable — regardless of who it’s happening to.