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Philo- and Anti-Semitism in Germany: Interview with Gilbert Achcar

[ ["VIVA ISRAEL" graffiti. Photo taken in Berlin Neukölln (2011), a neighborhood with a large population of Arabs, Turks, German-Arabs/Turks and other immigrants. Image by Anna Younes]

This interview is part of a longer one conducted with Gilbert Achcar in Berlin on 18 and 20 May discussing his book, The Arabs and the Holocaust which was translated into German in May 2012. The interview  explores intersecting paradigms and predicaments of racism and colonialism for a post-war German nation. Specifically, it touches upon some of the historical roots and contemporary debates in Germany, concerning anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism and the way both phenomena have played out in modern German politics until today. 

Anna Younes (AY): As someone who was socialized and grew up in Lebanon, it is not immediately clear why you would write a book about The Arabs and the Holocaust. Is there something particular that made you aware that the history of anti-Semitism and the Middle East conflict are intertwined?

Gilbert Achcar (GA): My first encounter with that intersection was due to an early experience in my high-school years in Beirut during the June 1967 war. I had a heated discussion on the war with a French classmate who was supportive of Israel. He told me that he sided with Israel, because he didn’t want to “end up in France working for a Jewish boss.” It was enlightening for me to see how people may be supportive of the Zionist project in Palestine because they want to get rid of the Jews in their own country.

AY: How did you respond to your French classmate? 

GA: Oh, I can’t remember. The thing that I remember very well, however, was what he said, which shocked me as something extremely negative combining anti-Semitism and contempt for the Arabs. He wasn’t a close friend, just a classmate, but I was shocked enough to have remembered it ever since. 

AY: Can you say something about the German translation of your book, your audience and your position as an Arab faced now with this publication in German?

GA: I believe that it is very important for this book to come out in German. It is a book about the diversity of Arab reactions to Nazism, anti-Semitism and the Jews since the 1920s until the present. So of course it concerns Arabs, Jews, and Germans, before anybody else. In a way, it deals with Germany’s past and present. As you know well, post-war Germany – for obvious reasons – has been uncritical towards the Zionist narrative, including its “Nazification” of the Arabs. There is a vast political and intellectual tradition in Germany that adheres uncritically to that Zionist narrative – often to the point of reproducing the racist anti-Arab clichés that can be found in it. This is what I would describe as a very wrong way for Germans to draw lessons from their Nazi past and the Holocaust, because this attitude remains stuck in the same mind frame of racism and ethnic hatred. I quoted Eleonore Sterling in my book, when she compared anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism, stressing that both have in common their inability to consider Jews as normal people. Eleonore Sterling, by the way, was a specialist of the history of German anti-Semitism, whose parents died in Nazi concentration camps. Overall, I am thus very much looking forward to the reception of my book. I expect, of course, a wide range of reactions from the very positive to the very negative, as I am already used to. In some way the issues my book deals with work like a touchstone in various contexts.

AY: Why do you think it’s important to speak about philo-Semitism in Germany? And what is your definition of philo-Semitism?

GA: Philo-Semitism is a position of unconditional support to “the Jews,” for anything done by a collective calling themselves “the Jews,” claiming to represent all Jews – above all, the Israeli state, of course. Many Germans believe that in order to redeem their nation’s Nazi anti-Semitic past, they’ve got to be uncritically and unconditionally supportive of the so-called Judenstaat, the so-called state of the Jews: Israel. And of course, this is no real redemption at all. A real radical rejection of Nazism and anti-Semitism, should lead instead to reject all forms of racism, ethnic hatred, discrimination, predatory state behavior, expansionism, etc., in the same way as Nazi racism was not only directed against Jews, but was a much more encompassing attitude.

AY: But Germans most of the time only focus on Israel.

GA: Well, that’s true. And why do Germans primarily only feel guilty about the direct victims of Nazism and feel no guilt at all toward the indirect victims, i.e. the Palestinians? The Palestinians are indirect victims of Nazism in the sense that Nazism led to a tremendous increase in the immigration of European Jews to Palestine – part of it, the immigration of German Jews, organized by the Zionists with the help of the Nazi security service. It is Nazism that made it possible for the Zionist project to be implemented in Palestine, and for the state of Israel to be created. And since this state came to being through an act of ethnic cleansing, the responsibility for this falls also ultimately on German history. But this was never acknowledged. The only guilt that Germany did recognize was its responsibility in the Jewish tragedy, leading it to behave as if the state of Israel represented the victims of the Holocaust. And of course, as Tom Segev put it, the very idea that the six million Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis were potential citizens of Israel is all the more absurd that these were actually people most of whom refused to be lured by the Zionists to leave Europe to go to Palestine.

AY: Were there different incentives for the German state’s philo-Semitism apart from the desire for redemption?

GA: As former Ben-Gurion University professor Frank Stern explained very well, it was a way for Federal Germany since the time of Konrad Adenauer to buy its way into the Western alliance, into the post-45 West in the geopolitical sense.

AY: And Adenauer was a pro-Zionist as well. In 1926 he joined the German Pro-Palestine Committee (PPK) and proudly declared in a private visit to Israel in 1966: “I too was a member of the Zionist movement.” 

GA: Well, the same Adenauer wrote the anti-Semitic statement about the “power of the Jews” that I quote in my book, after Stern. Germany had this kind of really ambiguous philo-Semitic attitude, which brings us back to the high-school classmate I mentioned at the beginning of our talk. It’s like Harry Truman, one of Israel’s godfathers, who also wrote anti-Semitic comments. And indeed at the same time that Federal Germany was buying its way into the West through support to Israel, it was also supporting indirectly the US war in Vietnam. Its support of Israel was part of its adherence to a broader aggressive imperialist scheme; in no way was it a qualitative break with what Nazism represented. That’s a key point. The United States did horrible things in Vietnam. And Germany helped the US financially during that time. Germany and Japan were supposed not to engage in militarization after their defeat in World War Two. But with American encouragement, West Germany re-armed and joined NATO. And it is in this context that Federal Germany supported the Israeli state. People are very much aware of the US-Israeli connection, but rarely – at least outside of Germany – know or think of the German-Israeli connection. Germany has been in the 1950s and 60s the main funder of the Israeli state, in the name of “reparations.”

The bulk of those reparations were not paid to Holocaust survivors and relatives of Holocaust victims, but to the Israeli state that used this money to arm itself. There were massive and important weapons deliveries from Western Germany to Israel, the same Israel that developed nuclear weapons in collaboration with the apartheid regime of South Africa! And then, when you say in Germany that the Israeli state is racist, people look at you as if you uttered some sort of blasphemy. They forget that in 1976, when everybody was boycotting South Africa, Yitzhak Rabin’s government cordially invited John Vorster, one of the most viciously racist Prime Ministers that apartheid South Africa ever had. He visited Israel, where he was greeted as a good friend. The Israeli-South African collaboration was a very intimate one. Birds of a feather flock together.

AY: Is philo-Semitism the reason why this unconditional support for the Zionist venture worked?

GA: At that time it wasn’t really philo-Semitism for the victors of the war. True, the Zionist movement was making the point that the victor states had a moral obligation to help the Jews build “their own state.” At the same time, however, you had the conjunction of anti-Semitism and support for Zionism that we mentioned. The war victors wanted to get rid of Holocaust survivors who were gathered in DP [displaced persons] camps in Europe. The United States didn’t want to open its doors to them. If the Holocaust survivors had been given a choice between going to North America or to Palestine, there is not the slightest doubt that they would have chosen in their overwhelming majority to go to North America. America was the real “promised land” for European Jewish immigrants since the 19th century, and it is still so for the majority of immigrants today. The “promised land” was not Palestine, or “Eretz Israel,” but was and still is North America, and not only for Jews, but for all migrants. The USA, however, would not let Holocaust survivors in, nor did the Soviet Union, or Britain or France for that matter, and that’s where anti-Semitism comes in. As you know, at the time of the creation of the state of Israel with US support, one could still find in the USA signs reading “No Blacks, Jews, or dogs allowed.” Anti-Semitism was displayed openly, it wasn’t prohibited by law. So it wasn’t a case of philo-Semitism at the time, but actually a conjunction of anti-Semitism and philo-Zionism.

AY: The non-recognition of Palestinians suffering today in Germany is then one of the consequences of German philo-Semitism?

GA: It comes through some sense of guilt toward the Jews, often marred by psychological ambiguities, for which people make up by outbidding everybody in support for Israel. When the Israeli far right justifies what it does by resorting to the “Nazification” of the Palestinians, it gives such people the feeling that they have redeemed their parents’ sins. 

AY: But the image of the Arab has changed, too. Today it’s a racist discourse waged on the ticket of “Islamism” or “radical Islam.”

GA: The Islamophobic discourse came on top after it started increasing in the West, especially since the 1990s, and peaked after 2001. The Zionist right seized this Islamophobia and merged it into its traditional anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian discourse. One of the very blatant expressions of this combination is Benny Morris’s infamous 2004 Haaretz interview, where he says that Islam itself is anti-Semitic, and the Palestinians are barbarians who should be put in “something like a cage.” It is a Nazi-like discourse. And yet, you find people applauding such statements and believing that by doing so they are acting as “anti-Deutsch” [anti-German] and radically repudiating their country’s past. But the truth is that they are not breaking with it at all, they are actually continuing it.

AY: So why do you think the lesson that was drawn, was primarily stuck with Jews, whereas nothing similar emerged for the Sinti and Rroma, who were also exterminated, for instance? 

GA: Because the connection with the Israeli state, which is part of the global imperialist system, is something that suited West Germany’s desire to integrate the Western imperialist alliance. That obviously didn’t work with the Sinti and Rroma, who don’t have a state and have no supportive lobby in the USA. And I would also add that Germans could see in Israel their own image – with the high number of German Jews in Israel and the prominent role they played, at least in the early decades of the Israeli state. In my book, The Clash of Barbarisms, I called this “narcissistic compassion,” the empathy felt toward “people like us.” It is, of course, much easier for Germans to feel empathy with German Jews than with Sinti and Rroma, who are still the object of racist hatred all over Europe -- not to mention Arabs or Muslims.


AY: So it is the aspect of recognition? You see yourself in the other, basically?

GA: Yes, indeed. Now, why does this particular tragedy in Europe get so much more attention that any tragedy in history? The Europeans did terrible things in the Americas, in Africa, in Asia. Native Americans in North America were wiped out through a genocide and the United States was founded on this violence. In South America you had huge mass killings. In Belgian-occupied Congo, estimates of the Black victims of colonialism are up to ten million. That was absolutely terrible, and I could go on. And yet, none of these tragedies met any comparable recognition of guilt on the part of the European.

AY: Thank you very much.

GA: It was my pleasure. Thank you for your interest.

5 comments for "Philo- and Anti-Semitism in Germany: Interview with Gilbert Achcar"

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The point that the attraction of Israel for European was that it was a way of “getting rid” of the Jews without killing them is all too often swept under the carpet. Israel was an alternative to the diaspora. The logical corollary is that an Israel that cannot exist other than by being propped up by the diaspora has nothing to offer Europe in return for its support. Equally, a generation of Europeans, born since WWII, who have never done any harm to a Jew, do not see what they “owe” anything to Jews, born since WWII, to whom nobody has ever done any harm. Nor do they accept that the fact that an earlier generation of Germans did frightful things to an earlier generation of Jews entitles the present generation of Jews to do frightful things to Palestinians. Even in Germany, the “guilt” generation is dying off. When Günter Grass recently wrote a poem critical of Israel, not only was it published in the media without any difficulty but there was very little criticism of him in Germany. (The US media, including the “leftwing” websites, needless to say, tried to claim that he had been “pilloried” in Germany!) Thus, the knee-jerk support for Israel id dying in Europe in general and even in Germany.

Michael Kenny wrote on June 30, 2012 at 10:34 AM
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There are several salient factors left out of this interesting exchange. Most notably there is no mention of Arab antisemitism or philosemitism, the former of which is considerable and draws life from history. Furthermore, the theoretical desire of postwar Jewish refugees to migrate to the US ignores the tendency to 'return' to an historic homeland and reconstitute autonomous power, a movement that began in the 19th century. Even if many had been free to choose other countries, many others were committedly Palestine-bound, and did not regret joining that flow, war and all, and certainly did not then see themselves as part of a global imperial project. They might have come to that perspective eventually, but Israel has long been in a gradual state of demographic and political flux, with its large blocs of Maghrebi and Russian immigrants and their descendants. Both of these groups have eclipsed "German" Jews in numbers if not as social elites. And both have been conditioned by hostile pressures in their regions of origin, hostilities that drew succour from Nazism, making them insensitive to Arab concerns and also pushing Israel away from a Europe that is increasingly embroiled in Arab politics, even as they lend Israel considerable vitality. So there is an impasse, which is lazily categorised as imperialistic. It is more complex than stale critiques can describe, and certainly time for all parties to recognise the legitimate desires and fears of the other parties.

Germany (Europe) could facilitate this, particularly at a time when long-suppressed grievances are realigning almost all countries in the Middle East.

Ian Derek wrote on July 02, 2012 at 06:06 AM
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"Philo-semitism" has had a much more benign meaning to many people than an unconditional support of Zionism or Israel, and indeed predating 1948 : an appreciation of (diasporic) Jewish culture or Jewish thinkers, writers, etc. , not all of whom were or are Zionists, from Maimonides to Marx to Adrienne Rich and Judith Butler. Using this word to mean an unconditional support of Zionism seems to me as irresponsible as calling critics of the Israeli occupation and Israeli apartheid "anti-semites."

Marilyn Hacker wrote on July 02, 2012 at 11:39 AM
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I think it is clear that Achar is discussing philo-semitism in Germany and he is defining it with knowledge of how Germans relate to Israel. Also, in answer to some of Derek's comments, he really does need to read Achar's book "The Arabs and the Holocaust". There is a lot that needs correction. As for Michael Kenny's remarks about Gunter Grass - they are simply not true. Grass was lambasted left, right and center. Support for Israel is still very present for reasons that Achar describes. What has changed is the amount of information available concerning Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, despite the fact that state media is very uncritical of Israel and newspapers jump to Israel's defence at the drop of a hat. However, Germans who know what is going on are rightly quite horrified and cannot believe how people who suffered so terribly at their hands could then practice dispossession and persecution of others.

Artemis wrote on July 05, 2012 at 11:04 AM
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Point taken, Artemis. I will seek out the book. We Jews are also having trouble gaining the critical distance to understand our own actions as a group, or perhaps I should say reactions.

Positive contributions from outside the tent are helpful, and perhaps more welcome than mainstream commentary will admit. But NB, framing the commentary as shock that "the Jews , of all people," etc is not useful. I do not address this last to you personally.

Ian Derek wrote on July 06, 2012 at 11:49 PM

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