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Navigating the Silence: Challenges of Discussing the Middle East Conflict in Germany
Living in Germany for nearly a decade has provided me with a unique perspective on the challenges of engaging in meaningful conversations about the Middle East conflict. Unfortunately, the pro-Israel political consensus prevailing in the country has created an environment where dissenting voices, especially those critical of Israel, find themselves marginalized.
Attempts at constructive discussions often encounter a swift shutdown with the dismissive assertion that the topic is too complicated. Consequently, my understanding of the geopolitical developments in the past three decades has been shaped primarily through private conversations, shielded from the judgmental eyes of a society quick to label any criticism of Israel as antisemitic.
In Germany, the public representation of Jews appears to be defined by a transactional relationship. This representation tends to overshadow the perspectives of a substantial yet unseen majority of Jewish individuals who don't belong to communities financially supported by the German state. Moreover, those who don't constantly emphasize unconditional loyalty to the state of Israel often find their voices drowned out.
The influence wielded by official institutions and state-backed communities further silences non-affiliated voices. Discrediting these voices is not uncommon, with individuals invoking Holocaust guilt complexes to fetishize Jewishness to an obsessive degree. In my recent book addressing the displacement of Jewish people in Germany by single-minded opportunists, the reaction underscored the prevailing tendency to attribute dissent to Israel-hatred or personal narratives, such as my departure from the ultra-orthodox community.
Jewish heritage, unfortunately, becomes a leveraged tool for power, as the sacred and untouchable nature of Jewishness is exploited. As a secular Jew in Germany, I have grown accustomed to the aggression from the powerful state-backed entity of "official Judaism." The far-reaching influence extends to the cancellation of theatre performances, disinvitations of authors, withdrawal or postponement of prizes, and pressure on media companies to exclude our voices from their platforms.
Recent events, particularly critiques of the German response to attacks by the terror organization Hamas, have heightened the marginalization faced by those critical of the official narrative since October 7. The challenges of navigating this stifling environment underscore the complexities of discussing the Middle East conflict in Germany.
Unveiling the Unsettling Realities: Dissent, Backlash, and Selective Protection
As I witnessed Palestinians and Muslims, broadly categorized in Germany, collectively held responsible for the Hamas attacks, I felt compelled to take action. Alongside more than 100 Jewish academics, writers, artists, and thinkers, I signed an open letter urging German politicians not to eliminate the last remaining safe spaces for expressing grief and despair. Unexpectedly, this plea resulted in immediate backlash from the official German Jewish community.
On November 1, just before appearing on a TV talk show with Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck, I was confronted with a screenshot of a post by the same German Jewish journalist who had criticized my book. In this post, disturbing fantasies about me being held hostage in Gaza were openly discussed. It was a chilling moment that brought clarity. Those demanding every Muslim in Germany to condemn the Hamas attacks before expressing any other sentiment were seemingly indifferent to civilian deaths, as long as the victims held opposing views.
Germany's unconditional support for Israel not only impedes condemnation of civilian casualties in Gaza but also turns a blind eye to the plight of dissenting Jews in Germany, akin to their treatment in Israel. The tragic events of October 7 involved individuals from the left-leaning, secular segment of Israeli society—many were advocates for peaceful coexistence. Their sacrifice for radical settlers in the West Bank, some of whom are militant fundamentalists, has exposed the state's promise of security for all Jews as selective and conditional.
Likewise, in Germany, the protection of Jews appears to be interpreted selectively, reserved primarily for those loyal to the rightwing nationalist government of Israel. The parallels between these situations highlight the complex dynamics that surround dissent, selective protection, and the challenging landscape of expressing differing views in both Israel and Germany.
Navigating the Shadows: Israel's Hostages, Nationalist Sentiments, and Germany's Uneasy Alliance
The hostage situation involving Hamas in Israel has become a divisive and alarming issue, with differing perspectives on the fate of those held captive. In the eyes of many Israelis, particularly the nationalist faction, these hostages are viewed as a necessary sacrifice, instrumentalized to justify the violent conflict long anticipated by the religious right. For them, October 7 marked a symbolic Day X, heralding the beginning of the fulfillment of biblical prophecies and the ultimate war to end all wars.
Tragically, the families of the victims, who have pleaded for an end to the cycle of hatred and violence, find their voices unheard in Israel. The plea for restraint and a break from revenge goes unanswered, overshadowed by the fervor of those seeking to fulfill eschatological visions.
Germany's unwavering alliance with Israel, rooted in historical responsibility, influences the country's discourse on the matter. The alignment has led to attempts to replicate similar conditions for public discourse within Germany. Shockingly, when questioning a politician from Germany's governing coalition about the government's position on German citizens among the hostages, a disturbing response was received in private. The use of the Nazi term "Das sind doch keine reinen Deutschen" (well, those aren’t pure Germans) to differentiate citizens with dual nationality harkens back to a dark chapter in history.
Publicly, the same politician champions Germany's pro-Israel stance while subtly signaling to the far-right by framing the country as powerless to oppose Israel's demands, even if it results in civilian casualties in Gaza. This dual stance raises concerns among Jews in Germany, who question whether the country's fixation on Israel is more reflective of the German psyche than a genuine commitment to their safety and inclusion.
Recent statements, such as Vice-Chancellor Habeck's video on antisemitism, attempt to address these concerns, emphasizing the recognition of the primary importance of protecting Jewish life. However, the underlying complexities persist, leaving a void in the discourse that key figures like Chancellor Olaf Scholz and others have yet to fill, raising further questions about Germany's stance and its impact on the Jewish community's sense of security and belonging.
Unscripted Truths: A Heartfelt Plea for Moral Clarity in the Face of Silence
In an unforeseen turn of events during a TV appearance, spurred by a distressing screenshot, I abandoned the planned script and let my heart speak freely to Vice-Chancellor Habeck. With my heart racing, breath shallow, and voice trembling, I addressed the pressing issues that had weighed heavily on my conscience.
I spoke of the despair over the unending war and the overwhelming sense of powerlessness in the face of its horrors. The fear of civilization's collapse due to the gradual erosion of the value system that holds it together, the grief stemming from a discourse tearing bonds between friends, family, and neighbors, and the frustration at the blatant hypocrisy used to stifle critical voices all poured out. I couldn't help but express my disappointment in Habeck, once a beacon of hope for voters like me on his unconventional political journey.
Drawing from the lessons of Holocaust survivors who had shaped my upbringing and the insights of writers like Primo Levi, Jean Améry, and Jorge Semprún, I implored the vice-chancellor to recognize the only legitimate lesson from the Holocaust – the unconditional defense of human rights for all. I emphasized that applying our values conditionally already delegitimizes them.
In a poignant moment, I told him, "You are going to have to decide between Israel and Jews." The distinction between the two became evident, highlighting the contradiction that arises when unconditional loyalty to a state jeopardizes various aspects of Jewish life. It was a moment that, perhaps, caught him off guard.
His response acknowledged the moral clarity of my perspective but revealed the complexity he faced as a politician in Germany, a country haunted by the legacy of the Holocaust. He expressed hesitance to adopt a position that might be seen as conflicting with Germany's historical responsibilities. And in that moment, we confronted a stark reality in German discourse – the open acknowledgment that the Holocaust is being used to justify the abandonment of moral clarity.
Shattered Hopes: A Reflection on Habeck and the Unraveling of Moral Convictions
Many Germans, myself included, once saw Robert Habeck as a beacon of hope—a relatable figure, a dreamer, and a storyteller who entered politics with the belief that change was possible. However, it appears that the political landscape has had its impact, altering Habeck in ways that were unforeseen. The idealistic image we projected onto him seems to have given way to a more transactional approach, aligning with the patterns of his predecessors.
As someone who represented the aspirations of the people, the disheartening realization that Habeck may no longer be the voice we thought he was raises a critical question: If he won't engage with us, who will? This sentiment is particularly poignant in a time when far-right parties like Germany's AfD and France's National Rally strategically embrace Israel, attempting to whitewash a history of Holocaust denial and ethnic hate. The unconditional support for Israel becomes a convenient shield, masking more sinister agendas.
The recent parliamentary debate on Germany's historical responsibility towards Jews highlighted a disconcerting convergence between the statements of the far-right AfD and the center-left government. The striking similarity between their positions underscores a concerning moral equivocation that has permeated even the heart of liberal society.
Deborah Feldman, author of the memoirs "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots" and "Judenfetisch" in German, resides in Berlin with dual German and American citizenship. Her reflections offer a sobering perspective on the disillusionment felt by those who had placed their hopes in figures like Habeck, revealing the pervasive influence of political dynamics on even the most idealistic narratives.
In conclusion, the disillusionment felt by many, myself included, towards figures like Robert Habeck serves as a stark reminder of the complex and evolving nature of political ideals. Habeck, once seen as a champion of change and a symbol of relatability, appears to have succumbed to the transactional approach common among his political predecessors. As we grapple with the shifting dynamics in liberal society, the disheartening convergence of far-right and center-left rhetoric in Germany's parliamentary debate on historical responsibility towards Jews exposes a troubling moral equivocation.
The realization that political figures may not be the unwavering voices of the people prompts a critical question: if those we entrust with our hopes and aspirations fail to engage meaningfully, where do we turn? The strategic embrace of Israel by far-right parties for ulterior motives further underscores the challenges of navigating a political landscape where even support for a just cause can be exploited.
Deborah Feldman's reflections, rooted in her experiences and dual citizenship, shed light on the broader narrative of disillusionment and the need for vigilant scrutiny of political shifts. As we confront the echoes of historical responsibility and the delicate balance between loyalty and moral clarity, the journey forward demands a collective commitment to holding those in power accountable and redefining the expectations placed upon them. The evolving landscape requires not only a critical examination of political figures but also a reaffirmation of our commitment to the enduring principles that shape our societies.