Expansion of the Zone of Taboo

The German definition of “antisemitism” harms open debate and excludes foreign and Jewish Artists and Intellectuals


“The Ghetto is being liquidated” wrote Masha Gessen regarding Israel’s conduct of war in Gaza. Here in Germany, this sentence, which appeared in the New Yorker magazine, led to a scandal. For in Germany, we have a very far-reaching understanding of everything that one may – or may not –  say with respect to Israel.

The corridor of opinion is becoming increasingly narrow. It could become even worse if Culture Secretary Claudia Roth bows to the pressure which has risen after the Berlinale. It is a bad sign that the Israeli ambassador Ron Prosor praised her and the Culture Minister because they want to place arts promotion under suspicion of “antisemitism”.

Since 2017, Germany has relied on an antisemitism definition which is propagated by the Israeli government. It was declared by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Critics complain that it stamps justified criticism of Israel as antisemitic, and worry that it opens the way to arbitrariness from the authorities. They point suspiciously to Donald Trump and Viktor Orbán who happily accepted the IHRA definition.

People like Gessen, who compare Israel’s actions with Nazi crimes, are antisemitic according to the IHRA definition. Full stop. Gessen comes from a Jewish family of Holocaust survivors and did not want to trivialise non-German Nazi crimes. Rather Gessen and others wanted to ‘de-normalise’  Israeli war crimes. and show them to be the scandal they are. But the IHRA definition is clumsy and cannot deal with such differences. For this reason, overwhelmingly Jewish authors and experts drew up an alternative text in 2021 – the Jerusalem Declaration – a definition which strictly differentiates between criticism of Israel and antisemitism.

Nazi comparisons are not per se taboo

In Germany, the IHRA definition has by now acquired a quasi-official status. The German government recommends using it in the education of school students and adults, in justice, administration and the police. Five years ago, the University Chancellors’ Conference adopted it. Using the IHRA definition as a framework, the Bundestag passed its controversial BDS resolution in 2019. Then, it was said that calls to boycott Israel evoked “the worst phase of German history” – a comparison with the Nazis which, remarkably, received little criticism.

But Nazi comparisons are not per se taboo in Germany. If Putin or Erdoğan are compared with Hitler, few people are enraged. If Israel’s prime minister Netanyahu equates Hamas with the Nazis, Israel’s UN ambassador wears a yellow Star or the spokesperson of the Israeli army describes the Hamas massacre as a “mini-Holocaust”, they can find advocates here in Germany.

Such double standards have increased. Interior minister Nancy Faeser banned the Palestinian slogan “From the River to the Sea”. Head of the Green Party, Robert Habeck – even called the slogan an “extermination fantasy”. The number of registered antisemitic crimes has also risen as a result, because the authorities have decided to strictly pursue such slogans. But what, then, does this say about the almost identically sounding formulation in the founding programme of Netanyahu’s Likud party, which since 1977 makes a claim for a larger Israel from the Mediterranean to the river Jordan?

Which words are still permitted?

The German permanent outrage about politically apparently incorrect criticism of Israel leads to the taboo zone becoming even larger. If someone on a demonstration calls “Kindermörder Israel” (child murderer Israel), some will immediately call the police. But which words are appropriate to denounce Israel’s actions in the Gaza strip – which have taken the lives of more children as all wars together in the last 4 years? The destruction of Gaza is unprecedented. But says the German state – don’t dare call it a “war of extermination”!

Recently, some have even maintained that red palms – a universal symbol for someone with “blood on their hands” means something quite different in Israel than in the rest of the world. This madness is even propagated by serious feature writers.

Cultural-intellectual provincialisation

Germans have the reputation of being a people of know-it-alls and thought police. Zealous “antisemitism” hunters like Volker Beck confirm this cliché. In the culture scene, this has led to a climate of fear and (self) censorship. This affects above all foreign – and often Jewish – artists and intellectuals.

The Saarland museum cancelled a planned exhibition by the South African Jewish artist Candice Breitz. A lecture tour by the 88-year old Holocaust survivor Marione Ingram in her home city of Hamburg was cancelled. The list could go on and on. Meanwhile, Elon Musk can share as many antisemitic conspiracy theories on X as he wants. When he visits Berlin, the mayor stands up for a selfie with him.

World-class intellectuals, like Achille Mbembe, Judith Butler, however, have been staying clear of Germany for a long time. The US artist Laurie Anderson withdrew from a guest professorship at the Folkwang Universität der Künste in Essen. This year’s Biennale for contemporary photography was cancelled. The future of documenta is unclear. And who still wants to come to Berlinale, and be accused afterwards of being an antisemite? The German magazines like Bild Zeitung and right wing blogs don’t care, they just fuel a moral panic.

According to an Allensbach survey from last year, only 40 per cent of Germans still believe that they can freely express their opinions, and stated that they restrained themselves because of this. The exceptions from this rule are ‘Greens’ and ‘academics’. Maybe there is a connection between the toxic antisemitism debate in this country and willingness to freely voice opinions. The climate now intimidates many people.

This article first appeared in German in the taz newspaper. Translation: Phil Butland. Reproduced with permission.