Interview with Wieland Hoban, chair of Jüdische Stimme für gerechten Frieden in Nahost
Ali Khan (AK): First of all, thank you for giving us your time today. I‘ll start by asking you about yourself, the organization, and your involvement in it.
Wieland Hoban (WH): I’m a composer and academic translator. It’s only over the last few years that I’ve really become involved in explicit activism. The Palestinian cause has been very important to me for many years, but I suppose I didn’t feel able to really get involved in the activism.
Especially in Germany, the Jewish population is so small and there’s nothing comparable to the kind of Jewish opposition to Zionism and Israeli policy that exists in the US or even in the UK. There is an even stronger assumption that Jews are on the side of Israel, and often those who aren’t are reluctant to get involved in activism because they feel under pressure to distance themselves from Israel and they easily feel attacked themselves.
I think Jewish people are often in a kind of bind in which they are forced to take sides. Their communities may be very pro-Israel, but their political outlook and identity might actually go against that.
I thought that this cause of Jewish pro-Palestinian activism was especially worth supporting. It’s also a better outlet for the Jewish identity of being an anti-Zionist, because in a lot of Jewish spaces that’s an unpopular position to have.
AK: What is the composition of your organization? And could you tell me a little bit about your own Jewish background? How has that inspired you in this direction?
WH: Our organization has existed since 2003, and in 2007 became a registered society. We’ve gotten some attacks from the mainstream, including Jewish organizations. We were awarded a peace prize by the city of Göttingen in 2019, and there was some protest because it was known that we support BDS. Fortunately, the jury stood firm. And even though the city and the university actually tried to prevent the prize ceremony in a university hall, fortunately, an alternative space was found.
I didn’t grow up with any strong sense of Jewishness. There was nothing religious about my upbringing. My father was American and, as a very young man, he had volunteered to join the US army in the Second World War when he heard what was happening to the Jews. Because, as he put it, he wanted to defend his people. This sense of tribal allegiance was something familiar to me, but not so much on my own part.
He didn’t observe any sort of rituals or traditions; his own parents were secular. The strongest, or the most obvious Jewish part of their identity was that Yiddish was their first language. They didn’t pass that on to him because I think they wanted him to be just an American without the baggage of being the foreigner – they had come from the Russian Empire (now Ukraine). In my twenties, when I was first became interested in exploring Jewish thought and culture a bit more, something that really got in the way of that was this strong association of all things Jewish with Israel.
That was around the same time that I was started feeling strongly about the Palestinian issue. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a way really to reconcile this Jewish element with my political position. You might say I allowed Zionism to spoil Jewishness for me, something that unfortunately lasted for many years.
The work of Jewish groups (like our own), such as Jewish Voice for Labour in the UK, and of course Jewish Voice for Peace in the US, inspired me and made me see that there was a way to combine a Palestinian, anti-Zionist position without having to leave behind or be alienated from Jewishness. Thiscreated a stronger sense of Jewishness in me and showed me a way to overcome that alienation.
AK: Your organisation’s complaint specifically targeted Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz, who are considered to be on the liberal spectrum. These politicians are defined by their opposition to Bibi Netanyahu. Tell us what motivated you to target these two people and not Naftali Bennett, for example, and his right-wing party.
WH: First off, I should say that these classifications of left and right might apply to domestic policies in Israel, but when it comes to the oppression of Palestinians, everyone is the same, regardless if they’re so-called liberals or hardliners.
Back in 2014, during the carnage of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, Benny Gantz was Chief of Staff in the army. He was directly responsible for the bombing and the massacres there. Not long after that, during his own election campaign, he actually boasted about his anti-Palestinian credentials by saying that he had bombed Gaza back to the stone age.
Lapid has only recently come to enjoy this level of power. Accordingly, he hasn’t been directly involved in crimes against Palestinians for so long, but he was Prime Minister when the latest attacks on Gaza occurred in August.
More immediately, he was very recently in Germany visiting so soon after the attacks on Gaza, that we felt that it just highlighted the hypocrisy. Especially if you consider that a month or so previously, Mahmoud Abbas made this embarrassing and tasteless gaffe in his speech in Berlin where he spoke about 50 Holocausts. He was just slammed for that in a way that no Israeli politician would ever be slammed for killing Palestinians. In Germany, it was the greater offense to go against “Holocaust etiquette” than actually to kill people. So, we felt it would be an important way of drawing attention to this to say that Lapid is actually a criminal and that Gantz is one of the greatest war criminals in Israel.
We know that a complaint like this isn’t going to land them in jail, but we wanted this to be a reminder of what these people are and issue a statement against normalising relations with them.
AK: The Abbas incident was in response to a question about the Munich massacre. No journalist would ever ask an Israeli politician about any massacre and say, “Apologize.”
WH: That’s exactly why Abbas got worked up about it. If he had just refrained from the last bit of his statement, from using the word “holocausts,” then it would’ve been a reasonable statement. He’s saying, “You always expect us to condemn this or apologize for that, but what about all the massacres that have been perpetrated against Palestinians?” It’s an important point to make, but then he blew it with his choice of words – any and everything became about the Holocaust then.
AK: The use of the word Holocaust offended German sensibility more than anything.
WH: Correct. In fact, even the National Commissioner for fighting antisemitism, Felix Klein, commented that Abbas had been inconsiderate towards his host – i.e., not that it had been offensive to victims of the Holocaust, but rather to Germans. I thought that was just a remarkable, accidentally honest confession and expression of how much the Holocaust is part of German identity politics.
AK: Yair Lapid was at the UN General Assembly this month explicitly promoting a two-state solution with a peaceful Palestinian state, with the caveat that Israel will allow it – but it has to be to Israel’s taste. What is your organization’s views of a just peace (as stated in its name)?
WH: If I had to choose between justice and peace for the name, then I would opt for justice. There’s this old slogan that became more widely known with the George Floyd protests: “No justice, no peace.” Peace isn’t just when the oppressed submit or when they stop complaining, which is really what Israel’s expectation is. “If the Palestinians just shut up and stop making trouble, then it’ll be peaceful.” But the reason for the non-peace is the injustice.
These expectations are always asymmetrical. They want a demilitarized Palestinian state – one expects them to make do with some sort of pseudo-sovereignty that wouldn’t be expected of any state. Palestine is expected to be grateful for this. As subalterns, it’s all they can really aspire to.
We reject that. Our principle is that every person in historic Palestine – the territory controlled by Israel, regardless of whether it officially belongs to the state or not – should be equal, both in terms of human and electoral rights. Only a situation in which everybody is equal can be considered a just solution. Any so-called peace that isn’t based on justice is not peace; it’s just a sham, an arrangement, a lull in conflict.
AK: There’s a need for restitution as well.
WH: One of the crucial points is the right of return: Palestinians who have made their lives in different countries and who have substantial Palestinian communities – whether in the US or in Europe – are not going to suddenly move to Palestine.
The same rights any Jew in the world has to come to Israel and become a citizen in a fast track process with a lot of perks is what Palestinians need as well. They also need to be given a nice subsidized apartment in the West Bank, for example, or in Israel (but in the West Bank it’s cheaper). That’s considered reasonable based on the idea that that thousands of years ago Jews somehow came from there. But when you have Palestinians whose parents and grandparents still have the keys of houses that they lived in, we’re talking about a literal family connection still within living memory, not some distant quasi-mythological connection. The fact that the Jews would have that right, but not Palestinians, is already a form of apartheid.
AK: What kind of response has your activism generated within the media?
WH: There has been an international response and a number of articles. I also did a live interview for Al-Jazeera. In Germany I did an interview with one leftist paper, Junge Welt; we have a connection to them. They’ve often written about us. I’m sure plenty of people have seen it – we’re pretty active on Twitter and have plenty of followers, so that information is circulated. Germans mostly didn’t want to give the story any oxygen, so they avoided it.
AK: Is that the primary strategy: to deprive any Jewish group of oxygen rather than attack them directly?
WH: You get both. On platforms like Twitter, there are plenty of people who are happy to attack us and even call us anti-Semitic. As far as the wider discourse goes, I think people try to ignore us because quite often they don’t know what to do with Jewish anti-Zionists. The majority of our members have an Israeli background.
No one can say to them, “You don’t know anything about Israel.” Now I’ve been seeing the argument that most of us didn’t grow up in Germany, so we are not able to speak about anti-Semitism here.
A relatively small part of our members actually did grow up in Germany, but many have lived here for decades, or they have children who were born here. Clearly, it’s absurd to try to somehow invalidate our position by saying we’re not German enough. They can’t say, “You don’t know enough about Israel,” so instead they say, “You’re not German enough” to comment on the anti-Semitism discourse here. The hostile actors who engage with us just try to delegitimise our position by saying, “These people support BDS.” The idea is that clearly one can’t talk to such people, the same way one wouldn’t talk to neo-Nazis at a public discussion.
AK: The AfD presented a resolution declaring BDS to be antisemitic, while they have Nazi Holocaust denialists within their movement, not to mention a general rise in extra-parliamentary far-right violence. What do you think of the effects of these associations between anti-Palestinian, pro-Israel discourses and the far-right on Jewish life?
We’ve seen now in a variety of places how supporting Israel and the Zionist project is perfectly compatible with being on the far right. What we see today in Israel is far-right politics. Jewish and European nationalists – Viktor Orban in Hungary is a particularly clear example – have the common enemy of Muslims, Arabs – basically non-white people.
Whether or not he likes Jews is not so important because this is realpolitik. Netanyahu was always very happy to take the money of Christian Zionists, who cling to this anti-Semitic fantasy of the Messiah returning and requiring all Jews either to convert or be damned or killed. Obviously, Netanyahu is not interested in their bizarre beliefs. If they’re giving money and advocacy, then he’s happy to take that.
The AfD know that in Germany, it goes down well in the political mainstream to seem pro-Jewish. At the same time, they also feel an affinity with Israeli nationalism simply because they’re nationalists. Again, they have the shared enemy of Muslims and PoCs.
This is the political level. At street level, the neo-Nazis who go out marching are certainly not trying to seem pro-Jewish. They’ll be happy to beat up any Jews or to say that Jews have too much control and should therefore be contained or eliminated.
AK: It’s like a lot of these white nationalists just want to deport Jewish people into Israel. That’s almost their fantasy.
That’s also the sense in which Zionism is an internalization of anti-Semitic logic because it’s based on the idea that Jews really belong in Israel. It was undoing this long struggle for assimilation, recognition, and equality that Jews had gone through in Europe.
Whenever I have the opportunity to talk about the history of both Zionism and anti-Zionism, I highlight the way in which it’s just doing the anti-Semites a favor. It’s like people saying to immigrants, as they often do, “If you don’t like it here, then why don’t you go back where you came from.”
In earlier centuries, when people were more defined by religion, religious Jews could be treated as a foreign barbaric culture, in the same way that Muslims still are in some places. Once Jews had become accepted a part of mainstream society, they still occupied an in-between role. This is something that you see in far-right ideologies: the idea that Jews look like they belong to us, to the white race, but they actually don’t. They’re going to bring in all these dark-skinned people through immigration in order to destroy the white race.
On the left, plenty of Jews have a more diasporist view, and say that Jewish self-determination is not about founding a state with Jewish sovereignty but just about being part of our societies wherever we live. Similarly, they advocate joining in the struggle against discrimination towards all minorities, rather than seeking to be a majority with power. That, for me, is the alternative to Jewish nationalism.
AK: The “rootless cosmopolitanism” slur?
Yes, but in the 19th century, when European societies were less racially diverse, this sense of color and ethnicity was different from what it is today. Today, I’d speak of a kind of conditional whiteness, in the sense that we aren’t harassed by the police in the same way that Black or visibly Muslim people are. At the same time, white supremacists are also going to view us as some of the people they want to get rid of.
AK: What is your advice on the strategies to pressure the state of Israel to help move this peace forward? What would you suggest the reader of this interview do in their locale, but particularly in Germany?
It’s important for white Jews to recognize that we do have the privilege of whiteness at the same time as being a minority, and that these kinds of privilege are contextual and conditional. Something that often causes tension between Jewish and PoC communities are competing claims about levels of discrimination and oppression.
I find it very important at generally – i.e., not just in anti-Zionist activism, but also in terms of how Jewish activism generally can work – for solidarity across minorities to be emphasized. That’s something you see a lot in the US, that an organization like JVP does.
That is really necessary here in Germany. There is a battle over who deserves more attention as a minority that suffers discrimination. That really gets in the way of the larger anti-racism and anti-discrimination struggle.
Of course, racists will also target Jews, but we are conditionally white and therefore, unless we’re wearing religious garb, we’re not going to get harassed by strangers as easily as people who simply look different. It’s a banal but important fact. It’s important to use the privilege that one does have and to create stronger ties between Jews and other minorities. That strengthens the Palestinian cause, too.
Berlin, for example, is the city with the largest Palestinian population in Europe. There are methods like BDS as a foreign activist policy, and there’s also the domestic activist policy of amplifying Palestinian voices, of trying to push the understanding that being pro-Palestine is part of the wider anti-racist cause rather than the wedge issue on the left.
Some people on the left think that fighting anti-Semitism takes precedence over fighting other kinds of discrimination. They follow the misguided logic that this equates to support for Israel in order to make up for the Holocaust. People on the left who otherwise support leftist causes end up supporting Jewish nationalism because they feel that Jews must be given this protected space. If you compare that to any other minority, the idea is normally for them to live without discrimination here and not to be sent off to some reservation.
Another tactic is to present to the majority the facts of the occupation. Point to the fact that increasingly more human rights organizations are talking about apartheid. One can’t just keep calling them all anti-Semitic. Germany can’t just put its head in the sand because of the Holocaust. We’re in a different situation now, in which a Jewish state is highly militarized, has nuclear weapons, and is supported by the most powerful countries in the world.
We can’t cling to this idea of the Jew as a victim. The Jew in Auschwitz is the image held in people’s minds in Germany, as is the Jew at risk from all these Muslim immigrants. Being against anti-Semitism then leads to a xenophobic way of protesting it. That is what I also see as part of our work because we are in Germany, as opposed to Israel or in Palestine.
At the same time as supporting the international cause and trying to do international activism where we can, we’re also trying somehow to affect the German discourse. Because Germany is a major supporter of Israel – not just discursively but also militarily.