We are currently witnessing a genocide. In Gaza, 9,500 people have been killed by Israeli bombs, 4,000 of them children. The narrow enclave has been turned into a moon landscape and there is no refuge for the 2.3 million inhabitants – whether in schools, hospitals, mosques or churches. The justification used is the massacre by militias from Gaza who on 7th October attacked several villages in the South of Israel. In their reactions, Israelis politicians have clearly said that they wanted to destroy Gaza. Benjamin Netanyahu referred to the Biblical figure of Amalek, the permanent enemy, who could only be disarmed by total destruction. And concrete plans of the Israeli government to displace the whole population of Gaza to Egypt have come to light.
By linking the discourse on migration with antisemitism, real fears felt by Jews were instrumentalised… an international conference on the questions of Germany’s culture of remembrance was cancelled by the Federal Agency for Civic Education. Critical figures in the political and cultural arena are being sacked or excluded. Tendencies which have been there for years have intensified.
If you have come to this meeting and know something about the work of the Jüdische Stimme, of course you know that this story did not begin on 7th October. You know that the blockade of the Gaza strip has made a normal life there impossible for 16 years. You know that in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, it’s not just that even more settlements are being built, but also that settlers and the army are using even more everyday violence and eviction attempts up to and including pogroms against Palestinians. You know that within the official Israeli State territory, Palestinian citizens are living in even more danger and fear, on top of the legally prescribed and informal discrimination. You know that a life in peace with full rights is denied to millions more in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. You also know that most people in the large Palestinian diaspora, which is strongly represented in Germany and in Berlin, are not allowed to return to Palestine. And you know that all this goes back to the Nakba, the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from the end of 1947, which has never stopped, is being continued through the current genocide, and is barely recognised in the German public sphere.
How has the German public sphere reacted to the events of recent weeks? In Germany, many demonstrations were banned days before they were supposed to happen, above all here in Berlin, where the police acted with shocking brutality and implemented bans beyond the law. In the media the spectre of hordes of bloodthirsty Arabs and Muslims was evoked, who above all were portrayed as a danger to Jews, and it would be best if all were deported. Even the so-called social democrat Olaf Scholz was not ashamed to use such rhetoric. Demonstrations for Palestine and Gaza were often stamped as being “pro-Hamas”, and those that weren’t were alleged to contain mainly antisemitic tendencies. By linking the discourse on migration with antisemitism, real fears felt by Jews were instrumentalised – also by figures of the Jewish mainstream like Josef Schuster, president of the central council of Jews, who described the protesting and mourning people as “barbarians”. Space for discussion is becoming increasingly narrower: an international conference on the questions of Germany’s culture of remembrance was cancelled by the Federal Agency for Civic Education. Critical figures in the political and cultural arena are being sacked or excluded. Tendencies which have been there for years have intensified.
As we send a message that solidarity with Palestine does not contradict Judaism, and that Israel does not speak for all Jews, we use an authority of speaking which is not available to our Palestinian partners and friends or the people in Palestine.
Months ago, when we conceived the plan to organise an anniversary celebration, we asked ourselves whether this would be even appropriate – this is even more the case now. We asked ourselves whether it was defensible to speak about ourselves and our history for a whole evening, in light of the suffering and the thousands of dead and wounded, instead of concentrating on the people in Palestine. One member said, we could celebrate when our organisation is no longer needed. And yes, if there were no more sickness or injuries, we would not need any doctors or hospitals.
Marek Edelman, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and one of the few survivors once said: “to be a Jew means always to be with the oppressed, never with the oppressors”. I consider that in a way to be our guiding principle, although there are aspects which make our position more complicated. A significant part of our original strategy is that as Jews we stand by the Palestinians, so that the supposed contradiction between both these things, and the constantly present charge of antisemitism is refuted by our solidarity.
What does this mean for our role? As we send a message that solidarity with Palestine does not contradict Judaism, and that Israel does not speak for all Jews, we use an authority of speaking which is not available to our Palestinian partners and friends or the people in Palestine.
Our task must not just be to give a kosher stamp to other people, which shamefully is expected by the majority of society, nor to say “listen to us, we are Jews”. Our task must be to work with other groups in alliances, and to strengthen them so that they do not need this stamp.
A few months ago, I was with a Palestinian friend at a meeting with the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, who for years has been one of the most important writers and speakers around the subject of Palestine, among other things through his book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. The talk was eloquent and incisive, full of facts without being too academic. My friend complained: “when an Israeli Jew says that, everybody listens. But when we say it, we’re anti-Semites.” And he is right. Although some people also call us antisemitic, and we are ostracized or ignored by the Jewish mainstream, we still get more of a hearing than the Palestinians. Not every demonstration that is registered by us is forbidden.
We use this small advantage, as do groups in other countries, like Jewish Voice for Peace in the USA or the international umbrella organisation European Jews for a Just Peace, so that our message is heard by those who do not want to hear Palestinian voices. We use our privilege – although at the same time we consolidate it. Our task must not just be to give a kosher stamp to other people, which shamefully is expected by the majority of society, nor to say “listen to us, we are Jews”. Our task must be to work with other groups in alliances, and to strengthen them so that they do not need this stamp. So that no-one even needs to argue that something is acceptable because Jews have signed off on it.
When I see how the genocide of the Roma and Sinti is barely mentioned – after it was first officially recognised in 1982, nearly 40 years after it happened – and that large parts of the German society is just not able to link the different forms of racism, including antisemitism, I am overcome with rage and sorrow. When I see how an inflated discourse about “Gender Gaga” leads to AfD posters on which the rainbow flag is combined with a triangle which looks like that used on a concentration camp uniform, then I have fear for all my queer friends and for my trans son. And when I see how little it costs to confront white conservative politicians with their past and perhaps present Nazi sympathies, that I know that the fight against antisemitism is a farce and that Germany was never de-Nazified. In a society where Fascists have been standing at over 20% in the polls for months, all minorities are threatened. Of course, Palestine remains our focus, as this movement is so urgently required, and faces such hostility. And because the German discourse of remembrance is used so insidiously against them, because the wrong lessons are mercilessly taken from the Holocaust. But our engagement in Palestine stands together with an engagement in many areas which are all connected.
I want to say something else about us, about our organisation, and about what we can maybe be. The last weeks have burdened us all in a way, meaning that that again and again we have reached our limits – not just as activists, but also our humanity and our psyche. And we are encouraged that we have experienced such solidarity and appreciation which has overwhelmed me. In a normal year, we receive a handful of applications to join. In the last three weeks, they were sometimes coming nearly every day. And what I always here from people who want to join us is that they feel frustrated and powerless, at the same time as suffering the German reason of state and the limitation within Jewish spaces. They hope that by joining – whether or not they really want to be active or just make a connection – they can contribute something so that they no longer feel alone.
If we can offer Jews a place where they have a connection to the larger movement, then this is also a function of a work which ultimately strengthens the fight for justice for Palestine and the solidarity with other groups. From my own experience, I can say that joining paved the way towards me becoming a committed activist, and allowed me to identify with my Judaism without inner conflict. We, and above all our Palestinian companions, will be time and again demonised and defamed, but together we are strong, and can help not just ourselves but also other people. Let us insist on this, however dark it becomes. It is a time when the masks drop and we see who stands for humanity, and who does not. “Never again” is now.
This speech was given in German at an event organised by the Jüdische Stimme at oyoun cultural centre on 4th November 2023. Translation: Phil Butland. Reproduced with permission.