go to top

What is a Jew in Germany Permitted to Say Against a Jew in Germany?

Thursday, Aug. 28, 2008

"What is a Jew in Germany Permitted to Say against Israel?" Thus ran the headline to a commentary that ran in the Arts and Letters section of Germany's influential Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) last week. And -- though perfectly reflecting the tenor of the article by Patrick Bahners, the editor of the section -- a very odd headline it is. For while the subject of the piece is a court case in which freedom of speech is indeed clearly at stake, as so happens the case involves not an attempt to silence a Jewish critic of Israel, but rather the attempt of a Jewish critic of Israel to silence one of her own critics.

The Jewish critic of Israel is Evelyn Hecht-Galinski, self-identified on a recent episode of the German radio program "Hallo Ü-Wagen" (roughly "Hello from the Sound Truck!") as "an independent critic of Jewish and Israeli human rights violations" (more literally, "of Jewish and Israeli policies that violate human rights"). Hecht-Galinski is also a member of a group known as "European Jews for a Just Peace." But her real claim to fame or, at any rate, notoriety in Germany is that Ms. Hecht-Galinski is the daughter of the late Heinz Galinski. For several decades and until his death in 1992, Heinz Galinski was the president of the Jewish Community of Berlin. He also twice served as president of the semi-official Central Council of Jews in Germany. During his lifetime, Galinski was something of the bête noir of German anti-Semites and neo-Nazis. He retained this status even after his death, as witness by the repeated attempts in 1998 to blow up his gravestone in the Jewish cemetery in the Charlottenburg neighborhood of Berlin. The second attempt destroyed the monument.

In May, Hecht-Galinski appeared on an episode of "Hallo Ü-Wagen" specially organized to mark the 60th anniversary of Israel's founding. The theme: "Extremely Difficult: Talking about Israel." "Hallo Ü-Wagen" host Julitta Münch introduced Hecht-Galinski as an "author" [Publizist]. During the show, Hecht-Galinski complained that initially unidentified forces were trying to "muzzle" her and in general to prevent Germans from criticizing "Israel's criminal actions." She even brought a muzzle along to illustrate the point. As the show progressed, moreover, she became somewhat more concrete about the identity of the "muzzlers." "I know how the Israeli-Jewish lobby operates," Hecht-Galinski said, adding: "There is one [an Israeli-Jewish lobby] and there's nothing to say to the contrary. In the meanwhile, they describe themselves this way." She also referred to the Israeli security barrier as an "annexation barrier," dismissively observed that Angela Merkel's speech before the Israeli Knesset could have been written by the "Israeli propaganda ministry," and accused Israel of "playing politics with the victims of the Holocaust." (The audio file of the show is available here and a German transcript here.)

The critic of the Jewish critic of Israel is Henryk Broder: the famously caustic German political commentator and author of numerous books on German politics and anti-Semitism. Broder happens himself to be Jewish and his name was repeatedly brought up by Hecht-Galinski on "Hallo Ü-Wagen" as a seemingly key member of the supposed "Israeli-Jewish lobby" that wants to "muzzle" criticism of Israel. Contrary to the impression created by the title to Bahners's FAZ article, no one has questioned the right of Hecht-Galinski to say whatever she wants about or "against" Israel. But in a letter to Monika Piel, the director of the Cologne-based Western German Broadcasting Corporation (WDR), Broder questioned the wisdom of inviting specifically Hecht-Galinski to speak on the subject of the "Hallo Ü-Wagen" episode and the accuracy of the show's description of Hecht-Galinski as an "author." Here a translation of the Broder letter:

Dear Ms. Piel,

I know that the WDR is a big organization and that you cannot be responsible for doing everything. Nonetheless, it would perhaps be possible for you to find out what inspired the editorial board of "Hallo Ü-Wagen" to have Ms. Evelyn Hecht-Galinski on the program and to describe her as an "author"?

The only claim to fame [in English in the original] of Evelyn Hecht-Galinski (who first adopted her father's name after the latter's death) is the fact that she is "the daughter of Heinz Galinski," as she introduces herself at each of her appearances. There is no justification for describing her as an "author," since apart from letters-to-the-editor she has written nothing and published nothing. Even any drunken reveler at carnival in Cologne could recognize that Ms. EHG is a hysterical housewife in need of affirmation, who speaks for no one and only talks nonsense. Her specialty is intellectually vapid anti-Semitic anti-Zionist phrases [antisemitische-antizionistische gedankenlosigkeiten] -- such as are currently in fashion.

What led the WDR to give the "daughter" a platform?

Best Regards from the Spree [River in Berlin] to the Rhine,


Following the publication of the letter (along with Piel's response) on the popular collective blog Die Achsen des Guten [The Axis of Good], Hecht-Galinski took legal action against Broder. It was not the description of her as a "hysterical housewife in search of affirmation" to which she objected, but rather the description of her discourse as "anti-Semitic anti-Zionist." Indeed, Hecht-Galinski accepted the anti-Zionist label, but she obtained a temporary court order forbidding Broder from describing her statements as "anti-Semitic." The letter currently appears on Die Achsen des Guten site with the word "anti-Semitic" replaced by "xxxxxxxxxxxxx".

Next Page: Indirect anti-Semitism and comparing Israel to Nazi Germany . . .

Now, as so happens, "anti-Zionist anti-Semitism" is a commonly used term in German debates: including in academic debates. In the academic discussions, "Anti-Zionist anti-Semitism" is treated as a variant of so-called "new" German anti-Semitism. The basic idea is that since the direct expression of anti-Semitism is for obvious reasons highly taboo in Germany, abiding anti-Semitic resentments largely get expressed indirectly: the safest and most socially-acceptable form of expression being the in any case ubiquitous "criticism of Israel." "Anti-Zionist anti-Semitism" often goes hand-in-hand with so-called "secondary" anti-Semitism: i.e. a form of resentment of Jews precisely because of the Holocaust and the stigma that it represents for Germans and Germany. (For more on the subject, see here on World Politics Review.)

The clearest symptom that one is dealing not with ordinary "criticism of Israel" but rather with a resentment-laden obsession is the drawing of flagrantly overblown and spurious comparisons between Israel and precisely Nazi Germany. Thus, a 2004 survey conducted by a research group at the University of Bielefeld famously found that some 51% of German respondents agreed that Israeli policy toward the Palestinians is "no different than what the Nazis did to the Jews in the Third Reich." Fully 68% agreed that Israel is conducting a "war of extermination" [Vernichtungskrieg] against the Palestinians. Given its close association with the campaigns of the Wehrmacht on the eastern front in the Second World War, the expression "war of extermination" again clearly invites comparison to Nazi Germany.

Now, also as so happens, Hecht-Galinski has not only defended the legitimacy of such comparisons, but indeed made them herself. Thus in March 2007, Hecht-Galinski gave an interview to the German public radio Deutschlandfunk. Shortly before, two German bishops on a trip to the Middle East had compared the situation of Palestinians in the West Bank to that of Jews in the infamous Warsaw Ghetto. Hecht-Galinski not only defended the bishops, but she added:

What's happening there [in the Middle East] can only end in an absolute catastrophe [ein absolutes Unglück], because you cannot oppress a people eternally and really -- I have to venture these comparisons -- we have ourselves experienced what happened in the Second World War and what is happening today. That can't simply be talked away. And one has to draw certain comparisons. Unfortunately, one has to say so, even if this is not politically correct in Germany.

Despite the tumultuous syntax of Hecht-Galinski's remarks, German listeners will not have failed to hear in her reference to an impending "absolute catastrophe" for Israel yet another Nazi analogy: namely to the "catastrophe" that is supposed to have befallen Germany at the end of WWII. Hecht-Galinski's allusion to the Israeli "propaganda ministry" on "Hallo Ü-Wagen" is, incidentally, yet another remark of the same sort.

In the same interview, Hecht-Galinski also developed her thoughts -- albeit in similarly disjointed fashion -- on the "Israeli-Jewish lobby":

Everywhere -- I must say this unfortunately and Tony Judt has also noted it -- where that Jewish-Israeli lobby and its networks are at work, and today that covers the whole world and thanks to America the power [of the "lobby"] has become so great, that as European Jews for a just peace we are a minority. . . .

Whether or not Hecht-Galinski's discourse is anti-Semitic could well be considered a matter of debate -- even if someone who chooses to introduce herself as a critic of "Jewish human rights violations" obviously invites the charge. At any rate, it seems clear that she is genuinely confused. But in a normal democratic country, the very fact that the anti-Semitism of her remarks could be a matter of debate would imply that it is precisely not a matter for the courts. Henryk Broder has refused Hecht-Galinski's offer of a settlement. To have accepted, he told the Jerusalem Post, would amount to "allowing anti-Semites to decide what anti-Semitism is." On September 3, the District Court of Cologne is scheduled to rule in the case. A ruling against Broder would mean that in Germany one could speak in general of "anti-Zionist anti-Semitism," but it would, in effect, be forbidden to point to any concrete instances.

Indeed, it should be noted that the accusation of "Anti-Zionist anti-Semitism" has already been the subject of legal proceedings in Germany. Thus in 2005, Samuel Laster, the publisher of the Jewish-themed Web site Die Jüdische, was forced by a German court to remove an article bearing the title "Anti-Zionist Anti-Semite" on supposed "Middle East expert" Ludwig Watzal. Contrary to what Watzal has claimed in a letter to the American publication TCSDaily, Laster was never "convicted" by the court. But faced with continued legal proceedings and mounting court costs, Laster entered into a settlement with Watzal. (For a German-language discussion of the Watzal-Laster case, see here. For more on Watzal and for his above-cited letter, see here.)

The fact that such cases come before the courts at all must obviously have a chilling effect on freedom of speech and public debate in Germany. For Patrick Bahners, however, it is rather Henryk Broder who threatens freedom of speech, since "whoever can succeed in describing an opponent as an anti-Semite has driven that opponent out of the public discussion." Bahners advises the judges to "keep this in mind" when ruling in the case. Bahners's tortured logic amounts to saying that one must suppress speech in order to protect speech. One can only hope for Germany's sake that the judges of the District Court of Cologne will show a better understanding of democracy than the editor of the Arts and Letters section of the FAZ.

John Rosenthal is a World Politics Review contributing editor.

Photo: Henryk Broder, November 2007 (Sven Teschke, licensed under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License).