The sign above reads "Danger: Many burrows and pits at the area". I took this picture in February 2005, when I was visiting the site of the former Palestinian village Qaqun, today Kakun National Park together with Eitan Bronstein.
To me, this sign has come to symbolize not only the fragilty of the Israeli landscape and the narrative that it is based on, but also the shaky ground on which one moves around there as a German researcher.
I always thought that being ‘German’ doesn’t actually matter to me. In fact I never in my life felt so ‘German’ as I did during my research about dissident memory in Israel/Palestine, being constantly exposed to all kinds of anticipations regarding ‘Shoah-obsessed’ Germans, and feeling dilemmatic myself about the fervent anti-Zionism I was confronted with.
I was invited to talk here tonight because of all kinds of irritations and defensive reactions that Zochrot activists have experienced with German institutions and individuals. From what I have heard from you and learnt in conversations with German and Austrian friends, among them many people who work in memorial sites dedicated to the Nazi past, this ‘German irritation’ does usually not refer to your actual memory activism and to bringing the Nakba into Jewish Israeli public awareness, but to the radical political agenda that you deduce from there: an all-out delegitimation of political Zionism and a ‘Jewish state’, hence the demand for a Palestinian ‘right of return’ and a binational democratic state.
As I understand Zochrot, you are challenging hegemonic Zionist discourse, subverting it on the basis of a deliberately partisan counternarrative. In this narrative, political Zionism is exposed as the ‘original crime’ in Palestine, hence you call for radical reversal. As I see it, you are thereby creating some much needed counterspace in Israeli society, literally by marking the lost Palestinian landscape in Israeli public space, and metaphorically by generating opportunities to study and discuss the issues at stake as well as to develop some utopian thinking in a truly dystopian reality.
At the same time, however, your agenda has a potential to clash with contemporary German memory discourses regarding the Nazi past and the Holocaust; and this is true not only for state official and instituionalized discourse, but also for leftist debates in Germany. As you need international solidarity and financial support, and because you seem to be interested in getting into a discussion with critical German memory activists, it might be interesting to trace some problems of translating Zochrot into a German discoursive context.
So I will try to give you some very compressed outline of how the German Nazi past and Israel/Palestine are being discussed in Germany both in official politics and in public debate; in order to then share some personal reflections on ‘speaking Zochrot in German’. As you will probably notice, I will do this from an ideology critical perspective – because if we deal with public memory, we are actually dealing with ideology: A present political practice is being presented as evident based on a specific narrative of the past.
A ‘special relationship’ – German-Israeli realpolitik on the basis of the Holocaust
It is not a secret that the Israeli state apparatus functionalizes a teleological narrative about anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and a resulting need for a Jewish state to legitimize present politics and military action. Yet neither neither international nor German realpolitik regarding Israel/Palestine is driven by ‘Zionist manipulation’, as is often claimed by leftist Israelis or Palestinians, but basically by what is perceived as pragmatic interest. And if the Holocaust and Israel’s ‘right to exist’ as a Jewish state are being routinely addressed in this context, as is surely the case in official German politics, then because it fits with those interests.
This is not to say that there were no emotions involved in official (West)German-Israeli relations, especially in the early times and on the Israeli side. But from the very beginning, these emotions have been subordinated to political pragmatism and strategic considerations. To this day, both Israel and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) have profited from their post-Holocaust ‘special relationship’: Israel got financial and ideological support; the FRG in turn could distinguish itself as the ‘other Germany’ by pointedly acknowledging its ‘historical responsibility’. Even before there were diplomatic relations, there was already an armament cooperation. Today, there is close cooperation also in many other fields, and Germany has become one of Israel’s top trading partners.
Concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, German government politics can be defined as liberal Zionist. Notably in the last 15 years, hegemonic political discourse has frequently adopted Israels ‘right to exist’, and as a consequence of Germany’s ‘historical responsibility’, defending Israels existence was repeatedly labled as an ‘unnegotiable’ part of German reason of state. At the same time, however, it has usually been implied at the same time that Israels existence can only be secured by ending the occupation and settlement construction; and by agreeing to an internationally mediated two-state-solution.
Besides, official Germany deduces from its ‘historical responsibility’ a duty to fight anti-Semitism, and according to recent statements and parliament resolutions, criticism of Israel is considered anti-Semitic from the moment when Israels ‘right to exist’ (as a Jewish state) is being questioned. Hence there is an official (if vague) differentiation between ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ criticism of Israel, and in the official political arena, discoursive limits have definitely been set. If there is deviance, in recent times mainly by members of the leftist party Die Linke, there will quickly be a debate on anti-Semitism – sometimes with good reasons, sometimes out of strategic calculations. And I am afraid that also Zochrot’s discourse would be termed ‘illegimate’ by official German discourse, too, which may be one of several reasons for that you recently lost one of your German donors, the Federal foundation Erinnerung, Verantwortung, Zukunft (‘memory, responsibility, future’).
“The secret of redemption lies in remembrance…” – Towards a postpolitical memory culture of the Nazi past in united Germany
I don’t think it is accidental that the German governments have constantly reaffirmed its commitment towards Israel during the last 15 years. The topos of ‘historical responsibility’ has been at the very core of Germany’s nation building after 1990, when the country needed to prove to itself and the world that despite ‘reunification’, it was a Germany radically different from Nazi Germany. Basically, united Germany declared itself an ‘adult nation’ that ‘has learnt from the past’, and this is also what has been communicated by means of a novel state sponsored memoryscape dedicated to the Nazi past.
First of all, I want to emphasize that if I talk about ‘the Nazi past’, I do not only refer to the Holocaust, but to the whole story of National Socialist Germany. Before 1990, memorizing this past was definitely not self-evident in the FRG, let alone in public space. In fact there was an ongoing confrontation between rightist-conservative and leftist/leftist-liberal positions on how to deal with this past. In simplified terms: While rightist conservatives argued for a Schlussstrich (‘final stroke’) so as to regain a positive national identity, leftists/leftist-liberals held that Germany could never again become a ‘normal’ nation and that instead it had to ‘work through’ its Nazi past and confront continuities. By tendency, memorizing the Nazi past hence was a genuinely leftist endeavour. As such, public remembrance was no purpose in itself, but always had sociocriticial and anti-nationalist implications.
After Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl had become chancellor in 1982, this ongoing conflict within (West)German society reached its climax. Claiming a “spiritual-moral crisis” and aiming for a “spiritual renewal”, Kohl strived to consolidate a positive German national identity by means of representative national memory politics – something that had hardly existed in the FRG before. On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the end of WW II, in 1985 he staged a reconciliatory meeting with US-president Ronald Reagan on a military cemetary that included graves of former SS soldiers (‘Bitburg-affair’). Moreover, he initiated two national history museums for German “self-definition and self-awareness” as well as a national memorial vaguely dedicated to all “victims of war and tyranny”. At the same time, conservative historians launched a public debate about the significance that should be attributed to the Nazi past in German national self-understanding (‘historians’ quarrel’). In this context, the rightist-conservative historian Ernst Nolte claimed that the Nazi regime and its crimes were to be seen as a mere reaction to the ‘communist threat’.
This joint conservative endeavour to ‘normalize’ German national identity and downplay the Nazi regime heavily clashed not only with the leftist-liberal establishment, but also with the so called ‘new history movement’. Since the late seventies, numerous ‘history workshops’ had attempted to create an explicitly leftist, feminist, working class, environmentalist and anti-fascist memory by researching ‘history from below’. It was in this context that young people solidarized with survivors, mainly former political prisoners, and started unearthing and marking the Nazi past in public space, showing that Nazi crimes had not only happened in Auschwitz or Dachau, but also in front of one’s own doorstep. Out of motives quite similar to those of Zochrot, they conducted anti-fascist tours, set up exhibitions and memorial plaques, pressured on local authorities to make visible the remnants of the Nazi past, and fought for an acknowledgement and compensation of ‘forgotten victims’. Activists literally started digging, for example on the sites of the former Gestapo/SS headquarter in (West)Berlin and the former Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg.
While the majority of the local population fiercely opposed such activities, the leftist liberal establishment usually sided with this struggle, not least because of their opposition to Kohl’s conservative memory politics. At the hight of this confrontation, the then federal president Richard von Weizsäcker reconciled both positions in a ground breaking speech he delivered on May 8, 1985. Quoting the Chassidic (!) saying “Seeking to forget makes the exile all the longer. The secret of redemption lies in remembrance”, he pleaded to remember the Nazi past “honestly and undistortedly”. At the same time he emphasized hat the FRG had succesfully overcome this past: “We have put democratic freedom in the place of oppression. […] The Federal Republic of Germany has become an internationally respected state.”
With his famous speech, which was well received also abroad, von Weizsäcker paved way for a novel discourse that eventually became hegemonic under the banner of German nation-building after 1990: National ‘redemption’ through demonstrative remembrance combined with a permanent invocation of Germany’s ‘historical responsibility’. Hence, a once highly politicized and socio-critical grassroots project of memorizing the Nazi past was fuctionalized to demonstrate that Germany was a nation that ‘has learnt from its past’. As usual in such processes of hegemonization, the project itself was at the same time ridded of its subversive stinge: a genuinely anti-national memory project has become part of affirmative national memory. Accordingly, today’s state sponsored, highly institutionalized and pedagogized German memoryscape does not only inform about the Nazi past and commemorate the victims, but also serves to assert a positive image of the German present.
To be sure, this is how the representative national narrative goes. At the memorial sites themselves, there is in fact highly relevant and often critical research and educational work being done. And for many survivors, official German acknowledgment of their suffering and the institutionalization of memory was of utmost importance. Hence, I would call this institutionalization of memory an ambiguous process that also has its positive sides. But if we look at the overarching ideological process, we cannot but detect a ‘normalization’ of German national identity on the basis of remembering the Nazi past, combined with a genuinely post-political notion of triumphant liberal democracy, further confirmed by another vast state sponsored memoryscape dedicated to the wrongs of the bygone GDR.
Thus, German remembrance of the Nazi past has indeed been successfully integrated in a German national master narrative in the course of the last 20 years. This is why I think there is no structural analogy here to Zochrot – Zochrot is still a counterhegemonic and highly political project, while German memory to the Nazi past has become hegemonic and on the way seems to have lost most of its subversive political potential.
Talking Israel/Palestine in a postnazist society – Some impressions from the German public debate
After having depicted official German discourse, I would eventually like to give you some fragmentary (!) and admittedly subjective impressions concerning the public debate on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Germany. Basically, German public discourse on Israel/Palestine is much more heterogeneous than Germany’s official politics. There are pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian oppinions as well as many positions in between, so it is hard to tell what is the prevailing public opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ‘as such’.
What makes German debate on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so complex and routinely causes media scandals is that there often is a subtext that relates to the German past. Usually, the problem is not what someone says, but how it is being said. Many times, a discussion on Israeli politics or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in fact a discussion about German sensitivities, and many Germans still feel a strong need to ‘liberate’ themselves from their uneasiness with the Nazi past by pointing at Israeli wrongs and ‘evilness’, quite often by equalling them to Nazi politics or the Holocaust.
And why people like me criticize this attitude is not because we think that it is generally ‘forbidden’ to criticize Israel or that the Nazi regime and the Holocaust are beyond comparison, but because we can sense the actual motivation behind this type of criticizing Israel: to exonerate the German subject from allegedly ‘being forced to constantly deal with the Nazi past’, the latter being a mere projection. Oftentimes, such criticism is combined with a taboo-breaking attitude, implying that ‘one is not allowed to say what one thinks’, a formula that in postnazist Germany has traditionally served to then make revisionist, racist or anti-Semitic statements that are actually rightfully tabooized.
Listening to Germans, you sometimes get the impression that they have been suffering from the Nazi past ever since 1945, if not already since 1933. Whenever the ‘forces’ behind this German misery are specified, it will be either ‘the Jews’ or a leftist Meinungspolizei (‘opinion police’) trying to subjugate everybody under their political correctness regime.
This kind of projection is in fact an odd distortion of German reality, and part (!) of the mainstream as well as part (!) of the German left have reacted to this highly projective German disposition with a fervent anti-anti-Semitism campaign that at times resembles hegemonic Israeli discourse, but in fact is a homemade German phenomenon. Meanwhile this discourse has defenitely developed its own problematic dynamics, and has partly turned into an equally projective pro-Israeli and anti-Muslim discourse.
Thus, there has indeed an ever more twisted discoursive landscape developed around all these issues, and even though I think that I do have the ability to analyze this landscape, I often feel rather dilemmatic about where to locate myself or how to explain my own attitude without being misunderstood. What I say in Germany about Israel/Palestine in fact very much depends on whom I am talking with and what I think is this person’s ‘actual’ agenda, and I am pretty sure that I am not the only one employing this strategy.
German militant anti-Zionism and its discontentsIsrael/Palestine and the German left
As far as the German left is concerned, it has its own problematic history with Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While it was predominantly pro-Israeli and not really aware of the Palestinian issue till 1967, in the wake of the ’68 movement an anti-imperialist/anti-Zionist position became hegemonic in the radical left.
If you read German leftist magazines or pamphlets from the 70s, you will often find an extremely reductionist anti-American and anti-Zionist discourse with an anti-Semitic and conspiracist subtext, which in its hatefullness and aggressiveness for a well trained reader clearly resonates with Nazi discourse. There were various radical leftists attacks against German Jewish institutions out of an ‘antifascist’ anti-Zionist motivation. The militant German left closely cooperated with Palestinian militants, and also beyond the militant fraction, there was a ‘natural’ solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and quite a routine of comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, often claiming that Israel was ‘worse’.
It was only in the early 1990s that the question of anti-Zionism disguised as anti-Zionism was raised within the German radical left, and I think that today there is a broad consensus among German leftists – including those who are critical of Israeli politics – that there is such a phenomenon. As an apitome for leftist anti-Semitism in German radical leftist memory functions the infamous German-Palestinian aircraft hijacking to Entebbe (Uganda) in 1976 and the fact that it was one of the German hijackers who selected Israeli and Jewish passengers to take them hostage, while non-Jews were being released.
An extreme counterreaction to the issue of leftist anti-Semitism and increasing German mainstream nationalism in the aftermath of unification was the emergence of the ‘anti-German’ fraction of the German left: 150 percent ‘anti-fascist’ pro-Israeli and pro-American, conceiving ‘Israel’ and ‘America’ as metaphysical antipodes of essentially anti-Semitic ‘Germany’, and detecting anti-Semitism in any criticism of Israeli politics or solidarity with the Palestinian cause. The subsequent inner-leftist struggles about anti-Semitism and the Israeli/Palestinian issue deeply polarized and in fact split the German left until this day, in a typical leftist as well as in a very specific German way. This is, however, only the big picture, if you look more closely, you will find different people with very heterogeneous positions, many of them in fact interested in learning what is ‘actually’ going on in Israel/Palestine from local activists instead of revolving around their own projections.
Generally, Germany is and remains a postnazist society. In my oppinion, not only German mainstream society but also the German left has basically failed to develop a language in which one can talk about Israel and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in a way that does not quickly slip into all kinds of projective entanglement with the German Nazi past – and to be fair, I also include my own discourse in this analysis. I have been socialized in this society, too. Auschwitz was liberated only 30 years before I was born, and dealing with this past has definetly influenced on my way of thinking and acting and will continue to do so.
“… I can understand well that one doesn’t like Jews” – European/German projections on Israel/Palestine
A projective discourse about Israel/Palestine that is very much entangled with the past, however, is apparently not a specifically German phenomenon. In a comparative qualitative study on how the memory of the Nazi past published in 2007, German occupation and collaboration has been passed on between the generations in several European countries, there was a transnationally consistent finding of tendentially exculpating (!) the Germans, combined with implicitly or explicitly blaming (!) the Jews for being co-responsible for their historical persecution. Moreover, the participants in the study were frequently accusing Israel of ‘doing the same to the Palestinians what the Nazis have done to the Jews’, together with allegations that ‘the Jews’ have not ‘learnt from the past’.
Another representative study about ‘group focused enmity’ in eight European countries published in 2011 found that there was a 25 to 46 percent agreement to the item “As a consequence of Israeli policy, I can understand well that one doesn’t like Jews”; and 38 to 63 percent affirmed that “Israel conducts a war of extermination against the Palestinians”. While ‘only’ one third of the German participants shows understanding for confusing Israel and ‘the Jews’, nearly half of them agreed to the second item. Vernichtungskrieg (war of extermination), however, is a term that – at least in Germany – is definitely associated with Nazi-German warfare in the Soviet Union, which has, however, nothing to do whatsoever with any hitherto phase of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I know that some of my Israeli/Palestinians friends do not think that this European/German disposition is a ‘real’ problem, even less when compared to the indeed existential situation in Israel/Palestine. Some will probably even agree with one or another statement I quoted and not recognize any anti-Semitism there. Let’s leave aside the question if there is anti-Semitism implied, and why I think there is. But even if there was no anti-Semitism implied, I still think it is a problem if the Israeli-Palestinian issue serves as a projective space to cultivate one’s ignorance and resentments.
Moreover, the second study can convincingly show that there is a strong correlation between agreeing to the quoted type of anti-Israeli statements and xenophobic, racist, anti-Muslim, sexist and homophobic attitudes; which has also fequently been shown in an analogous long-term study conducted in Germany between 2002 and 2012. Thus, there is a considerable reactionary potential in certain ways of European/German accusative and derogatory talking on Israel, and I think this is something that from a leftist perspective – be it Israeli, Palestinian or German – definitely has to be confronted.
In fact, there is something out of proportion here. I think one of the problems in the European debate is that Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are being externalized by quite radically dehistoricizing them. I think that those anachronistic mega-evils that are being confered to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – Nazi methods, Apartheid, colonialism – actually serve to disguise the simple fact that political Zionism was actually a mere consequence of all too familiar and still ongoing modern Euroepean nationalism, and that if we look for the ‘original sin’ at the root of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we must look there.
Nationalism, anti-Semitism, Nazism – Remembering the European roots of Zionism
From all I know about your regional narrative and memory practice, Zochrot, too, omits the European historical background of Zionism. For you, political Zionism in Palestine is the ‘original sin’ from where it all began. Asking Zochrot members about this omission, the answer is that as opposed to the official Israeli narrative, which constantly refers to the European past, you want to focus on what happened in Palestine/Israel, because this is where you live and what you feel responsible for. And yes, I am aware that Zochrot operates in the middle of an ongoing conflict, and maybe the Israeli discourse at this time needs a radical counternarrative rather than an exploration of historical complexity.
But in Europe/Germany, for reasons that I have tried to elaborate above, we cannot quit talking about these complexities. While for you it is central to show the ongoing destruction of Palestinian lives and life worlds in the name of a ‘Jewish state’, for me it remains crucial to not forget that political Zionism was a reaction to 19th century European nationalism, an ideology that defined ‘the Jew’ as its constitutive outside; and that in Germany, ethno-nationalist ideology culminated in the Nazi regime, which then provided Zionism with a persuasive power that it hadn’t possessed before. And while you highlight that political Zionism equals colonialism, I would argue that even though it led to a colonization of palestine, characterized by European ethno-nationalism and superiority-phantasies, it was not motivated by classic colonialist aspirations, but by European anti-Semitism. This, of course, made no difference for the contemporary population in Palestine, but in a European/German memory discourse it should matter.
Bringing in this European background does not does by no means imply to morally ‘justify’ any de facto Israeli policies, and here I think we urgently need to step out the zero-sum-logic that is inherent in the dicourse of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which should anyway not be the logics of an emancipatory memory work. Rather, this is to remind an audience in Europe/Germany that this is also our history, and that the ethno-nationalist, colonialist, racist and anti-Semitic ideologies are still alive, not only in Israel/Palestine, but also in ever so enlightened and liberal contemporaray Europe/Germany.
This could be a subversive agenda also with regards to official German discourse, which nowadays uses the Nazi past and the Holocaust to normalize German national identity and to pretend that there are no continuities whatsoever. Not least, talking about modern European mindets and their historical materialization in terms of nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, Zionism, and the German Nazi regime as well as in present policies in Europe and Israel can help us to explore the manifold correlations between those phenomena without falling into the trap of all too simplistic analogies.
So if we can agree on a common ground, namely that we are concerned about the societies we live in, that we are trying to uncover the murderous potential of exclusive collective identity construction, and that we are fighting all kinds of hypocrisy and denial, then I think this could be the starting point for a discussion that makes sense both in the Israeli/Palestinian and in the European/German discoursive context. And departing from there, let’s not forget what Walter Benjamin once suggested while reflecting on ‘Excavation and Memory’: “It is undoubtedly useful to plan excavations methodically. Yet no less indispensable is the cautious probing of the spade in the dark loam.”
Questions and answers:
1. I’m a daughter of a refugee from Berlin. I was lecturing in Germany and was taken to a village where a synagogue was preserved and when my host said “I don’t know how this happened” and I answered” it didn’t happen. People did it. And he could not deal with it. Perhaps Germans do not wish to go into the dirty past.
Cornelia: some people are interested in dealing with the past and some people feel blamed even though no one actually blamed them. Many German even though they know the facts are disconnected with their own family history and their complicity. People do not talk about Sudan or other places in the way they speak of Israel, they can be more critical of Sudan, for instance. There’s a lot of double standard.
2. Ronnie: The refusal to deal with the memory of the Nakba says a lot about the fact they have much to overcome. Denying ethnic cleansing should not be accepted. One way to not handle it is by claiming the situation is complex and arguing for Israel’s right to exist even though it’s a state that is based on an ideology of supremacy.
Cornelia: I would always check if the person is willing to deal with the history of ethno-nationalism. Germany is still an ethno-nationalist state which is why they don’t deal with this kind of criticism.
3. There was a discussion about the past back in the 1970s and recognition of complicity (“what did you do during the war?”). In addition, there is almost no learning about Israel and its history, but much about the holocaust and that may be the cause to some of the problems.
Cornelia: These discussions were not universal in German; perhaps they are more on the political left.
4. What is the discourse about the Herero genocide, Africa, legacy of German colonialism and how it relates to the politics of memory around the Jewish holocaust and whether is still contested.
Cornelia: I learned in school that in the 19th century “we” did not have colonies and that we wanted a “place under the sun” and , much later I heard that was not so. There are initiatives working on it. There was some kind of an apology but formulated in a way that no claims could be made. There is no single memorial concerning that chapter in history. Colonial crimes were silenced for a long time.
5. Question for Eitan: I don’t understand why the ways Germans deal with the holocaust is so meaningful for you because we deal with something that is no longer there since there are no more Jews in Germany, but you still have the presence of Palestinians here and questions of international law. So why the German case is so meaningful to you, especially when there are issues in Africa that you can relate too much more closely.
6. In school they actually talked about crimes against Germans by Polish etc.
7. About the image of the young people digging up memory and you said they succeeded so do you think Zochrot can learn something from that success?
Cornelia: Not sure they succeeded. It was a counter memory practice. Because after reunification this memory was coopted and used to show they are different, not the old Germany, and not a threat if they become a new superpower.
Eitan: when we started Zochrot I was impressed by a project I saw in Germany, as I attended a memorial project which was organized by a local school, which did the research and found out the identity of the family that was deported from the town and was about to be commemorated. I heard the ceremony took place even if not everyone was happy about it. Our situation here is that when we post signs to attest the Palestinian presence it gets removed. We both deal with memories of the events that brought to the creation to the current political formations or states. Then a year later I came back and went to check if the memorial was still there and it was, and I asked some people around what the memorial mean, and some knew though not everyone was comfortable to explain it to us. I’m afraid Germany is in a problematic situation when it comes to Israel but at least you are commemorating your past and here we are at the very beginning of the process. Yet there are still lessons to be learned from Germany despite the differences.
Cornelia: The problem is that many Germans would think that you might compare the two regimes, the Nazi and the Zionist and that’s why they won’t fund you.
Eitan: I was in Berlin in a workshop held by EVZ with other projects they support and one day the memory project at the Bavarian Quarter was presented: it was done by 2 artists where they posted signs in Berlin, on one side an image and on the other side a quote from early Nazi legislation against Jews. Then the Nakba law passed here in the Kenesset, which means in essence that is frowned upon to mourn at The Israeli Independence Day. And you may be defunded if you happen to be funded by the state. I wanted to do something about it and create a provocation. I stood there in the workshop and I wrote “it is not allowed to mourn the Nakba, Israel 2011” and an Israeli colleague present there was very upset. The German moderator immediately suggested a break because he was panicking. So I want to show you the direct action we did during the Israeli Indepence day 2011.
I ended up meeting with one of the German artists and seems he didn’t like very much what we did. The law here is a warning sign for us here. The banishment and censorships of memory might bring about the banishment of Arabs from this country which is a fantasy of many Israelis.
Question: Maybe people tend to correlate between humanism towards Jews and supporting Israel but these ideas need not correlate because someone can support the existence of Israel from racist reasons just like there are leftists here who support a two state solution because they wish to preserve a supremacist state and separate Jews and Palestinians. Why do you think it’s important to speak to the Israeli public even though the public is even more racist than ever?
Eitan: your criticism is important. I think we try to say the law is anti-democratic but it doesn’t mean we are a democracy in decline because of the legislation. We insist on speaking to Israelis, but we cannot speak straightforward using terms like apartheid and colonialism because then there is no discussion. The action in the video did not enable such a discussion; It was a provocation. We wanted to dare go out and do it in the midst of celebration and show this victimized and racist discourse we heard.I’m not sure approaching Israelis would bring down the regime. It might be more productive to turn outside but It’s an important moral stance. I feel patriotic. I don’t support the state but I’m part of this society which I care deeply for, more than any other society, including the Palestinians. It’s important for me to stand against this regime. I’m not sure fascism cannot be broken down.
Cornelia: there are indeed Jews living in Germany today in spite of what was said here, and they play a role in public memory. Israel even tried to put pressure on the German government to reduce quota of Jews migrating to Germany.
Lia: Wishes to know what the Germans in the audience thought of the video.One audience member: the hostility reminded me of my grandparents’ generation.
Another audience member (German): we follow the Nakba law and its outcome. However I think it shows there’s a need to continue talking about what happened before 48. Maybe there’s a need for a different approach, maybe not a provocation. It’s more important to do the tours and the other work, but then you might not get to the people you wish to dialogue with.
Another audience member: I was shocked by the reactions you got but I was also alarmed because when I saw your German slogan it connected the Nakba law to the holocaust, and there are laws like this one elsewhere in Europe. The nakba law is anti democratic but connecting it to the holocaust blurs the line and it is dangerous.
Eitan: the whole claim about “uncomparability” should be challenged. There are certain aspects that can be compared, not others, but because of the affective reactions to this kind of discourse these issues cannot be discussed.
Lia: when I started working on my film I also thought bringing up the holocaust would be counterproductive but every person I spoke with mentioned the holocaust. That comparison will be made no matter what.
Cornelia: I feel uneasy with some of the things said but it’s difficult for me to explain there are differences. I don’t think that the Nazi regime was really similar to the society in Israel. Also, Zionism has a different history and Jews were also victims in Europe, it’s not a zero sum game. This isn’t a European colony but a product of people who felt they have no future in Europe; they did not set out to exterminate Palestinians. There is no systematic extermination policy. The holocaust is a particular instance of genocide and cannot be reduced to racist policies in general. It’s systematic extermination. We live in a society where speaking about Israel causes tensions, and there are forms of anti-Semitism present in German society which the discussion brings up sometimes.
- You have to find your own way to deal with the Nakba and it’s not always good to compare to apartheid or the Nazi regime. It does not open up a dialogue. - - Society and how it overcomes its ills and there is an educational process which Zochrot is part of. And there’s the issue of German complicity in Israel’s crimes, for instance its financial support, supply of arms, nuclear submarine, diplomatic int’l support for Israel’s policies. German society needs to resist that. Germany isn’t neutral about Israel’s crimes but support s them.- -
Cornelia: if you wish to speak to the German left, you have to find a language they would understand. It’s important to understand what it means to maintain to support Israel and how it’s connected to the struggle against anti-Semitism. Antizionism does not of course have to be a form of anti-Semitism but it sometimes is.
* This is a revised version of the paper I gave in Zochrot’s office on March 22, 1012. I thank Eitan Bronstein for inviting me, and everybody who came for the controversial discussion we had. I have tried to integrate some aspects and questions that were raised into the following text.
Cornelia Siebeck is a historian and publicist based in Berlin. She has researched and published on memory theory, memory in public space as well as on memory politics in postnazist societies. 2004/5 she spent one year in Israel/Palestine to do research on dissident memory work. Together with C. Misselwitz she co-edited the volume: Dissonant Memories, Fragmented Present. Exchanging Young Discourses between Israel and Germany (2009).
Summarizing at the evening at Zochrot: Noa Shindlinger
If anyone wants the full text with footnotes, please address to Zochrot