The wave of modern anti-Semitism across Europe in July and August revealed a dangerous amalgamation of left-wing, Islamic-animated, and right-wing extremist Jew-hatred.
Mainstream Europeans remained largely indifferent to contemporary anti-Semitism, namely, the hatred of the Jewish State surrounding Israel’s Operation Protective Edge. The firebombing of a synagogue in Wuppertal, Germany, along with protestors at mass rallies calling to “Gas the Jews” prompted scant outrage in German society.
“There is a startling indifference in the German public to the current display of anti-Semitism,” said Samuel Salzborn, a leading expert on anti-Semitism at the University of Göttingen in Lower Saxony, in early August. The pressing question is, how can one explain Europe’s robust tolerance of Jew-hatred?
This essay will begin by describing the social-psychological mechanism, in response to the Holocaust, driving non-Islamic anti-Semitism among Europeans.
The core of a powerful explanatory model was developed by two German Jewish philosophers, Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) and Max Horkheimer (1895-1973). According to Adorno and Horkheimer’s post-Holocaust concept of “guilt-defensiveness anti-Semitism,” Germans react pathologically to Jews because of the reminder of the crimes of the Shoah. In the early 1960s Adorno adopted a new phrase for Germany’s response to the Holocaust: Secondary anti-Semitism.
The Israeli psychoanalyst Zvi Rex neatly formulated Adorno and Horkheimer’s sociological theory in a biting, sarcastic sentence: The Germans will never forgive the Jews for Auschwitz.
To understand the modernized version of guilt-defensiveness anti-Semitism, the role of Israel as the whipping boy for Europe’s bad conscience must be recognized. While it was politically and socially incorrect in post-Holocaust Europe to attack Jews, Israel rapidly became the collective embodiment of the “Nazified Jew” of the Hitler movement.
The late French historian Léon Poliakov neatly captured this form of modern anti-Semitism: Israel is the “Jew among the nations.”
There were some rare moments of political clarity about the inner workings of anti-Semitism surrounding Israel’s Operation Protective Edge during the summer. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls argued that classical anti-Semitism has repackaged itself, and “feeds off hate for Israel. It feeds off anti-Zionism because anti-Zionism is an invitation to anti-Semitism.” Valls’s voice was a rare one among Europe’s political leaders. In a post-Operation Protective Edge world, it is no longer possible to decouple anti-Semitism from hatred of Israel.
“The line separating anti-Zionism — the belief that Jews have no right to an independent state in any part of their ancestral homeland — and anti-Judaism, already reed-thin, has pretty much vanished,” the American Middle East expert Jeffrey Goldberg noted.
The interplay between Europe’s complicity in the Holocaust and its tolerance for hatred of the Jewish State remains a sparsely researched topic.
One of the few to do so has been Daniel J. Goldhagen. In his seminal 2013 book The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Anti-Semitism, Goldhagen writes: “The critical importance of Europeans’ displacement of guilt onto Israel and its Jews by Nazifying them is still greater. It creates a direct bond with Arab and Islamic anti-Semites of a shared demonizing of Israel and Jews, and allows the two regional discourses to overlap, meaning in particular that it makes Europeans immediately more receptive to the virulently anti-Semitic Arab and Islamic discourse about Jews and particularly about Israel.”
The ubiquitous comparison of Israel to Nazi Germany at European anti-Israel rallies during Operation Protective Edge had a basis in elite opinion. Take the example of Jakob Augstein, a principal owner of the German news weekly Der Spiegel, who invoked the word “camp” in a 2012 Spiegel Online column, which conjured up the image of extermination camp in German, to describe the Palestinians’ conditions in the Gaza Strip.
Augstein’s emotional hostility toward Jews, Israel and America was typified by such assertions: “With backing from the U.S., where the president must secure the support of Jewish lobby groups, and in Germany, where coping with history, in the meantime, has a military component, the Netanyahu government keeps the world on a leash with an ever-swelling war chant,” he wrote. The Simon Wiesenthal Center included Augstein in its list of the top ten anti-Semitic slurs of 2012.
Augstein is, of course, not an anomaly. He, along with many other writers and opinion makers in the European intelligentsia, has contributed to a solid foundation for the anti-Jewish vitriol that unfolded during Israel’s 50-day war of self-defense to stop Hamas from firing rockets at civilian communities.
As the distinguished Boston University historian Dr. Richard Landes has argued, the seeds of projecting Holocaust guilt onto Israel to cleanse one’s conscience were planted during the 2000 Muhammad al-Dura affair. European critics rushed to judgment, accusing Israeli soldiers of murdering the Palestinian boy during the Second Intifada.
An image purporting to show al-Dura’s father using his body to shield him from gunfire electrified the international community. Convincing evidence later showed that al-Dura’s death was manufactured by Palestinians to garner world sympathy. However, the French journalist Catherine Nay seized on the alleged death, declaring, “The death of Muhammad cancels out, erases that of the Jewish child, his hands in the air from the SS in the Warsaw Ghetto.”
Perhaps the literary work that best expresses, in stark terms, the phenomenon of guilt-defensiveness anti-Semitism in Germany is the play Garbage, the City, and Death, written in 1975 by the film director and writer Rainer Werner Fassbinder: “And it’s the Jew’s fault, because he makes us feel guilty because he exists. If he’d stayed where he came from, or if they’d gassed him, I would sleep better.”
The metamorphosis from “It’s the Jew’s fault” to “It’s Israel’s fault” is reinforced ad nauseam in European discourse on the Middle East.
With anti-Israelism raging in Germany during Operation Protective Edge, a non-Jewish supporter of Israel became a victim of the anti-Semitic guilt complex. Gitta Connemann, a vice president of the German-Israel friendship society and a Christian Democratic Union deputy in the Bundestag, was attacked in emails as a “Jewish whore.” A trade union in her district of Emsland withdrew its invitation for her to speak at a memorial event at a former concentration camp.
The heavy-handed attacks on Connemann were triggered by her support for Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas rockets. “Hamas terrorists use schools and senior centers to store rockets, misuse women and children as human shields. Israel takes great measures to protect these civilians,” she said.
Anti-Semites “Jewified” Connemann because of her support for Israel. Trade union leaders viewed her as too pro-Jewish state to deliver a speech at the former concentration camp. According to the labor union, it “expected a neutral position” from Connemann. With bitter irony, Eike Geisel (1945-1997), a critic of Germany’s post-Holocaust remembrance culture, neatly summed up the dynamic of the trade union event: “The Jews, if they’re not dead, should please suffer, admonish and warn, but not fight back.”
Expunging Connemann’s presence—a reminder of Jewish self-defense—from the concentration camp event because of her pro-Israel position suggests a new form of anti-Semitism, namely, so-called ethical behavior animated by anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semitism fueled by “morality” has gained considerable traction over the decades in Germany. Germany has gone to great lengths to ingrain the maxim of “Never Again” as a bulwark against repeating the crimes of the Holocaust. Scores of commemoration events take place each year to memorialize the Shoah. In September, Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke at a “Never Again—Jew Hatred” rally in front of the Brandenburg Gate in the heart of Berlin’s government district.
Germany’s didactic effort to not repeat its jingoism and eliminatory anti-Semitism has morphed into a kind of hubris and holier-than-thou attitude toward Israel. The writer Wolfgang Pohrt described the phenomenon as Germans acting as Israel’s probation officers to prevent “their victims from relapsing.” Putting aside Pohrt’s satiric form, he articulated the German societal expectation, albeit irrational, that the Jews (i.e., the victims) should have learned lessons from the Holocaust like the Germans (i.e., the perpetrators).
Henryk M. Broder, a German Jewish author and columnist, is arguably the leading expert on contemporary anti-Semitism in the country. He testified at a Bundestag hearing in 2008, and provided a window into the soul of 21st-century German anti-Semitism:
The modern anti-Semite looks entirely different. He does not have a shaved head. He has good manners and often an academic title as well. He mourns for the Jews who died in the Holocaust. But at the same time, he wonders why the survivors and their descendants have learned nothing from history and today treat another people as badly as they were once treated themselves. The modern anti-Semite does not believe in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But instead he fantasizes about an “Israel lobby” that is supposed to control American foreign policy like a tail that wags the dog.
Broder’s characterization of the modern anti-Semite is also relevant for other European countries where there is a relentlessly intense preoccupation with demonizing the Jewish State among many academics and politicians. During Operation Protective Edge, the popular Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo declared, “I’d like to shoot those bastard Zionists.”
There is a long tradition of German politicians and intellectuals shifting the blame to Israel for Middle East violence. In 1991, a leading German Green Party deputy, Hans-Christian Ströbele, justified Saddam Hussein’s rocket attacks on Israel as a “logical, almost compelling consequence of Israel’s politics.” The same Green Party vigorously pursued a 2013 legislative initiative to demarcate Israeli products from the disputed territories. Former Green Party deputy Kerstin Müller, who now heads the party’s Heinrich Böll Foundation branch in Tel Aviv, helped push the initiative in the Bundestag to label Israeli products.
There were no other initiatives in the Bundestag to label products from countries where there are territorial disputes, including Turkey’s occupation of northern Cyprus. The European Union is considering a formal policy to label Israeli products from the disputed territories.
Animating Europe’s obsession with Israel is a defective emotional mechanism that seemingly defies logic but can be traced to effects of the destruction of European Jewry during the Holocaust.
European polling suggests that Adorno and Horkheimer’s theory carries weight. Studies over the last decade of German views toward the Jewish State reveal that nearly half (at times more than 50%) consider Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to be the equivalent of the Nazi extermination of European Jewry. In 2012, 38% of Norwegians mirrored the German attitude toward Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
Adorno asserted, in commenting on the Holocaust in 1959: “We will not have come to terms with the past until the causes of what happened then are no longer active. Only because these causes live on does the spell of the past remain, to this very day, unbroken.”
Adorno was grappling with Germany’s inability to confront the crimes of the Final Solution. He remained deeply pessimistic about the third-person plural “we” eradicating the “causes” of the Holocaust. To his despair, in the late 1960s he observed many German leftist students, who he had hoped would experience a change in their character structures, in how they related to others and to the environment, developing a raging contempt for the Jewish State. The cause continues, but the target (now Israel) has changed for Germany in particular and Europe in general.
The article was first published in The Jewish Policy Center.