Divisive politics

Public affairs sometimes take bizarre twists, as an ongoing controversy shows in Germany. The Foundation Dr. Roland Röhl is being accused of anti-Semitisme for awarding the Göttingen Peace Prize to a Jewish organisation yesterday. Local officials have backed away from the event. The international context deserves consideration.
Divisive leaders: Trump and Netanyahu on an election poster. The writing means: “Netanyahu, in another league”. picture-alliance/Newscom Divisive leaders: Trump and Netanyahu on an election poster. The writing means: “Netanyahu, in another league”.

The organisation concerned is the European Jews for A Just Peace (EJJP) Germany. Like the pan-European network it belongs to, this small Berlin-based organisation has a track record of criticising Israel's government. Particular grievances are disrespect for Palestinians' rights and promotion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Unfortunately, such criticism is often conflated with anti-Semitism.

In autumn, the jury of the Göttingen Peace Prize decided to award EJJP Germany this year's prize. Controversy erupted recently, however, because a member of Göttingen's city council argued that EJJP Germany was an unacceptable choice. She stated that the organisation supports the international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and that EJJP Germany is therefore not a truly Jewish organisation. 

The BDS controversy

BDS is controversial internationally. It is non-violent and declares that it does not oppose Jews and their faith, but that it wants to isolate Israel in economic and other terms until that country fully acknowledges Palestinians' rights. Many Jews, not all of whom support the Israeli government, argue that BDS is anti-Semitic. The main reason, as Thomas L. Friedman recently explained in the New York Times, is that it explicitly endorses the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their ancestors' homes, which would make Israel unviable. Some Jews, including EJJP Germany, disagree and insist that it is legitimate to speak out against – and even actively oppose – government action, especially when such action is undermining peace. They point out, moreover, that it is illegal according to international law to build permanent settlements on occupied land. 

In Germany, the Göttingen council member's attack on the jury decision attracted attention. The Central Council of Jews in Germany essentially adopted her stance. In response, the mayor of Göttingen, the president of the local university and the leadership of the local savings bank backed away from the peace prize. Unwilling to withdraw the prize, the Röhl Foundation had to find a new location for the ceremony and called for private donations to help fund things.  

Germans tend to take accusations of anti-Semitism very seriously. The reason, of course, is that our nation is guilty of genocide. Consecutive Federal Governments have endorsed Israel's right to exist. At the same time, they have endorsed the peace process and spoken out in favour of the two-states solution. The debate on whether BDS is legitimate or not is particularly difficult in a country where a right-wing dictatorship enforced a mass boycott of Jewish shops and later went on to kill millions of European Jews. The Nazis ran extermination camps for what they cynically called the “final solution”. 

The irony of what is happening now, however, is that non-Jewish Germans who are in positions of leadership are accusing a Jewish organisation of anti-Semitism. Moreover, they ahve boycotted an event that was meant to honour that very organisation. EJJP Germany, for good reason, finds this deeply offensive. Obviously, its members do not feel represented by the Central Council of Jews. Part of the problem is that the Jewish community in Germany is very heterogenous. Some are descendants of German Holocaust survivors, while many others have only migrated to Germany from what used to be the Soviet Union in recent decades. A small number, moreover, are Israelis who chose to leave Israel. Iris Hefets, the leading board member of EJJP Germany, moved to Berlin from Isreael.

Why Netanyahu matters

This awkward German scenario has a troubling international context. In the past, Israeli governments used to speak out against anti-Semitism wherever and whenever anti-Semitism became apparent, but Benjamin Netanyahu, the current prime minister, is not doing so. Moreover, he has been reducing the space for civil-society organisations, whether they are Jewish or Palestinian in Israel. While he is most eager to lambast anyone as anti-Semitic if they dare to criticise Jewish settlements on the West Bank or his policies in general, he has a tendency of failing to protect Jews who do not share his views from anti-Semitic aggression.

The most prominent case, of course, is Netanyahu's endorsement of Victor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, who has for years been orchestrating hostility towards George Soros, the Holocaust surviver, self-made billionaire and philanthropist. Previous Israeli prime ministers would have been appalled by Orban, but Netanyahu is not. The reason is that Soros' understanding of human rights is indivisible. In his eyes, Palestinians enjoy those rights too. 

It is similarly irritating that Netanyahu does not confront US President Donald Trump's latent anti-Semitism. Many American Jews would like Israel's top leader to do so. They remember perfectly well that Trump spoke of “good people on both sides” after neo-Nazis clashed with anti-fascists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the summer of 2017. The night before, the neo-Nazis had chanted “Jews will not replace us”. One of them killed a young woman by driving a car into a group of protesters. 

Like Trump, Netanyahu is a divisive and controversial leader. His own attorney general recently decided that he should be indicted in corruption cases. Moreover, Netanyahu just forged an alliance with right-wing extremists in the ongoing election campaign. For years, his government has been supporting Jewish settlers on the West Bank and thus undermining the peace process.

Netanyahu claims to speak for all Jews on earth. Not all of them see him in a position to do so. American Jews increasingly feel he does not represent them. Many of them have begun to disown the Aipac (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee), an important Jewish lobby organisation that supports Netanyahu. In the above mentioned New York Times column, Friedman also wrote

“I believe Aipac for many years has not only become a rubber stamp on the right-wing policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which has resulted in tens of thousands of Israeli settlers now ensconced in the heart of the West Bank, imperilling Israel as a democracy. Aipac has also been responsible for making support for Israel a Republican cause, not a bipartisan issue, which poses a real danger to Israel’s support in America in the long run, and particularly on college campuses.”

The debate in the USA is similar to the one in Germany. In all countries, it is important to distinguish criticism of Israel from anti-Semitism. Yes, it is sometimes difficult to tell one from the other because anti-Semites are prone to criticising Israel. But anyone who accuses a Jewish organisation of anti-Semitism because it finds fault with the Israeli government has certainly gone one step too far. Netanyahu politically benefits from conflating criticism of his government with anti-Semitism, but not even the prime minister has the right to define who is a good Jew and who is not. Nor does anyone else.

P.S.: I personally am not in favour of BDS. Descending from Geman grand parents who went along with the Nazi dictatorship without opposing its crimes, I think Germans must not be involved in boycotting Jews and must be very sensitive about casting doubt on Israel's right to exist. I also believe, however, that Israel's current right-wing government is breeding hostility in the Middle East and thus endangering its country's long-term viability. It seems to entrust the nation's fate to alliances with autocratic leaders like Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi of Egypt. History tells us that despots do not last forever. Israel needs friends. Teaming up with oppressive dictators does not serve that purpose. It is a high-risk strategy, moreover, to undermine the two-states solution. Who can expect Palestinians to accept Israeli rights if Israel systematically disrepsctes theirs? As I understand things, this is what EJJP Germany is emphasising. Even if they only speak for a minority of their religious community in Germany, they are certainly entitled to say so without doubt being cast on their loyalty to their religious faith.

Link (German language):

EJJP Germany

Correction: I marginally updated this post, which was prepoduced on Friday, adding information I got after the prize was awarded. The ceremony was originally awarded today, but I only learned now that it already took place yesterday. 10 March 2019, 10:00

Related Articles


Achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals will require good governance – from the local to the global level.


The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to transform economies in an environmentally sound manner, leaving no one behind.