Editors’ Note: Below, Peter E. Gordon, Amabel B. James Professor of History at Harvard University, introduces a letter signed by hundreds of academics on the political and cultural climate in Germany surrounding the war between Israel and Hamas.
In Germany, public discussion of Hamas’s brutal October 7 attack and Israel’s devastating counterassault has been uniquely constrained. The horrors of the Shoah and the genocide of nearly six million Jews—nearly a third of the world Jewish population at the time—left German citizens with a singular burden of responsibility to ensure that the Jewish minority would never again be exposed to such crimes. Since its founding in 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany has upheld what amounts to an official policy of unequivocal support for Israel. This remains largely the case even today, despite marked changes in Israel’s political culture and the rise of far more militant voices on the religious right over the last few decades—voices that claim all territories (including both Gaza and the West Bank) for the Jews alone and at times have called for the expulsion of Palestinians, even the 20 percent who are officially Israeli citizens and have their own political parties.
At the same time, many in the Palestinian diaspora—including the descendants of those who fled their homes when Israel was founded in 1948—live in Germany. Berlin alone is home to an estimated 35,000–45,000 individuals of Palestinian descent. The historical irony is striking: the region once home to a flourishing Jewish subculture, which was targeted for extermination, is now home to the largest Palestinian community in all of Europe.
This context helps to explain why protests and counterprotests in Germany have grown especially intense. In their midst, a number of statements and petitions have received wide notice over the past month, and among those that deserve closer attention is the letter published in English below—first made public in German on October 28 with over 180 signatures from academics who are based in or teach in Germany.
The letter is noteworthy for its balanced tone, its moral clarity, and its readiness to acknowledge shared responsibility for the violence committed by both Hamas and Israel, though it does not shy away from stating that Israel’s disproportionate military campaign amounts to a form of “collective punishment” that targets civilians who cannot be legitimately held responsible for the actions taken by Hamas ostensibly in the name of Palestinian freedom. One of the chief aims of the letter is to insist on the right of all groups in Germany to protest on behalf of the Palestinians. This right is now in jeopardy. The most prominent political leaders in Germany, including Chancellor Olaf Scholz, affirm an unquestionable support for Israel as a moral obligation of all citizens. In a speech to legislators shortly after the Hamas attacks Scholz declared: “Our own history, our responsibility deriving from the Holocaust, makes it our permanent duty to stand up for the existence and security of the State of Israel.”
This outlook erases the many voices in the Jewish community, both in Israel and elsewhere, including Germany, who condemn the policies of Israel’s government. Nor do Palestinians in Germany feel free to express their criticism of Israel and their solidarity with victims of the bombings in Gaza. Across Germany many public protests have been banned—the two early ones that were approved were silent vigils. Among the groups that were denied permission were Youth Against Racism and Jewish Berliners Against Middle Eastern Violence. State officials in charge of educational policy informed schools that they could forbid students from wearing the keffiyeh or stickers that say “Free Palestine.” Cultural institutions have felt pressure to curtail events that could be interpreted as sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest book trade fair and an annual event at which new publications make their debut, an award ceremony for the book, Minor Detail, by the Palestinian writer Adania Shibli, was removed from the schedule.
Among the many ironies of this situation is that the slogan adopted by some pro-Palestinian groups—that Palestine should be free “from the river to the sea”—closely resembles the language and stated aims of Israel’s right-wing Likud party as outlined in its 1977 charter: that there must be exclusively Israeli sovereignty “between the sea and the Jordan.” Felix Klein, who holds an official post as “Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Antisemitism,” has warned of “antisemitic and anti-Israel hate” when “people shout ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free’.” In his view this slogan “would deny Israel’s right to exist.” Use of the slogan is now legally banned in Germany and subject to criminal prosecution for “incitement to hatred,” though one presumes that those invoking the Likud charter would not receive similar prosecution.
For many in the Jewish diaspora, of course, Israel is not just a state like any other. It is a symbol of Jewish dignity and survival, and some Jews have trouble discerning the difference between anti-Semitism and legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies, although it should be self-evident that the conduct of each and every state must remain open to criticism if universal standards of international law and human rights are to retain any meaning. For many in the Palestinian diaspora, by contrast, Israel symbolizes not dignity but dispossession. Its existence as a Jewish state, buttressed by an endless and nearly conditionless supply of U.S. military aid, means ongoing violence and humiliation, and it ensures that those who fled in 1948 cannot return to their homes. “Never again” has manifold meanings that seem irreconcilable.
The current situation in Germany is dire on multiple fronts. A synagogue in Berlin was the target of Molotov cocktails, and many Jewish citizens have expressed the fear that they no longer feel safe on German streets; Felix Klein has advised them to avoid wearing identifiable Jewish clothing such as kippoth in public. Meanwhile, Islamophobic incidents have also increased dramatically. According to Reuters, police reported that by early November at least eight mosques had received “parcels with torn up fragments of the Koran mixed with fecal matter.” In this climate of heightened tensions and hate it is hardly surprising that the radical right-wing party, the AfD, has now enjoyed electoral victories in the two Western states of Bavaria and Hesse.
Moreover, Germany’s Palestinian minority, along with the Arab and Muslim community in general, has been the target of repressive police measures and enhanced governmental scrutiny. The federal government in Berlin recently called for a “day of action” against anti-Semitism, and in Bavaria the police searched seventeen homes of those who were suspected of anti-Semitic incitement. Suspects in Munich and Nuremberg were accused of belonging to an online group that spread phrases such as “gas the Jews.” But the definition of anti-Semitism is now broad enough that it includes not just cases of obvious hate speech or conduct; it also tends to silence those, including Palestinians and Jews, who would criticize Israel’s current actions in Gaza or voice their support for BDS, a nonviolent strategy that is typically seen as permissible when directed against other countries. Meanwhile, Germany’s governing coalition—which includes the SPD, the Greens, and the FDP—has proposed a new set of legal and policy recommendations (in the name of “historical responsibility” for protecting Jewish life in Germany) that would threaten those who are suspected of anti-Semitism with the possibility of deportation or denial of citizenship. Palestinians and pro-Palestinian activists have complained that their freedom of expression is being sharply curtailed, and they have noted the irony they are being asked to bear the burdens of a German past for which they are clearly not responsible.
One of the final and more painful ironies of the current debate in Germany is that it has opened up lines of fracture within the left itself. On November 13 a statement with the title “Principles of Solidarity” appeared on the website of Normative Orders, a research network associated with philosophers who identify themselves with the Frankfurt tradition of critical theory. A prominent signatory is Jürgen Habermas, the philosopher and social theorist who, over the course of his long career, has surely done more to combat the forces of intolerance and political authoritarianism in Germany than any other public intellectual. The statement affirms the basic principle of “solidarity with Israel and [with] Jews in Germany” but also stresses the need for proportionality in Israel’s military response and insists that “the prevention of civilian casualties and the waging of a war with the prospect of future peace must be the guiding principles.” On the same day the statement was posted, Normative Orders hosted a conference on Islamophobia in Germany. Some have suggested, however, that the statement itself is not sufficiently attentive to rising anti-Arab racism or the infringement of the rights of Palestinians.
The debate continues. In Germany as elsewhere, mutual recrimination and accusations of anti-Semitism or Islamophobia are all too commonplace, though such charges do nothing whatsoever to end war. At the time of this writing, an estimated 15,000 Gazans have died. The following appeal—which some German media have mischaracterized as trivializing anti-Semitism or demonizing Israel—marks an important step in defending the rights of those who wish to speak clearly and with responsibility as they condemn Israel for its current assault on Palestinian civilians in Gaza.
—Peter E. Gordon
Letter from Berlin — An Appeal to the Public from Critical Academics
Since the massacres committed by Hamas in Israel on October 7 and the subsequent collective punishment of Gaza by the Israeli army, Berlin authorities have banned numerous protests in solidarity with the civilian population in Gaza. These include a demonstration by Jewish associations, a demonstration under the motto “Youth Against Racism,” as well as numerous demonstrations by Palestinian associations, despite their clear framing as pro-peace events. As critical academics, we call on the state government to immediately cease and desist from political repression of this kind, which also includes repressive instructions to schools issued by the Berlin Senate (e.g. to ban the wearing of the Palestinian keffiyeh).
Following October 7, there has been an increase in antisemitic attacks in Berlin. Since then, police repression against Palestinians or those in solidarity with Palestine, as well as against large parts of the population in the largely migrant Berlin district of Neukölln, has also reached alarming levels. Ensuring the safety of Jewish people in Berlin requires a response from society as a whole, including antifascist structures and teaching programs, democratic political education (which would entail reversing major funding cuts), and a better understanding of the diversity of Jewish life. Instead, an entire district is being criminalized by repressive measures like racial profiling. These developments also call for a reaction of solidarity. Jewish people as well as Palestinian youth and children experience police violence in the context of demonstrations due to the escalation of state repression. This violation of fundamental rights to free speech and assembly is unacceptable and far from an effective means to combat both the latent and increasingly aggressive antisemitism in Germany. In an open letter, dated October 22, over a hundred Jewish artists and intellectuals living in Germany pointed this out.
Antisemitic attacks such as the arson attack on the Kahal Adass Yisroel synagogue on Brunnenstrasse in Berlin-Mitte on October 18, as well as demonstrations against the policies of the state of Israel in front of Jewish institutions, express an equation of the Israeli government with Jewish people. This equation is, in itself, clearly antisemitic.
A logic of equation also pervades German politics and the public sphere to a frightening, if unsurprising, extent. This is demonstrated, for example, by politicians’ and journalists’ almost unanimous support of the military operations of the Israeli government in the name of a supposedly pro-Jewish raison d’état—even as these operations have already been criticized by the UN and described by experts as genocidal. When Israel’s right to self-defense is invoked within the framework of international law, it should also be stressed that the same law prohibits the collective punishment of an entire civilian population as well as the destruction of civilian infrastructure. In Germany, people have cultivated a practiced indifference to the blockade of the Gaza Strip, which has been ongoing since 2007 in violation of international law, with catastrophic consequences for the civilian population. To assure the Israeli government of unconditional support in this moment only feeds the illusion that military occupation offers a prospect for safety and peace.
In this context, the historical responsibility of Germany toward Jewish people resulting from the Shoah is interpreted in such a way that it prevents a critical confrontation with the openly right-wing extremist policies of an important geopolitical ally. The Israeli journalist Amira Hass recently offered a comment in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that hardly any German media would publish at present:
You Germans have long since betrayed your responsibility, the one “arising from the Holocaust”—that is, from the murder of my parents’ families, among others, and the suffering of the survivors. You betrayed it by your unreserved support for an Israel that occupies, colonizes, deprives people of water, steals land, imprisons two million Gazans in a crowded cage, demolishes homes, expels entire communities from their homes and encourages settler violence.
From a democratic perspective, nation states must never grant each other unconditional and uncritical support; this also applies to the relationship between Germany and Israel.
In the first days after October 7, the massacres in the South of Israel and the taking of hostages by Hamas were at times cynically downplayed, and the grief of Israeli relatives was mocked in some instances. Large sections of the media, as well as many politicians at the federal and state levels, then started to label any expression of solidarity with Palestinian civilians as a trivialization or even glorification of Hamas in a blanket way, again following a fatal and racist logic of equation. Palestinian people are not to be equated with Hamas, just as Jewish people are not to be equated with the Israeli government. Moreover, the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip and the settlement policy in the West Bank, which is equally in violation of international law, must be recognized as the political context for the events that are currently unfolding. Those who fail or refuse to take such contexts into consideration pursue a politics of prejudgment, foreclose an engagement with the social and political causes of violence, and make themselves complicit in the further escalation of the current conflict. As the situation in Berlin shows, there are currently hardly any possibilities for Palestinian people in Germany to express themselves as political subjects with their own perspective and a claim to self-determination. In fact, this has been the case for quite some time now. Any such expression, whether political, literary, or artistic, is increasingly confronted with the sweeping suspicion of being antisemitic.
Berlin is home to the largest community of the Palestinian diaspora in Europe. One of the constitutional duties of the government is to protect the people who live here. This applies to Palestinian youth, who instead are confronted with the indifference of German politics and large sections of the public to the suffering of the civilian population in Gaza and who are now placed under general suspicion, criminalized, and threatened with deportation by politicians. This also applies to Jewish critics of Israel’s governing regime, whose mourning and anguish for relatives in their homeland is being appropriated by German politics and the public and whose space for public sympathy is also being restricted. The assumption that police repression and restrictions on fundamental rights will ensure protection for these populations is a misconception.
Repression fuels resentment. Violence generates counter-violence and undermines forms of living together in solidarity that are being practiced in many places in Berlin. The course of action taken by the police is therefore detrimental to all those who are caught up in this war. It not only restricts basic political rights for the very people who have no state of their own to stand up for them but actively prevents political alliances between marginalized groups in Berlin, who are in any case publicly denounced and discriminated against in the current anti-migration debate in Germany. The fact that calls for the deportation of Palestinians are growing louder at the very time there is a war in Israel and Palestine, and the civilian population is under threat of systematic military violence and expulsion, testifies to a particularly insidious contempt for humanity.
The day after the Hamas attack on Israeli civilians, the AfD party, with its extreme right-wing program, celebrated significant electoral successes in the states of Bavaria and Hesse. In Bavaria, Hubert Aiwanger, who only shortly before had gained new notoriety as the suspected author of an antisemitic leaflet, was directly elected for the first time. To locate the antisemitic threat in Germany primarily in the protests against the violence in Gaza is racist populism and ignores the historically deep and socially powerful antisemitic tendencies in broad sections of society, the police, and legislatures.
It is the task of critical scholarship to describe and name social relations of oppression and to analyze their interrelations. Even if racism and antisemitism are based on different dynamics of oppression, they are to be fought under the same social conditions, which also means fighting the social conditions within which they are reproduced. How suffering and violence manifest themselves in the present must be the yardstick for determining political lines for this struggle. An ahistorical understanding of antisemitism and Holocaust remembrance, as it has long pervaded large parts of German society, undermines a sensitivity to multidirectional relations of violence and the suffering they produce. Such sensitivity is the condition of solidarity.
Against antisemitism. Against racism and police violence.
Release all hostages and ceasefire now.
Berlin, October 28, 2023
The signatories do not speak on behalf of their institutions.
Initial signatories are below. For the full and growing list of signatories, see the original letter in German here.
Robel Afeworki Abay, Alice Salomon Hochschule Berlin
Caroline Adler, Universität Hamburg
Yasmin Afshar, Humboldt Universität Berlin / Centre Marc Bloch
Ömer Alkin, Hochschule Niederrhein
Schirin Amir-Moazami, Freie Universität Berlin
Balz Andrea Alter, Universität Freiburg
Ricarda Ameling, Freie Universität Berlin
Susan Arndt, Universität Bayreuth
Annabella Backes, Freie Universität Berlin
André Bank, GIGA German Institute for Global and Area Studies
Denise Bergold-Caldwell, Universität Innsbruck
Kelly Bescherer, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg
Marius Bickhardt, Centre Marc Bloch Berlin / Sciences Po Paris
Beate Binder, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Tamar Blickstein, Freie Universität Berlin
Jacob Blumenfeld, Universität Oldenburg
Manuela Boatcă, Universität Freiburg
Jandra Böttger, Freie Universität Berlin
Carna Brkovic, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz
Sabine Broeck, Universität Bremen
Johanna Bröse, Universität zu Köln
Regina Brückner, Freie Universität Berlin
Johannes Bruder, FHNW Hochschule für Gestaltung und Kunst
Mirjam S. Brusius, London/Paris
Dennis Büscher-Ulbrich, Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel
Jonathon Catlin, University of Rochester
Robin Celikates, Freie Universität Berlin
Sérgio Costa, Freie Universität Berlin
Katja Diefenbach, Europa-Universität Viadrina, Frankfurt (Oder)
Claudia Derichs, Humboldt Universität Berlin
Hansjörg Dilger, Freie Universität Berlin
Sultan Doughan, Goldsmiths, University of London
Charlie Ebert, Freie Universität Berlin
Sima Ehrentraut, Universität Wien
Fatima El-Tayeb, Yale University
Antke Engel, Institut für Queer Theory Berlin
Moritz Epple, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main
Cornelia Ertl, Freie Universität Berlin
Felix Leonhart Esch, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg
Friederike Faust, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen
Mario Faust-Scalisi, Universität Bayreuth
Franziska Fay, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz
Jessica Feely, Berlin/London
Bahar Firat, Freie Universität Berlin
Tiffany N. Florvil, University of New Mexico/Radcliffe Institute
Bettina Fritzsche, Pädagogische Hochschule Freiburg
Daniel Fuchs, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Gregory Gan, Freie Universität Berlin
Cannelle Gignoux, Centre Marc Bloch
Joël Glasman, Universität Bayreuth
Muriel Gonzalez Athenas, Universität Innsbruck
Jule Govrin, Freie Universität Berlin
Encarnación Gutiérrez Rodríguez, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt
Annika Haas, Universität der Künste Berlin
Leila Haghighat, Hochschule für Bildende Künste Braunschweig / Akademie der Künste Wien
Meike Haken, Technische Universität Berlin
Hilkje C. Hänel, Universität Potsdam
Matthew Hannah, Universität Bayreuth
Jens Hanssen, University of Toronto
Jonas Harbke, Zeppelin Universität
Sabine Hark, Technische Universität Berlin
Angela Harutyunyan, Universität der Künste Berlin
Nanna Heidenreich, Universität für Angewandte Kunst Wien
Jonas Heller, Goethe Universität Frankfurt
Martin H. Herrnstadt, Universität Bremen
Billy Holzberg, King’s College London
Katharina Hoppe, Goethe Universität Frankfurt
Sarah Horn, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz
Isabelle Ihring, Evangelische Hochschule Freiburg
Daniel James, Technische Universität Dresden
Gesa Jessen, Freie Universität Berlin
Rebecca Hanna John, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg
Ulrike Jordan, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg
Alp Kayserilioğlu, Universität Tübingen
Serhat Karakayali, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg
Omar Kasmani, Freie Universität Berlin
Frank Kelleter, Freie Universität Berlin
Ina Kerner, Universität Koblenz
Sami Khatib, Orient-Institut Beirut
Nazlı Kilerci-Stevanović, Freie Universität Berlin
Luis Kliche Navas, Freie Universität Berlin
Darja Klingenberg, Europa Universität Viadrina Frankfurt Oder
Henrike Kohpeiß, Freie Universität Berlin
Katrin Köppert, Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst Leipzig
Aino Korvensyrjä, University of Helsinki / Freie Universität Berlin
Kira Kosnick, Europa-Universität Viadrina
Björn Kraus, Ev. Hochschule Freiburg
Quill R Kukla, Georgetown University
Katharina Lenner, University of Bath
Aleksandra Lewicki, University of Sussex
Marlon Lieber, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt
Agata Lisiak, Bard College Berlin
Daniel Loick, Universität Amsterdam
Carolin Loysa, Freie Universität Berlin
David Ludwig, Wageningen University
Margreth Lünenborg, Freie Universität Berlin
Jacob Lypp, London School of Economics and Political Science
Anouk Madörin, ehem. Universität Potsdam
Ana Makhashvili, Freie Universität Berlin
Dominik Mattes, Freie Universität Berlin
Annika Mattissek, Universität Freiburg
Paul Mecheril, Universität Bielefeld
Julia Mehlmann, Zeppelin Universität Friedrichshafen
Hanna Meißner, Technische Universität Berlin
Torsten Menge, Northwestern University Qatar
Mari Mikkola, University of Amsterdam
Alyssa Miller, German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA)
Laibor K. Moko, Freie Universität Berlin
Norma Möllers, Queen’s University Kingston
Ana María Miranda Mora, Technische Universität Dresden
Dirk Moses, The City College of New York
Max Müller, Martin-Luther-Universität-Halle-Wittenberg
Börries Nehe, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Berlin
Anthony Obst, Freie Universität Berlin
Britta Ohm, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz
Jasmine Wanjiru Onstad, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Benjamin Opratko, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg
Stefan Ouma, Universität Bayreuth
Kathrin Peters, Universität der Künste Berlin
Hanna Pfeifer, Goethe Universität Frankfurt
Michelle Pfeifer, Technische Universität Dresden
Lucio Piccoli, Freie Universität Berlin
Nelly Y. Pinkrah, Technische Universität Dresden / Leuphana Universität Lüneburg
Caroline Pitzen, Hochschule für Gestaltung Offenbach
Ziga Podgornik Jakil, Europa-Universität Viadrina, Frankfurt (Oder)
Anita von Poser, Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg
Francesca Raimondi, Freie Universität Berlin
Gereon Rahnfeld, Bauhaus-Universität Weimar
Udi Raz, Freie Universität Berlin
Howie Rechavia-Taylor, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)
Gala Rexer, University College London
Karina Rocktäschel, Freie Universität Berlin
Achim Rohde, Universität Hamburg
Sophia Rohwetter, Akademie der bildenden Künste, Wien
Julia Roth, Universität Bielefeld
Michael Rothberg, UCLA
Melcher Ruhkopf, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg
Uta Ruppert, Goethe Universität Frankfurt/Main
Daniela Russ, Universität Leipzig
Fabio Santos, University of California, Berkeley / Freie Universität Berlin
Myriam Sauer, Freie Universität Berlin
Johanna Schaffer, Kunsthochschule Kassel
Stephan Scheel, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg
Gabriel Scheidecker, Universität Zürich
Miriam Schickler, Kunsthochschule Kassel
Benjamin Schütze, Arnold Bergstraesser Institut
Lili Schwoerer, Oxford Brookes University
Rüdiger Seesemann, Universität Bayreuth
Todd Sekuler, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Marc Siegel, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz
Véronique Sina, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt
Jan Slaby, Freie Universität Berlin
Susanne Söderberg, University of Queen’s, Canada
Ruth Sonderegger, Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien
Eva Spiekermann, University of Oxford
Jannis Steinke, TU Braunschweig
Maurice Stierl, Universität Osnabrück
Lukas Stolz, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg
Juliana M. Streva, Freie Universität Berlin
Simon Strick, Universität Potsdam
Katharina Tchelidze, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg
Vanessa Thompson, Queen’s University Kingston
Mayıs Tokel, Freie Universität Berlin
Hanan Toukan, Bard College Berlin
Alyosxa Tudor, SOAS University of London
Pinar Tuzcu, Queen’s University, Kingston
Nur Yasemin Ural, Universität Leipzig
Pablo Valdivia, Europa-Universität Viadrina Frankfurt/Oder
Çağan Varol, Universität Göttingen
Frieder Vogelmann, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg
Julian Volz, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg
Maxi Wallenhorst, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg
Caleb Ward, Universität Hamburg
Christopher Weickenmeier, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg
Catherine Whittaker, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main
Thilo Wiertz, Universität Freiburg
Heidemarie Winkel, Universität Bielefeld
Özge Yaka, Freie Universität Berlin
Franzisca Zanker, Arnold Bergstraesser Institut
Olaf Zenker, Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg
Tirdad Zolghadr, Universität der Künste Berlin