Why Germany shields Israel from legitimate criticism

Why Germany shields Israel from legitimate criticism

Why Germany shields Israel from legitimate criticism
Basel Adra, left, and Yuval Abraham won the Berlinale Documentary Award 2024 for No Other Land. (Getty Images)
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When Israel’s government equates criticism of its Gaza policies with antisemitism, it is understandably self-serving, as it has no other defense of its genocidal campaign. But why do other, more responsible governments censor critics of Israel’s deliberate, methodical and cruel destruction of Palestinians and anything that could support their life in Gaza or the West Bank in the future?

Germany is a case in point. Here, any honest evaluation of Israel is labeled antisemitic and the country’s guilt over the Holocaust is weaponized to serve Israeli interests and silence its critics. According to Andreas Krieg, a German scholar of the Middle East, there appears to be a “criminalization of discourse on the Middle East in Germany.”

The uproar this week over the prestigious 74th Berlin International Film Festival illustrates the extent to which the antisemitism label is used to dismiss criticism of Israel. The Berlinale, as it is commonly known, concluded on Sunday with a controversy that should not have been about the screening of a film made by a collective of Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers.

The documentary, “No Other Land,” was awarded both the Panorama Audience Award (decided by audience vote) and the Berlinale Documentary Award (decided by the festival’s jury). The film documents the half-decade-long relationship between Basel Adra, a Palestinian activist from the West Bank, and Yuval Abraham, an Israeli journalist. It highlights how the residents of Adra’s village, Masafer Yatta, have fought for years against the destruction of their homes by Israeli soldiers and armed Jewish settlers.

Adra, Abraham, Rachel Szor and Hamdan Ballal co-directed the film. In their directors’ statement, they called for an end to the occupation and to “resist the reality of apartheid we were born into — from opposite, unequal sides.” They added: “Reality around us is becoming scarier, more violent, more oppressive, every day — and we are very weak in front of it. We can only shout out something radically different, this film — which at its core is a proposal for an alternate way Israelis and Palestinians can live in this land — not as oppressor and oppressed, but in full equality.”

German officials have indicated that they may take action to punish Israel’s critics at the Berlinale.

Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

During the awards ceremony, Abraham and Adra condemned the Gaza war, calling for a ceasefire and an end to German military aid to Israel. Adra said it was hard for him to celebrate while his compatriots in Gaza were being “slaughtered and massacred” and he called on Germany “to respect the UN calls and stop sending weapons to Israel.”

Abraham pointed out that, even though the two stood as equals on stage in Berlin, they would soon return to a country where his Palestinian colleague would face institutionalized discrimination, without any voting rights and restricted in his movements based on his Palestinian license plate. Abraham then called for an end to “this apartheid, this inequality.”

Adra and Abraham were not the only critics of Israel at the Berlinale awards ceremony. Another speech that prompted strong reactions from German politicians came from US filmmaker Ben Russell, who accepted an award while wearing the keffiyeh, a symbol of Palestinian solidarity. He said: “Of course, we also stand for life here and we stand against genocide and for a ceasefire in solidarity with all our comrades.”

There was nothing racist or antisemitic about any of this. Yet, there was unbridled criticism by German and Israeli officials of the Berlinale. Berlin Mayor Kai Wegner criticized on X what he described as “intolerable relativization,” stressing that “Berlin is firmly on Israel’s side. There is no doubt about that … There is no place for antisemitism in Berlin and that also applies to the arts.” A lawmaker from German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democratic Party, Helge Lindh, described the audience’s applause as “shocking,” adding: “I am ashamed to see that in my country people today applaud accusations of genocide against Israel.” Frank Mueller-Rosentritt, another member of parliament, went for the jugular: “All federal funds for Berlinale must be stopped immediately and monies paid out for this year’s festival must be reclaimed.”

German officials have indicated that they may take action to punish Israel’s critics at the Berlinale. Claudia Roth, federal commissioner for culture and the media, issued a statement describing the speeches given by the directors of “No Other Land” as “shockingly one-sided and characterized by deep hatred of Israel.” She said on Monday there would be an investigation into the criticism of Israel’s war in Gaza during the awards ceremony. Germany Justice Minister Marco Buschmann also criticized the screening of the film, calling it antisemitic, and threatened criminal prosecution under laws meant to fight antisemitism.

Abraham and his family have received death threats after Israeli media accused him of antisemitism. “To stand on German soil as the son of Holocaust survivors and call for a ceasefire — and to then be labeled as antisemitic is not only outrageous, it is also literally putting Jewish lives in danger,” he told The Guardian. “I don’t know what Germany is trying to do with us. If this is Germany’s way of dealing with its guilt over the Holocaust, they are emptying it of all meaning.” He accused German officials of appropriating a term, “antisemitism,” that was designed to protect Jews, in order to silence Israel’s critics. “This is also dangerous because it devalues the term antisemitism,” he said.

There has been criticism everywhere of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies in Gaza and the West Bank, as voiced by the UN, human rights organizations and prominent writers, artists and political leaders in Israel and elsewhere. None of this should be dismissed as antisemitic.

Charges that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza and practicing apartheid in the West Bank are now being adjudicated by the International Court of Justice, where two cases have been filed by South Africa. The lawsuits have demonstrated that criticisms of Israel’s conduct are factually based and well documented, not derived from antisemitic racism.

Thomas Friedman, The New York Times columnist and no foe of Israel, said on Tuesday, “So the whole Israel-Gaza operation is starting to look to more and more people like a human meat grinder whose only goal is to reduce the population so that Israel can control it more easily.”

While German attitudes have been explained by Holocaust guilt, they are also self-serving: Germany is coming under increasing scrutiny for its complicity in Israel’s actions, as it has continued to provide Tel Aviv with arms used in the invasion of Gaza and the suppression of Palestinians in the West Bank. Dismissing criticisms of Israel’s actions as antisemitic is meant to also absolve Germany of complicity in its breaches of international humanitarian law.

  • Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily represent the GCC. X: @abuhamad1
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