Germany’s Fear of Finkelstein

Renowned Scholar and Descendent of Holocaust Survivors Prevented by German Israel Lobby from Speaking about Gaza

Norman Finkelstein, an internationally renowned scholar of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was due to talk about the state of the decades-old conflict and the situation of Gaza one year after the Israeli assault in Munich and Berlin last week.  His European speaking tour — which included speaking engagements at a number of prestigious institutions, such as the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, the Faculty of Philosophy and Arts at Charles University in Prague, and the Institute of International Relations Prague — was to bring him to Germany for the first time since 2002.

One of Finkelstein’s Berlin lectures was initially sponsored by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, an institution affiliated with the German Green Party.  The event was scheduled to take place at the Protestant Trinitatis Church, but the church backed off.  In a statement announcing its decision to cancel the event, the church “[regretted] to have been implicated, against its will and its publicly known stances, in anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli polemics.”  Soon thereafter, on 9 February, the Böll Foundation announced its own pullback stating: “Due to inattention, insufficient investigation, and trust in our cooperation partners, we have made a severe mistake.  In our judgment, Finkelstein’s behavior and his theses do not remain within the limits of legitimate critique.”  It ended by “thank[ing] the many notes and interventions pertaining to this event.”

The other Finkelstein lecture was scheduled at the headquarters of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (RLS), a German institution affiliated with the Left Party.  But on 17 February, the Left Party think-tank also withdrew its support.  It stated that it had underestimated the event’s “political explosiveness,” adding that its proposal to provide an antagonist to Finkelstein for the sake of guaranteeing a “controversial and pluralistic debate” was rejected by the organizers.  Besides its unusual insistence on inviting an “antagonist,” the RLS was also unwilling to name this antagonist, says Doris Pumphrey from the organizing committee.

Finkelstein’s two planned lectures in Munich, one of them at the America House Munich, were likewise cancelled.

The German Israel Lobby and the Anti-Semitism Claim

The wave of cancellations came after a concerted campaign by neoconservative and Zionist pressure groups, such as Honestly Concerned, which are known for their unconditional support of Israeli policies and defamation of critics of Israel as anti-Semites.  BAK Shalom, a pro-Zionist working group within the Left Party’s youth organization, was one of the main drivers behind the campaign to cancel Finkelstein’s public lectures.  A statement signed by BAK Shalom offshoots and like-minded groupings claims that “Finkelstein is internationally popular among anti-Semites,” calling him a “self-proclaimed historian” and accusing him of “historical revisionism” and “anti-Semitism.”

Finkelstein, whose parents were survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto and of Nazi concentration camps, was awarded a Ph.D. in political science from Princeton University and is the author of many academic books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  His Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (1995; 2003) has received much praise from eminent scholars such as Oxford University professor Avi Shlaim (“a major contribution to the study of the Arab-Israeli conflict”) and leading intellectual Noam Chomsky (“the most revealing study of the historical background of the conflict and the current peace agreement”).  In 2007, after a defamation campaign (claiming that “Finkelstein is a classic anti-Semite who has invoked anti-Jewish stereotypes”) led by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, Finkelstein, despite academic approval, was denied tenure at Chicago’s DePaul University where he had been teaching.  It should be noted that Dershowitz’ book The Case for Israel, whose scholarly integrity has been highly disputed by Finkelstein and others, has been given much publicity by BAK Shalom.

McCarthyism à l’Israélienne vs. Jewish Humanism

Finkelstein has repeatedly argued for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict according to international law and resolutions while stressing that the lesson he learned from his family’s suffering from the Holocaust led him to call attention to the Palestinians’ plight.  (His new book entitled This Time We Went Too Far: Truth and Consequences of the Gaza Invasion [OR Books] will be published in mid-March)He is not the only Jewish critic of Israel to make such an argument.

In a response to the pro-Israel lobbying groups, Professor Rolf Verleger, chair of the German section of the European Jews for a Just Peace (EJJP) — one of the sponsors of the Berlin lectures — rejected the claims put forward against Finkelstein.  Instead, Verleger described him as “a proud and conscious Jew, who defends himself against the appropriation of Jewish tradition by Jewish blood-and-soil nationalism.”  Criticizing those pressure groups for their refusal to oppose Israeli human rights violations and nationalism, Verleger compared their tactics to McCarthyite agitation, this time directed against “un-Israeli activities.”

Verleger, who is the author of Israel’s Wrong Way: A Jewish View (PapyRossa, in German, 2nd ed., 2009), is a former member of the board of delegates of the Central Council of Jews in Germany (he was not re-elected to that position due to his open criticism of Israeli policies).

In a letter sent earlier to the Trinitatis Church as a plea to reverse its decision, Verleger rejected the idea that criticism of Israeli policies equals anti-Semitism and instead spoke of “Jewish responsibility” to criticize Israel.  Noting in the letter that his father, who had lost his first wife and three sons in Auschwitz, died on the very day of the projected Finkelstein event in Berlin 45 years ago, with an “Auschwitz number on his arm,” Verleger went on to praise Finkelstein for standing in the “humanistic tradition of German Judaism” à la Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, and Rabbi Leo Baeck.

Leftist Raison d’Etat

The withdrawal of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (RLS) has engendered ongoing protests.  In an open letter, some Left Party Members of Parliament and leading party sympathizers criticized the foundation’s handling of Norman Finkelstein, judging the defamatory claims against Finkelstein as “absurd.”  In another open letter, former and current RLS scholarship holders concluded that the foundation risks losing its “character as a place for left-wing debates and controversies” if it continues to avoid criticism of Israeli policies.  Many other leftists have also voiced criticism of the RLS’s decision, recalling the famous words of Rosa Luxemburg — “Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently” — and warning the foundation against becoming unworthy of its name.

These protests are not the first ones of this kind for the RLS: the foundation came under harsh criticism last summer for allowing three well-known warmongers — amongst them a leading representative from BAK Shalom — to speak at its largest student-led annual conference.  The Left Party and its think-tank find themselves in an internal strife on the question of anti-Zionism and anti-imperialism, not least since the chairman of the party’s parliamentary group Gregor Gysi advocated in spring 2008 for reconsidering those very principles.  Gysi’s advocacy was seen as an effort to align the Left Party with German raison d’état.  In a speech before the Israeli Parliament (Knesset) in March 2008, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had said:

Here of all places I want to explicitly stress that every German Government and every German Chancellor before me has shouldered Germany’s special historical responsibility for Israel’s security.  This historical responsibility is part of my country’s raison d’être.  For me as German Chancellor, therefore, Israel’s security will never be open to negotiation.

Displaying “unconditional solidarity” with Israeli policies, two days into Tel Aviv’s military operation “Cast Lead” in Gaza, the German Chancellor and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert “agreed that the responsibility for the development of the situation in the region clearly and exclusively lies with Hamas.”  That assessment was then echoed by the chairman of the Left Party in Berlin Klaus Lederer at a pro-Israel rally.

After the cancellations of venues for Finkelstein’s lectures, the junge Welt — an independent left-wing daily known for its staunch opposition to illegal wars — stepped in and offered its rather small shop in Berlin as a venue.

Alas, too late.  In a statement issued on 20 February, Finkelstein explained why he would not travel to Germany:

Some Germans seem determined that their fellow German citizens only hear opinions on the Israel-Palestine conflict that support the policies of the Israeli government.  Such intolerance is not good for Palestinians who are living under a brutal military occupation.  It is not good for Germans who want their country to support human rights and international law.  It is not good for courageous dissenting Israelis who need support from the European Union.

In his planned lectures, Finkelstein was, among other things, going to elaborate on the Goldstone Report, commissioned by the United Nations, which finds Israel guilty of war crimes in its assault on Gaza during the winter of 2008-2009.  In the absence of powerful critical voices such as Finkelstein’s, Berlin will find it easy to continue to violate German as well as EU laws that prohibit arms sales to conflict-torn regions.

Precedents of Silencing Critics of Israeli Policies

There have been a number of other occasions in Germany recently where critics of Israel’s policies were given comparable treatment.  In January this year, three female Left Party members of the German Parliament (who also signed the aforementioned open letter to the RLS) were attacked by similar groups in concert with evangelical clerics for not offering standing ovations after Israeli President Shimon Peres’ Bundestag speech on Holocaust Memorial Day.  The parliamentarians, who had paid tribute to the victims of Nazi crimes at ceremonies ahead of Peres’ talk, explained their refusal by pointing to the Israeli President’s exploitation of the event to propagandize for a war against Iran.  In his speech, Peres called Iran’s government “a danger to the entire world.”  In spite of ongoing Israeli calls for a military strike on Iran, the Israeli President also said with a straight face: “we identify with the millions of Iranians who revolt against dictatorship and violence.”  The German section of the EJJP, by the way, had criticized the invitation to Peres in the first place.

In early 2009, a scheduled discussion of the Israeli military offensive in Gaza on Germany’s major political TV show Anne Will was cancelled only a few days before its broadcast, reportedly after political pressures.

In October 2009, following a lobbying campaign similar to the Finkelstein case, a projected talk in Munich by the exiled Israeli historian Ilan Pappé was cancelled by the city’s authorities.  In an open letter, Professor Pappé — who was then speaking at a different venue — wrote that his father “was silenced in a similar way as a German Jew in the early 1930s.”  Like himself, he went on, his father and his friends were regarded as “‘humanists’ and ‘peacenik’ Jews whose voice had to be quashed and stopped.”  Pappé said he was “worried, as any decent person should be, about the state of freedom of speech and democracy in present day Germany” as illustrated by the decision to censor his talk.

Both Finkelstein and Pappé have authored leading studies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are considered to be eloquent advocates for a just and legal settlement of the conflict.  Their Jewish background makes them especially troublesome for hard-line defenders of Israel, who frequently resort to labeling critics as anti-Semites or even “self-hating Jews.”  One might argue that such a distinction between “good” and “bad” Jews would in itself amount to a sort of anti-Semitism.

Ali Fathollah-Nejad is a Ph.D. researcher specializing in the international relations of the Middle East.  Web site: <>.

| Print