The German Left and Israel

The German Left and Israel

Writing about the German Left and Israel—the debates on anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism of the last several years—often feels like a race against history. Not a day goes by without another piece being added to this complex and troublesome mosaic. No topic has stirred up so much debate and emotion and created so great a rift inside the German Left as Israel. These discussions, one could say, precipitated the erosion of anti-imperialism as a hegemonic framework for leftist thought.

In the beginning of 2009, there were huge demonstrations protesting Israel’s military actions in Gaza. Few voices asked for understanding or pointed out the complexities of the situation. When Chancellor Angela Merkel blamed Hamas for being the cause of Israel’s attack, she had to defend her statement against criticism in Parliament. Not only in Germany but throughout Europe there were the biggest anti-Israeli demonstrations since the second intifada. They lacked neither intensity nor (sometimes) violence. In Oslo, an Israel-friendly demonstration of about five hundred people was attacked by a pro-Palestinian group double its size. In London, an angry pro-Hamas mob tried to storm the Israeli embassy, chasing the police down the street. In Duisburg, Germany, during a protest, a neighbor enraged the demonstrators by hanging an Israeli flag in his window. The apartment was attacked with stones and bottles. Eventually the police, unable to cope with the situation, broke into the apartment and confiscated the flag while the protesters cheered.

Leaving these events aside, the year 2008, the sixtieth anniversary of Israel’s creation, provided a good occasion for reflection on the relationship between the German Left and Israel. It revealed something about the Left’s extra-parliamentary debate, happening mainly in cultural centers, journals, and the academy and something also about the reflection of this debate at the parliamentary level. These two levels exemplify two models of political practice: critique of ideology (Ideologiekritik) vs. Realpolitik.

Microcosm of the Left
On a mild Friday evening in May 2008, about 230 people, mostly between the ages of sixteen and thirty, gather at a local left-wing cultural center in a fairly large East German city to talk for two-and-a-half hours. The city is well acquainted with political debate. But there haven’t been this many people at such a meeting for a long time. The topic that brings them together might sound even more surprising: what can solidarity with Israel mean today?

Sitting on the panel are members of existing and former political groups, and the short presentation quickly turns into a discussion with lively audience participation. A number of things could strike an outside observer as peculiar. Everyone on the panel, as well as in the rather young audience, seems to agree on the importance of supporting Israel. There is no big fight about ...