The German Left’s Palestine Problem
by Leandros Fischer
Die Linke’s position on Palestine has isolated it from the global solidarity movement and strengthened the party’s worst elements.
It was a truly bizarre scene, worthy of a Peter Sellers film: a man frantically running through the Bundestag’s lifeless corridors. Behind him, another man, David Sheen, accuses him of smears and putting his life in danger from Israeli right-wing thugs. The man is Gregor Gysi, head of the Left Party’s (Die Linke) parliamentary caucus. He walks to a bathroom and closes the door shouting to Sheen “Raus mit dir!” (“Out with you!”).
Annette Groth and Inge Höger, two Die Linke parliamentarians who were aboard the 2010 Free Gaza Flotilla, try to calm Sheen and his associate, Max Blumenthal.
What exactly happened?
It seems that Gysi went out of his way to cancel an event with Blumenthal and Sheen scheduled to take place at Die Linke’s premises in the Bundestag. Another party MP, Petra Pau, co-signed a letter along with a politician from the Green Party and a Social Democrat heading the main Israel lobbying organization in Germany, urging the Volksbühne Theatre to cancel an event with Blumenthal and Sheen scheduled for November 9.
The letter claimed Blumenthal and Sheen were a “one-sided duet” who compare Israel to Nazis, and who had the nerve to stage an anti-Israel event on the anniversary of Kristallnacht.
Pandemonium ensued after the release of the video showing Gysi heading to and from the toilet. Die Linke’s reformist right-wing not only forced the party’s parliamentarians who invited Blumenthal and Sheen to apologize to Gysi, but is now openly calling for their expulsion from the caucus, more or less accusing both of them of antisemitism.
Heike Hänsel, another allegedly sympathetic MP, went as far as to openly state that she will never work with Blumenthal and Sheen again. That a German party, even a left-wing one, should be somewhat cautious in criticizing Israel, in a country where the definitions of Judaism, Israel, and Zionism have been consciously conflated for half a century, should not come as a surprise. But that parts of its top brass should actively work with the media to smear two internationally known Jewish anti-Zionists as “antisemites” is truly alarming and casts serious doubts on the party’s ability to relate to the global Palestine solidarity movement.
The history of the German left’s attitude to Israel/Palestine is truly complex and for the uninitiated foreign leftist, perplexing and occasionally shocking.
When I first moved to Germany from Cyprus during the height of the Second Intifada, I didn’t pay much attention to the conflict other than instinctively lending my moral support to whoever happened to be the oppressed in this and any other conflict. But at university, I was shocked to find that when left-wing, mostly autonomist-minded activists on campus used to talk about Palestine, it wasn’t even to adopt the minimally acceptable position of condemning Israel’s brutal “pacifying” of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but to romanticize the country as some kind of Middle Eastern Cuba under threat from Nazi-inspired Palestinian suicide bombers.
Clearly this attitude was not and is not representative of the entire left on this issue, but it nevertheless points out a more problematic trajectory than in other Western European countries.
While the fact that Germany is responsible for the industrial murder of millions of Jews partially explains the German left’s Palestine problem, the East-West dimension is equally crucial; Gysi has been the official face of East German post-communism for the last twenty-five years. The case of Die Linke merits special attention here, since the inner dynamics of an outcast left-reformist party in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s modern Germany amid the contradictions of the Eurozone crisis also influence its approach to the Middle East.
The German Left and Palestine: A Brief History
Like the British Labour Party, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the trade union bureaucracy were stridently pro-Zionist in the 1950s and 60s. Postwar social democracy saw Israel as a socialist-inspired state, paving a “third way” between Western liberal capitalism and Eastern “totalitarianism.”
Such a policy was seen as permissible from a left-wing point of view. After all, German conservatives — despite paying reparations to Israel for the Holocaust — refused to establish diplomatic relations with Israel until 1965, despite secretly arming the new state. This was done ostensibly to uphold the “traditional German-Arab friendship,” but was in reality aimed at preventing a wave of recognition for the “illegitimate” German Democratic Republic (GDR) by the Arab states.
For young Marxist intellectuals on the fringes of the SPD, establishing diplomatic relations with Israel became a left-wing cause in response to a political establishment that integrated former Nazis into the state apparatus, most notably Hans Globke, a top advisor to Konrad Adenauer and co-author of the infamous Nuremberg race laws.
East Germany’s Communist government, on the other hand, had to follow the twists and turns of Stalinist foreign policy. Accordingly, the Soviet line on supporting the Zionist militias was adopted in the crucial period of 1947-49. On the other hand, the East German bureaucrats engaged in party purges in the early 1950s that effectively mobilized antisemitic sentiments against undesirable elements, prompting a Jewish exodus from East Germany.
With the Soviet Union’s pro-Arab tilt around the same time, the GDR also tried to outdo itself in anti-Israeli rhetoric to gain vital diplomatic recognition by the Arab states. The GDR was anti-Zionist insofar as it opposed Israel’s policies. But like the Soviet Union, it never questioned its settler-colonial nature, seeing Israel’s alliance with imperialism as simply a matter of bad choice. It was Israel’s territorial expansionism at the expense of Soviet allies that bothered the Eastern Bloc, not so much the discriminatory nature of its ruling ideology.
Meanwhile in the West, things were changing. Israel was now the United States’ prime ally in the Middle East, while the latter was fighting an unpopular war in Vietnam. Germany and Israel established official relations two years before and the war witnessed a multitude of pro-Zionist frenzy in the right-wing Springer press.
As Israel officially became a front-line state in the struggle against communism, West German students, organized in the Socialist German Student Association (SDS) were joining their peers in the United Kingdom, France, Scandinavia, and elsewhere, in proclaiming their solidarity with the Palestinian fedayeen. Palestinians were now not just a logistical refugee issue but visible subjects, with the more left-leaning organizations of the Palestinian Liberation Organization contributing greatly to the framing of this struggle as part of the wider endeavor for self-determination in the Global South.
After SDS disbanded in 1970, its different successor organizations also took up Palestine as a cause (although due to the German historical context, much less than in other Western countries). The most prominent examples were undoubtedly the Red Army Faction (RAF) and the Revolutionary Cells, two terrorist groups that were to a great extent armed and trained by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
While overemphasized, these were not the only examples. Palestine solidarity in one form or another existed along the entire spectrum of the Left — from the Maoist “communist groups” and Trotskyist and workerist tendencies, to the “milder” pro-Soviet German Communist Party and even the youth section of the SPD.
Death of a Movement: The Antideutsch
The collapse of a pro-Palestinian consensus is undoubtedly linked to the global retreat of the left that commenced in the late 1970s. The German radical left after 1968 was never a mass movement with a wide appeal in the working class, unlike its counterparts in Great Britain, France, and Italy. West German capitalism was better at integrating the upheaval of 1968.
In political terms, it was Social Democracy that was the main beneficiary of 1968. The radical left found itself increasingly isolated, a part of it turning to urban terrorism. The bloody crescendo reached its climax in the “German autumn” of 1977, when kidnappings and plane hijackings by the RAF ended in the deaths of two of its imprisoned founding members.
This only helped accelerate a turn away from the support of armed struggles in the Third World and toward broader ecological and pacifist movements, a turn that was given political expression by the Green Party. Some Marxist groups continued to operate but mostly ineffectually.
Meanwhile, other militant sections coalesced around the autonomist movement. The Autonomen continued to uphold anti-imperialism, including the Palestinian cause. They were a subculture as much as a movement, characterized by squatting and militant confrontations with the police. But their profound disdain for theory also made them susceptible to the effects of the cataclysmic political events that came in 1989.
In the face of a neo-Nazi offensive following reunification, a significant part of the autonomists adopted the worldview of the Antideutsch, the “anti-Germans.” These ex-Maoist remnants expressed the view that the biggest enemy for the German left to confront was the abstract notion of “Germany” as nation. An alliance was necessary with anyone perceived to be against “Germany.”
Israel did not figure prominently in the beginning of the Antideutsch movement. This changed after the outbreak of the Second Intifada and 9/11. The Antideutsch were already thrilled by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitlers Willing Executioners. They now fervently applied his idea of “eliminatory antisemitism” to virtually any movement opposing US and Israeli hegemony in the Middle East, be it secular nationalist or Islamist.
Matthias Küntzel, an ex-Maoist and Antideutsch ideologue in the tradition of the French nouveaux philosophes, even devoted an entire book to “prove” (without the slightest knowledge of Arabic) that the ideology of Hamas and Hezbollah was “Nazi-inspired.” By this point, the hardcore of the Antideutsch bid the Left farewell, proclaiming it “dead.” Remnants of the movement have since made common cause with far-right Islamophobes.
However, the cultural aesthetics and ideas of Antideutsch — a bizarre mix of techno music, self-managed housing projects, and endless discussions on the “structural antisemitism” of the anti-globalization and Occupy movements — characterize a large share of the current German radical left. This is especially true in eastern Germany, where a strong far right often engages in a demagogic, antisemitic kind of anti-Zionism. This, incidentally, is also the part of the country where the disastrous legacy of Stalinism and the chronic weakness of organized labor are more visible.
Newspapers like Jungle World that celebrate autonomy in Chiapas, queer politics, and radical ecology are stridently pro-Israel in their outlook. It’s not that all autonomists in Germany support Israel in every instance or are indifferent to the existence of Islamophobia. But openly questioning Israeli oppression of Palestinians is deemed out of bounds, since this could open the gates to existing latent antisemitism.
When Israeli bombs fall on the Gaza Strip killing and maiming thousands, many from the alternative scene abstain from protesting in solidarity with the victims, arguing that since Hamas doesn’t present an “emancipatory alternative,” there isn’t really anyone the Left can embrace.
In this, there is an uncomfortable and often unwilling convergence of autonomist discourses with the rampant Islamophobia currently plaguing Germany, with regular attacks on mosques coupled with calls on Muslims to “integrate” and “disassociate” themselves from ISIS. When a mob of five thousand hooligans, many of them active neo-Nazis, gathered in front of Cologne’s main train station on October 26 to protest “Salafism,” the far smaller counter-demonstration assembled under the abstract slogan “against racism and religious fundamentalism,” apparently eager to disassociate itself from the Salafism.
This had the rather unsettling effect of equating young discriminated Muslims with the direct political heirs of Himmler and Goebbels.
At a subsequent meeting convened to discuss the aftermath of the demonstration, I witnessed how left-oriented German students could genuinely not fathom why the counter-protest’s slogan was outright wrong. This drew the desperate ire of a comrade of Iranian background, a symptom perhaps of a deepening rift between significant parts of the Left and Muslims living in Germany.
Enter Die Linke
Die Linke is vital terrain to struggle against this tendency. Born from a 2007 merger between those fleeing the SPD’s turn to the center — as well as activists energized by the anti-globalization and anti-war movements — and the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the successor to the former East German ruling party, the party runs the entire gamut of the German left.
Those inside the tent include center-left trade unionists, Trotskyists, left-Keynesians, East German ex-communists, autonomists, and even an Antideutsch-inspired group with influence in the party’s youth wing. The party’s founding momentum was the result of a twin rejection of neoliberalism as well as “humanitarian intervention” abroad, which the SPD and the formerly pacifist Greens had championed in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan.
The question of Palestine has subsequently become a largely symbolic issue between those who see it as a matter of principle that an internationalist party should show solidarity with a liberation movement and those who envisage future Die Linke participation in a coalition government as a junior partner of the SPD and the Greens.
A layer of professional politicians from the PDS section — a mass party in the eastern states — leads the second camp. It had already participated in coalitions with the Social Democrats in a few states, including Berlin, where it has often subordinated its left-wing program to neoliberal fiscal concerns. The people currently calling for pro-Palestine MPs Annette Groth and Inge Höger to be expelled include supporters of these coalitions like Stefan Liebich, who professes to be a member of “Atlantik-Brücke,” a think tank dedicated to strengthening the German-American alliance.
They also include Klaus Lederer, Die Linke’s chairman in Berlin, who spoke at a pro-Israel rally during the 2008-09 war on Gaza. “Reflection” and “guilt” over East Germany’s record of “one-sidedness” in the conflict are stated as the main reason for this tilt to the Zionist point of view. Descending from the old GDR’s state-affiliated professional caste, it is not hard to recognize why being in government is seen as a more effective way to change things than being in a movement.
Gysi has been careful to play a more integrative role within the party. But during a speech in 2008 at the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, the party’s think tank, he explicitly linked the prospect of Die Linke joining a future coalition government with the acceptance of the German Staatsräson, or national interest, shared by all other parliamentary forces. In addition to acceptance of Germany’s commitment to NATO and the European Union (EU), this includes assent to its “special relationship” with Israel.
This relationship is evident in German sales of nuclear-capable submarines to Israel, as well as German vetoing of initiatives within the EU to upgrade the status of Palestine. By couching its support for Israel in moral terms, Germany is thus cynically providing a fig leaf for an otherwise morally indefensible status quo that profits its armaments industry.
On the other hand, Oskar Lafontaine, the former SPD maverick whose defection from the Social Democrats was crucial in forming Die Linke, has rarely commented on Palestine. The only exception was a 2006 radio interview during the war on Lebanon, where he spoke of an additional, indirect German responsibility towards the Palestinians.
In all of this, there has been a synergy between the Antideutsch within the party and key sections of the mainly eastern ex-Communists. The first group has engaged in smearing its political opponents as antisemites, something the latter has also taken up, since those outspoken on Palestinian rights often tend to be opposed to future participation as a junior partner government.
Mobilizing the media has been an important aspect of this slander. In 2011, a member of the Antideutsch caucus BAK Shalom – which regularly engages in occupation apologetics – published a “scientific study” on “anti-Zionist antisemitism in Die Linke” in the Frankfurter Rundschau, a mainstream daily. This caused a media storm, with the other parliamentary parties convening a special hearing in the Bundestag on Die Linke’s “antisemitism.”
Amid a subsequent heated internal debate within the party’s parliamentary caucus, a directive was issued prohibiting any discussion on the one-state solution, participation in the BDS campaign, or the second Free Gaza Flotilla. The decision was far from unanimous. Many MPs boycotted the bill, and others were forced into signing off after Gysi threatened to resign if it was rejected. While this has shielded the party from further accusations of antisemitism, it has also driven a wedge between the biggest left-wing German party and the growing global solidarity movement.
Since then, things have been quiet. The party doesn’t just unceasingly call for a two-state-solution, but has elevated it to a political identity, completely detached from realities on the ground and to be defended against Palestinian activists or Israeli leftists like the ones who called on Die Linke to disassociate itself from outfits like BAK Shalom.
However, a significant number of officials and activists actively avoid bringing up the subject, given its divisive potential. The historical weakness of the postwar German left and its constant fragmentation have led to an almost compulsive need for “unity,” even by people whose support for Palestine is not under question. This is often justified by framing the debate as a useless squabble that has no concrete effect.
Up to a certain point, this is understandable. Die Linke is engaged in a delicate effort to create a popular opposition to the powerful Merkel consensus. But this is also a dishonest approach, tantamount to denying the special responsibility of the German government in propping up the occupation, as well as the potential of the German left to actively challenge this collusion with apartheid and to engage in effective — not just symbolic — solidarity.
Israel and German Islamophobia
The internal dynamics of Die Linke and its structural position between opposition and accommodation contribute to its position on Israel. Unfortunately, those same dynamics have prevented the party from taking a principled stance against the EU. Out of fear of being seen as veering too close to the positions of the Eurosceptic right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (“Alternative for Germany”), Die Linke has emphatically rejected questioning the wisdom of the single currency, while at the same time rightly rejecting austerity in the European South, a somewhat unconvincing and contradictory approach.
But its position on Palestine is also derivative of the wider historical and social structure. For this is not just any issue; it is closely linked to Germany’s obsessive need for an assertive new post-1990 national identity, as well as the prevailing Islamophobic climate.
Ever since the Green foreign minister Joschka Fischer justified Germany’s first combat mission since 1945 in Yugoslavia by claiming the aim was to prevent “another Auschwitz,” the historical lessons from the Holocaust have been constantly perverted by Germany´s political elite to pursue dubious political goals at home and abroad.
German pro-Zionism has had the historical function of reintegrating Germany into the “international community.” With Germany now a respected member of that community, Angela Merkel has deemed “Israel’s security” as in Germany’s national interest, which only serves to exclude German Muslims for the fictitious narrative of a “Judo-Christian legacy.”
In this, there’s a convergence with the discourse of “failed” multiculturalism. The killing of the Kilani family in Gaza and the silence of Germany’s political class is a brutal example of which German citizens are considered worthy victims and which are not. A commentary in the Welt, a right-wing daily owned by the Springer Group, even accused Muslims of indulging in constant self-victimization. The publication didn’t receive the slightest bit of backlash.
The overemphasis on “Muslim antisemitism” is a further symptom of this pervasive new ideology. Just consider the protests against Israel’s latest offensive on the Gaza Strip this summer. Media outlets were filled with reports of “Muslim antisemitism,” as antisemitic slogans were heard during spontaneous anti-war marches, where “ethnic Germans” make only a tiny minority of participants.
To be sure, the danger of antisemitism in Germany is a real one and shouldn’t be underestimated. Verbal abuse against Jews has been reported, as well as an arson attack on a synagogue in the city of Wuppertal. As Richard Seymour has shown in the case of France, this antisemitism also exists within Muslim communities that happen to be the victims of constant discrimination themselves.
But this phenomenon is also partly the result of the media’s constant conflation of antisemitism with criticism of Israel, as Rolf Verleger, a former member of Germany’s Jewish Board of Deputies has pointed out. Even a great deal of the German left speaks of “antisemitism and racism,” the implication being that while racism is something easily analyzable, antisemitism is beyond logical explanation.
On another level, this confusion also stems from the Left’s practical inability to relate to events on the street and actively seek dialogue with Muslim communities. Instead, a troublingly elitist emphasis on largely abstract theoretical debates is the typical approach of a large part of Die Linke on this issue.
When party organizations in the Western state of North Rhine-Westphalia organized protests in Cologne and Essen against Israel’s war on Gaza last summer, reformist party officials in Berlin stated that they would not tolerate members of Die Linke marching on demonstrations where antisemitic slogans are heard. This was a top-down approach towards the contradictory nature of spontaneous movements in general, and one that was also accompanied by the media slandering of local party activists as “pandering to Islamic antisemitism,” often in concert with those same party officials.
Activists on the ground, however, have defiantly organized successful protests in Berlin together with Palestinian communities and progressive Jewish organizations, including parts of Berlin’s large Israeli expatriate community. The experience demonstrates that when protests are strategically organized and coordinated, the results open up a number of possibilities, not just to engage in practical solidarity with Palestinians, but also to break the wide gap between the organized left and immigrant workers. Indeed, one might wonder what the possibilities would be if Die Linke threw its entire weight behind such an effort, instead of letting the right-wing media determine its actions.
This is not just an issue of solidarity with a people abroad. It’s a pressing social issue. For in Germany, the powerful ideological domination of capitalism is also the effect of an extremely elitist educational system that separates children from an early age and places them into three distinct types of schooling, only one of which provides eligibility for higher education.
Not surprisingly, it is people from immigrant and working-class backgrounds that are most harmed by the structure of the education system, while the student left tends to be largely middle-class. If the German left is to break the hegemony of Merkelism, it must actively challenge Germany’s alliance with Israel, for it currently serves as the spearhead of a wider Islamophobic discourse that weakens resistance to neoliberalism at home by dividing opposition along cultural lines. This is done by intentionally conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism, which in turn places the damaging stigma of the latter on those more likely to express solidarity with the besieged of Gaza.
On the other hand, the moral underpinning of German support for Israel cynically serves as a way of absolving German capitalism from its expansionist past, thus allowing German power to be projected abroad again; economically in the European South through austerity, and geopolitically against other imperialist powers like Russia. The historic circumstances are different, but Palestine is today to Germany what Algeria was to France in the 1950s — a source of chronic and self-inflicted weakness for the Left.
Which Way Forward for Die Linke?
The main challenge for activists within Die Linke is to link solidarity with Palestine to the struggle against all forms of antisemitism and Islamophobia in Germany. Boycotting Jewish activists like Max Blumenthal and David Sheen is an obvious setback and one that reinforces the current ideological status quo, which ultimately works against the party’s stated goals. Gregor Gysi might have momentarily garnered the sympathy of the right-wing Springer press, but the social and political agenda he stands for has been weakened in the long-run.
Die Linke, after all, will only be accepted by the establishment if it dumps its key defining positions on neoliberalism and foreign interventions. No doubt, some key people on its right-wing would like nothing more than that. But this would render the party unnecessary and politically irrelevant.
The Left within the party is fragmented, a great deal of it placing its hopes in winning the internal debate against reformists on a programmatic basis. This is a mistaken approach, since the party and parliamentary structure is inherently biased in favor of those wishing to soften Die Linke’s positions for the sake of government participation.
What can tilt the balance is an active linking with the international solidarity movement, as some scholars of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung attempted last summer, pointing to the striking contradictions between the party’s internationalist identity and its stance on Palestinian national liberation. It’s part and parcel of creating a movement dynamic enough to challenge the “new German ideology.”