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18 December 2023

The Gessen affair and Germany’s ignorance about Jews

By criticising the journalist Masha Gessen, Germany misunderstands one of its greatest thinkers, Hannah Arendt.

By Susan Neiman

You might think that Germans would know something about Hannah Arendt. With the possible exception of Albert Einstein, no Jewish intellectual who was forced to flee Nazi Germany is more honoured. Her portrait graces postage stamps, schools, institutes, journals, and even a train line has been named after her. A major exhibition “Hannah Arendt and the 20th Century” took place at the German Historical Museum in 2020. And it’s hard to find a politician whose speechwriter has never slipped in an Arendt quotation.

You might think so, but you’d be wrong. Masha Gessen was scheduled to receive the Hannah Arendt Prize in Bremen, north-west Germany on 16 December. Gessen is a distinguished and courageous writer whose work has largely focused on Russia and Ukraine but is prepared to call out repression where they see it. After they did so about Germany and Israel in a New Yorker article published on 9 December, the Green Party’s Böll Foundation, which organises the prize, pulled its support. The reason? Gessen’s statements about the Near East conflict – particularly the claim that conditions in Gaza are comparable to those in Nazi-constructed ghettos in eastern Europe – disqualify them in Germany in a way that would discredit everyone who would participate in the prize ceremony, above all the German-Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt. After quite a lot of turmoil Gessen did receive the prize, albeit in a smaller format, but the stain on Germany’s public culture will remain.

It’s clear to anyone who has read much of Arendt’s work that she would be outraged by the thought that Gessen’s statements on Israel/Palestine would discredit her own name. What were Arendt’s views on Israel? Like those of many Jews, they were complicated. Rising anti-Semitism in the 1930s led her to support the need for a Jewish homeland, although not a Jewish state; like Einstein, she was part of the Brit Shalom movement that hoped for a binational state that would give full rights to Jews and Arabs. Her support was not confined to statements; as a refugee in Paris between 1933 and 1939, she became secretary-general of Youth Aliyah in Paris, helping endangered young Jews emigrate to Palestine, and organising food, clothing and lawyers for them. After the war, she worked to retrieve Jewish cultural assets for the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction.

Yet as the state of Israel was emerging, she was quick to condemn tendencies within it she described as “fascist”. Nine times, as a matter of fact, in the open letter she wrote for the New York Times in 1948, to protest the US visit of Menachem Begin, whose party she called “terrorist” five times. It was signed by 27 distinguished Jews, most famous among them Albert Einstein. Nothing in Gessen’s New Yorker article is as incendiary as the statements in the letter.

While Begin’s party, Tnuat Haherut, was not large at the time, he later founded Likud and was Israel’s prime minister between 1977 and 1983, ending the tradition of Israeli Labor Party rule in the country. Reading the letter today, with its description of Tnuat Haherut as “an admixture of ultranationalism, religious mysticism, and racial superiority”, those who follow Israeli news must admire Arendt’s prescience. Sadly, contemporary liberal Israelis would prefer Begin to the current Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu: compared with the latter Begin upheld Israeli democracy and promoted peace with the Arab world.

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Though the open letter is available online it is less widely known than many of Arendt’s writings. (Because Arendt was virtually unknown at the time that she drafted it, it is often referred to as the Einstein letter.) The Böll Foundation and the city of Bremen can be forgiven for overlooking it when they suggested Gessen would sully Arendt’s legacy – though Arendt’s comparisons are considerably more provocative. What’s more astonishing is that Germany seems to have forgotten the controversy over Arendt’s most famous book, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), which sparked one of the most turbulent literary controversies in the second half of the 20th century. Arendt was falsely accused of blaming the victims of the Holocaust and excusing the perpetrators – what Germans today call a täter-opfer umkehr, or a “perpetrator-victim reversal”.

Anyone who reads the book carefully can see she did neither, but Arendt pulled no punches in criticising the ways in which Israel conducted and instrumentalised the Eichmann trial, and pointed out racist features of the (still-existing) Israeli marriage laws. Arendt lost many friends during the controversy. The historian Gershom Sholem, who left Germany for the British Mandate of Palestine in 1923, and remained in Israel until his death in 1982, accused her of lacking love for Israel, to which she responded that her love was always for people, not nations. Because of that book, her work was not published in Hebrew for many decades. It was an intellectual event in Israel when the historian Steven Aschheim dared to organise the first conference devoted to the book in 1997.

Gessen is the most prominent among a growing list of Jewish women who have, in the past few years, been lambasted in Germany for criticising the Israeli government – such as the artist Candice Breitz, the writer-activist Emily Dische-Becker, the author Deborah Feldman, the writer Eva Menasse, and myself. There are differences between our views, but what is common is the misogynistic tone conveyed in the media’s dismissive contempt for our arguments, which discuss Israel, and the present war, in ways they are regularly discussed in Haaretz, the New York Times or the Guardian. Germany prefers to remember Jews as victims, rather than as the bold and brave champions of universal human rights we have sometimes been. It’s a standpoint that not only reveals an ignorance of Arendt; it shows how little the country still knows about Jews.

[See also: Germany’s new years of lead]

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