• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

The problem with Germany's unconditional support for Israel

German Prime Minister Angela Merkel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo/Getty Images

Germany has become the first country in Europe to pass a resolution labelling the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement anti-Semitic.

If New Zealand’s favourite husky-voiced pop star, Lorde, had been born German, then, after last month, her videos would no longer be funded by the country’s equivalent of NZ On Air. Not because she’s making too much money, but because, in May, the German Parliament became the first in Europe to pass a resolution labelling the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) anti-Semitic.

The movement, led by Palestinian-rights organisations and inspired by a similar campaign against apartheid-era South Africa, calls for the academic, cultural and economic boycott of Israel. It’s had a number of successes, including having high-profile musicians – such as Lorde – decide not to perform in Israel.

RelatedArticlesModule - Germany Israel BDS

In mid-May, German politicians decided their government should no longer support “any activities of the BDS movement, or any groups that actively pursue its goals”. And projects supporting BDS should not get state funding, they added.

The BDS movement is akin to “the most horrible phase in German history”, the MPs who wrote the resolution explained. The “Don’t Buy” stickers that activists put on Israeli products reminded them of nothing so much as the 1933 Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses.

The right-wing Israeli Government was pleased. Other organisations, many of them Jewish, were not. Conflating the BDS movement and anti-Semitism was “incorrect, unacceptable and a threat to the liberal democratic order in Germany”, a group of 60 academics, about half based in Israel, wrote in an open letter. “The equation of BDS with anti-Semitism has been promoted by Israel’s most right-wing government in history. It is part of persistent efforts to delegitimise any discourse about Palestinian rights.”

In the Guardian, American Jewish writer Aaron Freedman explained the danger of what is increasingly known as the “new anti-Semitism”. This moniker “wasn’t to describe the resurgence of far-right Jew hatred. Rather, it was flung at a burgeoning movement in the US and UK to hold Israel responsible for the apartheid it was perpetuating in the occupied West Bank and Gaza,” Freedman said. “And as this slander is repeated more and more, it comes to take over our popular definition of anti-Semitism, therefore making it harder to recognise, call out and stop the real thing.”

The German resolution goes too far, because it doesn’t differentiate, said Barbara Unmuessig, head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which works with various Middle Eastern civil-society organisations. She told local media, “Nobody is arguing that there are not anti-Semitic activities and trends inside the movement, but you cannot describe the whole movement as such.” Unmuessig was also concerned that positive, peace-building projects would no longer get state funding.

Germany, as a result of its dark history, has a relationship with Israel that is simultaneously sensitive and uncomplicated. Support for Israel is unconditional. And, despite the many reasons modern peace-loving, rubbish-separating, sandal-wearing Germans prefer soft-power diplomacy, that is unlikely to change anytime soon, no matter what Israel does. Ask the Germans to take a more nuanced view of, for example, this resolution, and you’re in danger of being accused of minimising the Holocaust. Or, worse still, of being a German anti-Semite. Or an actual Nazi.

Is there any way of dealing with this guilt and making amends (as much as amends can ever be made) without stumbling into hypocrisy?

Here’s the only thing the granddaughter of a German who was imprisoned for opposing the Nazis, and who used to tell us every time we visited him, “never again”, can politely offer: we must never forget. We must be better. But, when it comes to human rights, maybe it’s time we started reading the fine print, too.

This article was first published in the June 15, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.