Just how strongly are Germans allowed to criticize Israel? Accusations of anti-Semitism against SPIEGEL columnist Jakob Augstein have brought the question to the fore. He debates the issue with Dieter Graumann, the leader of Germany's Jewish community.
Since the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center placed German journalist Jakob Augstein, 45, on its list of the world's top 10 anti-Semites, Germany has been embroiled in controversy over his columns for SPIEGEL ONLINE. Augstein, publisher of the Berlin-based weekly magazine Der Freitag and a prominent shareholder of the SPIEGEL publishing house, has attacked Israeli policies on a number of occasions. Dieter Graumann, 62, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, voices criticism of Augstein's articles and engages in a debate with him on the sensitive issue.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Graumann, do you think Jakob Augstein is an anti-Semite?
Graumann: No. To make it clear right from the start, he doesn't belong on the list of top 10 anti-Semites that was recently compiled by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. But I find his column entries despicable and repugnant. He is recklessly fueling anti-Jewish sentiment.
Augstein: That is a serious allegation. What makes you say that?
SPIEGEL: Is there a litmus test for anti-Semitism? Henryk Broder, a former SPIEGEL journalist who is now a regular columnist for the conservative daily Die Welt, summed it up as follows: From now on, I determine what constitutes an anti-Semite. Broder, whose expertise played a role in the Wiesenthal Center's rating ...
Graumann: ... is a gifted polemicist. He has also sharply criticized me on occasion. I survived -- and I still think highly of him.
Augstein: I can't take this quite so lightly. Broder wrote that I could have made my career with the Gestapo and been of service on the ramp (a reference to loading Jews onto rail cars headed for concentration camps). Is that what you mean when you say that he is a gifted polemicist?
SPIEGEL: Let's get back to the definition of anti-Semitism.
Graumann: Anyone who senses a pervasive, worldwide Jewish conspiracy or who holds "the Jews" responsible for all bad things that transpire among nations. Anyone who denies Israel's right to exist, demonizes it or is prepared to accept its annihilation. Anyone who makes plump comparisons with Nazis to condemn Israeli policies.
Augstein: I agree with that definition. Indeed, you have also defined who is not an anti-Semite, namely anyone who views Israel like any other state and criticizes it when its government violates international law. In other words, anyone who does not apply a double standard to Israel. And I would say that this definition applies to me.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Graumann, is this type of normality desirable?
Graumann: If it were as Mr. Augstein describes it -- but that is unfortunately not the case. He absolutely does not treat Israel like any other state. He conveys an image of Israel that is simplistic and distorted. In fact, he conveys -- and I find this particularly pernicious -- anti-Jewish clichés. If I were to rate the cold contempt with which he treats Israel on a scale from 1 to 10, I would give him a solid 13.
SPIEGEL: It sounds as if you perhaps don't like the ranking of the Wiesenthal Center, but you generally agree with their assessment of Augstein. Does he belong on the list after all, but only perhaps behind the American Jew hater Louis Farrakhan, in 11th or perhaps 40th place?
Graumann: Oh, let's just drop the whole ranking analogy! There is a world of difference between the people on this list, between a Holocaust denier like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for instance, or Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, and Augstein. It's also not a matter of whether people in Germany are allowed to criticize Israeli policies. Of course they can do that -- and it constantly occurs in the press. As far as I'm concerned, it can even be harsh criticism. But the question is: When does this criticism become obsessive and hostile, when does it deviate from objective arguments, and when does it become irresponsible? And this is where Mr. Augstein continuously goes beyond the limits.
Augstein: I find what you are saying to be presumptuous and I don't exactly know what you mean by obsessive.
Graumann: In your foreign policy column entries, you focus exclusively on Israel, and on the faults that you believe you have discovered there. Where have you even once attacked the Syrian regime, which has slaughtered 60,000 people -- and where have you written about the Iranian regime's brutalities against its own people? Your focus on Israel creates a moral asymmetry.
Augstein: Really? If I don't write about something, it certainly does not conversely imply that the situation is any less grave elsewhere. And with regard to my alleged focus on the issue of Israel, I have written slightly over 100 column entries for SPIEGEL ONLINE, and of these articles, only five deal with Israel and one with anti-Semitism. If I were obsessed with Israel, that track record would look different. I follow the political agenda with my articles, I certainly don't set it. I react to developments, to news -- such as when the story broke that Germany was delivering submarines to Israel, or that Israel and Iran seemed on the verge of war. The allegation that I focus less on the problems of Tibet or South Sudan seems far-fetched to me. Israel is a key country, located in a key region and a point of friction for the world's religions.
Graumann: And this means that it has to be treated by you in a particularly one-sided and hostile manner? You write here with the sensitivity of a bulldozer.
'An Unfortunate Choice of Words'SPIEGEL: Mr. Augstein, is there nothing that you regret in retrospect? Rabbi Abraham Cooper from the Wiesenthal Center, who we invited to engage in a debate with you, refused to do so unless you apologized in advance.
Augstein: These are journalistic texts, not literature or academic treatises. Of course, not every word is exemplary. It was an unfortunate choice of words to call Gaza a "camp," because it evokes the image of a concentration camp. The term "prison" was already sufficient. But the notion of an apology is odd. Who should I apologize to?
Graumann: In any case, I'm not your wreath-dumping ground. (Editor's note: A reference to debate over whether Holocaust memorials might become a place where ceremonies take the place of critically confronting the crimes they commemorate.)
Augstein: Well, at least we've got that cleared up. I have meticulously reread my articles and, aside from this example, I can find nothing offensive.
Graumann: That's a shame. I, on the other hand, have found no lack of examples. The article with the word "camp" is barely worth mentioning because it is by far not the worst faux pas. In one of his articles, Jakob Augstein writes that if Israel wants something, "Berlin bends to its will." Postulating that Germany has to bend under the yoke of Jewish domination is quite a formula for whipping up anti-Jewish sentiment. We are all familiar with the images from the past that this evokes. Next example, cited from one of Augstein's texts: He writes that the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, driven by the Jewish lobby, "is leading the world by a leash to the sound of a swelling war chant" -- a horrendous choice of words, which insinuates that Jewish puppeteers are leading the entire human race to their doom. I have to interpret this as follows: Israel is the undoing of us all. Third example ...
Augstein: I have to respond to that.
Graumann: Let me finish, or I'll forget something. I have a good memory, but it has its limits.
SPIEGEL: Gentlemen, please. You will have to allow us to facilitate the debate and rely on our fairness. Mr. Graumann, one more example before we go to Mr. Augstein.
Graumann: That ridiculous Muhammad video. According to Augstein, it's clear that Israel benefits from this and, as he writes, the arsonists are located "elsewhere." That sounds very much to me like a Jewish world conspiracy. And then he equated Islamist fundamentalists with Jewish ultra-Orthodox fundamentalists -- who exist and who I certainly do not defend -- as if ultra-religious Jews also blow themselves up as suicide bombers and kill civilians. This was yet another sweeping demonization.
Augstein: Apparently there are contentious, perhaps contaminated terms that you now simply imbue with your own, personal interpretation. At the same time, you are sidestepping the political facts. Now, let's talk about the submarine deal: In violation of its own foreign policy guidelines, Germany is delivering vessels to a highly explosive region -- vessels that can be armed with nuclear weapons, which is something that was long kept secret from the German parliament, the Bundestag.
Graumann: I call Germany's support a responsible policy that helps safeguard the existence of the Jewish state. Furthermore, Social Democratic chancellors have also endorsed such sales.
Augstein: I see this as highly dangerous. What's more, these submarines were partly paid for by the German government, and partly sold below their value. And this supposedly happened without political pressure from Israel? There are witnesses at the Chancellery to Netanyahu's insistent phone calls to Chancellor Angela Merkel. And as far as the term "Jewish lobby" goes, which I only use in relation to the US, what's wrong with that?
SPIEGEL: The term is contentious, but not uncommon. Chuck Hagel, the designated new US secretary of defense, once said: "The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here." He later apologized for the use of the term "Jewish lobby," saying that he should have said "pro-Israel lobby."
Augstein: I would also like to comment on leading world history "by a leash," which, in my opinion, Netanyahu was doing, at least in the run-up to the US presidential election. It cannot be denied that the prime minister based his political policy on the threat of an imminent Israeli military strike.
SPIEGEL: You make it sound as if Israel is at least as great a threat to world peace as the aspiring nuclear power Iran. Which of them is the greater threat?
Augstein: This isn't some kind of talent show where Germany is looking for the super threat to world peace. Let's stick to the facts. We don't even know what Iran is doing. You can read in The New York Times that the CIA believes that Iran is not building a bomb. Don't forget that the war against Iraq was based on the lie that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. There were none.
Graumann: How blind can one be to equate democratic Israel with this repressive, Islamist religious state and its Holocaust deniers -- or even to think that Tehran is less "dangerous?" Augstein defends Günter Grass, who also sees it that way. This just flabbergasts me -- trivializing a regime that tortures dissenters, stones women to death and exports hate and terror, while Israel is demonized.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Augstein, this point makes your argument difficult to follow.
Augstein: Why would I defend Iran? An Islamist dictatorship! I'm saying that democratic Israel is an occupying power and it oppresses the Palestinians. Netanyahu's settlement policy has been condemned by the United Nations as a violation of international law. You, Mr. Graumann, are trying to divert attention from this, and Germany's politicians are treating the issue with kid gloves. We should call injustice by its name.
Graumann: You are the one who commits injustice by painting a grotesquely distorted image of Israel.
Augstein: I can't see how radical religious fundamentalism on the Jewish side should be any more positive than on the Islamic side. Once again, this is precisely the double standard that is so often applied in this region of the world.
'You Don't Grasp the Emotional Component'SPIEGEL: Mr. Graumann, the Israeli terrorist Baruch Goldstein, for instance, massacred over two dozen Palestinian faithful in Hebron. Isn't that comparable to the mass murder of young people in a Tel Aviv disco by a Palestinian suicide bomber?
Graumann: That was a totally isolated case, as you can see by the fact that you even know his name. By contrast, you won't have the names of the countless Islamist attackers on the tips of your tongues, because there are so many of them and people have evidently grown accustomed to them. And there certainly aren't any appeals on the Israeli side to wipe out entire ethnic groups.
SPIEGEL: But you can't be happy with what Netanyahu's government is doing. Netanyahu himself has made Nazi comparisons. He equates Ahmadinejad with Hitler and says: Today is 1938 and Iran is Germany. And why don't we hear any criticism from you of the Israeli settlement policy, which does in effect undermine a two-state solution?
Graumann: I don't have the impression that there is a lack of criticism of the settlement policy.
SPIEGEL: That is an elegant way of avoiding a clear statement. The voice of the Central Council of Jews president has a considerable, at least moral weight.
Graumann: You overestimate my influence. If it makes you feel any better, I do in fact have misgivings about the current settlement policy. But there is absolutely no appreciation for the fact that we share a real community of values with Israel. My reproach of Mr. Augstein is that he reduces Israel solely to the theme of its settlement policy -- and that he never takes into account Israel's existential fears when making his observations. Israel is threatened by its neighbors more than any other country.
Augstein: That is exactly how I described it.
Graumann: Perhaps as an aside, but you don't even begin to grasp the emotional component -- what it means to be constantly exposed to the shelling by Hamas or the extermination plans of the Iranians. You write about this country with a cold heart, with a frigid empathy that gives me the shivers.
Augstein: Excuse me, but I don't see it like that. I write about Israel the way I write about the Social Democratic Party (SPD). No, that's not quite right, I write about the SPD in a decidedly more critical and malicious manner.
Graumann: I also want to point out a statement that you made on a talk show hosted by Günther Jauch. Mr. Augstein, you said it doesn't make Germany's crimes any better if the Israelis now commit their own crimes. By making this comparison, you are in fact pandering to anti-Jewish sentiment. You play on this keyboard, perhaps unconsciously, but you tinkle away. You do it casually, carelessly, negligently and, in my opinion, inadmissibly.
Augstein: Nicely put.
Graumann: Thank you. Now, just say that it's true and we'll be in agreement.
Augstein: Of course it's not true. I am arguing rationally while you are trying to take this to the psycho-emotional level.
Graumann: Your choice of words does effectively raise certain questions. Why is that so? Is there something else that is concealed in your inner self?
SPIEGEL: Do you mean that Jakob Augstein needs to have therapy?
Graumann: I'll be damned if I'm going to make any diagnostic suggestions. It's not my place to do so.
Augstein: I'm glad to hear that. All Germans probably belong in therapy -- and probably all Jews as well.
Graumann: The Jews who live in this country are Germans as well. Yes, we Jews are traumatized, and I wish that everyone would be sensitive to this.
Augstein: Yes, we should all go into therapy -- side by side. But allow me to note something in an entirely unemotional manner: Everything that I criticize about Israel has already been criticized more harshly by Israeli journalists. Nobody gets upset about that and everyone in Israel sees this as a sign of freedom of expression. It's only here in Germany that individuals are quickly branded as anti-Semites.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Graumann, is there an anti-Semitism label that is rapidly applied here in Germany? Is everyone who does not follow Ms. Merkel's dictum that Israel's security is part of Germany's "raison d'être" subject to suspicion?
Graumann: Criticizing Israel is not taboo these days, but rather criticizing the criticism of Israel. Don't act as if Mr. Augstein were alone. Since he was given this ranking, he has enjoyed the full support of the German press.
Augstein: That's not true. I'm fiercely attacked, occasionally below the belt, and often very rationally. Believe me; I'm not immune to being branded like this. It's practically the worst stigma that exists in Germany. But I'm trying to direct the debate to the issue at hand -- to Netanyahu's intolerable policies.
'A Conflict of Roles' for a German JournalistGraumann: You should actually send flowers to the Wiesenthal Center every day because they have made you so popular.
Augstein: That's cynical.
Graumann: Our debate is going in the wrong direction. Mr. Augstein only wants to talk about current Israeli policies, while he sweeps aside his use of problematic figures of speech.
SPIEGEL: Both are relevant to the issue.
Graumann: Then I would like to say once again what Mr. Augstein apparently has such difficulty grasping: He doesn't understand the Jewish trauma that is shared by Jews worldwide. We will never again expose ourselves to the threat of extermination -- this lesson burns in all of us. That is our experience, our history -- and I do expect a German journalist to have a modicum of sensitivity for this.
Augstein: A number of different issues are mixed together here. One of them is as follows: Can a German journalist report on Netanyahu's settlement policy in the same way that a Swiss or a Spanish journalist does? The other issue is German-Jewish relations, which can never be fully healed. I think most Germans have a great deal of sensitivity to this.
Graumann: I don't notice this with you.
Augstein: There is a conflict of roles here. As a German, I would like to take a cautious approach with Israel. As a journalist, however, I want to be candid. How do I resolve this? It's a double-bind situation. Should I add a severability clause to every criticism of Israel stating that I have nothing against Jews? That's neurotic journalism. Should we ignore that Israel's government violates the law and that there are also alternatives?
Graumann: I'm sure the Israelis have been waiting with bated breath for your suggestions. It's easy to judge Israeli policy from Berlin, but things look different on the ground, where people are grappling with existential matters -- with life and death. One has to recognize this emotionally, if one has a heart -- assuming one has one.
Augstein: Whoa, now that could have come straight from Henryk Broder.
Graumann: I recall a statement made by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, who said that we Jews don't have an antenna for anti-Semitism -- we are the antennas. If I say that anti-Jewish sentiment is favored by your articles, then you should take that seriously. It's not hysterics.
Augstein: It appears to me that this serious allegation is being used to divert attention away from other issues. This is not about me; it's about putting a stop to the debate process.
SPIEGEL: The Simon Wiesenthal Center has now once again amended its position and said that you as an individual are not anti-Semitic, but some of your statements are anti-Semitic -- and it could be that you're not even aware of it. Have you delved deeply into yourself?
Augstein: That's the iron-clad nature of this allegation. If I now say that I haven't found anything anti-Semitic in myself, then the polemical Mr. Broder will say: Aha, he doesn't even notice it. Everyone says you're allowed to criticize Israel, but when you do, you get clobbered over the head.
Graumann: Let me tell you something. Last year, SPD party chairman Sigmar Gabriel visited the West Bank and said that Israel was pursuing a policy of apartheid. I criticized him for this, but I would never dream of calling him an anti-Semite. Recently, SPD General Secretary Andrea Nahles met with Fatah and said that there were shared values between the SPD and Fatah. I find that horrible. I have a high regard for the SPD. It's the oldest party in Germany, and that's occasionally evident, but it's selling itself short if it sees a community of values with Fatah. Still, it would never occur to me to say that Ms. Nahles is an anti-Semite. I would also never say that Gabriel and Nahles convey anti-Jewish sentiments, as I say to you. And I would also say to you that if you paused before you let loose against Israel, a great deal would be gained.
'I Don't Understand the Israelis'SPIEGEL: Mr. Graumann, you recently wrote a book in which you said that we all have to finally break away from the never-ending issue of anti-Semitism. Now, you're more deeply involved in this issue than you have been in years -- take, for example, the circumcision debate.
Graumann: It goes without saying that when I wrote this book almost a year ago, I couldn't imagine that this ghastly circumcision debate would come upon us. We also had the Günter Grass poem, and then the attack on Berlin Rabbi Daniel Alter. Nevertheless, I would like to underscore that Judaism doesn't focus exclusively on catastrophes and criticism. In fact, it primarily conveys great values and embraces life with enthusiasm. We intend to steadfastly build our new, positive and flourishing Jewish future. Such debates -- including the one that we are engaging in now -- will always exist, and they don't set us back. The circumcision debate went deeper. We were given supposed guidance, and much of this surprised and hurt us.
Augstein: I didn't write anything about circumcision!
Graumann: No, you actually didn't. It's better that way.
Augstein: And I totally agree with you on this issue.
SPIEGEL: There we go!
Augstein: During this circumcision debate, alarming things came to the surface. Indeed, this is precisely why I feel that in this debate that we are conducting you are playing into the hands of the anti-Semites. The allegation that I have a cold heart cuts me to the quick, and I don't think that coldness fits my nature. My articles have nothing to do with the Jews as such.
Graumann: Why then do you use anti-Jewish clichés? Incidentally, the Israeli government didn't come into power by means of a putsch, but was democratically elected.
Augstein: Then I don't understand the Israelis. On the one hand, they favor a two-state solution, while on the other hand they elect a government that makes two states an impossibility. For me, coming to terms with the Holocaust was the formative, politicizing experience of my childhood. But there is no transfer when I deal with the Israeli settlement policy.
SPIEGEL: This feeling that this terrible injustice was done in name of the German people doesn't transfer for you into a sympathy for the people who live in Israel?
Augstein: It doesn't transfer into a sympathy for Israeli government policy.
SPIEGEL: But the state of Israel would be inconceivable without what happened in Germany.
Augstein: Nevertheless, we should not deliver submarines there that are capable of carrying nuclear warheads. That is my political view. Perhaps I have more normality in my approach to Israel than you realize. I refuse to embrace this neurotic journalism. I don't write any differently about Angela Merkel, America, Germany's far-left Left Party or the SPD.
Graumann: Don't you feel that it's somehow different?
Augstein: I understand that this is what you are saying. But when I write, I actually don't feel any difference.
Graumann: In that case, before you send it off, read it once again -- with empathy.
Augstein: I don't want to do that. As a journalist, I don't want to feel inhibited when I write texts about Israeli security and settlement policies. I don't have the feeling that I need to hold myself back when it comes to the things that I write about. With the word "camp," I definitely went too far.
Graumann: You generally charge forward unrestrained when you write about this topic. If one were to remove a single term from your line of argument -- namely settlement policy -- nothing would remain.
Augstein: Mr. Graumann, if the settlement policy were removed, I wouldn't criticize Israel.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Graumann, your parents renamed you as a child. Your real name is David, but you were supposed to pretend that it was Dieter in school, so you wouldn't immediately be recognized as a Jew. Would something like this still be possible today?
Graumann: Biblical names are popular these days. Jakob, Mr. Augstein, is also biblical. When I was young, there were hardly any non-Jewish boys in Germany with the name David, and by the same token, I am today probably the only Jewish Dieter in Germany.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Augstein, do you occasionally travel to Israel?
Augstein: I have never been there for business, and I don't want to travel there for pleasure.
Graumann: Why is that?
Augstein: I also wouldn't have traveled to South Africa during apartheid.
Graumann: What a comparison! You have never been to Israel?
Augstein: No. If I had had the feeling that Israel wanted to resolve this conflict with the Palestinians, things would have been different. You probably find this strange, but I don't want to lie on the beach in Tel Aviv as long as the situation remains as it is just a few kilometers to the south.
SPIEGEL: We have talked about Mr. Graumann's socialization. How would you characterize yours, Mr. Augstein? The socialization by your biological father, Martin Walser (a prominent author who sparked controversy with a 1998 speech in which he called Auschwitz a browbeating routine), and the socialization by founder of SPIEGEL magazine Rudolf Augstein, who raised you?
Augstein: World War II played an important role in the lives of both my fathers, and that's had a major impact on me. Rudolf Augstein had a scar on one side of his forearm, where a piece of shrapnel had entered it, and a scar on the other side, where there was an exit wound. This injured arm is one of my childhood memories. As for Martin Walser, we all know that the crisis of German identity is a dominant theme for him.
SPIEGEL: After debate over Walser's controversial speech at St. Paul's Church, and the reactions that followed, many people remain convinced that he is an anti-Semite. Why aren't you more cautious? What is your motivation?
Augstein: Walser is not an anti-Semite, so there is no genetic basis for anti-Semitism here.
SPIEGEL: The question is merely why your observations of events have not led you to draw the conclusion that Jewish issues need to be approached with greater sensitivity?
Augstein: I have a different view of journalism. I've been doing this work for 20 years and, up until two years ago, I hadn't written any articles about Israel.
Graumann: If only you had never started! You're simply not cut out for it.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Augstein, Mr. Graumann, thank you for taking part in this debate.
Interview conducted by Sussane Beyer and Erich Follath. Translated from the German by Paul Cohen.
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