SPIEGEL Debate: What Is Anti-Semitism?

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. Augstein, are you an anti-Semite?

Augstein: No.

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 clichťs. 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.

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1. Anti Semitism???
sylvesterthecat 01/16/2013
I read the exchanges between the two antagonists with surprise and some amazement. Two tennis players knocking accusations of anti Semitism backwards and forwards each one trying to score points off each other. OK if the 'players' enjoyed the game then that's fine, if not it was a thoroughly pointless exercise. I honestly do not believe that this 'exchange'could have taken in England,(yes, I know England and Germany have different histories) where most would define anti-Semitism as an attack or discrimination against some or all the Jewish people. On the other hand, a state or a political construct built by one or more Jewish people is 'fair game' and an attack would not be seen as anti Semitism. I don't think I'd like to spend an evening with either of these two characters.
2. Two comments
rojam 01/27/2013
First, it has been interesting for a non-German to read this debate but I am puzzled by Spiegel's comment that Israel would have been inconceivable without the Holocaust. Although Israel was formally created in 1947 its establishment began at least 30 years earlier when the early Zionist movement persuaded the British government to publish the Balfour Declaration, which gave a basis for European Jews to settle in Israel, which was then a British mandate called Palestine. The Balfour Declaration was actually written by Chaim Weizmann, according to his autobiography, but some of the terms were moderated by Lord Balfour, on behalf of the British government. The declaration said, in part: "His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." Weizmann later became the first president of Israel. Second, the language of the representative of German Jewry, particularly his attacks on the journalist, appeared unproductive. Diverting the debate to attacking the messenger, rather than attacking or attempting to destroy his argument, is a diversionary tactic as old as language. The Romans had a term for it - argumentum ad hominem - and while it is often effective in the short term, in the broader sense it is usually counterproductive because it indicates the user has no substantive argument. People defending Israel must defend its settlement policies and Israelis' treatment of the Palestinians, both of which are generally regarded as illegal according to international law. This defence is obviously difficult, at least for people aware of the Geneva conventions and UN Security Council resolutions and of what is actually happening in Israel and the occupied territories, so it is much easier to attack the messenger, as has happened in this debate. Overall, the reader is left with the impression that the aim of supporters of Israel is to prevent ALL rational debate on the rights and wrongs of Israel's settlement policies usw. Accusing a person of being an anti-Semite, especially while not defining exactly what this means, is a form of argumentum ad hominem.
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