What Makes an Anti-Semite? Wiesenthal List Induces Hand-Wringing in Germany

The Wiesenthal Center included a top German publisher on its 2012 list of leading anti-Semites alongside the Muslim Brotherhood and Iranian President Ahmadinejad. His writings have been have highly critical of Israel, but how far is too far?
German journalist Jakob Augstein.

German journalist Jakob Augstein.

Foto: Karlheinz Schindler/ dpa

Most of the entries on the 2012 list of top anti-Semites published by the Simon Wiesenthal Center just after Christmas are unsurprising. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood makes the list. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is there. European soccer fans, some of them notoriously racist, land at No. 4. A handful of right-wing extremist parties in Europe are also fingered.

Number nine on the list (PDF) , however, has caused many in Germany to scratch their heads. It is Jakob Augstein, the editor of the weekly paper Der Freitag and a columnist for SPIEGEL ONLINE (whose editorials are occasionally translated for publication in English). His offense? The fact that he has been vociferously critical of Israeli policy.

"Gaza is a place out of the end of times," Augstein writes in one of the lines quoted by the Wiesenthal Center. "1.7 million people live there on 360 square kilometers. Israel incubates its own opponents there." Other lines chosen to illustrate the journalist's alleged anti-Semitism state that US presidents "must secure the support of Jewish lobby groups" and that "the Netanyahu government keeps the world on a leash with an ever-swelling war chant." Augstein writes that "Jews also have their fundamentalists, the ultra-orthodox Hareidim," who are "cut from the same cloth as their Islamic fundamentalist opponents." And he calls "the US Republicans and the Israeli government" insane and unscrupulous.

Perhaps predictably, the inclusion of Augstein, son of SPIEGEL's founding editor in chief Rudolf Augstein, on the list has launched yet another national debate  in Germany  about the contours of anti-Semitism and how far one can go when criticizing Israel before being labelled a racist. Germany's history , after all, has long informed the country's deep official support of Israel, but its center-left majority displays an almost reflexive affinity for the Palestinians.

Defenders from All Sides of the Political Spectrum

The most recent outburst resulting from that tension was on full display last April. German Nobel laureate Günter Grass took aim at Israel  in a new poem deeply critical of the country's nuclear policy. And Grass was roundly criticized, both in the German press and abroad -- though Augstein wrote a defense of the novelist .

This time, the reaction has been different. While Augstein has plenty of detractors, much of the critique this week has so far been directed at the Los Angeles-based Wiesenthal Center itself. And Augstein has found defenders on all sides of the political spectrum.

"The choice of Jakob Augstein for ninth place on the list of the 10 worst anti-Semites is a serious intellectual and strategic error made by the Simon Wiesenthal Center," wrote, for example, the influential conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. "Not only has a critical journalist been placed in a group into which he doesn't belong, the nine other people and groups who have justifiably been pilloried can now exculpate themselves by pointing to such arbitrariness."

Augstein has also been defended by a senior member of the far-left Left Party and a deputy head of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats. And on Friday, the Central Council of Jews in Germany also declined to make the Wiesenthal Center's list its own. "I have read some of his stuff, though not that much," Central Council Vice President Salomon Korn said in a Friday interview with German radio station Deutschlandradio Kultur. "I never had the impression that what he wrote was anti-Semitic."

Augstein himself has also sought to defend himself. He said in a Thursday statement that he has the greatest respect for the Wiesenthal Center. That, though, he added, "makes it all the more distressing when their fight is weakened. That is necessarily the outcome when critical journalism is defamed as racist or anti-Semitic."

'Incorrect and Baseless'

In choosing Augstein for its list, the Wiesenthal Center also quoted Henryk Broder, a columnist for the conservative daily Die Welt (and former SPIEGEL journalist) and a well-known essayist and polemicist in Germany. Broder has called Augstein a "little Streicher" (in reference to Hitler propagandist Julius Streicher) and a "pure anti-Semite," and he has said that Augstein "only missed the opportunity to make his career with the Gestapo because he was born after the war. He certainly would have had what it takes."

Korn noted in his comments on German radio that the Wiesenthal Center was misguided in quoting Broder's critique of Augstein. "You can't always take what (Broder) says at face value and you can't always take what he says seriously," Korn said.

Not all in Germany, however, have proven willing to back the Der Freitag editor. Broder's employer Die Welt on Friday published an editorial allowing that the Wiesenthal Center perhaps went too far in putting Augstein on its list, but arguing that he did indeed show elements of anti-Semitism. "He attempts to morally discredit Israel, to hollow out its legitimacy and to make it a pariah among nation-states just as Jews were a pariah among the peoples of Europe not that long ago," the paper writes.

Michel Friedman, a former vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, struck a similar tone. While saying that he consider's Augstein's critique of Israel to be "overwrought, wrong and disproportionately polemic," he added that "visible anti-Semites, neo-Nazi murderers, terrorists and salon Nazis at cocktail receptions worry me more."

The Wiesenthal Center, for its part, is not backing down. "Just because he is a journalist, we are not giving Mr. Augstein license to say what he wants and to hide behind journalistic integrity," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the center in an interview with the German news agency DPA. "His statements are incorrect and baseless."

In another interview with a German public radio station, Cooper accused Augstein of "demonizing" Israel by comparing the ultra-orthodox Hareidim with Islamic fundamentalists.

cgh -- with wire reports
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