Thoughts on Israel

Post-Zionist graffiti
Originally uploaded by Hans Kundnani.

Since I visited Israel for the first time in April, I’ve been thinking a lot about where legitimate criticism of Israel ends and anti-Semitism begins. I’m currently reading an excellent German anthology (includes essays by Tony Judt, Jeffrey Herf, Gerd Koenen etc.) on the debate about whether there is such a thing as a “new anti-Semitism” (especially on the European left but also in the Islamic world). It’s a theme that also runs through my book, Utopia or Auschwitz, which tells the story of Germany’s 1968 generation. In fact, the book is among other things a case study of how one small group of people went from criticising Israeli policy to attacking Jews.

When I was in Israel, I gave a talk to graduate students at the Koebner Center for German History at Hebrew University in Jerusalem on left-wing anti-Semitism in 1960s and 1970s West Germany. What was interesting about the discussion that followed was the way they students pressed me to clarify the difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. These were smart, young Israelis who are used to the Israeli right dismissing any criticism of Israeli policy as anti-Semitism. As a result, they are rightly sensitive to abuse of the accusation of anti-Semitism. On the other hand, there is clearly some criticism of Israel that does not mention the Jews as such that is nevertheless anti-Semitic. So where to draw the line? Is it anti-Semitism, for example, when the French ambassador in London calls Israel a “shitty little country” at a dinner party?

It seems to me that we can say criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic when it either takes on the character of an obsession with Israeli policy or if it displays the structure of classical anti-Semitism. It may be possible even to deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state without being anti-Semitic; this seems to me to be a legitimate position, though one I disagree with. But when someone becomes obsessed with Israeli policy or, for example, describes Zionism as a global conspiracy – one of the key features of modern anti-Semitism – they consciously or unconsciously move into a grey area between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. That is what makes the much-debated question of the “Israel lobby” in the United States so difficult: there is a subtle but importance difference between a lobby and a conspiracy (see this piece by Tony Judt).

There is some outright anti-Semitism in the story of the German Achtundsechziger who I write about in the book. Dieter Kunzelmann, a leading figure in the APO (Extra-Parliamentary Opposition) put a bomb in the Jewish Community on the anniversary of Kristallnacht in November 1969. Two West German members of the Revolutionary Cells, Winfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann, separated Jews and non-Jews during the Entebbe hijacking. However, the question – which the graduate students in Jerusalem quickly focused on – is whether these were just pathologically-motivated exceptions or whether they were part of a wider ideologically-motivated tendency on the West German student movement. It’s true that most others did not go to such extremes as these members of the so-called “armed struggle”. But some – like Ulrike Meinhof, once the embodiment of the 1968 generation’s “resistance” against the “Auschwitz generation” – did share their obsession with Israeli policy and came to see Zionism as a conspiracy. I think it’s therefore fair to speak of a current of anti-Semitism in the West German New Left.

More on the bomb in the Jewish Community Centre in 1969 and the extent of anti-Semitism among the Achtundsechziger here – original German here. I interviewed Tilman Fichter for my book as well.

I’m looking forward to discussing this some more with readers when the book comes out…


2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Israel

  1. Pingback: Augstein and Israel « Hans Kundnani

  2. Dear Hans,
    What an interesting blog. I found it through your piece on Orwell and “the deep, deep sleep of England” and then read your pieces on the ‘68 generation and the “Never again Auschwitz” pivot. So interesting for me, an English 69 year old professor at University College London. Well done!

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