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