Augstein and Israel

Wochenzeitung "Der Freitag": Stellenabbau soll Ueberleben sichern

In Germany during the last few weeks there has been a debate about the question of the difference between a critique of Israeli policy and anti-Semitism – a subject that I discussed in a previous post. The debate centres on the 45 year-old German journalist Jakob Augstein, who was recently called an anti-Semite by the Simon Wiesenthal Center because of his criticism of Israel in his columns for Spiegel Online. He was brought up by Rudolf Augstein, the founder editor of Spiegel, and is a major shareholder in the company that owns it. But it emerged in 2002 that his biological father is actually Martin Walser, the 85 year-old writer who is most associated with attempts to draw a Schlußstrich, or final line, under the Nazi past. So influential is Walser perceived to have been – Chancellor Gerhard Schröder seemed implictly to approve of the remarks Walser made in his famous speech at the Paulskirche in Frankfurt in 1998 – that academics have written of a “Walserisation” of Germany during the last decade and a half.

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A post-Zionist Germany?

In a piece about Germany as a geo-economic power that I recently wrote for Internationale Politik, a German foreign-policy journal, I argued that Germany’s “special relationship” with Israel might in future weaken. It seems to me that the relationship is all that remains of the foreign policy based on the idea of Auschwitz as Germany’s raison d’état that Joschka Fischer sought to develop (a theme of my book, Utopia or Auschwitz). Although Chancellor Angela Merkel is personally committed to the Jewish state, I think she is under increasing pressure from an anti-Israeli public opinion and from Germany’s economic interests with the Arab world.  I also wonder whether a dramatic event – such as an Israeli military strike on Iran – could be a tipping point that creates a rupture between Germany and Israel in the way that the Iraq war did between Germany and the US.

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Herzl’s German adventure

I’m very interested in the influence of German ideas and in particular German nationalism on early political Zionism. In previous posts, I’ve written about how the Utopia that Theodor Herzl imagined in his novel Altneuland was in some ways a very German one and how Max Nordau’s ideas were strikingly similar to those of German nationalists. I’ve just finished reading Amos Elon’s excellent biography of Herzl (1975), which (in contrast to Alex Bein’s earlier biography) emphasises how thoroughly German Herzl was in his ideas and aspirations. But the really interesting thing that emerges is how Herzl’s affinity for German culture influenced the political strategy that he followed in order to try to realise his dream of a Jewish state. It seems that Herzl saw it not just as a solution to the “Jewish question” but also as an outpost of German influence in the Orient.

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Moral narcissism

I call it moral narcissism: the tendency to think about morality in terms of how your actions make you feel about yourself rather in terms of their consequences for others. I argued in my book, Utopia or Auschwitz, that German foreign policy debates, for example about the Kosovo and Iraq wars, tend to be narcissistic in this way – they focused, it seems to me, on German identity rather than on the fate of the people in the places where the crises were happening. So I was interested to see that my colleague José Ignacio Torreblanca made a similar point – but in Weberian terms – about Germany’s response to the euro crisis in an op-ed in the FT recently. He suggested that current German foreign policy was gesinnungsethisch rather than verantwortungsethisch – that is, it is based on Max Weber’s concept of an “ethics of conviction” rather than an “ethics of responsibility”. According to this kind of conscience-centred (rather than consequence-centred) thinking, all that matters is being right – regardless of the effects.

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Utopia or Sparta

I recently read Theodor Herzl’s novel Altneuland (1902), which Walter Laqueur aptly describes in the preface to the third edition of his History of Zionism as “political science fiction”. In it, Herzl imagines the future Jewish state – which, he had argued in Der Judenstaat (1896), would be propelled into existence by the misery of Jews in the diaspora – as it might be in the twenties. But, ironically, after insisting in Der Judenstaat that he was not describing a Utopia, he proceeded in Altneuland six years later to do exactly that: Herzl’s imaginary new society is a kind of paradise in which the economy based on the principle of “mutualism” runs smoothly, education is free and women have equal rights. Most strikingly of all, however, Jews and Arabs live in perfect harmony. “Why should we have anything against the Jews?” asks an Arab character in the novel. “They have enriched us and they live with us like brothers”.

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Neoconservatism and the New Left

My colleague Justin Vaïsse has just published an illuminating new history (it was published in French a few years ago but just came out in English) of the American neoconservative movement , which, he argues, can be divided into three distinct phases. First, between 1967 and the mid-seventies, it was a movement of left-wing New York intellectuals who were preoccupied with domestic issues and in particular critical of liberal social policy. Second, from the mid-seventies through to the end of the eighties, it was a movement of centrist Democrat activists who opposed the isolationist turn of the party on foreign policy under McGovern and Carter but also rejected Kissinger’s policy of détente with the Soviet Union. Finally, from the mid-nineties onwards, it was a movement of right-wing Republicans who believed in a “neo-Reaganite” foreign policy and in particular in the use of American power to promote democracy in the post-Cold War world – including, of course, in Iraq.

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Nazi and Israeli propaganda

I received a scathing response to my recent review in the TLS of Jeffrey Herf’s book Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World from Tarif Khalidi, a professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the American University in Beirut. In a somewhat caustic letter to the editor, Khalidi questions whether, as someone who is a not a specialist on the Arab world, I was qualified to review the book and even whether Herf, a professor of European history at the University of Maryland, was qualified to write it. “The Arab/Islamic world is currently the last region on earth where non-experts can freely claim scholarly authority,” Khalidi writes. He also rejects the idea that Herf’s book, a study of the Nazis’ attempts to reach out to Muslims during World War II (which he appears not to have read), might be important for the debate about “Islamofascism”. Finally he says that my review “merely echo[es] tired and tiresome Israeli propaganda”.

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Real and imaginary new Jews

One of the strangest illusions among Germany’s Achtundsechziger – about whom I write in my book, Utopia or Auschwitz – was the idea that they were the “new Jews”. In the late sixties, as members of the protest movement in West Germany came under increasing attack from their parents’ generation – the so-called “Auschwitz generation” – they began to imagine that they had somehow taken the place of, or were being treated like, the European Jews killed in the Holocaust. (Alain Finkielkraut has written eloquently about this in relation to the soixante-huitards – the French equivalent of the Achtundsechziger. He points out in his book The Imaginary Jew that their slogan “Nous sommes tous des juifs allemands” (“We are all German Jews”) – an expression of solidarity with Daniel Cohn-Bendit – suggested that “Jewish identity was no longer for Jews alone” and that “every child of the post-war era could change places with the outsider and wear a yellow star”.)

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Late nationalism

Germany is sometimes thought of as a verspätete Nation, or “belated nation”, in other words one that became a nation state much later than comparable European countries like Britain and France. The term, which comes from Helmuth Plessner’s 1935 book of the same name, is closely connected to the idea of a German Sonderweg, or “special path”. But isn’t the ultimate “belated nation” – albeit in a slightly different sense – Israel? Of course, Israel is in the Middle East, not Europe. But although it was realized in the Middle East in the twentieth century, Zionism came out of nineteenth-century Europe: it was conceived by assimilated Jews like Theodor Herzl as a response to European anti-Semitism and was also influenced by European and particularly German nationalism. Israel is thus of Europe even though it is not in Europe – one of the paradoxes of Zionism.

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Terrorism and time

When I was in Israel last year I met the writer Assaf Gavron, whose novel CrocAttack! is published in the UK by Fourth Estate this week. The novel – which Gavron wrote while he was living in London a few years ago – tells the story of a young Israeli working for a dot-com in Tel Aviv who keeps narrowly missing being killed in terrorist attacks during the second intifada. CrocAttack! is actually Gavron’s fourth novel but the first to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – which may be why it is also the first to have been translated into English. But actually, as I suggest in a post for the Prospect blog today, the most important and interesting theme in the novel is not terrorism but time. Gavron is now working on a novel about settlers and moved to Berlin three weeks ago. At a reading as part of Jewish Book Week in London last night, he was asked how he feels as an Israeli living in Berlin. “Most Israelis feel more more comfortable there than here,” he said.