German Jews Feud Over Criticizing Israel

Fight Mirrors Similar Debates in Britain and Australia

By Ben Weinthal

Published March 09, 2007, issue of March 09, 2007.
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Berlin - A declaration criticizing Israeli territorial policies is roiling the German Jewish community and raising questions about the limits of open debate on matters in relation to the Middle East.

At issue is a declaration published in January in one of the country’s most widely read Jewish newspapers, Die Jüdische Zeitung (The Jewish Newspaper). The statement, titled “Berlin Declaration Shalom 5767” — a reference to the current year in the Jewish calendar — and organized by a member of the presiding committee of the Central Council of German Jews, Rolf Verleger, called on Germany’s government to do more to press Israel to make concessions, and asserted that the “root of the problem is the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory since 1967.”

A related advertisement was placed in two of Germany’s large and influential dailies, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

In addition, Die Jüdische Zeitung published an opinion essay by Kurt Goldstein, a Holocaust survivor and honorary chairman of the International Auschwitz Committee, rebutting criticisms of the declaration. “It was said that a Declaration like ‘Shalom 5767’ is grist to the mill of antisemites in the entire world,” he wrote. “However, the reality is that there is nothing more that helps the antisemites [than] what Israel did in the War in Lebanon.”

Leaders of the Central Council — which represents 105,000 German Jews, an overwhelming majority — have condemned the declaration, and the body is expected to discuss the matter later this month. The trustees of the newspaper published a statement in this month’s issue voicing their “indignation” over the publication of Goldstein’s piece.

The flap in Germany comes as similar controversies are unfolding in Australia and Britain, where a new group, Independent Jewish Voices, argues that the organized community is stifling debate over Israel.

“Independent Jewish Voices arose out of our sense of frustration that British Jewry [was] assumed to talk with one voice, and also that criticism of Israel from Jews is often targeted as antisemitic,” said Jacqueline Rose, a founding member of the group.

The group launched with an open letter and declaration posted February 5 to the Web site of the Guardian newspaper.

Among the signatories was Mike Leigh, an Academy Award-nominated director, and playwright/actor Stephen Fry.

The group’s letter put forth five principles it wanted upheld “in respect of the grave situation in the Middle East”: that human rights are universal; that Palestinians and Israelis have the right to live peaceful and secure lives; that peace and stability require a willingness to comply with international law; that there is no justification for any form of racism, and that the battle against antisemitism is undermined when opposition to Israeli government policies is automatically branded as antisemitic, as they claim it is.

It was the final point that most raised the hackles of the mainstream British Jewish community, with the implication that the Jewish establishment is somehow silencing voices of dissent.

“The whole suggestion that anti-Israeli voices are not heard is such nonsense that it really doesn’t merit a response,” said Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

The British critics of Israel have inspired a similar effort in Australia. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the new Australian group, Independent Australian Jewish Voices, launched an online campaign this week, with one organizer saying Australian Jews were “basically brainwashed” into uncritical support of Israel.

In Germany, observers on both sides of the debate said that the new English group had done a better job of generating publicity.

The British activists “were able to carry it off better,” Verleger said, adding that the paltry press coverage was inexplicable.

Gideon Joffe, president of the Berlin Jewish community, speculated in an interview with the Forward that the story had not resonated in Germany because, for historical reasons, the country had a greater level of “sensitivity regarding antisemitism,” compared with Britain or the United States.

The declaration argued that guilt and shame over the Holocaust explain why German officials have not done more to press Israel to make a deal with the Palestinians.

Verleger, who is a professor of neuropsychology at the University of Lübeck, first upset other leaders in the Jewish community last summer, with a letter to the Central Council’s presiding committee regarding the war in Lebanon. He criticized the council for having “publicly taken sides with the military measures of the Israeli government against Lebanon.” His letter triggered a flood of criticism within the community, and the council’s secretary-general, Stephan Kramer, panned Verleger’s letter as “parroting anti-Israeli and antisemitic clichés and stereotypes.”

The Conservative Jewish community in the Federal German State of Schleswig-Holstein sacked Verleger as its chairperson in late August; he remains a member of the presiding committee of the Central Council.

Fueling the controversy, the trustees of Die Jüdische Zeitung, the newspaper in which the declaration and Goldstein’s opinion piece appeared, issued their own statement criticizing the publication’s publishing decisions, asking, “Does this newspaper want to go about as the mouthpiece for anti-Israeli propaganda?”

Lutz Lorenz, an editor of the newspaper, told the Forward that in the upcoming March issue of Die Jüdische Zeitung, the following statement would appear: “The Board of Trustees of the Jewish Newspaper voiced unanimously once again in a routine session of the Board in February 2007 the indignation about the publication of the article ‘A Nation Like Every Other’ by Kurt Goldstein in the January issue of the newspaper.”

Joffe also criticized Goldstein’s article. He said, “It is a pity that such a one-sided declaration comes from Jews” and “that a Jew, who survived Auschwitz, signed the declaration.”

In an interview with the Forward, Henryk M. Broder, a best-selling author and an online journalist for the magazine Der Spiegel, said that the organizers of the declaration are “self-promoting idiots” and “megalomaniacs.”

Kramer told the Forward that the body plans to discuss the declaration this month. Though Kramer disagrees with the statement, he said: “We must have this discussion within the Jewish community, and the discussion must be open and honest. It is overdue.”

It is not “good,” he added, “that individuals carry out the discussion in the non-Jewish public arena before it is discussed within the Jewish community.”

JTA contributed to this report from London.


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