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A German tabloid called me antisemitic. It cost me my job. Now, it’s my turn to speak

This piece originally appeared in German in Berliner Zeitung. English translation by Léon Dische Becker.

A psychologist recently introduced me to the concept of “learned helplessness.” It describes what I’ve experienced in the past few weeks: moments of pure panic that left me frozen in the moment, unable to breathe. I was living in fear of the next impending news cycle. The fear was interrupted by flashes of apathy: well, at least I’m still alive. At least I can still feel something. At least I can still sleep. As long as I can sleep, everything will be okay.

Learned helplessness, the psychologist explained, is what the human brain reverts to when a course of events leaves your life in ruins: when every emergency coping strategy you have developed over time proves utterly futile. You discover that the power you thought you had over your life has been annulled, a total and brutal loss of control. That is approximately what it feels like to be in the crosshairs of the BILD newspaper, Germany’s biggest tabloid, and to have the tabloid attempt to publicly assassinate your character. This is what I have been experiencing the past few weeks.

Shortly after I was announced as the new host of the science show “Quarks” on the German public-broadcast network Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), photos emerged on right-wing internet forums showing me attending the 2014 Al-Quds demonstration, where antisemitic chants had occurred in the past. BILD blended the announcement of my new job with those old photos (that show me wearing the headscarf, which I no longer wear) to present what they called a “radical Islam scandal.” They bolstered this case with out-of-context snippets of an educational video I had made years ago with the Federal Agency for Civic Education, in which I had outlined my understanding of the expression “jihad” — a talk editorially overseen by one of the most preeminent scholars for Islamic Studies in Germany, Dr. Armina Omerika.

But this was the story now: I was an allegedly antisemitic and radical Muslim TV host with Palestinian roots who — according to the essentialist insinuations of since-deposed BILD editor-in-chief Julian Reichelt — lacked the ability to practice science because I’m Muslim. This narrative, which right-wing digital activists created and BILD amplified into the mainstream, was picked up by most media outlets.

Insufficiently apologetic

Naturally, BILD has the right to research and to ask questions about a public figure, like any other news outlet does. These are inviolable rights of a free press that serve the public interest. But there is a line between critical journalistic work and a targeted defamation campaign. That line was crossed repeatedly in my case.

Early on, I apologized for attending that demonstration in an interview with Spiegel, where I answered questions not only about my career trajectory, but also fielded others that seemed to me of a more personal nature, that the public now suddenly were interested in. Behind the scenes, at work, I was confronted with questions that were primarily based on racist assumptions and that cast those that asked them in a very poor light.

None of my answers helped. It didn’t help when Zeit reported that the campaign against me had been cooked up well in advance on right-wing and far right-wing platforms like “Honigwabe” and “Gegenstimme.tv.” It didn’t matter that Irfan Peci — a former Al Qaeda member turned government informant now on the far right — boasted about analyzing hundreds of videos and pictures, looking for traces of me to publish them at the most damaging moment.

This is all what the far-right call “de-Islamization.” Their goal is to push as many people of Muslim faith as possible out of good public standing. In one video, shot after the WDR fired me, the right-wingers around Irfan Peci blissfully reviewed their campaign. They conclude that the “Jew thing” (the choice term of one right-wing activist, who wishes to remain anonymous and calls himself “Shlomo Finkelstein” online) really seems to work.

Weaponizing accusations of antisemitism

This campaign would never have achieved such success had its initiators not co-opted the fight against antisemitism.

In Germany, the land of the perpetrators of the Holocaust, no one — understandably — wants to open themselves up to the accusation that they aren’t doing their utmost to combat antisemitism, which continues to pervade our society. And so, as my face was used to illustrate antisemitism incarnate, fewer and fewer people seemed willing to make any distinctions.

On top of the death threats, the insults and the defamation, I have also received a wave of solidarity culminating in an open letter. Over 400 public figures signed that letter — including many prominent Jewish voices. Their voices did not have the same impact as BILD, which has long declared itself the principal authority of what counts as antisemitic. Instead, these Jewish voices were ignored and delegitimized as fringe. The head of the Central Committee of the Jews in Germany was quoted in BILD as saying that “these voices can’t be weighted as representative for the Jewish community in Germany,” a sentiment echoed by many other German-Jewish organizations under the pretext of fighting antisemitism.

BILD strikes again

Just when I hoped that the storm had finally passed, BILD stepped up its campaign against me. In the manner of great investigative journalists, BILD’s editors had combed my Instagram profile and discovered that I had liked posts by Jewish Voice for Peace. JVP is anti-Zionist, supports most tenets of the campaign to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel, and works in cooperation with Palestinian grassroots movements. The group seeks to pressure the American government into working towards a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians, where all people on the ground can enjoy the same rights and freedoms.

I had liked posts that called for the boycott of goods produced in the occupied Palestinian territories, so BILD accused me of supporting a boycott of Israel. They ignored that the European Union itself distinguishes between goods produced in Israel proper and those produced in settlements, which are labelled accordingly. Additionally, they framed my liking a meme portraying Palestinians celebrating a prison break as an explicit endorsement of specific crimes committed by Islamic Jihad.

BILD’s obfuscations had the intended impact on my employers at WDR, who ended my tenure as a TV host on their channel before it had even begun (though curiously, left open the possibility of hiring me to work offscreen as a writer on the show). I doubt that they screen the Instagram likes of other employees or base their employment status on them, but so be it.

Two prominent authorities on these matters, former Israeli ambassador to Germany Avi Primor and Moshe Zimmermann, a distinguished historian and antisemitism scholar, came forward to probe every single accusation made by BILD, and found that none of these claims stood up to any scrutiny. Nevertheless, the WDR could not be convinced to reverse their decision.

Safe is Safe

In the hopes of pulling itself out of the line of fire, the WDR effectively endorsed all of BILD’s racist claims and hence, opened the doors for future campaigns. There has been no honest conversation, so far, about how antisemitism can be distinguished from criticism of Israel; or what responsibility Germany might bear for human rights violations in Israel/Palestine.

Avi Primor and Moshe Zimmermann raised a point that has so far eluded the public conversation in Germany: that the question of Palestinian rights has long been a subject of intra-Jewish debate all over the world, and that these debates are mostly far more sophisticated than anything that can be discerned from the German mainstream press. Avi Primor and Moshe Zimmermann eventually arrived at the conclusion that the principal aim of BILD’s article was to “discriminate against a woman of Palestinian origin.”

My history is essentially connected to Israel and Palestine

My generation, who were born here and grew up here in Germany, with roots in Palestine, were raised by our parents to keep our mouths shut when the Middle East comes up. Perhaps they knew something we simply refused to accept: that our very existence in this country is a provocation, and that our solidarity with Palestinians is unwelcome.

According to this prescription, it was best to remain silent over human rights violations. It was best to remain silent when Palestinians were displaced. It was best to remain silent when Germans dreamed up any semblance of “symmetry” that simply doesn’t exist. But this silence doesn’t change the essential facts on the ground. We’re still talking about one of the best equipped armies in the world and a people that have spent the past 55 years under persistent occupation.

I am Palestinian, and the history of my family will forever be closely connected to the State of Israel. My grandmother had to flee multiple times during its founding. Wazzani, the village where my father was born, does not exist anymore. As a teenager, my mother was shot and wounded by Israeli soldiers in her home village in South Lebanon; her mother watched helplessly, unable to help without risking her own life. The next morning my aunts had to clean up the dirt and trash those Israeli soldiers had left on the terrace of their parents’ home.

My uncle, who was a soldier in the Lebanese army, was captured by Israeli soldiers in the 2006 war. For days, we did not know where he was — whether or not he was even alive. Our parents stared at the TV for hours, leaving Al Jazeera running 24/7. My little sister started to draw pictures of dead people and tanks. No one at school had any inkling that a war was playing out in our living room.

I refuse to deny my identity

I am and always will be Palestinian, whether the German public likes it or not. I refuse to deny this part of my identity.

The last weeks have shown that in this country, I am considered an antisemite by birth. German guilt has been systematically outsourced to the Palestinians, the Arabs, the Muslims — the perceived sources of this alleged new antisemitism.

The WDR’s decision to fire me suggests that this country’s celebrated debate culture is no longer all that it’s famed to be. I miss honesty and openness. Do the people at WDR consider me a stalwart antisemite or merely a closeted one? And if so, why did they offer me a possible role as a writer working behind the camera?

Maybe they don’t think I’m an antisemite after all. If that’s the case, then why was I fired? WDR’s tepid explanations suggest a preoccupation with image, and not with the truth.

I would have liked to be judged based on my journalistic work, for which there are clear guidelines. Before I became the center of this media firestorm, I had proven my qualifications as a journalist and doctor in the process of auditioning to host “Quarks”. It has been sobering to discover that these decisive factors for my selection no longer seem to matter.

The fragile consensus of the majority society

The lesson that our Palestinian parents bequeathed on us is that we are only tolerated in this country as long as we do not speak against the majority consensus. But alas, I am who I am, and it influences how I see the world. It is as evident to me as it is painful that there is no space here in Germany for my perspective as a woman with Palestinian roots.

At this point, at least, I know that “learned helplessness” can also be unlearned: through reminding that you’re capable of acting for yourself. For me, that means telling my story. Whoever lets others define themselves has already failed. I am not who others have said I am, and I am not a helpless victim. I have a voice, and I want to exercise my right to offer my perspective on the world, just like any other person.

To contact the author, email [email protected].

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