Micah Loewinger: This is On the Media. I'm Micah Loewinger.
Brooke Gladstone: I'm Brooke Gladstone. On Thursday, hearings in the International Court of Justice in The Hague began, the first time Israel has been tried under the Genocide Convention, drafted after World War II and The Holocaust. It began with South Africa bringing the charge that Israeli air and ground assaults were meant to "bring about the destruction of its Palestinian population and that Israeli leaders had in comments signaled their genocidal intent." On Friday, Israel responded.
Dr. Tal Becker: The attempt to weaponize the term genocide against Israel in the present context does more than tell the court a grossly distorted story.
Brooke Gladstone: Dr. Tal Becker, the legal advisor of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the Hague.
Dr. Tal Becker: It subverts the object and purpose of the convention itself, with ramifications for all states, seeking to defend themselves against those who demonstrate total disdain for life, and for the law.
Brooke Gladstone: Meanwhile, the petty proxy war stateside rages on. Adib Sisani, communications director for Axel Springer, the German company that owns Business Insider, declared that billionaire investor Bill Ackman was "completely losing it and that his suggestion that anti-Semitism prompted those plagiarism stories about his wife is so far out there." That seems likely because Axel Springer holds that supporting Israel's right to exist is German duty. The New Yorker's Masha Gessen recently took a deep dive into the German view of The Holocaust after becoming ensnared in its orthodoxies and contradictions. The piece is called In the Shadow of The Holocaust.
Masha Gessen: I'm from a Jewish family in Russia. I grew up in the shadow of The Holocaust, and I also grew up in the shadow of Stalinist terror. I was living in Russia in the 90s, wondering if there was any hope that Russia was ever going to be able to reckon with its own totalitarian past, and then Germany seemed to be doing it so beautifully.
Brooke Gladstone: In the late '90s and early 2000s when a lot of Berlin's memorials were conceived and installed, you visited often.
Masha Gessen: I was really riveted watching the formation of this, the building of museums. There was so much radical thinking about representation going into this.
Brooke Gladstone: At some point, you said that the effort began to feel glassed in.
Masha Gessen: Something happened sometime probably in the last decades. The Philosopher Susan Neiman said that German memory culture has gone haywire. It's created a bureaucracy that enforces the right ways of thinking about memory, the right ways of talking about The Holocaust, the right ways of talking about Jews, and central to my piece, the right ways of talking about Israel.
Brooke Gladstone: On November 9th, about a month after Hamas's attack on Israel, it was the 85th anniversary of a series of pogroms against German Jews, called Kristallnacht, a Star of David and the phrase "Never Again is Now," was projected in blue and white on the Brandenburg Gate, the same day the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, considered a proposal called Fulfilling Historical Responsibility: Protecting Jewish Life in Germany.
Masha Gessen: It's part of this system of enshrining in not law, but resolutions and bureaucratic mechanisms of enforcing this unconditional support for Israel, but I'm more interested in resolutions that have already been passed such as the BDS resolution. BDS is the Boycott Divestment Sanctions Movement to exert economic pressure on Israel to end the occupation. Israel has put a lot of effort internationally into portraying the movement as not a movement against Israeli policies, but an anti-Semitic movement.
Brooke Gladstone: It doesn't affirm Israel's right to exist.
Masha Gessen: I think the BDS movement would probably be more effective at disarming its critics if it affirmed Israel's right to exist. At the same time, it's a really strange thing to ask of a boycott movement. There's a non-binding resolution that was passed in the Bundestag a few years ago, that equates support for BDS with anti-Semitism. That's had a profound effect on Germany's cultural scene. We don't feel it so much in the United States, where similar resolutions and in fact, laws exist in 35 American states, equating BDS with anti-Semitism.
Brooke Gladstone: You note that this resolution against BDS in Germany has an interesting history because it was originally introduced by the AfD, the relatively new-ish radical right alternative for Germany party, that has in the past openly made anti-Semitic statements and endorsed the revival of Nazi-era language, but it really loved going against BDS and why?
Masha Gessen: It was a brilliant move on the part of AfD. At the time, AfD was newly represented in Parliament, and there was a kind of agreement between mainstream parties that they would not cooperate without AfD. Then AfD brings this resolution. Following this prior agreement of not cooperating with this far-right party, the mainstream parties voted the resolution down, but now they're in a pickle because they've just voted down a resolution that is presented as part of the fight against anti-Semitism. They immediately introduce an almost identical resolution and approve it. For AfD the far-right party, it's a double victory.
From that point on basically, the system of not cooperating with them in Parliament broke down. The other thing is that you can use the supposedly anti-Semitic weapon to go after immigrants. A majority of immigrants to Germany are from Muslim countries, and AfD, their primary gender is anti-immigrant. A lot of that is animated at this point by the supposed fight against anti-Semitism. If that sounds crazy, look at what's happening in the US Congress. It's the exact same thing. We see representative Stefanik, using anti-Semitism in the exact same nihilistic way.
Brooke Gladstone: Right. Anti-Semitism defined in part, as being anti-Israel. In recent years, there's been what you call an obscure yet strangely consequential debate on what constitutes anti-Semitism, basically an argument over the definition. The side that's winning appears to be the 2016 definition offered by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance or IHRA. It's an inter-governmental organization. What was the definition that it proposed and that has been widely embraced?
Masha Gessen: The definition itself is anodyne. Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals, and/or their property to Jewish community institutions and religious facilities. Then, it provides 11 examples of what can be considered anti-Semitism.
Those examples include; denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, for example, by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor, drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis. Those are the examples that have really created a culture of interpreting criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic.
Brooke Gladstone: How widely has this definition been adopted, even though it has no legal force?
Masha Gessen: Zero legal force. Even the IHRA calls it the working definition of anti-Semitism, and yet, it has been adopted by all kinds of governmental bodies, including all but one countries of the European Union, the United States State Department, and many of the institutions of the German state. The German state has created a system of anti-Semitism commissioners who use this definition of anti-Semitism to go after people that they perceive as anti-Semitic, who have disproportionately turned out to be Jews. You can't make this stuff up. Jewish artists, Jewish writers, Jewish thinkers, are accused by German bureaucrats of being anti-Semitic because they criticize the State of Israel.
Brooke Gladstone: You write about an artist named Candice Breitz, who tried to organize a symposium on German Holocaust memory. The state funding for the panel was pulled because one panel compared Auschwitz to the genocide of the Herero and Namaqua people by German colonizers in Namibia. What does this event reveal about the politics of memory there?
Masha Gessen: It's an incredible story. Candice Breitz is a Jewish artist of South African birth, living in Berlin for more than 20 years. She was working with Michael Rothman, who was Jewish, and a Holocaust scholar at UCLA. A lot of these cancellations are couched in incomprehensible bureaucratic language, but apparently, it was because of this panel that compared genocides.
Brooke Gladstone: There was a German historian Stefanie Schüler-Springorum, who heads the Center for Research on anti-Semitism in Berlin, who said that "Any attempt to advance our understanding of the historical event itself, through comparisons with other German crimes or genocides, can be and is perceived as an attack on the very foundation of this new nation-state," by which she means Germany because Angela Merkel said that fighting anti-Semitism was a vital project for the German state.
Masha Gessen: As Germany came back together in the aftermath of the Cold War, it made reckoning with The Holocaust, its national project, in part, to show that this new reunified Germany was an entirely different country. What Stefanie Schüler-Springorum is saying in the quote you mentioned is that this national project revolves around the idea of the absolute uniqueness of The Holocaust.
When Candice Breitz and Michael Rothman's panelists was going to compare it to the genocide in Namibia, thereby putting it on a historical continue saying that Germany, like other empires had been guilty of genocide before the genocide of all genocides. That went directly against this explicit assertion that The Holocaust is unique and the German project of reckoning with The Holocaust doesn't bring with it the obligation to reckon with other genocides.
Brooke Gladstone: You note that some of the great Jewish thinkers who survived The Holocaust, Zygmunt Bauman, Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, spent the rest of their lives trying to convince the world that The Holocaust could happen again.
Masha Gessen: All of them in one way or another were saying that you have to view The Holocaust as an unprecedented evil, but also as a function of a kind of politics, a kind of moment in time that could happen again. Jewish thinkers compared the Nazis, Nazi Party politics, and The Holocaust to contemporary events quite liberally. Hannah Arendt compared an Israeli political party to the Nazi Party back in 1948.
Brooke Gladstone: It was Israel's Freedom Party. What did she base her comparison on?
Masha Gessen: She based her comparison on the paramilitary part of the party's attack on an Arab village in Israel-Palestine that was not involved in the military conflict then. She saw that attack as being motivated solely by the fact that this was an Arab village,
Brooke Gladstone: That was just three years after The Holocaust.
Masha Gessen: Just months after the formal creation of the state of Israel.
Brooke Gladstone: You said that Zygmunt Bauman argued that the massive, systematic, and efficient nature of The Holocaust was a function of modernity that it wasn't predetermined, but it fell in line with other inventions of the 20th century.
Masha Gessen: This also goes to why we say that The Holocaust is unique and why it isn't. The Holocaust is unique in the very specific sense of being the genocide in which the largest number of people were killed in the shortest amount of time and in which the killing of people was systematized and industrialized. Bauman really focused on how modernity gave us the railroads' ideas of efficiency. That efficiency approach was of the 20th century, but genocide, not a Nazi invention, not a 20th-century invention.
Brooke Gladstone: I read a talk that you gave when you accepted the Hannah Arendt Prize not long ago. In that piece, you note that Germany and others rely on the singularity of The Holocaust as essentially not of this world. That thinking works counter to the phrase "Never Again".
Masha Gessen: Originally I was supposed to get the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought, and then my essay in The New Yorker came out and all hell broke loose. The Heinrich Böll Foundation, which is one of the sponsors of the prize, pulled out. The city of Bremen, which hosts the prize pulled out. The Institut Français, which hosts the discussion that follows the prize, pulled out. Then it ended up being a back alley prize in the sense that I got it in a fortified shed in a back alley. I'm not kidding. All of this controversy was because, in the piece In the Shadow of The Holocaust, I make the comparison between Gaza and a Jewish ghetto and Nazi-occupied Europe.
Germans who take it upon themselves to police the memory of The Holocaust were outraged. I ended up writing a talk about the value of historical comparisons, and my argument is that the only way to make good on the promise of "Never Again" is to constantly be checking whether we are actually falling into darkness. In the Hague, South African lawyers make the case that Israel is committing genocide and Israel is going to argue against South Africa's case.
They're arguing about whether it is valid to make the comparison between the kinds of crimes against humanity that the Nazis committed during World War II that gave rise to the Genocide Convention like our entire post-World War II International Legal Order is based on the idea that we have to be constantly asking, "Is this the kind of thing that happened during World War II, the kind of thing that we swore to prevent?"
Brooke Gladstone: Since October 7th, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been revisiting the legend of Amalek, the Biblical legend of Amalek you personally knew quite well.
Masha Gessen: When I was a teenager and my family immigrated from the Soviet Union, basically, we were waiting outside of Rome for our papers to come to the United States. There was a rabbi who would give Torah lessons to kids of these Jewish refugees waiting for their papers. Now, for most of us, this was the first Jewish education that we ever received because this was illegal in the Soviet Union, which was part of the impetus for some of our families leaving.
Brooke Gladstone: You were a Jew in your passport, not a Russian.
Masha Gessen: I was a Jew in my passport, in my school file, in my parents' personnel files, my medical records, everywhere you went, you were marked as a Jew, and yet you could not have any Jewish education. You could not practice Judaism or study Hebrew. My very first Torah lesson took place when I was 14, and it was on Amalek, which was a people that set out to destroy the Hebrews. The way that the rabbi taught it, which is a very common way, was that every generation of Jews has its own Amalek out to destroy us, and the only way to survive is to destroy Amalek ourselves. That spoke to me when I was 14.
It gave a framework to what I had experienced, both as a kid growing up in the shadow of The Holocaust and a kid growing up with this really pervasive state-enforced anti-Semitism. This is also the legend that Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have been wielding to justify the indiscriminate destruction of Gaza. That second part of the legend of Amalek, that "You have to kill the seed of Amalek," is a Biblical quote being used now in the International Court of Justice by the South African lawyers to make their case that there's clear genocidal intent.
It's so crazy-making, but also so familiar. I think even 43 years later, I remember how comforting it was to fall into a sense of communal victimhood. Israel is the victim of October 7th and will be the victim of October 7th for a long time to come, but people can be victims and perpetrators at the same time. This is actually one of the other great lessons of the 20th century. Israel was the victim of a horrific attack and a horrific series of crimes against humanity and is at the same time now committing crimes against humanity.
Brooke Gladstone: If you were to state, how we'd get out of this cultural and intellectual conundrum, what would it be?
Masha Gessen: I think we need a pro-comparison movement. That is what learning is. Trying to figure out how one thing is like another, but I really think we need to rigorously discredit the idea that you can't compare The Holocaust to anything else.
Brooke Gladstone: Masha, thank you very much.
Masha Gessen: Thank you, Brooke. It's great to talk to you.
Brooke Gladstone: Masha Gessen is a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of the article In the Shadow of The Holocaust.
Micah Loewinger: That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Eloise Blondiau, Molly Rosen, Rebecca Clark-Callender, and Candice Wang with help from Shaan Merchant.
Brooke Gladstone: Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers were Andrew Nerviano and Brendan Dalton. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
Micah Loewinger: I'm Micah Loewinger.
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