Zionism Über Alles

Hans Kundnani in Dissent: In the five months since October 7, people around the world have looked on in horror as Germany has wielded the memory of the Holocaust to silence criticism of Israel’s war on Gaza. The German government’s response to the conflict itself has not been all that different from that of the United States: both have increased their supply of weapons to Israel and supported Israel against South Africa in the International Court of Justice. But Germany has gone much further than the United States in persecuting protesters, artists, and intellectuals expressing sympathy for and solidarity with the Palestinian people. It wields its responsibility for a barely distant genocide as a kind of moral authority.

The German political establishment has abandoned the belief that the Holocaust gave it a responsibility to humanity and replaced it with a responsibility to Israel alone.

This invocation of the Holocaust to police criticism of Israel is a far cry from the Erinnerungskultur, or memory culture, that many international observers once celebrated as an exemplary form of reckoning with the past. Even philosopher Susan Neiman, who five years ago wrote a book celebrating Germany’s memory culture as a model for the United States, now thinks it has gone “haywire.” Neiman speaks of a particularly German “philosemitic McCarthyism”—though since it has often also been directed against Jews who are critical of Israel, like the New Yorker writer Masha Gessen and the artist Candice Breitz, it may be more accurate to call it “Zionist McCarthyism.”

Although much attention has rightly focused on these individual cases of persecution, the genesis and evolution of Germany’s memory culture is less often discussed. Especially in the United States, many who imagined Germany to be a comparatively progressive country now assume that its Holocaust memory culture has always stipulated unconditional support for Israel. But the reality is more complex—and much stranger. Holocaust memory became entrenched within the Federal Republic’s political establishment only in the 1980s. During the last two decades, this memory culture has regressed, as Germany has abandoned the belief that the Holocaust bestowed on it a responsibility to humanity and replaced it with a responsibility to Israel alone.

Much of the blame for this regression belongs to Angela Merkel, who dominated German politics for much of the last twenty years. In the last few decades, however, converging political forces have produced a bizarre alignment between the German center-left and the American and Israeli right. Germany today is led by a coalition government of Social Democrats, Greens, and Free Democrats that, on Israel, seems to be “somewhere to the right of AIPAC,” as Neiman writes.

In order to understand this peculiar alignment, it is necessary to revisit the 1960s, when German memory culture emerged out of a New Left that sought to confront the Nazi past, a story I told in my first book, Utopia or Auschwitz. These activists were the first Germans to yoke their national identity to the country’s responsibility for the Holocaust. Their approach, unlike the myopic hyper-Zionism that prevails in Germany today, was grounded in a universalist understanding of the lessons of the Holocaust, rather than a particularist focus on Israel—even when they were preoccupied with assuaging Germany’s own conscience. More here.