The rabble never changes, and anti-Semitism is the mind-set of the rabble. It is like a dreadful cholera epidemic — it can’t be explained or healed.... Eventually the disease simply runs its course.
— German historian and 1902 Nobel Laureate Theodor Mommsen, as quoted in Berlin’s Jewish Museum
BERLIN — Anti-Semitism is once again a German problem. A rising politician is pandering to anti-Jewish sentiment in the current campaign for the Bundestag, the German parliament. A prominent writer, who in the past has decried the burden Germany carries from the Holocaust, kills off the Jewish antagonist in his controversial new novel. And two months ago, thugs hurled a Molotov cocktail at the Fraenkelufer Synagogue in Berlin. It’s so much a topic of political conversation that the issue was raised two weeks ago during the first formal meeting between Germany’s Green Party, the junior partner in Germany’s governing coalition, and the Central Council of the Jews of Germany (CCJ), the centralized leadership group of all Jewish religious, political, and communal organizations.
Held in the main conference room of the CCJ’s Berlin headquarters, the meeting consisted primarily of declarations of respect among CCJ president Paul Spiegel; the organization’s controversial vice-president, Michel Friedman (whom many compare to Alan Dershowitz); and the top leadership of the Greens, including party co-chair Claudia Roth and German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, the first Green Party member to serve as minister in the country’s government. Fischer left early, making his way through a scrum of television and print reporters outside. The remaining reporters and cameramen — there were about 30 of us — jammed into the clammy conference room to witness the official end of the first meeting between top officials of the Green Party and the Jewish communal leadership.
"We need to get all the political parties into a discussion of what’s going on right now," Spiegel said. "We can’t let any of the parties destroy what has been built here." Roth replied: "The Green Party wishes a rich Jewish life in Germany. We do not consider anti-Semitism part of freedom of speech in Germany. The Green Party and the Jewish community are together fighting the effort to bring anti-Semitism from the street and into politics." Then Roth raised the point that lay in the back of everyone’s mind: the nature of modern Germany. "This is in essence a debate about the identity of the country, what it means to be a democracy."
SEVERAL MONTHS ago, I learned that I would be spending nine days in Germany, thanks to the German government, which routinely hosts visitors, typically journalists, from around the globe. I hadn't figured that anti-Semitism in modern Germany would be the main thrust of my dispatch from Berlin. Planning for my trip began long before Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield in late March. It was to be a routine fact-finding investigation of German politics during an election year. I didn't even bother to make a special request to meet with Jewish leaders during the trip. As a guest of the Goethe-Institut Inter Nationes visitors’ program, which knew of me through Germany’s consul general in Boston, I looked forward to a series of meetings with government officials, party functionaries, and others. I expected to delve into German attitudes toward America in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks and President George W. Bush’s visit to the country, in May. In particular, I wanted to learn how the September 11 plot could have been finalized — completely unnoticed — in Hamburg (see "Today’s Jolt," June 13, at www.bostonphoenix.com).
But that was before I arrived in Germany to find the country awash in anti-Semitic controversy. I knew I would be writing a different piece altogether when I saw the cover of last week’s Der Spiegel, the country’s most influential weekly magazine. It featured a photo of Hitler’s face in a cloud of smoke above a picture of a lit match. The headline read: PLAYING WITH FIRE, HOW MUCH OF THE PAST CAN THE PRESENT TAKE? The cover of the European version of Time magazine also played on this theme, depicting a Star of David with footprints on it. The headline: IS ANTI-SEMITISM ON THE MARCH AGAIN?
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. In the days and weeks immediately preceding and following my visit to Germany, Europe’s anti-Semitic attitudes have been grist for American opinion leaders. In his groundbreaking essay "Among the Bourgeoisophobes: Why the Europeans and Arabs, Each in Their Own Way, Hate America and Israel," David Brooks of the Weekly Standard noted that "in much of the world’s eyes, two peoples — Americans and Jews — have emerged ... as money-mad Molochs of the earth, the vulgarizers of morals, corrupters of culture, and proselytizers of idolatrous values." Likewise, in a June 24 New Republic piece titled "Domestic Threat: Can Europe Survive German Nationalism?", John Judis concludes that economic troubles could propel the growth of a German right-wing nationalist movement, a development that would unhinge European unity, threaten US foreign-policy interests, and perhaps even imperil European stability — at a time when America counts on stability and good feeling in the region to support our own war on terrorism. More recently, Robert Kagan concludes in a piece for the current issue of Policy Review that Europe, driven in part by sensitivity to the "German problem," has widely divergent political interests from the US. Among the chorus, only Joe Klein, writing in Slate, has opted to make light of the events in Germany and describes the current fears about anti-Semitism as overblown, indicative of an "assumption that if the genie gets out of the bottle there will be jackboots on the Rhine before you can sieg heil." Contrary to Klein’s observations, though, the question of whether the anti-US/anti-Jewish "bourgeoisophobes" described by Brooks take power in Germany is a vital one.
While the critical nature of Germany’s standing in the world was at the heart of my reporting, the trip, somewhat unexpectedly, raised a host of issues for me — issues I thought I’d long ago set aside. When you’re raised as a Jew just outside of Boston in the 1970s and ’80s, certain associations with Germany readily spring to mind. My boyhood was dominated by images from the NBC miniseries The Holocaust. The night before my bar mitzvah, I read Night, Elie Wiesel’s 1958 autobiographical account of the concentration camps. When it came time for a dramatic reading to be taped for 10th-grade English, I selected a passage from Leon Uris’s 1961 novel Mila 18 about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. That same year, my buddy Russell and I constructed a scale model of Auschwitz-Birkenau for a statewide history contest on the theme of "Triumph and Tragedy" (he tinkered; I wrote).
During that period, I regarded Germany as the epicenter of world anti-Semitism. Even though I knew that modern Germany was a liberal democracy and an Israeli ally, I thought of the country as hostile territory for Jews. After all, didn’t modern Germany bungle the hostage situation at the 1972 Munich Olympics, during which Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes and one German police officer? Didn’t Chancellor Helmut Kohl invite President Ronald Reagan to visit Bitburg, a cemetery where members of the dreaded SS lay buried?
Over the years, through college and into my work as a journalist, I tried to put many of these thoughts aside. I came to believe that one should not judge people for the sins of their forebears. Even so, although I'd made several trips abroad, including four to Europe, the idea of visiting Germany had never really appealed to me — nor had it even occurred to me to go. I felt no great urge to walk the Munich streets where Hitler had led his Beer Hall Putsch. I had no burning desire to see the New Synagogue in Berlin, ravaged during Kristallnacht ("Night of Broken Glass") on November 9, 1938, and later rebuilt. Had the German government not taken an interest in me, I might never have gone at all. That said, even with the general upsurge in anti-Semitism throughout Europe — much of it with its roots in the Israel-Palestinian conflict — I had hoped that the decades-long drama between Germany and the Jews would be only a small part of my reporting. But that was not to be.
My arrival in Berlin in early June coincided with two controversies involving German anti-Semitism. The first surrounded German writer Martin Walser, who only a few years earlier had engaged in an ugly dispute with Jewish leader and then–CCJ president Ignatz Bubis over Walser’s claim that the Holocaust has been unfairly held over his country’s head. In his latest novel, Death of a Critic (Suhrkamp Verlag), Walser has his lead character, a book author, take murderous revenge on a prominent Jewish book critic. The character just happens to closely resemble a real Jewish book critic who has panned Walser in the past. The second — and much more important — brouhaha involved a German politician’s use of anti-Semitism to appeal to voters, the first example of this in German politics since the Nazi era. Many fear that it may work again.
The politician in question, Jürgen Möllemann, comes from Germany’s generally centrist Free Democratic Party (FDP) — an unlikely place from which to unleash anti-Semitism. The long-time political home of Bubis, the FDP is the party of Germany’s petite bourgeoisie — the small businessman, the small-town lawyer, the local dentist. In recent decades, the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, two relatively centrist parties, have wrestled for control of German politics. The Christian Democrats, under Helmut Kohl, held sway for 16 years via an alliance with the FDP, which historically garners eight to 10 percent in national elections. In other words, the FDP is nothing like the rightist parties that have recently given rise to European anti-Semitism in other countries, such as Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France or Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party in Austria. Indeed, the FDP is right in line with the moderate, centrist politics that have governed Germany (well, the western part, anyway) for decades.
But the Social Democrats — the party that’s led the country for the last four years under the Clintonesque Gerhard Schröder (his campaign materials promote him as "the chancellor for the center") — eschewed an alliance with the FDP in favor of the surging Green Party. The move left the FDP moribund. In this election cycle, Möllemann wants to bring his party, the quiet junior partner of German politics, back to prominence. Toward that end, he’s declared, rather presumptuously, that he intends to raise the FDP’s take in the September 22 election to 18 percent of German votes. While Möllemann is only second-in-command to his party’s chair, Guido Westerwelle, he is widely viewed as the energizing and driving force behind the FDP’s latest push.
As part of that effort, Möllemann, president of the German-Arab Friendship League, recruited Jamal Karsli — a Syrian-born former Green Party member and bitter foe of Israel, who has met with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad — to work for the party. (Under pressure from FDP leadership, Karsli subsequently agreed to disassociate himself from the party on the local level.) The FDP’s alignment with such a virulent enemy of Israel alarmed the CCJ’s Michel Friedman, a talk-show host routinely described by Germans of all political stripes as aggressive and confrontational. Not surprisingly, Friedman spoke out forcefully against the move. Möllemann, in turn, declared: "The intolerant, spiteful handling by Mr. Friedman of any critic of [Israeli prime minister Ariel] Sharon unfortunately is liable to awaken anti-Semitic resentments." In a May television interview, Möllemann also said, "I’m afraid that hardly anybody gives more fuel to the anti-Semites, who exist in Germany and whom we must fight against, than Mr. Sharon and Friedman, with his intolerant, spiteful manner. Arrogant. That’s not okay." Möllemann’s message was clear: Jews like Friedman are responsible for anti-Semitism. In personally attacking Friedman, Möllemann — who in 1979 met with Yasser Arafat, then almost universally considered a terrorist by the West — moved beyond mere criticism of Israel. He graduated to attacking Jews who live on German soil.
Friedman and others in the organized Jewish community wondered publicly whether Germany’s major parties should accept the FDP as long as Möllemann held such a high position. They called on Möllemann to apologize, which he did to an extent. But then he upped the ante by declaring how "unique" it was for a group — referring to the CCJ — to demand the resignation of any one individual. Again, Möllemann made the issue Germany's Jews, not mere criticism of Israel.
While the back-and-forth between Möllemann and Friedman has something of a he said/he said quality to it, many Germans are taking it very seriously. That includes Clemens Höges, the political editor of Der Spiegel. The 40-year-old Höges, who’s directed the magazine’s coverage of the scandal and at the time was the youngest journalist to hold such a position at the magazine, has prospered since German reunification. That’s not something all Germans can claim, as the country has fallen from third in gross domestic product per capita in the world to 10th since East and West Germany merged in 1990. From Höges’s corner office in Der Spiegel’s high-rise locale in Hamburg — Germany’s media capital — a visitor can scan most of the city’s port.
A member of the country’s elite, Höges makes clear the extent of Möllemann's demagoguery. "You can criticize Israeli politics in Germany," he says. "But if you criticize Israeli policy and Jews in Germany with arguments very similar to old Nazi arguments, that is a problem. Blaming the Jews for anti-Semitism. The Nazis always used this argument."