Zeit der Verleumder

“On 10 February 2018, German, Israeli, British and US-American researchers, journalists, artists and political activists met in Berlin. At a conference with the title “Zur Zeit der Verleumder” (“At a Time of Slanderers”), following a poem by Erich Fried, they, together with around 250 visitors, analysed the ideological instrumentalisation of Jews, Judaism and the Jewish catastrophe to legitimize right wing power politics, anti-Communism, historical revisionism and (anti-Muslim) racism in the Western world.”

So read the opening titles of Dror Dayan and Susann Witt-Stahl’s new film Zeit der Verleumder, subtitled “An ideological-critical intervention”. As one of the 250 visitors present, I have a particular interest in this documentary.

The line-up is impressive: actors Rolf Becker and Jürgen Jung, historian Moshe Zuckermann, British Jewish-Black activist Jackie Walker, theologian Hans Christoph Stoodt, Palestinian activists Fouad El Hay and Ali Abunimah, philosopher Moshé Machover, and many more spoke at the conference and are featured in the film.

Different speakers discuss the current debate on Israel/Palestine in the context of the international developments. In recent years we have experienced the rise of parties like the AfD, and of the Evangelical Right around politicians like Donald Trump. Both Zuckermann and Abinumah discuss how one sort of racism – antisemitism – has been reproduced by another – Islamophobia, allowing for prejudice to remain, just wielded against a different group.

The Accusations

For Walker the timing of the conference is important; it took place while Jeremy Corbyn was still leader of the British Labour Party, between the 2017 and 2019 elections. It was during this period that false accusations of antisemitism against Corbyn and his party reached their apex. Walker speaks eloquently about how such accusations were weaponized against the Left, both in Britain and internationally.

We are later reminded that the Simon Wiesenthal Centre called Corbyn “the biggest global threat to Jews.” In Britain, as in other countries at the time, accusations of antisemitism were used as a political weapon aimed at silencing both solidarity with Palestine and the growth of a new Left.

Becker argues that the instrumentalization of the Holocaust is not just about Palestine: Joschka Fischer of the Green Party used his stated fears of a second Auschwitz to justify the bombing of Yugoslavia – the first German post-war military intervention – which he ordered when he was foreign minister.

Zuckermann cites a “specifically German problem” which he calls the “extended arm of Hitler” and talks of an “almost hysterical solidarity with Israel”. He speaks of a German philosemitism which fetishizes Jews, removes their individuality, and has the same roots as antisemitism. This, he argues provocatively, is not so far from how the Nazis treated Jews.

The Wrong Sort of Jew

Geographer Christin Bernhold explains how accusations of antisemitism work in practise. One year before, the bank account of the German Jewish organisation Jüdische Stimme (JS) was closed by their bank. The reason given was that the JS supports the BDS campaign and opposes Israel. As JS board member Shir Hever remarked, this was the first time since the Nazi regime that a German bank had blocked the bank account of a Jewish organisation.

Many of the speakers – most of them Jewish – list personal attacks waged against them. Jewish journalist Judith Bernstein was accused of “not being a real Jew”, Walker of being a Holocaust denier, and Becker a “Jewish eyewitness who relieves antisemites from their guilt”. Of course, none of these allegations is true, but the hope was that, if enough mud is thrown, the sense that something is not quite right will stick. This was, in the end, exactly what happened to Corbyn.

A section of the film looks at the definition of antisemitism as put forth by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). These parameters were fully adopted, among others, by Corbyn’s Labour Party. David Feldman of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism finds that the IHRA definition was “imprecise and isolated antisemitism from other forms of bigotry”.

Yet the lack of response from the political Left continue to allow vague and ungrounded accusations of antisemitism to take hold because no one is opposing them.

Identifying the Problem

For me, the film dedicates too much time to discussing the so-called “Antideutsche” (anti-Germans), as was the case at the conference. The criticism of this strange pro-Israel group which considers itself to be part of the German Left is correct, but exaggerates their influence. Outside some universities and the ultra-Left scene, very few people know that they exist.

Similarly, there were many valid criticisms of both the German Left as whole and the party die LINKE in general. Becker remarks that the LINKE Berlin culture senator Klaus Lederer has claimed to stand “for a quite new Left which doesn’t see the central contradiction as being between Capital and Labour but the inner contradictions inside Capital relations”. This is, Becker argues, a clear attempt to justify joining capitalism and is linked to Lederer’s pro-Israel stance.

I don’t disagree with his analysis, but would argue the problem is less that the Antideutsche and Lederer are opposing Palestinian rights, but that – because of German history – the majority of German Leftists are reluctant to take a stand at all. This leads them to not acknowledge the crimes which are being carried out against Palestinians. I find that this lack of debate is a far greater obstacle to building solidarity with Palestinians. The question is, how can we open up this debate?

Without offering an alternative, criticisms like Becker’s have the danger of leading us into the cul-de-sac of apportioning blame without seeing a way out. Zeit der Verleumder offers plenty of ammunition to demonstrate why Palestinians don’t just deserve but require our support. Yet we must deliver this support in the form of concrete actions, aimed at involving more than a small minority of German society.

How can we respond?

Becker concludes by quoting Bertolt Brecht: “We must say that torture must happen, because the structures of ownership must remain. If we say this, we will lose many friends who are against torture because they believe that the structures of ownership can be maintained without torture. This is not true.”

Machover draws the following conclusions: “Ultimately, Zionism can be overthrown and will be overthrown by unity of the working class of the whole region, that is to say of the Arab East and Israel.” While I don’t share Machover’s illusion that the Israeli “working class” has something to gain here, it is refreshing to see a solution offered that does not depend on the actions of Western powers.

Zuckermann’s conclusion is that “everything which has happened historically can be overcome historically. There is nothing in human history that can’t develop in some way into a turning point.” Becker says, simply, “Show which side you are on”. Following this logic, Machovar calls on German activists to campaign against their government supplying Israel with nuclear submarines.

The film concludes with a statement by musician and Holocaust survivor Esther Bejarano, who unfortunately recently died. She says:

“Regarding the inhumane politics of the Netanyahu government in Israel, my companions Moshe Zuckermann and Rolf Becker have comprehensively explained our criticism. What Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists did to the Jewish people – the extermination of 6 million people, the Holocaust, must not be Israel’s justification for the discrimination against the Palestinian people. It is particularly important that everyone in Germany in whom a human heart beats finally recognise that criticism of the politics of Israel cannot be compared with antisemitism. I did not survive the Extermination Camps Auschwitz, the Concentration Camp Ravensbrück and the death march, to be insulted by so-called Antideutsche and consorts as an antisemite.”

Zeit der Verleumder – the film, and the conference, show why it is necessary for those of us who live in Germany to tirelessly raise the issue of Palestine in all progressive organisations and movements. It also provides us with arguments which we can use. The next step is with us.

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