While many citizens support our work, politicians tell us quietly and in private that we can say such things, but for them such statements would mean the end of their careers. Journalists who dare to type the word apartheid into their keyboards in connection with Israel risk being dismissed. The task of criticizing Israeli politics still falls mainly to Jews and Israelis.
The address of our Chairperson on the occasion of being the recipient of the Göttingen Peace Prize 2019
Göttingen, March 9, 2019
Dear Mrs. Barann, dear Mr. Röhl, dear ladies and gentlemen of the Foundation and the Jury, esteemed ladies and gentlemen, dear fellow advocates of this cause and of course, dear members of the Jewish Voice!
It is a great honor to receive a prize for peace and an even greater honor to be included in this list along with these other so venerable recipients of this Göttingen Prize for Peace. In the wake of these turbulent days I can also add: it is a considerable achievement. We are probably also the only award winners who when told of the decision to grant us this award on the one hand were elated but on the other knew we were in for a bumpy ride. That we would be attacked and slandered was to be expected. We wish to thank the members of the Jury and the Foundation Dr. Roland Röhl, which was created in his last will and testament, from the bottom our our hearts. It means to us not only a great honor but also a great responsibility to live up to the sense of commitment associated with the name Roland Röhl. Roland Röhl had been ill for some time and founded this endowment at the very end of his life. At the same time that he experienced the waning of his own physical strength he left as a legacy a sign of life to come. We hope that also in difficult times we will have the strength to follow his example and to stay the course and fight for peace and for life in the future. And I can only hope that if he only knew how lively and emancipating the process was which led to this award ceremony, that he would have approved.
I cannot conceal the fact that the experience of being a jew and being undesired is extremely unpleasant. During the period in which the Foundation was seeking refuge for this ceremony, we were at the same time met with so much support, recognition and gratitude that we were truly very moved and felt ourselves to be in good hands. We were not left alone and we are very appreciative of this. Our great thanks is due not only to the Foundation and the Jury but also all those people who refused to be compelled under social pressure to conform and were not conquered by fear but were undeterred in standing up for their political beliefs. Your solidarity is the oxygen for us small fish in the murky waters in the pond of slander. We are indeed especially dependent upon this commitment to democratic values.
Our organization, “The Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East”, was founded on November 9, 2003 and registered as a legally registered organization in 2007. Since our inception our executive directors have been Prof. Fanny-Michaela Reisin, Judith Bernstein, Ruth Fruchtman, Prof. Rolf Verleger and Michal Kaiser-Livne. From the very moment of our foundation we knew that we would have to live with a contradiction. On the one hand, we are not particularly qualified to say anything about peace in the Middle East simply because we are Jewish. Being Jewish is mark of identity and bears no further qualification in terms of political commitment or any specialized knowledge. The considerable and well-founded support which we have received in the past few days in no small part from non-jews is evidence of this. On the other hand, the Israeli government holds us hostage when they claim to speak for all Jews worldwide. This is why we say, loudly: “Not in our name!” We are a few dozen Jews with an internet connection and a sense of guilt and shame with respect to the Palestinians and fear for the future of Israel. All our activities are documented in writing, we are a political organization and operate in the public sphere. We have nothing to hide. We are of course not neutral, neutrality serves only the oppressor. We are affected by events, they concern our children, friends and relatives. We don’t have the resources of the federal government and no newspaper, as does the Central Council for the Jews. We all do this as volunteers without pay and in addition to our professional responsibilities and our personal social lives.
The events leading up to this ceremony once again demonstrate that when one speaks of Israeli politics, at least in Germany, one is not speaking about politics but about identity. Many Germans, jewish and non-jewish, try to assuage their difficulties with their identities by indiscriminately identifying themselves with the state of Israel. Regardless of the policies which the Israeli government pursues, they are always on board. This is why we founded our organization, in order for us, as Jews living in Germany, to give an outlet to our voice and to exert influence upon the German civic society. This is why this prize means so much to us: to be able to speak to you and with you as Jews. This is one of the central aims of our organization and our work within it.
Before I continue it is necessary to mention that I will from time to time, because I will have no choice, be forced to speak in categories, to speak of Jews, Muslims, Christians, Israelis and Germans. I know of course that I cannot speak for them all and that many have a long path behind them in which they have tried to understand their families’ pasts and have undergone the painful task of not disavowing their own personal histories. We, all of us, must endure the pain, anger and shame brought upon us by the deeds and crimes of our governments. It is here of course not a question of equating criminality but rather of our attempt to make previous injustice a motivation toward more just actions in the future. I hope that the tone of my remarks will make our respect for the work you do in the Church, the university or wherever you pursue your commitment to the defense of democratic values clear.
In Germany we repeatedly experience events which unfold according to the same pattern: the rights of the Palestinians are violated, there is political protest against it, the German press finds – or invents, as recently evidenced by the fake news – an anti-semitic incident and ultimately the subject becomes anti-semitism itself which is then acted upon and the original protest is suffocated. Trump, for example, decides to relocate the American embassy to Jerusalem in violation of international law, young Palestinians protest in Berlin, a journalist from the Berliner Zeitung claims they shouted “Death to the Jew” and immediately there is talk of anti-semistism among Muslims. The fact that laborious research by the journalist Emily Dische-Becker revealed that the journalist who reported the incident does not speak or understand Arabic and that a thorough examination all film footage and audio recordings was unable to substantiate this assertion of course goes unnoticed. This is also because this view is suitable to many in this country. The new German identity has consolidated itself as “not anti-semitic” and has thus shifted Christian anti-semitism to a Muslim minority. Thus the German past can be regarded as overcome and one can look past the NSU murderers, NPD, Pegida, Legida and the AfD (Alternative for Germany). There are of course but few Muslims among the AfD’s voters. Through this continuous shabby journalism the Jews remain the eternal victim and the Palestinians, or “Arabs” their perpetrators, while it is the Christians who are now there to “save the Jews”. This approach has been orchestrated for decades by the Israeli government and their institutions and supporters both in Israel and abroad.
Let us have a look at the Yad Vashem Israel Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, published in 1990. Rudolf Höss, who was the commandant of Auschwitz, is given two pages, Rudolf Hess, the Reichsminister receives here a single page while Haj Amin Al Husseini, a Palestinian leader receives a full five pages. The stylized depiction of “Arabs” as direct descendants of the Nazis has lead step by step to a revisionist view of history. On the one hand, the Palestinians become Nazis, indeed, since 1948, each Palestinian leader is compared with Hitler at least once. Netanyahu has even gone so far as to recant the fairy tale that it was in fact Al Husseini who whispered the idea of the Final Solution into Hitler’s ear.
On the other hand, Israel’s official policy makes Christian Europe, which is ultimately the real homeland of Israeli settlement colonialism, less and less responsible for the Holocaust. Just recently the current anti-semitic government of Poland was found to be kosher by way of an agreement with Netanyahu. Viktor Orban, who launched an anti-semitic campaign again the Hungarian Jew and Holocaust survivor Georg Soros forcing him to move the university he founded to Vienna, was received by Netanjahu in Yad Vashem. Matteo Salvini too has been allowed to add his name to the list of VIP racists who have been official visitors of Yad Vashem.
How did we reach this point?
In the American film Exodus, released in 1960, the “new Hebrew”, the Zionist Ari Ben Knaan, played in the film by the blue-eyed Paul Newman, insists upon his apparent otherness. He shows a young evangelistic Christian woman from the USA some biblical landscapes which are important to her: Mount Tabor, or Armageddon, the site of the last battle which only the followers of Jesus survive. To her, these differences are construed, the more he speaks of his Jewishness, the more she feels Protestant. She negates the separating effect of the differences between these two religious backgrounds and in the end the two of them join as a couple by engaging in the classic symbol of union: they kiss. The recently conquered Palestinian territory serves as a backdrop. This is what the Judeo-Christian covenant, which is united in Zionism, looks like. The subject is a political union opposed to the Moslems with the help of the Jews, who are in turn at the End of Days destroyed by the events at Armageddon. In a synagogue in Pittsburgh, eleven Jews were murdered by a Christian racist because they had offered sanctuary to refugees. The eleven people were murdered because they were liberal Jews who did not act with hostility toward strangers.
Israel’s Christian-oriented allies in Europe, the United States or also now in Brazil together with Israel are spreading the idea of a struggle again “Islam”. Thus the State of Israel can sell its conflict over land, rights and self-determination which it has with the Palestinians as one aspect of a larger global threat. It is then no longer a matter of Israel’s actions, the expulsion of the Palestinians, the expropriation of their property and the sealing off of Gaza. Israel’s violent expansion at the expense of the Palestinians is being reinterpreted as resistance toward the global attack of Islam. Israel is being stylized as a victim while the Palestinians have been cast as the perpetrators who are acting aggressively against Israel, supposedly because they are anti-semites, and not because they are leading a struggle for liberation. In the view of the Israeli government, this is a religious conflict which must be waged internationally and forms the basis for alliances between Israel and the radical right led by Orban, Salvini, Trump or Bolsonaro and their political parties. And if as Israel claims, this conflict is religious and lies “in the nature of Muslims”, then any agreement with the Palestinians is superfluous for this is an existential fight against “evil”.
This Judeo-Christian covenant can also be seen in Germany. Here there is talk of “Moslem anti-semitism” or “imported anti-semitism” and even a federal commissioner for anti-semitism has been created. There is no such commissioner to combat racism or islamophobia. Such preferential treatment is of course not without its risks for the privileged minority. Dr. Felix Klein is the current “Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life and Against Anti-Semitism”. His responsibilities overlap with those of the Central Council of Jews, which in turn represents roughly half of the Jews living in Germany. Now he has as a partner a Christian civil servant. We now only need a male federal commissioner for the lives of women and to combat sexism. We members of the Jewish Voice have had the opportunity to experience this so-called “protection” from the new Federal Commissioner first hand.
In 2016 our account with the Bank for Social Economy was terminated, due to pressure from the Israeli government and its representatives in Jewish community. For the first time in the post-war era, an account held by a Jewish organization in Germany was closed and, as was explicitly explained to us, for political reasons. If we would be willing to rescind our signature beneath the BDS call we would be able to reopen our account. A German institution, in this case a bank, can thus decide which Jews are the real ones with correct views and who would be desirable customers of the bank and which are not. Among other things, we are accused of denying Israel’s right to exist, yet many of us are Israelis. After we assured them that our concern is with the safe future of our families and friends still living there and after protests from many people and organizations in the private sector who recognized the threat to the right to freedom of expression, the bank revised its decision. However, the pressure on us from the right has not receded. The Bank for Social Economy found itself on the Top Ten List of Anti-Semites published by the Simon-Wiesenthal-Center because of our account with the bank. The development of this center is symptomatic for the bond between the Israeli government and the radical right which is described above. Once a renowned center which fought anti-semitism and sought out and brought Nazi war criminals to justice, after Simon Wiesenthal’s death it became a radical right wing organization that in Israel established a museum of tolerance on the site of a Moslem cemetery and branded any criticism of Israeli politics as anti-semitism.
As the Bank for Social Economy was at a loss how to proceed, they had already asked the help of Dr. Felix Klein. Felix Klein, as Federal Commissioner, should really be trying to promote Jewish life, including and especially our fundamental rights to freedom of opinion and to political organization. In the case of political censorship against a minority he should have been particularly sensitive. The German civil servant Klein however recommended that a survey be taken to determine whether the members of the Jewish Voice, all of whom are Jews, are anti-semites. The standard to be used in determining this was to be the controversial definition of anti-semitism used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which for obvious reasons is propagated by the Israeli government. If the question had been left to the German commissioner for anti-semitism, the granddaughter of Jews starved in Leningrad would, for example, have been the subject a of German scientific examination as to whether or not she is an anti-semite. We refused to comply.
The reason for this political persecution is an attempt at censorship. We, the Jewish Voice, like many other Jewish peace organizations worldwide, have signed the BDS appeal made by Palestinian civilian society. Israel however, in which a state of emergency has prevailed since the founding of the country, needs enemy images to target. These are also necessary in order to keep the inner tensions between the Jews themselves in check. The enemy images change from time to time: Gamal Abdel Nasser or Saddam Hussein, the “Arabs” in general, the United Nations, the EU, all Moslems, Iran or in this case BDS. In other words, the whole world. Thus the danger is everywhere and paranoia more alert than ever. In the shadow of fear social expenditures in Israel can be continually curtailed, the privatization can be moved along and the profiteers of war and crisis favored. The tables of the OECD speak for themselves.
That Israelis are frightened is perfectly understandable. There are real reasons for this. When I was only two I found myself in a bunker and my daughter at the same age was in a tent designed to protect against chemical weapons. After decades of destruction of Palestine by Israeli forces, the fear of revenge and reprisals is inevitable and very real. These fears are best repelled by identifying an external foe and vowing to destroy him. The Israeli government declared the BDS campaign to be a primary enemy years ago. In fact, much less would be enough to trigger the same reflex. Conferences centering on Israeli politics or exhibitions of the Nakba – the expulsion of the Palestinians and the destruction of Palestine – often have nothing whatsoever to do with BDS but are cancelled on the same grounds and according to the same pattern. But BDS is most frightening because this movement can not be controlled.
If many people from all over the world write to Lionel Messi saying that he and his Argentine team should not play in Israel, this action has an effect. Israel, with its think tanks and all its espionage technology can do little. BDS has reached the American Congress and since mid-February is officially supported by the Green-Left Party in The Netherlands. BDS is becoming mainstream and the Israeli government is moving against it systematically.
What is BDS?
The BDS appeal, sent out by numerous Palestinian civilian organizations, signed by numerous trade unions, churches, student associations and Jewish peace groups, aims by non-violent means to exert pressure on Israel to turn back from its current policies and escape the destructive and self-destructive impasse into which Israel has fallen. BDS stands for boycott, disinvestment and sanctions. These are to be pursued until three conditions which are consistent with and supported by international law are fulfilled:
- To put an end to the occupation and colonization of the Arab land occupied in 1967 and to demolish the wall. This all sounds self-evident, particularly in light of the fact that these violations have already been defined as such by the International Court of Justice. However, Israel takes great pains to erase the term “occupation”. Even in the German press, the term “occupation” is now used in quotation marks or is referred to as “alleged occupation”.
- Recognition of the fundamental right of Israel’s Arab-Palestinian citizens to full equality. This corresponds to a liberal democratic demand as formulated in many constitutions. What it means is putting an end to the privileging of one ethnic or religious group. In the face of this demand, the privileged are always convinced that such equality means an existential threat for themselves. The nobles at the time of the French Revolution, the supporters of slavery in the USA, the Stalinists of the Communist Party, the whites in South Africa, the mullahs in Iran and the representatives of a “Jewish democracy” in Israel, all of them are or were convinced that another regime in their state would be inconceivable. The white minority in South Africa told the world that as soon as apartheid ceased to exist, the “savage blacks” would eat the whites In Germany, the right to equality is a matter of course. Josef Schuster and Felix Klein are unquestionably of the opinion that Jewish citizens here must have the same rights as all other citizens. In Israel however, as most Jews in Israel and their supporters are convinced, Jews must have more rights than other citizens, otherwise Israel’s existence is at stake. This means that Israel must oppress and segregate its inhabitants according to ethnicity and religion. This can not be allowed to remain as such.
- Respect, support and protection of the the right of Palestinian refugees, as laid down in UN Resolution 194, to return to their homes and to compensation in the event of loss of or damage to their property or in the event that they do not wish to return. This point touches on a taboo and is a great source of fear for Israeli Jews. We support this demand because we support the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A German Jewish woman who was expatriated and expropriated during the Nazi era has the incontestable right to return to Germany, to obtain German citizenship and/or to be compensated. Granting this right to Jews but not to Palestinians is simply a racist position. That this racist position is taken by the Central Council of Jews is no wonder. Josef Schuster called for an upper limit for the influx of fugitives in 2015. He did not want to see more Arab refugees in Germany. Anti-Semitism is an ethnic problem, he said. “It is strange when the CSU and the Central Council of Jews de facto demand that the European Convention on Human Rights be repealed,” said the managing director of Pro Asyl, also a winner of the Göttingen Peace Prize. After Armin Langer had criticized the chairman of the Central Council of Jews in the taz for his comments on the refugees, he was thrown out of the rabbinate school. This is a consistent policy which results when Jewish institutions identify with the racist positions and totalitarian methods of Israeli governments.
We believe that this is exactly what Israel needs: an open discussion of taboos, fears and paranoid notions in order to enable distinguishing between real and supposed fears and horror scenarios and in order to heal the wounds. Making the three points outlined above taboos and distorting the perception of the real power structures in the region have for decades let to destructive aggression. If this is allowed to continue, future coexistence will become impossible.
As stated above, BDS stands for boycott, disinvestment and sanctions. Sanctions are imposed by a sovereign nation. Many European politicians, including Richard von Weizsäcker and Helmut Schmidt have called for such measures. The aim here is not to continue to talk in vain about a freeze on settlements but to demand that existing settlements be dismantled and if this does not take place, to lend more weight to these demands through sanctions.
Disinvestment, the D in BDS, stands for the attempt to persuade companies not to make investments that support the settlements. NYU students, for example, recently voted that the university should no longer buy products from Caterpillar, Lockheed Martin and General Electric. Caterpillar sells bulldozers that demolish Palestinian homes, and Lockheed and General Electric supply weapons systems used in the occupied territories and Gaza Strip. Even Deutsche Bahn has withdrawn from a project in the Occupied Territories.
The B in BDS stands for boycott. The boycott is the means of the meek, i.e. the individual citizens, when the political authorities fail. It can take place at different levels, ranging from the decision not to buy products from the occupied territories to the call to boycott an academic or artistic event if it is financed by the Israeli government. Remember, this has nothing to do with the ethnicity of the scientists or artists participating in the event. Whether it’s a Christian migrant from the former Soviet Union, a Jew from Yemen or a Palestinian from Nazareth makes no difference.
If the same person makes an appearance as an individual and not as a representative of the Israeli government, the event will not be boycotted. Many of our members actively participate in such independent events, e.g. as lecturers at book presentations of Israeli-Jewish authors in Germany. And like other organizations that support the BDS call, the Jewish Voice decides on a case-by-case basis which boycott initiatives it participates in.
Dr. Muriel Asseburg from the Foundation for Science and Politics (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik) spoke years ago of a “disconnect” between German politics and the opinion of the citizens of this republic. We experience this every day. While many citizens support our work, politicians tell us quietly and in private that we can say such things, but for them such statements would mean the end of their careers. Journalists who dare to type the word apartheid into their keyboards in connection with Israel risk being dismissed. The task of criticizing Israeli politics still falls mainly to Jews and Israelis.
This is why our voice is still necessary. But we are standing here together with many others who are also committed to human rights, who also support BDS and who would therefore have been barred from Göttingen University. We stand here with Desmond Tutu, with Angela Davis, with Judith Butler, with Brian Eno, with Aki Kaurismäki and Alain Platel and Ken Loach and many others on the right side of history. And it is an open group that welcomes new members.
Our prize money will go to organizations in the Occupied Territories that lack financial support, such as Taayush or the Jordan Valley Initiative of Israeli activists who stand beside harassed and displaced Palestinians there. From here we call on politicians, academics, artists and all people in civilian society not to abandon these dwindling Israeli activists and, after more than 50 years of brutal occupation, to put pressure on Israel to renounce these policies.
We hope nothing more than that our organization will no longer be needed. All of us who are able to be here today, and above all, those Palestinians who have languished for years in prisons without having been charged, including over 1000 minors, or those imprisoned in the Gaza strip, we all have much better and more life affirming things to do.
Thank you very much.
Iris Hefets, for the Executive Committee