Once Again, Germany Is on the Wrong Side of History

Since the onset of Israel’s war on Gaza, Germany has emerged as one of its most steadfast allies, along with the United States. This alignment is not surprising given Germany’s longstanding official stance, which asserts a unique responsibility toward Israel due to Germany’s atrocities against European Jews during Nazi Germany’s genocide against European Jews during the Holocaust. Former chancellor Angela Merkel went so far as to say that Israel’s security is Germany’s “staatsräson” or “reason of state.”

With all this historical baggage, it is not surprising that Germany would side with Israel, especially in the wake of an attack that left more than 1,000 dead and hundreds taken hostage. However, no one would have expected a left-leaning government that claims to follow a values-based diplomacy to continue its unconditional support in the wake of Israeli atrocities that have claimed the lives of more than 33,000 people in Gaza, mostly women and children.

Today, Germany is Israel’s largest arms supplier after the United States, and German arms exports increased tenfold from 2022 to 2023. Although German Chancellor Olaf Scholz finally called for a ceasefire during Ramadan, German diplomats have, in most cases, abstained in UN votes or even opposed calls for a ceasefire in Gaza. When South Africa filed a lawsuit at the International Court of Justice against Israel for genocide in Gaza, Germany intervened as a third party supporting Israel. Most recently, Germany’s steadfast support for Israeli violence has prompted Nicaragua to file another lawsuit against Germany for facilitating genocide.

Public Debate and Repression of Free Speech

In Western societies, there exists a pervasive environment of bias, partiality, or one-sidedness that stifles public discourse about Israeli and Palestinian issues. In Germany, however, this environment is particularly pronounced, surpassing even that of the United States. The German media landscape is largely skewed toward a pro-Israel narrative, with instances in which pro-Israel coverage is mandated, such as in the publications owned by Axel Springer, Germany’s largest news conglomerate.

The Gaza conflict has sparked heated debates on university campuses worldwide, but in Germany since October 7 it has become routine for prestigious research institutions to dismiss academics for their public stances on the conflict and criticisms of Israel. In a prominent case, the Max Planck Society, a flagship of German academia, in February terminated Professor Ghassan Hage, a leading scholar on racism, for alleged bigotry and anti-Semitism, without clarifying the specific remarks or actions that warranted such accusations. Hage has since initiated legal proceedings against the Society, not for his dismissal but for being labeled as racist and anti-Semitic.

The stifling of alternative viewpoints on Israel in Germany extends beyond media and academia to include stringent limitations on freedom of expression and assembly. Especially in the immediate aftermath of October 7, Germany banned most pro-Palestinian demonstrations, along with the display of symbols of Palestinian identity. When demonstrations were allowed to resume, slogans such as Free Palestine or Stop the Genocide in Gaza were banned. People who are disinvited to Germany for their criticism of Israel include Jeremy Corbyn, British MP and former leader of Great Britain’s Labour Party, US Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and prominent intellectuals, many of whom have Jewish backgrounds. Several cultural institutions in Germany have also lost their funding due to their stance on Israel.

In essence, the level of domestic repression against dissenting viewpoints in Germany mirrors some of the tactics used by authoritarian regimes.” With too many examples to cite, Germany’s stance diverges from that of other traditional Western allies of Israel in terms of suppressing alternative perspectives.

Germany’s Left-Leaning Coalition and Palestine

Another factor that distinguishes the German case from other democracies is the participation of so-called left-leaning and progressive politicians in the silencing of dissent and promotion of unconditional support for Israel. Left-leaning parties have traditionally been more empathetic to the plight of Palestinians and concerned about Israeli crimes against them, even if this has not always led to a strong defense of Palestinian rights. In contrast, right-wing parties, often driven by civilizational ties to western culture, and some even encompassing anti-Arab racism, have always been more explicitly pro-Israel.

Left-leaning and progressive politicians have participated in the silencing of dissent and promotion of unconditional support for Israel.

It is therefore common to see a change of tone in policies toward Palestine with the change of governments. For instance, Sweden, a nation historically governed by the Social Democratic Party and the first European Union country to recognize Palestinian statehood, underwent a policy shift under the current right-wing minority government, backed by a far-right party with neo-Nazi roots, resulting in a more supportive attitude toward Israel. Similar examples can be observed in Germany. While it has always been pro-Israel, its Social Democratic Party (SPD) has traditionally taken a relatively balanced approach. This can be seen in historic events such as the 1979 meeting between the legendary SPD politician and former chancellor Willy Brandt and Yasser Arafat, which was a major breakthrough in the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) campaign to enhance its international standing. More recently, in 2018, then foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel criticized Israel for practicing apartheid in the occupied West Bank.

In this context, one might expect the current German government—one of the most progressive coalitions in Europe, comprising Social Democrats, Greens, and Liberals—to be more sensitive to Palestinian suffering. But this is clearly not the case, and Germany’s unconditional support for Israel adds another layer to its exceptionalism on the conflict.

Germany’s State-Mandated Position and Its Arab and Muslim Populations

One notable aspect of Germany’s approach to the recent crisis is that the country has a state-mandated position in the conflict, leaving little room for debate and discussion. In fact, in a quite authoritarian manner, debate is equated with getting confused. A month after the eruption of violence in Gaza, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser made this stance unequivocally clear ahead of last November’s “German Islam” conference—an official dialogue between government officials and Muslims in Germany—stating, “It must be quite clear, we stand on Israel’s side.”

In December 2023, a draft law was introduced in the German parliament, proposing that German citizenship be contingent upon a formal commitment to “Israel’s right to exist.” Following this, the state of Saxony-Anhalt issued its own directive, requiring citizenship applicants to declare their support for “Israel’s right to exist.”

The problem is not only the absurdity of making citizenship of one country dependent on support for another, but also the moral implications of such a statement. Many will rightly argue that Israel has a right to exist, but cannot exist in its current form and ideology based on a racial hierarchy. The German discourse, however, tends to overlook these nuances, favoring a more simplistic “support Israel and condemn Hamas” approach. Faeser emphasized this when she asked Muslim communities not only to condemn Hamas, but also not to resort to “yes, buts” when addressing the issue. According to Faeser, this is part of the responsibility of Muslims in German society.

The German discourse, however, tends to overlook these nuances, favoring a more simplistic “support Israel and condemn Hamas” approach.

The German interior minister is not alone in her attitude toward Arabs and Muslims living in Germany. In a speech widely circulated  on social media, Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck addressed Muslims in Germany, saying that their right to tolerance in Germany depends on distancing themselves from anti-Semitism. Habeck also warned that those who did not heed his call would be deported. Shortly afterwards, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier called on Germans of Palestinian and Arab origin to distance themselves from Hamas and anti-Semitism.

While it is normal for German authorities to condemn anti-Semitism, there is disagreement over its definition. In the German context, criticism of Israel can easily be equated with anti-Semitism. More problematic in these statements, however, is the singling out of Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims and the implication that these peoples have a special affinity for anti-Semitism, an ideology that originated in Europe and that has deep roots in German and European political thought and history.

In their statements, German authorities have repeatedly referred to the increasing number of anti-Semitic incidents in the country without ever mentioning that, according to official statistics, most of these incidents are of right-wing origin. Moreover, Felix Klein, Germany’s top official in charge of combating anti-Semitism, stated that although he was aware of the official statistics, he still thought that anti-Semitic attacks by members of Muslim communities were a bigger problem.

In this context, the targeting of Arabs and Muslims in Germany serves several purposes. First, it aligns with the right-wing agenda of promoting anti-migrant sentiments. By making blanket accusations of anti-Semitism toward Arabs and Muslims, it facilitates the promotion of an anti-immigrant and Islamophobic narrative. Consequently, it provides a semblance of legitimacy to the racist ideas propagated by the far right. The far-right and anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany (AfD) currently commands around 18 percent in polls, making it the second-most popular party in Germany.

Moreover, this targeting serves to mask Germany’s issues with anti-Semitism. Longitudinal studies have shown that 25 percent of the German public routinely adhere to anti-Semitic beliefs. Therefore, targeting Arabs and Muslims allows the far-right in Germany to espouse racist views without being held accountable for racism.

German Anti-Palestinianism

Germany’s official stance not only closely aligns with Israel but also harbors a distinct negative disposition toward Palestinian identity and the Palestinian people. While theoretically endorsing a two-state solution, Germany’s actual policies reveal discomfort with the continued existence and expression of Palestinian identity.

One of the first reactions of the German authorities after October 7 was to ban symbols of Palestinian identity, such as carrying the Palestinian flag or wearing the keffiyeh. Furthermore, there are numerous instances where the government has targeted and criminalized Palestinian identity under the guise of supporting Israel. For example, when Culture Minister Claudia Roth was criticized for applauding the speech by both the Israeli and Palestinian co-directors of the film “No Other Land” at the Berlinale awards ceremony, she defended herself and stigmatized Palestinian identity by claiming that she was only applauding the Israeli director and not the Palestinian director. Similarly, Palestinian author Adania Shibli’s award at the Frankfurt book fair was canceled, not because of any of her actions or statements, but simply because of her Palestinian heritage. Later, she was also accused of anti-Semitism because her award-winning book dealt with the suffering of the Palestinian people during the Nakba. Recently, the Berlin Senate decided to distribute leaflets in schools describing the Nakba as a myth, targeting the Neukölln district of Berlin, home to the majority of the city’s Arab population. Moreover, the repression of Palestinian identity in Germany predates the recent escalation of violence in Gaza, as evidenced by the banning of Nakba commemorations over the last years and the arrest of demonstrators if they persist.

In general, Germany’s approach to Palestinian identity is in line with the most extreme and right-wing Zionist views that see the erasure of Palestinian identity as a precondition for Israel’s security. Those who oppose this radical stance, including many Jewish activists, are often labeled as anti-Semitic. As a result, far-right parties with neo-Nazi ties can protest under police protection, while Jews who criticize Israeli policies are routinely arrested at peace demonstrations and charged with anti-Semitism. Berlin-based Jewish activist Deborah Feldman emphasizes that only Jews who adhere to the official German creed and the most radical version of Zionism are considered true Jews and hence worthy of protection.

Targeting Palestinian identity is also intricately linked to Germany’s grappling with its own historical guilt.

Targeting Palestinian identity is also intricately linked to Germany’s grappling with its own historical guilt. The persistence of Palestinian identity and resistance, particularly in recounting the Nakba, challenges the prevailing narrative of Germany’s memory culture and shows its limitations. In this narrative, the concept of “Vergangenheitsbewältigung,” or “coming to terms with the past,” stands out as a significant achievement of modern Germany. Unlike many other nations, Germany has confronted its past atrocities rather than denying or suppressing them. It has fostered a culture of remembrance to confront these horrors.

Within this framework, support for Israel is often viewed as a means of addressing these historical crimes and seeking redemption from past guilt. The founding of Israel also offers a “happy ending” to Germany’s dark history. As such it is perceived as an “immaculate conception” However, the Nakba serves as a stark reminder that Israel’s creation is neither an immaculate conception nor an end to the suffering. Instead, the ongoing Palestinian plight underscores that history is ongoing, with the enduring, albeit indirect, repercussions of Germany’s historical crimes. While Zionism predates Nazism and the Holocaust, significant Jewish migration to Palestine occurred only after the Nazi Party came to power in 1933 and initiated the persecution of European Jewry. Consequently, it is reasonable to suggest that without the Holocaust, Palestinians may not have lost their lands and would not be enduring persecution and oppression.

This recognition challenges Germany to acknowledge and address the plight of Palestinians as part of its historical responsibility. If Germany genuinely seeks to confront the consequences of the Holocaust, it must acknowledge that its historical obligations extend to the Palestinian people. So far, this is missing in the German debate and thus shows the limitations of Germany’s memory culture.

Overall, the German position in this war has been disturbing and concerning in many ways. Not only has it been morally corrupt, but it has also been strategically blind and has had a negative impact on Germany’s domestic and foreign policies.

The restriction of basic freedoms such as freedom of demonstration and expression, as well as the profiling of dissidents, sets a dangerous precedent for the future of German democracy. More important, it is deeply scarring the minds of Germany’s growing Arab and Muslim populations. Since the escalation of violence, Muslims in Germany feel excluded and marginalized. Not only are they estranged by Germany’s pro-Israel position and the political elite’s apparent lack of empathy toward the human toll in Gaza, but they also face repeated stigmatization by German political leaders. This episode threatens to have long-term repercussions on Germany’s already faltering integration policies.

In terms of foreign policy, Germany has sought to carve out a niche for itself by emphasizing soft power and claiming to pursue a values-driven foreign policy. This emphasis on values has become even more prominent in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. But in the realm of political realism, maintaining a values-driven foreign policy requires constant validation. Germany’s current position on Israel’s actions in Gaza has undermined its claim to moral superiority. This stance not only lacks moral integrity but also proves strategically counterproductive.

Germany’s decades-long investment in soft power has suffered a severe blow, particularly across the Global South. Moreover, repeated endorsements of the Israeli regime have weakened regional peace prospects and, consequently, Israel’s security. Given that Germany’s political influence in the Middle East has always been limited, one could argue that its position would not have made much difference anyway. There is partial truth in this. But Germany’s known position in support of Israel also gives it a symbolic advantage. In a world where even Germany is beginning to criticize Israel, this will send a much stronger political message than condemnation from other European countries.

Germany’s historic responsibility therefore lies in not blindly supporting Israel in its war against the Palestinians. Instead, it necessitates a more nuanced understanding of its historical obligations, which must extend to the Palestinians. Germany’s true friendship toward Israel should be manifested in redoubled efforts to advocate for peace in the region.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: GPO