Daniel Marwecki, in a fascinating book titled Germany and Israel: Whitewashing and Statebuilding, argues that in the 1960s,

“Germany was ‘denazified’ by Israel in exchange for weapons and money. On the other hand, Arab States were ‘nazified’ in a move that sought to legitimize the Israeli position in the Arab-Israeli Conflict.”

Thus, at that time, Nasser was portrayed as Hitler on the Nile – a discursive move that would become a template for attempts by diverse western powers to “nazify” other Arab leaders: Yasser Arafat would be dubbed as Hitler in Beirut, while Saddam Hussein would be labeled Hitler in Baghdad. This dynamic of projection seems to be essential for any possible genealogy of the German-Israeli “special relationship” that went from “normalization” after the 1952 Reparations Agreement to Israel becoming Germany’s Staatsräson – its raison d’État, as Angela Mekel formulated it in 2008. What took place in the course of a few decades can be essentially read as post-Nazi Germany projecting its guilt-burdened past onto the situation of Israel and Palestine in a very specific way, where the Israeli Jews would become “Germans without guilt”, and the Palestinians (and the Arabs supporting them) as “guilt without Germans”. The former are the ideal self of the Germans, with whom one naturally should identify, and the latter are evil personified, from which one should wash (or whitewash…) oneself clean. As one of the engineers of this special relation, Franz Josef Strauss (a former officer in the German Army during the Nazi era) described the process as “leaving the past behind us.”

In reality, the past is not behind, it is outside – over there, in the Middle East. The paradox of this projection is that it keeps Nazi Germany alive and contemporary. It manifests in the region “from the River to the Sea” where 14 million live, 7 million Palestinians and 7 million Israeli Jews, in a genocidal paradigm, with the full involvement of Germany.

Discrimination and Symbolic Purification

The German projection found an unforgettable, if preposterous and pathetic, manifestation at the Berlinale Film Festival in February. The Green Commissioner for Culture, Claudia Roth, applauded when two young filmmakers, an Israeli and a Palestinian, delivered their acceptance speeches on stage during the award ceremony. Feeling the need to justify her applause, she clarified that she was only applauding for the Israeli! It’s difficult to know whether to laugh or cry reading about this incredible statement of “selective applause” – as Michael Sappir put it in a comprehensive article – encapsulating “the spiraling absurdity of Germany’s pro-Israel fanaticism”. I for one could scarcely believe the reports before confirming for myself that she really did utter what sounds almost like a religious formula of self-purification. In a different context, it might have been the very same Commissioner speaking to us about equality, universal values and human dignity, freedom of expression, and possibly solidarity.

In February, Ghassan Hage, the globally renowned Australian anthropologian, was sacked from Max Planck Institute for views he expressed on social media which were critical of Israel as an ethno-nationalist state. A few weeks later, the head of the institute gave a talk about democracy, delivered in unreflective “officialese” and including all the right things to say: open society, diversity, freedom of expression, academic freedom, seeing different sides and living with contradictions. Any traces of Hage’s fellowship at the Institute have been expunged in an act of symbolic extermination and self-purification.

In April, Dr. Ghassan Abu-Sittah was detained at an airport in Berlin and interrogated for more than three hours by the German police before he was denied entry into the country. The British-Palestinian surgeon who has been an eyewitness to the atrocities in Gaza wanted to attend a conference in the German capital about Palestine and the ongoing carnage in Gaza, described by the International Court of Justice as “plausible genocide” in February 2024. Days later, Abu Sitta was denied entry into Paris and was told that Germany was behind a decision to ban him from entering the European Union for a year. This inhuman policy – supporting Israel with arms to kill Palestinians over there, while silencing Palestinians from telling their story over here – and the reiteration of the Israeli narrative by politicians and the media lend more than a touch of extremism to the German position, even of nihilism.

These kinds of discriminatory statements and practices, as mentioned by Sappir in the aforementioned article, consolidated by refusing a ceasefire in Gaza, while stubbornly siding with Israel against the International Court of Justice, have understandably sent shock waves among many people – even those who are not staunch supporters of the Palestinian cause – for their extreme, unreflective, and fanatic nature.

The comments of German speakers on the South African case about the plausibility of genocide perpetrated by Israel in Gaza gives one the impression that Germany considers itself an authority on genocides, and that their opinion in this field is more valid than others. This is not necessarily true. Perpetrating genocides in the past, however big and archetypal, does not qualify the children of perpetrators to be experts in categorizing these “crimes of crimes” (as Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jewish lawyer who coined the term genocide, described it in 1940s). In fact, it can be the precise opposite. The distortion of guilt, responsibility and “memory culture”, however laudable on other levels they might be, can lead to obsessive, indeed semi-religious pathways of atonement and self-absolution from possible sins – as we saw in the example of Claudia Roth. In a recent interview with Medico International, Michael Rothberg, the author of Multidirectional Memory, said: “German media and political classes seem to believe that they have the proper understanding of what the Holocaust was and how to memorialize it.” Rothberg, an American Jew, went on to say: “They are out of touch with scholarly developments in Holocaust and genocide studies and have become extremely intolerant of any alternative understandings of history or memory—understandings they usually do not actually comprehend.”

The insistence of Germans that they hold authority on the Palestinian-Israeli struggle simply because the grandfathers of the living Germans murdered six million Jews is of course baseless from an objective point of view. There are two distinct registers here: a register of soul searching, conscience examination, guilt, and responsibility; and a register of rigorous research and nuanced knowledge on which a more ethical and open-minded (and open-hearted) approach to the Palestinian-Israeli struggle can be built. From the perspective of the latter register, Germany is the least objective party in the world.

However, it seems that Germany thinks Israel is incapable of committing a genocide because Jews were victims of one themselves in the Nazi era. This is also untrue. History shows many examples of crimes and genocides perpetrated by those who until recently were victims of them – as proven in Genocides by the Oppressed: Subaltern Genocide in Theory and Practice, edited by Nicholas A. Robins and Adam Jones.

The Moral Triangle and the Genuine Infinite

Germany, Israel and Palestine form a “moral triangle”. This is what Palestinian author Sa’ed Atshan and Israeli author Catharina Galor claim in an enlightening book about the interactions of Germans with Israelis and Palestinians in Berlin, published in 2020. Systematically omitting Palestinians from the triangle has led to blindness and immorality and to the targeting of Palestinians with repression and censorship (as the two authors prove with many examples). The victims of the censorship have never been solely Palestinians and their supporters – many of them are non-Zionist Jews or Israeli dissidents who are critical of their governments, of Zionism or of both. Nevertheless, they are accused by ethnic Germans of being antisemites. One is forced to say to such accusers: your feelings of ancestral guilt do not make you a just ethical agent in the struggles of today just because your previous victims’ descendants are involved. Being just and ethical is determined by the positive actions you take now, especially towards those who suffer most. By the same token, being a victim today does not mean that you are just in whatever you do, as some Palestinians (and Syrians) think. Justice, again, is about what you do, not about what bad things have or had been done to you.

Guilt seems to be driving Germany in the direction of ever more devout expression of alliance to Israel. In the language of Hegel, this is a bad or spurious infinite pathway. The search for redemption after an unthinkable crime, the Holocaust, is quite praiseworthy, but can redemption really be achieved through carelessness about the “collateral damage” (to use Galor’s expression) of one’s own actions, the destruction of Palestinians’ lives in their own homeland? It is “bad infinity” by virtue of the endless repetitions of its commitment to Israel and to “Jewish life” (as Jorgen Habermas and three others replicated in a particularly militarily and incommunicatively written statement in November 2023.) The genuine infinite is, according to Hegel, reached by a dialectical synthesis where contradictions are resolved into a higher unity that gives meaning to the finite by opening it to a process of self-completeness and true fulfillment. This is to say that Germans, by disentangling themselves from the “moral triangle” that binds Germany to Palestine as well as Israel, are showing fear of synthesis, and fleeing from the very dialectical totality that their very history involves them in. When we disentangle the triangle, removing the Palestinian side, we get (to paraphrase Herbert Marcuse) the One-Dimensional German, fixated on one commitment and constantly fleeing from the nuances and intricacies of living in the world, even from the consequences of his own deeds. For Germany to be a just nation, Palestine freedom should be another such Staatsräson.

This conduct is undermining democracy as well. The rampant censorship in Germany has already been silencing many Germans who cannot express themselves publicly out of fear of losing their jobs, public funds, institutional relations and even their social lives. They have to resort to the Orwellian doublespeak, saying one thing public and another in private. Italian historian Enzo Traverso believes that mobilizing the Staatsräson during the Israeli war on Gaza belongs to the logic of sovereignty and suspension of law, and it is already undermining the culture of democracy. Has the vital fight against antisemitism gained anything from this mobilization? No. On the contrary – the overuse of antisemitism has had a trivializing effect on the term. When almost every criticism of Israel is antisemitic in the one-dimensional German eye, while Israel, an apartheid state according to Amnesty international, Human Rights Watch and even the Israeli B’Tselem, is criticized by many Jews, Israelis and non-Israelis alike, does this not render antisemitism an oppressive label, even a camouflage that only venomous antisemites benefit from spreading? There are those who believe that doing their religious or semi-religious duties absolves them from being moral and just to those around them, their religiosity acting as a license for them to be selfish and narcissist. To see this behavior exhibited by German fanatic “Israelists” is, to me as a Syrian, strongly reminiscent of extremist Islamists. Obsessive religiosity tends to nurture insensitivity and unfeelingness among many people, leading to callousness and apathy – and even, indeed, to genocides.

A powerful othering machine has been working at full capacity in the last seven months in Germany. Those affected by it are Palestinians and their cause supporters, myself included. We have not been driven out of the country, not yet at least, but unanimously driven out of public spaces as potential antisemites. After projecting Nazism outside, its main marker, antisemitism, is now thought of in Germany as “imported” from the Middle East (when in reality, 84% of antisemitic incidents are home-grown in Germany, and at least part of the remaining 16% are plausible criticism of Israel and Zionism). This can be thought of as a continuation of the nazification of Arabs, a concept introduced in 1956, just after Egypt was invaded by France, the UK, and Israel following the nationalization of the Suez Canal. At the same time as Nasser, then-leader of Egypt, was labeled Hitler on the Nile, Konrad Adenauer, Germany’s chancellor, hailed Israel as “the fortress of the West.”

The othering machine is akin to what Simon Strick called a “desiring machine”, in reference to Israel as the German Staatsräson. What does this machine manufacture? Strick answers in one word: “Germanness.” And it does so, he adds, in an “increasingly outrageous, punitive, isolationist, phantasmatic way.” Both machines, the othering and the desiring, work in the service of narcissism – and a self-righteous one at that.