Anti-Germans as anti-Semites

United for global change!

I just got back from Leipzig’s #globalchange festival/demonstration. At one point, I noticed two guys holding up an Israeli flag, and went over to ask what that’s about. It was the only national flag present and I wasn’t sure what it was doing there. “We’re here to provoke,” said one of the guys. “This demonstration is structurally anti-Semitic.” The idea, of course, is that a demonstration with anti-elite, anti-banker sentiment is anti-Semitic, whether the demonstrators know it or not. I tried to argue against this odd rhetoric, but he quickly said he doesn’t want to discuss it.

These counter-demonstrators are, I gather, anti-Germans. This is a movement considered to be left-wing and anti-fascistic, with a commitment to unconditional solidarity with Israel. The paradox of the “provocation” I witnessed is that this was the only mention of the “banking=Jews” stereotype I could detect in today’s demonstration, or indeed in all of the Real Democracy Now activities that led up to it in the past half year. It seems to me like the anti-Germans were the only ones bringing anti-Semitism into the demonstration. It annoys me to no end that they weren’t open to discussion, and this post is my attempt to say what I would have told them if they were willing to listen.

I recently read a pamphlet titled “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere”, a fascinating guide to understanding and combatting anti-Semitism targeted at social change activists. It can be found online [PDF] and I highly recommend reading it, especially if you are involved in any kind of movement for social change. It makes the crucial point that anti-Semitism is:

“a divide-and-rule strategy that has served to maintain ruling classes, conceal who actually has power, and confuse us about the real systems of oppression that pit us against one another.”
(Chris Crass, Quoted on a now-defunct website hosting the pamphlet.)

Historically, rulers and ruling elites have used anti-Jewish sentiments to deflect the anger of the oppressed masses towards a relatively powerless group (Jews). In a way, it comes down to rulers explicitly or implicitly fostering the belief that the Jews, not the rulers themselves, are the problem.

What those anti-Germans were trying to do today was the same in reverse – delegitimizing an expression of legitimate grievance against the ruling class by claiming it’s an illegitimate expression of intolerance against Jews. This makes me pretty angry, I have to say. If I had detected any anti-Semitic sentiment or rhetoric from the demonstrators, I would go berserk. But I felt very comfortable at the demonstration, felt it was a matter of global solidarity, explicitly inclusive to me (with my irrelevant Jewish background) and to anyone else. The first thing that made me uncomfortable there was the anti-Germans with that big Israeli flag. How dare they insinuate that the German banking system is controlled by Jews? Where the heck did they get that idea?

You know what, I don’t actually know the names and backgrounds of any major German bankers. And I don’t need to. We were demonstrating against the absurd situation in which Europe and the world are in crisis yet the number of millionaires in Germany has only increased. We were demonstrating because we’re told things are going to get hard and we have to live in fear of economic collapse while those who were involved in creating this mess have nothing to fear and they continue to control much more wealth than the rest of us. Even if it so happened that 99% of German bank owners are Jewish, this wouldn’t have been an anti-Semitic demonstration.

Speaking out against someone who happens to be a Jew is not anti-Semitism. Speaking out against “the Jews” or attacking someone because they’re a Jew is anti-Semitism. Is those anti-Germans’ approach supposed to somehow protect Germany from a resurgence of anti-Semitism? Seems to me like at the very least, it muddies the waters and creates confusion about what is or isn’t anti-Semitic, making it easier for real intolerance to fly in under the radar. Even worse, it can actually re-enforce anti-Semitism by suggesting that speaking out against the powers that be is speaking out against Jews – supporting the false equation that “(the) Jews” are responsible for the power structures we live within.

There. I think I got it out of my system now. Has anyone else encountered similar situations, where people meaning to fight intolerance end up implicitly encouraging it?

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7 thoughts on “Anti-Germans as anti-Semites”

    1. Thanks for the link. It was a tough read (loooong sentences!), but interesting, and good practice for my German! :)

      For those who can’t read it: it’s biting criticism (by an Israeli historian) of a paper by two sociologists who claim to point out antisemitism in Germany’s hard-line Left party. He particularly points out that the factual basis is thin and consists in part of myths and rumors, and concludes that it’s more of an anti-German political attack than valid scholarly analysis. A major factor in this is that they unquestioningly bundle together antisemitism, anti-Zionism, and criticism of Israel.

    1. Thanks, I wasn’t aware of this. It’s sad to see, and frankly scary, but I don’t think this can be taken to indicate the whole global movement (or loose association of similar movements, rather) is antisemitic. Antisemitism tends to crop up in times of turmoil, and antisemites can be found in almost any political movement (just as can other types of racists and intolerant assholes). They have to be fought wherever they are found, but should never be used as an excuse to denounce whole movements, unless their intolerant and hateful views are integrated in the movement’s position, or at least the movements fail to denounce true open intolerance by prominent figures within them. This is all a far cry from claiming that since antisemites think “the Jews” control the banks, any protest displaying anti-banker sentiment is necessarily antisemitic.
      But I’m not sure that’s what you meant to say – where do you stand on this?

  1. Hi Michael, I came by chance across your blog and felt I should drop a line. I do not have any sympathy or even interest in the Anti-Deutsch movement, BUT Honestly, as a middle aged German Jew I did not experience any (ANY) bigger discussion in Germany about things were money or banks are involved which was free from antisemitism. That doesn’t say anything about the importance of the current demonstrations, but to generally deny that the warnings of the Anti-Deutsch movement are going into the wrong direction might just be an advantage of not yet perfect German language skills? Just wait for a couple of weeks – I am sure it will be said in a much more open way then…

    1. Oh, my German is quite close to perfect, I’m sure I didn’t miss anything. And as I understood the guy with the flag, he wasn’t warning that actual anti-Semitism would come up, but indicting the whole demonstration as it was for being anti-Semitic by semantic association.

      By the way, this movement, contrary to what the German media has been reporting, is not new nor inspired by Occupy Wall Street – rather, it’s been around since May, initiated by Spanish expats (at least in Leipzig) in solidarity with the social protest movement there (Democracía Real Ya / Real Democracy Now / Echte Demokratie Jetzt), which in turn was inspired by Egypt (http://bit.ly/v8alGZ [German]). I’ve been to other demonstrations of theirs in Leipzig before and I’ve met one of their main guys, and so far no intolerance or racism.

      I’m grateful for your input and I’m sure anti-Semites will take advantage of this movement sooner or later, but that’s not any kind of reason to be against the movement as such or label it “systemically anti-Semitic” as that anti-German guy did.

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