German Jews and the Left

The Micha Brumlik Interview, Part I

Contemporary Jewish life in Germany is not what it once was. Still recovering from the Holocaust, its cultural figures lack the international stature that their pre-WWII predecessors still have. 

Jewish protest sign. Nakba Day 2021, Berlin.

Indeed, it will be a good while yet before there is another figure like Hannah Arendt or Walter Benjamin, equally recognised in New York and Berlin. Even in Germany, for that matter, where the country’s contemporary Jewish community is barely recognisable to Germans.

Domestically, Micha Brumlik is an exception to the status quo. A professor emeritus of education at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, Brumlik is the author of numerous books on Jewish life, politics and religion, and the former editor of Jewish culture journal Babylon.

One of the first members of the German Jewish community to take issue with Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians, Brumlik joined a kibbutz after high school, where he became an anti-Zionist and a member of the Matzpen (‘Compass’), Israel’s legendary communist organisation.

For students of Israeli history, since the late 1960s, few groups have been as influential on the Israeli left, with former members such as Michel Warschawski, Moshe Machover and Akiva Orr becoming household names amongst international anti-occupation advocates.

Wieland Hoban spoke to Brumlik just before the Nakba Action Days, which rose to global headlines over allegations of Antisemitism amongst Arab and Turkish protestors.


Wieland Hoban: Mr Brumlik, let’s begin with the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA). You, first of all, signed it, then you also wrote an article in favour of it, so it’s fair to say that you’ve expressed clear support for it. Why is that?

Micha Brumlik: In my opinion, because at least as far as Germany is concerned, the JDA clarifies the different forms Antisemitism takes in Germany and Europe, probably in the USA too. 

The true dangers of Antisemitism do not come from Israel-related Antisemitism, as is repeatedly claimed, but from the far-right, from the recent coronavirus protests, and in Germany especially such events as the attacks in Halle and Hanau. 

That’s supported by police statistics: in this country at least, the danger to Jews comes overwhelmingly from all forms of far-right extremism. 

Things, (however) look different after the protests against Israel reacting to the Hamas rocket attacks. 

Here we had to observe that many young people and children of immigrants from Turkey or asylum seekers from Syria did not only protest against Israel but attacked synagogues and offended Jews. 

This indeed is nothing but classical Antisemitism. It does not come from the political right in Germany.

Wieland Hoban: I think you’ll find that Israel was not simply reacting to Hamas.

First, there were the Jewish gangs attacking Palestinians in Jerusalem, then the violent evictions of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah, followed by the security forces raid on Al-Aqsa, with tear gas, stun grenades and rubber-coated bullets.

Hamas responded with an ultimatum to end it, and finally, there were the rockets.

Reports of rather few Antisemitic incidents were used to represent the German protests as a whole. Some attacks on synagogues, such as in Frankfurt, were fabricated or exaggerated. Many of the demonstrators had lost loved ones in Gaza, or fear doing so. 

90% of violent crimes, according to the most recent report, are (still) committed by the far-right. The Jerusalem Declaration was also proposed as a form of antidote to the IHRA Definition.

Micha Brumlik: That’s right, and I should add that the IHRA definition isn’t wrong in itself, but because it’s easier to use for charges of Israel-related Antisemitism, it has helped right-wing Israeli politicians and the government to denounce critical comments about Israeli policy as Antisemitic. 

Wieland Hoban: And that phenomenon was subsequently brought to Germany too, where Jewish institutions and the supposed representatives of German Jews promote similar arguments.

Micha Brumlik: Yes, though I’ve noticed that the Central Council of Jews in Germany, at least, barely responded [to the JDA]. There were three articles two weeks ago in the Jüdische Allgemeine [the Central Council’s newspaper], but that was it. As far as I can tell, the Central Council and its representatives haven’t made any statements about it.

Wieland Hoban: There was a highly polemical article by Uwe Becker there.

Micha Brumlik: Uwe Becker isn’t in the Central Council, he’s a Frankfurt CDU politician.

Wieland Hoban: Of course, but the article was published by the Jüdische Allgemeine, which generally represents the Central Council. 

Micha Brumlik: At any rate, I wanted to point out that representatives of Central Council itself have not made statements regarding the JDA.

Wieland Hoban: I think it’s difficult to refute the JDA, which argues in a very detailed way, in a concrete and convincing way.

Micha Brumlik: And the people responsible for it clearly can’t be accused in any way of any form of Antisemitism. Such as the historian Omer Bartov, who recently published a harrowing book on the Holocaust specifically concerning his mother’s home town.  

Wieland Hoban: Yes, the authors and signatories were more or less all specialists in areas relating to the Holocaust, Jewish history, Jewish theology and the like.

Micha Brumlik: And I’ve noted that critics of the JDA have barely considered the backgrounds of those people. 

Wieland Hoban: You said that the IHRA isn’t entirely wrong in itself.

Micha Brumlik: That’s right, but it’s open to misinterpretation.

Wieland Hoban: But there are also passages referring to things like double standards being applied to Israel, and in the general discourse, people already speak of double standards when there are demands for Israel simply to follow international law.  

Micha Brumlik: Yes, naturally there’s a problem: one can’t expect that every time Israeli government policy is criticised for some reason, the person making the criticism simultaneously has to criticise China for oppressing the Uighurs or Tibet. 

But it would be a case of double standards if someone supported or downplayed China’s treatment of the Uighurs but criticised Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank.

Wieland Hoban: Yes, though sometimes it’s also a reaction to the instrumentalisation of certain politics. If, for example, Israel advocates bring up such an issue not out of sincere concern for the Uighurs, but to distract from Israel’s actions. 

Micha Brumlik: Granted, though it’s always difficult to prove that. 

Wieland Hoban: The IHRA definition has only been promoted widely since 2016, and one can observe the subsequent changes: the discourse has become more vicious. 

You were already making critical public statements about Israel in the 1980s in the context of the Lebanon War. Do you see a substantial change since then in the reception of such criticisms and the reactions in Jewish communities?

Micha Brumlik: I wouldn’t say that. If one presents well-founded criticism, I haven’t had the experience of being invited less to Jewish communities. For my part, I can’t complain of many hostile reactions.

Wieland Hoban: But in your book Kein Weg als Deutscher und Jude (No Path As a German and a Jew, 1996) you describe that time, and you talk about some outraged responses in the Frankfurt community. 

Micha Brumlik: Yes, that’s true, there was some of that. But in the decades since then, I don’t feel that it’s had any negative longer-term effects for me. I still write for the Jüdische Allgemeine.

Wieland Hoban: At the same time, people who share some of your positions are denounced for that. 

Micha Brumlik: Whom are you thinking of?

Wieland Hoban: Well, there’s plenty of that, in the left-wing press too, whether it’s harsher or milder, as in the taz – regarding something like the position that BDS isn’t Antisemitic.

Micha Brumlik: That’s right, there’s a dispute over that. Though in the taz it’s more of an internal discussion within the left. It doesn’t have anything to do with the strategies of the Central Council, for example.

Wieland Hoban: Yes, but the Central Council considers it an established fact – along with the more conservative groups that dominate the discourse in Germany – that BDS is Antisemitic per se. 

Micha Brumlik: People keep claiming that. My impression is that it’s not so clear-cut in the major German media. The Süddeutsche Zeitung has published important contributions by the Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz, for example. So I don’t agree with that. 

Wieland Hoban: The JDA emphasises that political speech is a different matter from ethnic discrimination, for example towards Jews. So even if one says something unreasonable about Israel, it should be taken first of all as a statement about Israel and not about Jews. 

Micha Brumlik: That’s precisely the problem connected to the IHRA Definition. 

If one says, as the great historian Yehuda Bauer argued, that Israel is a Jewish state, and if one criticises it as a Jewish institution then that’s Antisemitic. 

That’s the problem. When people state that it’s fundamental to the nature of Jews today for there to be a Jewish state, that means that any strong criticism of that state goes to the heart of Jewish self-identity.

Wieland Hoban: And Jewish self-determination. But that actually promotes a paradoxical position in relation to the German discourse on Antisemitism, because on the one hand, it’s often said that one shouldn’t hold Jews responsible for what happens in Israel.

Micha Brumlik: Yes, in the JDA too. 

Wieland Hoban: But on the other hand, as soon as statements are made about Israel, people start talking about Jews and Antisemitism. 

Micha Brumlik: Yes, but one always has to look closely at who’s saying that, and in what context. 

Wieland Hoban: Right, but according to Antisemitism commissioners…

Micha Brumlik: Yes, that’s Felix Klein above all. Other commissioners [at state level] are more cautious, as far as I can tell.

Wieland Hoban: Well, someone like Samuel Salzborn…

Micha Brumlik: Klein has barely made any such statements in recent weeks. Samuel Salzborn [Antisemitism Commissioner for the State of Berlin], that’s true. Michael Blume [Antisemitism Commissioner for the State of Baden-Württemberg] is different. 

Wieland Hoban: In the cases of Klein and Salzborn, one can really see a kind of zealotry about denouncing people. And that makes it difficult for Jews in Germany. They don’t have any problems about going after Jews either. 

Twenty years ago, Jews who criticised Israel could be called self-hating Jews in the worst case, but actually calling them Antisemites – that’s relatively new. 

Micha Brumlik: Yes, that’s relatively new, and I also see generalisations to that effect. But as I mentioned earlier, I don’t think anyone has named individual persons in response to the JDA.

Wieland Hoban: Individual persons?

Micha Brumlik: Individuals who signed the JDA. 

Wieland Hoban: Well, I heard recently that the philosopher Susan Neiman was treated pretty insultingly by Felix Klein. He compared her to coronavirus deniers and conspiracy theorists. 

We’ve reached the point where it no longer makes much difference if the criticism is coming from Jews. 

I don’t know if you’re aware that our organisation, Jüdische Stimme, had our bank account closed thanks to Klein’s efforts.

Micha Brumlik: Yes, I know about that. It was scandalous. 

Wieland Hoban: So there isn’t any reflection on what other reasons there might be for such criticism, or to support BDS, other than hostility towards Jews. 

Micha Brumlik: Though that’s not even the case with Susan Neiman. None of the people who are being attacked in that context support BDS. 

Almost all of them say that BDS is politically wrong. But not everything that’s politically wrong is Antisemitic.

Wieland Hoban: What do you find politically wrong about BDS?

Micha Brumlik: I think it’s wrong for BDS to target and boycott Israeli artists and academics who appear internationally, even if they are very strong critics of Israel themselves. 

Wieland Hoban: But the principles of BDS…  

Micha Brumlik: It’s not about the principles, it’s about the way the boycott is implemented, making no distinction between people purely based on their nationality. There’s a litmus test. 

It’d be interesting to see whether BDS also boycotts Israeli citizens who are Christian or Muslim rather than Jewish. If not, that would be Antisemitic.

Wieland Hoban: But there are also Israelis who strongly support BDS, such as Ilan Pappé or Miko Peled – activists who argue the case for BDS.

Micha Brumlik: Fine, but then they’re wrong. 

Wieland Hoban: And the organisation itself, the committee, says very clearly that it’s not about individuals but about the representation of state institutions. 

Micha Brumlik: And most of the time, artists don’t represent state institutions. 

Wieland Hoban: Yes, and that’s why it’s not BDS policy to boycott them. 

Micha Brumlik: I think it’s wrong.

Wieland Hoban: Yes, but they’re not boycotted as individuals. 

Micha Brumlik: It doesn’t seem that way to me, my impression is different. But I suppose one would have to compare cases.

Wieland Hoban: This is claimed very often in the press.

There was a case in 2018, the Pop-Kultur Festival in Berlin. Some artists cancelled with reference to Israeli performers who were invited, and it was claimed that they did so simply because of the participation of Israeli artists. 

However, the reason was actually the involvement of the Israeli embassy as a sponsor, whose emblem appeared on the promotional material. 

Micha Brumlik: OK, then one has to look more carefully, I admit that.

Wieland Hoban: What happened was that the embassy had contributed a sum for the artists’ travel expenses. Not very much, but a symbolic sum. 

Then, the other artists even offered to collect money in order to cover what would be lost if the sponsorship was rejected, so that the Israeli artists would still be able to perform. 

So one sees how the reporting distorts things. And this makes it especially difficult for people in Germany with Palestinian roots – of which there are many now – to be heard politically. 

Micha Brumlik: Yes, sure.

Wieland Hoban: In recent days, for example, there have been calls for demonstrations on Nakba Day, 15 May, and in the Jüdische Allgemeine and – echoing them – in the Frankfurter Rundschau one immediately sees references to Israel-haters and Antisemitism. 

Micha Brumlik: But it does happen. I’ve attended the annual Al-Quds Day march in Berlin twice, and there were slogans that did cross the line to Antisemitism, for example, saying that the state of Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth. 

Wieland Hoban: I’d say that the Al-Quds Day is a particular case. But these spontaneous demonstrations and those for Nakba Day are about basic human rights, and if they use phrases like ‘From the river to the sea’, saying that the whole region should be free, this is portrayed as a call to destroy Israel, to expel all Jews. 

Micha Brumlik: But I think it’s fair to say, and can be empirically proved, that except for Tunisia, there’s no country from Morocco to Indonesia in which Muslims have as many civil rights as in the state of Israel. I’m specifically not referring to the Occupied Territories.

Wieland Hoban: But in recent months, both B’tselem and Human Rights Watch have emphasised that even if there are obvious differences, the entire territory is controlled by a single regime.

Micha Brumlik: But very differently. The fact that Netanyahu tried – it came to nothing in the end – to join forces with the United Arab List shows that this isn’t true.

Wieland Hoban: But in previous elections, one repeatedly saw how the United Arab List was excluded from any possible coalition.

Micha Brumlik: Evidently that’s changed. 

Wieland Hoban: Don’t you think that Netanyahu is simply getting more and more desperate and trying to cling to power?

Micha Brumlik: Sure, but he did it nonetheless. There’s no question. It’s still not clear whether the United Arab List will be involved in the next government or not. I repeat: there’s no other state between Morocco and Indonesia where Muslims have as many democratic rights. 

Wieland Hoban: That may be, but they still have to live as second- or third-class citizens. 

Micha Brumlik: There are certainly some areas of discrimination, for example, if one compares the Jewish and non-Jewish education systems.

Wieland Hoban: Far less money is put into it. 

Micha Brumlik: Yes. And it’s also true that Arab men and women aren’t obliged to serve in the army, and of course one of the major problems is the difficulty of buying property for Arab citizens. 

But in all other areas, even as second-class citizens, they enjoy more human and civil rights than in any other Muslim country except Tunisia. 

Wieland Hoban: But is that really the right criterion? We wouldn’t accept it in Germany if Turkish-background citizens were simply denied certain rights. 

Micha Brumlik: I’m not accepting it, I criticise it very strongly! No question about it. 

Wieland Hoban: The Nation-State Law of 2018.

Micha Brumlik: That was a severe mistake, and I was highly critical of it. Up to that point, at least, Arabic had been the country’s second official language, and that stopped. It was a grave political mistake. 

Wieland Hoban: And this law expressly stated that only the Jewish people had the right to self-determination in Israel.

Micha Brumlik: The problem is, what exactly does that mean? Non-Jews have self-determination in Israel already, so it’s not clear what it would mean for them not to have that right. 

In the meantime, there have been some interesting political conceptions, for example by the Israeli philosopher Omri Boehm, who proposes something like a federation. I agree with that. 

Wieland Hoban: Right, but then we still have the problem of the Occupied Territories. 

Micha Brumlik: Yes, we can definitely agree on that. It’s an outrage, though this is also one reason I consider BDS wrong: it would be more helpful if BDS would say clearly not that there has to be a liberation of all Arab lands, but all lands occupied since 1967. 

Wieland Hoban: But that’s precisely what BDS demands. 

Micha Brumlik: As I know it, the formulation refers to all occupied Arab lands.

Wieland Hoban: Exactly, occupied. The Occupied Territories.

Micha Brumlik: Well, there’s an ambiguity there. It would be more helpful for the international discussion to refer to the 1967 borders.

Wieland Hoban: But there’s something a little artificial about the distinction. When, for example, people say, ‘I reject BDS for the whole of Israel, but I’m in favour of boycotting the Occupied Territories’ – it’s all controlled by the same state.   

Micha Brumlik: In very different ways.

Wieland Hoban: But the settlements are Israeli outposts, they’re subsidised by the state.

Micha Brumlik: Yes, and one should strongly criticise all of that. No argument from me. 

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.