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Playing the Jewish card in Germany

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Photo: DPA
07:45 CET+01:00
Can a German criticize Israel and not be anti-Semitic? Miriam Widman comments on the latest chapter of Germany’s complicated and often troubled relationship with the Jewish people.

German journalist and publisher Jakob Augstein was recently listed as one of the top ten worst anti-Semites in the world by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The US Jewish human rights organization said it based its decision on German-Jewish pundit Henryk M. Broder's description of Augstein as a "perfect anti-Semite."

For me – an American-Jewish journalist – the story is not so much about whether Augstein is an anti-Semite, which I don’t think he is, but why Henryk Broder's opinion seems to matter so much.

The controversy started when reports revealed that Broder, a popular polemist long known for bashing critics of Israel, influenced the Simon Wiesenthal Center's decision-making.

The group listed Augstein, a respected left-wing columnist and adopted son of Der Spiegel magazine founder Rudolf Augstein, in the number nine spot of world's top ten worst anti-Semites – ahead of well-known US Jew-basher Louis Farrakhan.

I’ve followed Broder over the years. What fascinates me most about him is not his background – he was born to Holocaust survivors – or his prolific capacity to write – he has published numerous books, and recently switched to the right-wing daily Die Welt after working for left-wing Der Spiegel for years – but that one man seems to have so much sway over German public opinion.

Someone in his position in the United States would not spark such heated debates as he does in Germany. There have been many people called anti-Semites by prominent Jewish Americans – most recently US President Barack Obama’s choice for Defense Secretary – Chuck Hagel.

But while the remarks get reported on and commented upon, that’s about where it all ends. There are no ongoing debates in the media fixated about whether Hagel is an anti-Semite or not.

Okay – one could argue that getting on the Simon Wiesenthal list ahead of Louis Farrakhan for anti-Semitic/Anti-Israel slurs might be a bigger story in Germany than allegations that Hagel is an anti-Semite would be in the United States. Not so, I would say. After all Hagel is being nominated for a very important cabinet post.

No, the difference has to do with Germany’s history and with the fact, at least in my view, that it is the only country in the world where one can be a "professional" Jew. That basically happens when a key part of your working life is based on being Jewish, which is true of Broder. He’s a good writer, but he would have no where near the clout he has if he were Catholic.

This is understandable, given Germany’s past. It is hard to exterminate six million people, apologize after the fact, provide reparations to survivors and their families and expect everything to be okay. That just doesn’t work.

If the US experience between African-Americans and white Americans is any barometer, normalizing the relationship between Germans who are Jews and those who are not will take a very long time, if it happens at all. After all it’s been 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves – at least legally. And yet, there's still plenty of racism in the United States.

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But if relations between Germans who are Christian and those who are Jewish are to normalize not only do Christian Germans have to stop emphasizing the special German-Jewish relationship, but Jewish Germans have to too.

You can’t complain about feeling not part of the society if you constantly throw the Jewish or anti-Semitic card onto the table during every discussion, which Broder seems to do his fair share of.

It has, however, only been some 70 years since the horrors of the Holocaust – a short time in the arc of history. So don’t expect things to change – at least not for a very long time.

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