Ben Judah

German support for Israel is not all it may seem

The war with Hamas has provided a language in which to discuss problems of migration


German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (2nd L) and Rabbi Yitshak Ehrenberg (L) light the first candle on a menorah candelabra to celebrate the Jewish festival of lights with the Jewish community at the Heinz Galinski School in Berlin on December 19, 2022. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP) (Photo by JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP via Getty Images)

November 16, 2023 16:37

It was an arresting sight. The Brandenburg Gate by night, illuminated with the words “never again is now” and a blue Star of David underneath the old trampling Prussian chariot of victory. It would be fair to say that European cities saw a fair few such displays after October 7. But unlike most, this message for the 85th anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom was no flickeringly empty show of support. It was a testament to a pro-Israel moment. But one which is really about the country’s unease at the consequences of mass immigration.

Over the past five weeks, German politicians have got used to calling themselves shocked. Officialdom has been horrified by the slogans and tenor of pro-Palestinian mass protests in Berlin and other major cities, their ranks swelled by the close to one million Syrians welcomed by Angela Merkel’s government. In a country where “incitement to hatred” of Israel is a form of criminalised antisemitism, protests have been banned, banners — such as those condemning “genocide” or calling Israel “a terrorist state” — seized.

The sight of such mass protests has been a bracing moment for Germany, which has been reluctant to face up to how drastically the country, now home to over 5.5m Muslims, has changed. The scuffles with police and arrests were a statement that potentially millions do not share the post-Holocaust line that “Israel is Germany’s raison d’être”.

Since October 7, German politicians have rushed to either criticise the country’s migration politics or make strongly-worded demands of the country’s Muslims. Chancellor Olaf Scholz could not have been more explicit about how the issues are linked. Returning from Tel Aviv at the start of the war, the headline of his interview for Der Spiegel was “we must finally deport on a large scale”. Then, not to be outdone, Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck said of Muslims living in Germany: “They must clearly distance themselves from antisemitism so as not to undermine their own right to tolerance.”

Meanwhile in rightwing Bavaria, Hubert Aiwanger, the deputy premier, has gone further, blaming antisemitism in the country on “unchecked immigration”. This is the real issue worrying politicians in a country where the coalition of social democrats, liberals and greens is trailing in the polls. A rebooted, more rightwing Christian Democratic CDU is topping surveys with the far-right AFD second, attracting nearly a quarter of votes. Migration has even seen the far-left Die Linke disband itself in the Bundestag as its MPs flock to the new “anti-globalist party” of the charismatic red-brown firebrand Sahra Wagenknecht. Her view on “uncontrolled immigration” is that it leads to terrorism.

The Nazi legacy has made nationalism or even conservative hostility to immigration hard to voice, so Israel has become a stand-in, an acceptable way to express disquiet at the way things are going. This is why it is so telling that Friedrich Merz, the leader of the CDU, and, if polls are to be believed, the future chancellor, wants all new immigrants to sign a written commitment to the security of Israel and has accused Berlin neighborhoods where pro-Palestinian protests have taken place of not being adequately German. Talking about Israel and antisemitism is a way of talking about Germany and Islam.

Those left coldest about all this have been Berlin’s leftwing Jews, many of them artists from the US or Israel with dissenting views on the conflict. Jewish-led leftwing protests have been preemptively banned and several Jewish voices have launched broadsides at official Germany for conflating all Jews with Israel and not allowing the descendants of Holocaust survivors to accuse Israel of crimes.

These appeals have been ignored. Germany turns out not be quite as liberal a society as they had thought. It’s one where official Germany isn’t listening because this isn’t about Israel. It’s about migration, and whether Germany can make its Muslim citizens the way it wants them to be.

This matters because, as the EU’s dominant state, how Germany decides to cope with ethnic change when it comes to Israel will have major foreign policy consequences. Will views aligning with Syria and Turkey be heard at the foreign policy table or will they be forcibly assimilated into support for Israel?

We can already see the answer taking shape with an impact internationally, with Scholz dismissing President Macron’s calls for a ceasefire and Germany abstaining at the UN on a vote for such a halt. Lurking behind this is migration politics — and the question of what it means, 78 years after the Holocaust, to be German.

November 16, 2023 16:37

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