Donna Swarthout

Adrift in the Diaspora

Adrift | drufisher | Flickr

Hop onto social media these days and you’re sure to find a firestorm over the latest statements by prominent artists or writers supporting Israel or Palestine. In Germany, where freedom of speech is protected, the consequences of speech can be very different depending on which side of the current Middle East conflict you stake your ground.

The University of Cologne’s withdrawal of a professorship invitation to the American philosopher Nancy Fraser is just one of the latest controversies. The stated reason was that Fraser had signed an “open letter in which Israel was described as an ethno-supremacist state.” One social media “friend” quickly expressed her thanks to the university while a short scroll away another posted a protest statement signed by more than 130 international scholars. 

Tensions in Berlin have been simmering since long before the Hamas attack against Israel. The city is awash with champions in the fight against antisemitism who cannot agree on which definition of the term to accept. Disinformation abounds despite the real increase in antisemitic incidents since the war began. As the online demands and pronouncements continue to fly, some see Berlin’s reputation for artistic freedom crumbling. The New York Times recently documented how cancelled plays and exhibitions, retracted invitations, and awards put on hold are stifling the atmosphere in a city that is losing its allure for international creatives.

Demonstrations continue on a regular basis, pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, but seemingly few that are simply pro-peace. Finding common ground has taken a back seat to staking out and defending Zionist, progressive, and leftist positions.

Jewish artists and writers such as Masha Gessen are also getting caught in the cross-hairs of an increasingly fraught public discourse. When Gessen came close to not being awarded a prize honoring Hannah Arendt because of a controversial essay she wrote about Gaza, the Guardian commented that the irony was almost too thick to cut. German authorities censoring Jews for expressing humanitarian concerns about Palestinians does not sound like the German democracy I’ve come to admire. Peaches, a Berlin musician, said it best when she told the New York Times, “For any progressive Jewish person who is thinking about what is going on, and understanding the history of what is going on, to be called antisemitic — by Germans — is ridiculous.” 

When my family first moved to Berlin in 2010 the media was filled with reports about the revival of Jewish life in Germany. Along with Israelis and Jews from the former Soviet Union, we were a part of this renaissance, contributing to a new chapter in modern Germany. The land my parents fled as young children became my place in the diaspora. It seemed possible that Germany’s reckoning with the past had opened up new possibilities for Jewish life here.

Today those stories have given way to a steady stream of news about who has stepped over the line of what can be said about Israel and charges of who is instrumentalizing the fight against antisemitism for what political purpose. Institutions quickly react with funding cuts and cancelled invitations. Research by the Diaspora Alliance found that almost a quarter of all known censorship and cancellation cases in 2023 had Jewish targets. 

Amnesty International and other civil liberties groups have singled out Germany (along with France, Greece, Poland and Hungary) as imposing “undue restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, in violation of international standards. This includes….the conflation of legitimate criticism of Israeli authorities with antisemitism, leading to a chilling effect.”

Countless other interest groups and scholars have made the case for distinguishing legitimate criticism of Israel from antisemitism. Although Germany has a moral obligation to support and defend Israel, it is no less obligated to uphold its constitutional guarantee of free speech, which includes this provision: ‘Arts and sciences, research and teaching shall be free.” German democracy depends on a more balanced approach towards freedom of expression.

Jews in Germany also have a responsibility to help heal the fractures in our communities. Before expressing outrage when we see a pro-Palestinian rights sympathizer wearing the keffiyeh, a scarf originally worn by Bedouin farmers, shouldn’t we first try to understand their reasons for doing so? And before we think about packing our bags and leaving all the vitriol behind, an option alluded to by the author Deborah Feldman in her recent New York Times interview, how can we make a difference where we are now?

The project of forging Jewish and intersectional community in this unique part of the diaspora seems to have stalled. Our engagement is needed in Germany, where the far-right poses threats to Jews, asylum seekers, migrants, and other religious and ethnic groups. Passover, when Jews commonly share their story of liberation with other oppressed groups, is an ideal time to reach out to those with whom we have our differences.

About the Author
Donna Swarthout has been writing about Jewish life in Germany and the legacy of the Holocaust since moving from the U.S. to Berlin in 2010. She is the editor of A Place They Called Home. Reclaiming Citizenship. Stories of a New Jewish Return to Germany (Berlinica 2019).
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