Chajm Guski

Masha Gessen and the New Yorker – a perspective from Germany

Article of the New Yorker

In a recent piece for “The New Yorker,” Masha Gessen weaves a narrative that stretches from Berlin, through Poland and Kiev, all the way to Gaza. The focus is on the concerted efforts of official entities to breathe life into Angela Merkel’s assertion that the “security of Israel” is the “raison d’être of the (modern) German state.” By the way: This sentence was never fully explained. Gessen also delves into Germany’s endeavor to grapple with the manifestations of anti-Semitism within its borders. Indeed, these efforts sometimes appear somewhat hapless.

The spotlight on BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) has brought attention to this relatively modest and largely ineffectual movement. Its prominence in left-leaning political circles may be attributed to the perception that aligning with it was a “cheap” form of activism—requiring minimal effort and action. Perhaps the only commitment was occasional protests against the appearances of Israeli scientists or artists.

In certain instances, there may have been demonstrations against Israeli products—a conscientious display for those involved. Yet, few bothered to inquire into the true objectives of the initiators. Consequently, those aspiring boycotters were taken aback when confronted with the repercussions. In democratic societies, it’s not uncommon for boycotters to find themselves subjected to counter-boycotts: tolerance doesn’t extend to the intolerant.

It’s crucial to clarify that the resolution wasn’t a wholesale “combatting of BDS,” but simply a decision to cease public funding for events involving BDS. Let’s emphasize this point: it wasn’t a ban. Events could still have taken place, albeit with self-financing. There is no entitlement to “state funding.” If the state chooses not to support a project with its resources, it doesn’t prohibit the project. This distinction needs highlighting, as it appears to be a central argument of BDS supporters.

As of October 7, we have gained further insights. BDS has propagated political views that demonize Israel, normalizing the notion that Israelis shouldn’t speak and shouldn’t have a voice.

Gessen highlights several notable cases of BDS supporters whose appearances were not sponsored. However, she omits one particularly current example: Sharon Dodua Otoo. When an award ceremony for the artist Sharon Dodua Otoo was announced, it faced criticism. Otoo had previously endorsed a call from the group “Artists for Palestine,” which holds a rather specific understanding of peace. This perspective is vividly depicted on postcards available in the organization’s shop, where the state of Israel is conspicuously absent.

In response to the observation, Dodua Otoo issued a clear and empathetic statement regarding the victims of October 7. She has discerned what was being normalized and expressed her perspective unequivocally.

Yes, Germany wrestles with a complex “culture of remembrance.” It is, as widely acknowledged, more straightforward to engage with the deceased Jews of the country than with the living ones. The memories are encased in glass, but simultaneously, the living Jews do not reside behind glass or the open sky; instead, they find themselves behind walls, barbed wire, and police barricades. Following October 7, there were two arson attacks on a synagogue in Berlin.

In conversations with individuals visibly practicing their Judaism in Berlin—assuming they still feel safe doing so—Masha Gessen might have learned that there were indeed threats. The security authorities of the city of Berlin were understandably on edge. However, Gessen’s statement in the text, “Meanwhile, all over Germany, police were cracking down on demonstrations that call for a ceasefire in Gaza or manifest support for Palestinians,” is not reflecting reality. Demonstrations took place in Germany and were not prohibited, even in close proximity to pro-Israeli rallies, only some places restricted certain demonstrations.

The demonstrations occurring since October 7 initially had nothing to do with a ceasefire; these calls emerged later in Berlin. For instance, in Duisburg, the focus was solely against the state of Israel (not for peace). In Essen, a demonstration also involved advocating for the establishment of a caliphate in Germany. Authorities in Berlin, drawing from past experiences, were aware that “anti-Israel” rallies invariably brought with them anti-Semitic imagery (“Child-murderer Israel” chants, for example). In other German cities, demonstrations were permitted. Drawing conclusions about the entire country based on Berlin is, in many respects, not helpful at all.

One might infer that the entire narrative, spanning from Ukraine, where the Germans perpetrated the Holocaust more openly than in Western Europe, is constructed to ultimately converge on Gaza. This culmination is encapsulated in the statement, referring to Gaza, “The ghetto is being liquidated.” Let’s summarize this point: in Gessen’s view, at least in her text, Gaza is equated to a ghetto, much like the Warsaw Ghetto.

If we extend this analogy to its conclusion, “Gaza is policed not by the occupiers but by a local force.” The Warsaw Ghetto, requiring little explanation, had its “own” administration, which wasn’t truly independent at all. The “Judenrat” was tasked with compiling lists for the German administration, and escape attempts were met with death by the Germans. The Hamas was elected and supported as the administration by the residents of Gaza. The attacks on October 7 don’t seem to have instilled paralyzing horror. It’s as if retrospectively accusing the inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto of brutally murdering Germans or Poles outside the ghetto, thereby provoking the “liquidation” of the ghetto. To put it euphemistically, such a comparison is inappropriate, even if Gessen writes “The Nazi claim had no basis in reality, while the Israeli claim stems from actual and repeated acts of violence.” With “claims” Gessen was writing about the flimsy justification of the Nazis for interning people: To protect the other people from the Jews. The comparison with the sense and purpose is retained.

Masha Gessen was slated to receive the “Hannah Arendt Prize” for “political thinking” from the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Germany, which is closely affiliated with the “Green Party.” However, the foundation has since withdrawn the award, a move not surprising in the light of the quoted article.

Jewish individuals in Germany are currently facing “challenging” times. The non-Jewish environment appears colder and more distant than ever before. Whether Masha Gessen is concerned about this when discussing Berlin, especially within the Berlin bubble, is unclear. Those among (very) left-leaning Israelis in Berlin may remain oblivious to these discourses, including the fact that the left discourse in Israel is currently, in many regards, different.

Is the withholding of state funds from a small Jewish blogger in Germany a campaign against him and his articles? Or does his claim to it ultimately negate any state payment obligation? This argument regarding funding cuts in Germany seems to have served as a launching pad for the Gaza ghetto argument. However, Jewish life in Germany is not a tool for the redemption of the political public, nor is it a platform for speaking against a military confrontation with Hamas.

The absence of state funding for a small Jewish blogger in Germany (yes, the author of this article)—could it be construed as a campaign against him and his articles? Is it possible that his asserted claim to financial support ultimately imposes no obligation on the state for payment? This constitutes the argument concerning budget cuts in Germany—a narrative that, in any case, merely served as a launchpad for the Gaza-Ghetto discourse. However, Jewish life in Germany is not a tool, neither for the redemption of the political sphere nor for speaking out against a military confrontation with Hamas.

About the Author
Chajm is a writer, blogger, and resident of the German Ruhr district; publisher of the German Jewish website Some of his articles are published in a German-Jewish weekly.
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