Germany's culture of remembrance An exercise in empathy
Isn't it amazing where scandals – in this case, as Susan Neiman put it, a rather "minor scandal" – can lead? Indeed, we owe a debt of thanks to Dani Dayan, once an Israeli settler leader, now director of Yad Vashem, and the other right-wingers, was Neiman's witty, sarcastic welcome to the guests at the packed Einstein Forum on 2 February 2023. After all, it was their cancel campaign that ultimately led to those present in Potsdam being able to experience this roundly condemned debate.
The audience appreciated Neiman's remark, but readers may need some explanation. Let's take a brief look at what had transpired: the uproar, whipped up not only in Israel, but also by Springer media, was caused by an event sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation on the Holocaust, the Nakba and Germany’s culture of remembrance, which was originally scheduled to take place at the Goethe-Institut in Tel Aviv.
Initially, those involved were accused of historical ignorance: the date had been set for 9 November, the anniversary of Kristallnacht. Once the date had been changed, people promptly voiced their indignation saying the Holocaust and the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe of flight and expulsion, had no place in the same sentence. Political pressure piled up in Jerusalem and Berlin and ultimately the event was summarily cancelled.
Whereupon Susan Neiman, director of the Einstein Forum, decided to invite the panellists banned in Tel Aviv – author Charlotte Wiedemann ("Understanding the Pain of Others"), Amos Goldberg, historian at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Bashir Bashir, political scientist at the Open University in Israel – to Potsdam. She, Neiman, understood this as a "test of freedom of speech", very much in the spirit of her institute's legendary namesake.
No equating Holocaust with Nakba
But there was one thing she, the Jewish American, preferred to make clear in German before the debate, which was conducted in English: "It is not about equating the Holocaust and the Nakba" – but about how the one gave rise to the other.
The subject is as slippery as ice, and there are those who are just waiting for someone to slip up. Both events deal with catastrophes that form the heart of their respective nation's narratives, yet are largely ignored by each other. And their dimensions are undeniably different – on the one hand, the mass extermination of six million Jews, on the other, the sometimes violent ethnic cleansing of 700,000+ Palestinians.
Wiedemann began by drawing a wide arc, drawing parallels with post-colonialism, questioning – always self-critically – why, for example, the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto was so much closer to Germans than the Maji Maji uprising against German colonial oppression in East Africa forty years earlier, in which some 200,000 Africans died violently. How much does skin colour matter? Why do we identify more easily with some than with others?
No, she was not interested in reducing Holocaust remembrance to benefit other victim groups. Furthermore, she added, Israel rightly holds a special status for Germany. But the connection would continue to have something tragic about it as long as Israel continues to violate international law. The assumption that Israel has a singular right to impunity because of the Shoah, according to Wiedemann, "was a terrible misconception".
History is complex. While the Nakba cannot be dismissed as collateral damage in the founding of the Jewish state, nor can Zionism, which was also a liberation movement, be reduced to settler colonialism.
Linking two catastrophes
Both Goldberg and Bashir endorsed Wiedemann's call for empathy as an intellectual exercise in "putting yourself in someone else's shoes for a moment". It is not, however, simply a matter of understanding someone else's pain, said Goldberg, but equally a matter of rights and responsibility. Or, as Bashir, a Palestinian with an Israeli passport, put it, "of looking forward" – what is important is a "binational solution [to the conflict, editor's note] based on the principles of equality, freedom and social justice".
Israel, soon to celebrate its 75th anniversary, and Palestine, which associates this anniversary with the Nakba, are further away from this than ever. And this, despite the fact that in the early years, the connection between the two events was considered obvious.
Goldberg tells of Holocaust survivors who, upon arriving in Israel, were assigned Arab houses where food was still on the table. Some of them understood the situation immediately and refused to move in. Today, non-governmental organisations in Israel that merely commemorate the Nakba already find themselves threatened with financial consequences.
Pro-Israel Germans, meanwhile, also avoid the subject. All the more reason, said Wiedemann, to give the 200,000 Palestinians living in Germany the opportunity to tell the story from their point of view. It is about time.
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