German Anti-Semitism Laws Stifle Critics of Israel

In Germany, fear of being labeled an anti-Semite complicates free political speech when an issue such as Israel's bombing of Lebanon takes place. Critics of Israel state policy toe a delicate line, trying not to run afoul of Germany's stiff laws against anti-Semitism.

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The ramifications of the war with Hezbollah have spread far beyond the Middle East. In Germany, where denying the Holocaust and inciting hatred against Jews is against the law, words that could be considered anti-Semitic are watched carefully. But these legal and historical constraints are brushing up against popular opinion that faults Israel for using too much military force in Lebanon.

From Berlin, NPR's Emily Harris reports.

EMILY HARRIS: Taped in the windows of the corner convenience store in Berlin are copies of magazine articles showing devastation in Lebanon. When the ceasefire started, shop owner Doris Heil(ph) took down a much more critical handmade poster.

Ms. DORIS HEIL (Shop Owner, Berlin, Germany): (Foreign language spoken)

HARRIS: Stop the massacre in Lebanon.

Ms. HEIL: I put up the posters because I have a Lebanese boyfriend and I have been to Lebanon, south of Lebanon myself, and I absolutely couldn't agree with what was happening there.

HARRIS: The massacre sign got a range of attention from neighbors, but none from the police. Heil says she's careful when she expresses her opinion against Israel not to cross an anti-Semitic line.

Ms. HEIL: Sometimes a newspaper will write about what you can say in a demonstration or what you - just words you better don't use.

HARRIS: Heil says police did come when someone else stuck a poster from a demonstration inside her window. She thinks it used the phrase Israeli killers. Officers didn't come inside the shop, she says, but she saw them looking at the poster and quickly took it down. Heil does not claim to be an objective observer, but she does believe Germans can criticize Israel without being anti-Semitic.

Ms. HEIL: Okay, we have done - Germany has done horrible things with Jewish people and I absolutely don't agree with what Adolph Hitler has done. But this was a long, long time ago and you can't always say, oh, the poor Jewish people for 60, 100 years. It's not an excuse for them. And they have - especially they have lived through a lot of hardship and they shouldn't do the same thing to other people.

HARRIS: Deidre Berger heads the American Jewish Committee's office in Berlin. She says some Europeans suggest that Israel is as bad as Hitler's Third Reich as a way to ease guilt over the Holocaust. To know when criticism of Israel has slipped into anti-Semitism, she says, context and intent are key. Berger also says that harsh criticism that alone is not anti-Semitic can lay the groundwork for anti-Semitic speech or violence.

Ms. DEIDRE BERGER (American Jewish Committee): We've just seen a novelist, Gunter Grass, in Germany, a leading critic of Israel for many years, suddenly admit that he was part of the Wermacht, the German army, fighting in a division of the Waffen-SS, one of the most notorious divisions of the German army.

I certainly will not call Gunter Grass an anti-Semite, but I think Gunter Grass should look a little more at his own feelings and understand how some of his comments may fuel anti-Semitism.

HARRIS: Two recent polls found that over 60 percent of Germans did not feel that Israel's attacks in Lebanon were justified. Jewish leaders called for the resignation of Germany's overseas development minister after she said the United Nations should investigate Israel's bombing campaign. The Jewish officials got a personal reassurance from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Government Spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm...

Mr. ULRICH WILHELM (German Government Spokesman): (Through translator) It's obvious that all members of the government know, at all times, that we have a special responsibility because of our history. The overseas development minister has spoken about this at a cabinet meeting. I think that all cabinet members share this belief. There are no differences.

HARRIS: In the middle of the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, the head of a major German regional broadcaster said on a talk show he doesn't believe that Israel can stay in the Middle East forever. And if it can't, Peter Voss said, Europeans will need to take Israelis back. Voss says he hopes he's wrong, but he fears that the simple existence of Israel will be an excuse for violence.

One newspaper juxtaposed his comments with those of the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has said that Jews in Israel should return to Europe. Another newspaper commented that one should be careful what one says in public.

Emily Harris, NPR News, Berlin.

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