Critical Dialogues or Self-Assured Monologues: Hamas, Israel, and the German Debate

By Markus Dressler

For a German version of this blog post, please click here

The Hamas terrorist attack on a music festival and Jewish villages near the Gaza border on October 7 last year and Israel’s subsequent and ongoing war on Hamas and Gaza have polarized the German public. This polarization is reflected in the use of certain key terms and rhetorical tropes, which are employed to legitimize one’s own position and delegitimize opposing positions. Accusations of genocide are exchanged in both directions and charges of anti-Semitism find their rhetorical counterpart in the concept of Islamophobia.

All sides claim the moral high ground: If the Hamas attack is not mentioned in protests against the Israeli attack on Gaza, this is quickly interpreted as a silent de facto justification of Hamas terror and sign of anti-Semitism (most recently in reactions following the declarations of solidarity with Gaza during the Berlinale). Conversely, supporters of the Israeli government are accused of implicitly defending a policy of apartheid and expulsion. Both sides accuse each other of applying double standards in their responses to specific acts of violence in the conflict. The debates seem to follow an algorithmic principle. Stabilized political assumptions and the value judgments associated with them are activated and constantly reinforced as patterns for the interpretation of individual events in the conflict. The clarity of such polarized reaction is thereby in stark contrast to a politically highly complex situation.

One example of such polarization is the discussion in Leipzig surrounding the co-chair of the local migrant advisory board, Mohamed Okasha. In the aftermath of the Israeli attack on Gaza, more precisely on 9 November—the anniversary of so-called “Kristallnacht” in 1938—he forwarded an Instagram post in which the Israeli attack was described as genocide, the Shoah itself compared to other war crimes such as the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and a common force behind these horrific events was suggested. This was followed by fierce criticism from city politicians and the local press. Relativization of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism were the main accusations. Okasha subsequently deleted his post and publicly apologized for its timing and content. In several interviews, he commented on the accusations and explained his own position that is critical of Israel (Leipziger Volkszeitung, 11/12.11.2023). Although Okasha has expressly spoken out against relativizing the Holocaust, is not known to have made any explicitly anti-Semitic statements, and has instead taken a strong stance against racism in any form in the past, the suspicion of anti-Semitism raised against him, the “native Egyptian who is now a German citizen”, in the aftermath of his post was renewed by several parties in the city council and also found voice in the local press (Leipziger Volkszeitung 15.11.23 and 5.3.24; Kreutzer15.11.23).

The most prominent public figure in the Leipzig debate, Mayor Burkhard Jung, referred to the “German raison d’état” (deutsche Staatsräson) in his criticism of Okasha (Leipziger Volkszeitung, 11/12/11/2023) as an obligation to solidarity with Israel and to holding a position against all forms of anti-Semitism. The notion of German raison d’état, evoked repeatedly in the course of the recent debate, commits to a decidedly German perspective, linked to the experience of the Holocaust and its political legacy (see Ralf Michaels). It is not uncommon for a very broad concept of anti-Semitism to be applied in this discourse, which also includes criticism of the “state of Israel, which is understood as a Jewish collective”. Critics of this broad definition, which follows the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, argue that it dilutes the concept of antisemitism. Hence, the Jerusalem Declaration proposes a narrower definition that excludes criticism of the Israeli state and its institutions, as well as Zionism itself, from the definition of anti-Semitism.

The question must be asked to what extent a commitment to the German raison d’état as a special responsibility toward Jews and the state of Israel, historically founded in the wake of the Holocaust, can be expected from all inhabitants of this country. As a German with family roots in Nazi Germany, whether or not to subscribe to the argument of special responsibility and the principles for action derived from it is not just a theoretical decision, it is a decision that addresses my family history and in that sense it is part of my life experience. It would be absurd to expect the same response from recent migrants to Germany, without this biographical background. Therefore, although one can expect a rational sensitivity to the historical legacy of National Socialism as the dominant point of reference for German political identity by those who newly receive German citizenship, one cannot expect a similar identification with this legacy and its affective demands. Okasha regularly calls for the experiences of migrants, and not only of biological Germans, to be heard in public debates. At the moment, this demand is met with little response. One wonders whether a discourse such as the “German raison d’état” is not suppressing the audibility of post-migrant voices.

The Leipzig debate is symptomatic of a search for normative clarity and orientation in the wake of the recent outbreak of violence in Israel. While the extremely disturbing brutality of the Hamas terrorist attack on Israeli civilians on October 7 is rightly condemned, it is often more difficult in Germany—despite the current systematic destruction of Gaza and the human tragedy it engenders—to address violence and discrimination by the Israeli state against Palestinians with comparable empathy. Indeed, our capacity for empathy seems to be limited and orientated by our political positions. There is little room in the German public sphere for more complex positions that, for example, distance themselves equally radically from both the violence of Hamas and that of the Israeli armed forces (such as Burkard Liebsch did with historical nuance). The consequence of such a position would be to exert pressure on one’s own government to deny both Hamas and Israel any support beyond humanitarian and peace-oriented measures.

A peace-oriented position should oppose violence on all sides, regardless of the ethnic and religious attributes of the respective perpetrators. This does not mean ignoring the historical background of the current conflict (including the imbalance of power that manifests itself in it), but is categorically directed against the legitimization of terror (on both sides). The fact that such a position is currently finding difficulties to be heard is certainly also due to the dynamics of polarizing self-assurance: in the public debate, certain political positions are morally charged, and established narratives and patterns of interpretation are unquestioned. Positions that deviate from this are marginalized or even tabooed. However, if political debates are all too quickly morally coded, the space for differentiated debate disappears. What remains is the allocation to one of the two camps. But this is not a good basis for a critical though still respectful of a culture of debate, which is able to listen before judging. Nor is it a desirable development in democracies, which by definition are based on the acceptance of different positions and attitudes.

If openness to controversy is part of a healthy democracy, Germany urgently needs a commitment to pluralism and respect for disagreement on sensitive political issues. A pluralistic society thrives on the fact that political minority positions can be presented without fear, that—as long as fundamental democratic principles and the rule of law are not called into question—respectful treatment of dissenters is encouraged, and that they are not driven into auto-censorship or are directly censored. However, the recent public German discussions on politically sensitive topics such as the coronavirus and vaccinations, the Russian-Ukrainian war and, most recently, the Israel-Palestine conflict hardly meet the stress test of an open, pluralistic culture of debate. Anyone who takes a minority position on one of these issues, which is usually very clearly recognizable in public discourse, is quickly subject to the danger of moral condemnation by the mainstream positions that are becoming established in these debates (“Emanzipatorische Medienkritik: Selbstreflexion jetzt!” ). At best, their representatives are accused of naivety; unpopular positions are often met with arrogance or excluded from the legitimate public discourse. However, majority positions that emerge in the course of certain debates must not lead to the minority positions that emerge in parallel (political minorities, opponents of vaccination, critics of Israel, etc.) being prematurely delegitimized or even morally disavowed. We should counter this dynamic with a commitment to a culture of discussion that is as free of privileged hierarchies as possible.


Markus Dressler is Heisenberg Professor for Modern Turkish Studies at Leipzig University. He has previously taught at universities in the United States and Germany. His main research interests and the fields in which he has mainly published are Alevi Studies; religion, politics, and society in the late Ottoman Empire and Turkey; religion & secularism; conceptual history. He currently leads two German Research Foundation projects, on “Piety and Secularity Contested: Family and Youth Politics in post-Kemalist ‘New Turkey’” and “Negotiating Modern Sino-Muslim (Hui) Subjectivities, 1900-1960: Reforming Islam in China,” respectively.

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