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16 Dec 2023
Calder McHugh

NextImg:Masha Gessen Kicks the Hornet’s Nest on Israel and the Holocaust

Masha Gessen was heading to Germany to receive a prominent cultural prize when they heard that the ceremony wasn’t going forward. That’s because an essay they had published in The New Yorker had apparently tripped alarms in Germany for its references to ghettos in Europe and Gaza.

Gessen was not entirely surprised by the controversy. When they had reviewed with fact-checkers the passage that appeared to cause offense, they had predicted that this would be “when the reader is going to throw their laptop across the room,” they said in an interview with POLITICO Magazine.

Gessen is a prominent Russian-American journalist and author who was recently put on a wanted list in Russia on charges of spreading false information about their military. They are also Jewish, and the prize they were in line to receive was the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought, a prestigious award instituted by the Heinrich Böll Foundation and awarded by an international jury recognizing an individual who has done outstanding work reporting or commenting on totalitarianism. Arendt herself was one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th Century, who wrote regularly on the nature of power and evil — much of her work involved considering how ordinary people actively carry out totalitarianism.

The offending essay, entitled “In the Shadow of the Holocaust,” was a reflection on the cultural memory of the Holocaust and how Germany has enforced a singular interpretation of it.

In Gessen’s view, Germany’s rigid definition of antisemitism, however well-intentioned, has had the effect of stifling valid debate, particularly about Israel. And it has implications for the current debate in the United States over what constitutes antisemitism, and what speech or language is acceptable.

The passage with which the Böll Foundation — which is affiliated with Germany’s Green Party — first took issue is one in which Gessen compares Jewish ghettos in occupied Europe to Gaza today, suggesting that the term “ghetto” is a more fitting way to describe Gaza than an “open-air prison.” Now, amid Israel’s war against Hamas, “The ghetto is being liquidated,” Gessen wrote.

Gessen had taken pains to head off criticism. In the essay they noted there are “essential differences” between the Israeli state and the Nazis, writing “The Nazi claim [that Jews spread disease] had no basis in reality, while the Israeli claim [that the isolation of Gaza is necessary to protect Israelis from terrorist attacks] stems from actual and repeated acts of violence.” That caveat was insufficient or not considered by many members of the Böll Foundation, who pulled out of sponsoring the award, leading to the city of Bremen doing so as well.

“I think it is possible to be very upset about that comparison,” Gessen told me. “I also think that in this circumstance, it is morally necessary and politically necessary to make this very, very upsetting comparison.”

It appears Gessen will still receive the prize after all that — in a different venue or with some different sponsors. But the larger issue is whether and how the state of Israel and its actions can be discussed without any criticism being flagged as off-limits for being antisemitic.

“I’m certainly just another in a long, long line of people who have had their prizes withdrawn or … postponed or who have been disinvited from events in Germany for the ‘sin’ of what Germans call leveling or relativizing the Holocaust,” Gessen said. And they cautioned that this experience is far from unique to Germany — and that we may soon start seeing it more in the United States.

“I think that once [bureaucrats or lawyers or members of Congress] come for the universities in the United States, and they’re really about to do it, we will also feel the impact very strongly,” they said.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your essay cited Hannah Arendt but a foundation affiliated with the German Green Party withdrew from awarding you the “Hannah Arendt Prize.” Did you find that ironic?

The layers of irony are almost impossible to unravel. Hundreds of people at this point have said that Hannah Arendt would not be eligible for the Hannah Arendt Prize. But I was also corresponding with this philosopher, Susan Neiman — an Israeli citizen who lives in Germany who is a premier scholar of German politics of memory — and she wrote to me saying Arendt wouldn’t even be able to get a visa to come to Germany, if she needed a visa of course.

So, there’s that irony. But yes, my essay cites Arendt a lot because I read her as insisting that we make comparisons to the Holocaust and to Nazis and to totalitarianism all the time. Not in the sense that we need to level everything and say that everything is like everything else. But in the sense that with these things being the worst that humanity is capable of, we always have to be checking to see if we’re sliding into that darkness again.

Why do you think the Böll Foundation decided to strip you of the prize in the first place?

Well, we’d have to ask them. But I’m certainly just another in a long, long line of people who have had their prizes withdrawn or postponed or who have been disinvited from events in Germany for the ‘sin’ of what Germans call leveling or relativizing the Holocaust. So, literally for comparing the Holocaust to something.

Part of what my essay was about was arguing that this kind of insistence on the singularity of the Holocaust — of placing the Holocaust outside of history as though it wasn’t humans who did it, as though it wasn’t Germans who are so invested in maintaining this memory — doing that makes it impossible to learn from the Holocaust. It turns ‘Never Again’ into a kind of magic spell rather than a political project.

Do you think that the people making this decision read your essay?

I don’t have a definite opinion on that. I mean, when I was talking to the fact checker of the article, I said that when I compare Gaza to a ghetto and say the ghetto is being liquidated, that’s when the reader is going to throw their laptop across the room. So, I think it is possible to be very upset about that comparison. I also think that in this circumstance, it is morally necessary and politically necessary to make this very, very upsetting comparison.

There’s a classic joke on the internet — I believe it’s called “Godwin’s Law” — that as a discussion online grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1; it becomes inevitable (and that the person who uses the comparison is losing the argument). How do you square that idea, that we’re always talking about Hitler and Nazis as comparison points, with what you’re saying about Holocaust memory?

I think it was during the Trump presidency that Mike Godwin himself actually said that he was revoking Godwin’s Law. Because it was clear it was not a joke anymore, that there was substantive discussion to be had about whether what we’re seeing is fascism. There are all sorts of words we use carelessly and in the process hollow them out. We shouldn’t do that with the Holocaust. We shouldn’t do that with fascism. But that doesn’t mean that those words exist outside of language.

We’re not any better or smarter or morally more solid than people who lived 90 years ago. The only difference between us and them is that in their imagination, the Holocaust didn’t yet exist. We know that it’s possible and we know that it happened, so we have to use that cognitive tool in order to prevent it from happening again. And the only way that people can use cognitive tools is if they employ them in language.

In the piece, you discuss a definition of antisemitism from the International Holocaust Remembrance Association. What’s that definition? And how is the war between Israel and Hamas affecting this discussion now?

The IHRA’s actual definition — which all European states and Australia use, and which is also used by the U.S. State Department though it’s non-binding — is anodyne, but it has 11 examples which are meant to help people interpret and apply this definition of antisemitism. Two of those examples are: portraying Israel as a racist enterprise and comparing Israeli policies to those of Nazis. That is considered a priori antisemitic. I’m sure there are times when claims that Israel is a racist enterprise and comparisons of Israelis to Nazis are antisemitic; it may even be the majority of those cases. But I know for a fact that it’s not all of them, and so it cannot be definitional.

The impact of this definition has been really chilling in Germany in particular, because it’s what the work of several dozen “antisemitism commissioners” [German bureaucrats meant to root out antisemitism in the population] is based on. One of the things that happens as a result is that people who criticize Israel are denounced as antisemites. And they lose prizes, they have shows canceled, they get attacked in the media. And a lot of times they’re Jews, and in particular even Israelis, because those are the people that are likely to be criticizing Israel very harshly.

The IHRA definition also wields a fair amount of power in the United States. I don’t think we’ve seen the full impact of it yet, but I fear that we will. In 2019, [former President Donald] Trump signed an executive order withholding federal funding from universities and other programs that don’t protect students or others from antisemitism. So, my fear is that we’re going to start seeing lawsuits and other legal efforts to take federal funding from college campuses.

How does your personal history inform how you’re thinking about this? What about being born and raised Jewish in the former Soviet Union provides a perspective on antisemitism that others might not have?

Well, I wasn’t actually raised Jewish, I was only born Jewish, because anything connected with being raised Jewish was illegal in the Soviet Union. So, we were completely secular and my Jewish identity was that I look Jewish and that all of my documents said that I was Jewish. You have a file at school from the time you’re seven years old that says ‘Jewish,’ your identity documents, all of them say ‘Jewish’, your medical records say ‘Jewish’, your personnel file at work says ‘Jewish.’ You’re identified by your name, birthdate and your Jewishness, which sets you aside from other people.

So, I had a daily, structural experience of antisemitism, I had a daily lived experience of antisemitism, because I got teased and beaten up a lot for being Jewish. But I also grew up very much in the shadow of the Holocaust. My grandmother grew up in Poland and survived the Holocaust by escaping to the Soviet Union. But her father, and basically the entire family, which was dozens of people, perished in the Holocaust. So, that was my childhood, and for most of my writing life, I have written about Holocaust memory and Jewish issues of Jewish identity and Jewish politics.

Did that upbringing, in the midst of a bureaucratic state, help you understand Germany’s bureaucratic approach to fighting antisemitism?

What it definitely helps me understand is the dynamics of this kind of enforcement taking hold without a law bringing it into existence. One of the explanations that I got from the Böll Foundation more privately was that the local chapter had made this decision, and the chapter in Berlin disagreed with it, but such is the political climate that they couldn’t go against it. It’s a very lame excuse, but it’s also a very familiar one, because here you have the most powerful political foundation in the country saying that — and I think probably sincerely feeling like — they lack the political power to stand up to something unarticulated, nebulous, not in any way codified in law but that somehow gets bureaucratically reinforced and policed. And that makes perfect sense to me. I am so familiar with an environment in which people and institutions forfeit political power, even though they have it formally and probably could have it in practice.

Is part of what might be hard to understand about this controversy as an American that the German state has invested so much into the state’s cultural products in a way that doesn’t happen here?

I think the reason the impact of these commissioners, or anti-BDS resolutions, is so profoundly felt is that the German state is so generous. Basically everything that is culturally produced in Germany has some state funding involved in it. But I think that once [bureaucrats or lawyers or members of Congress] come for the universities in the United States, and they’re really about to do it, we will also feel the impact very strongly.

What makes you convinced that’s about to happen?

Well, just watching the rhetoric of [Rep. Elise] Stefanik and her friends, and having watched what happened to New College of Florida. So, some of the same actors are involved in this, like Christopher Rufo. These people sincerely hate liberal arts education, universities, young people, and I just see them wielding antisemitism as a weapon against these hated institutions. And they’re smart enough, people like Christopher Rufo and Elise Stefanik are smart enough, to know that Trump’s executive order can be used.