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PORTSIDE  June 2011, Week 4

PORTSIDE June 2011, Week 4

Subject:

Trouble on the German Left: Israel and Anti-Semitism

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Trouble on the German Left: Israel and Anti-Semitism

By Victor Grossman, Berlin
Bulletin No. 27
June 23 2011
Published by Portside

The party called The Left, which started up so hopefully
four years ago and soon became a strong progressive
force in German politics, with 76 Bundestag members and
delegates in all but three of sixteen state
legislatures, now faces earnest, possibly fateful
problems. Centrifugal forces in the party, so disturbing
this past year, have now erupted into a bitter
controversy over Israeli policies and alleged anti-
Semitism.

The Left party has been hated, even feared by the four
established parties. It had grown stronger when voters
and many members punished the Social Democrats and
Greens, now nationally in opposition, because they
seemed to proclaim progressive policies when out of
office but forget most of them when in power. The right-
wing government parties, Christian Union and Free
Democrats, now also facing serious losses, have always
been eager to attack the rather skinny scapegoat on the
left.

On May 25th all four jumped on it in the Bundestag
during a day-long debate about "anti-Semitic and Israel-
hostile positions in the Left party." Among those they
attacked were a Left leader in Duisburg, in the Ruhr
valley, who favored the campaign to boycott products
from Israel, or at least those produced on the West Bank
but falsely labeled "Made in Israel". Since its start in
2005 at a World Social Forum meeting in Porto Alegre,
Brazil, this campaign had spread to many countries,
calling for an end to the occupation of Palestine, for
dismantling the giant Wall being built there and for
rights for those Palestinians forced to leave their
homes. He had been immediately disavowed by higher Left
party echelons, although he disputed any charge of anti-
Semitism and pointed to his very active anti-Nazi past.

In Bremen local Left leaders refused to join the other
parties in a general condemnation of this boycott of
Israeli-labeled or Israeli products. While they, too,
opposed any such boycotts in Germany, which reminded
people of signs during the Hitler years saying "Don`t
Buy from Jews", they said they could not condemn all
such calls by Palestinian groups everywhere, justifying
their position by pointing to current oppression of
Palestinians, today's underdogs, and Germany's one-sided
support of the Israeli government, even in measures
condemned by so many around the world, like the Gaza
attack and the Wall.

Then, again in Duisburg, the only West German city with
the Left a partner in the city government (hardly a
coincidence), a message was suddenly discovered on an
obscure link from the website of the youth group close
to the Left. It was a clearly anti-Semitic, fascistic
leaflet, topped by a logo of the Star of David combined
with a swastika. It was immediately disavowed by the
Left, legal proceedings were begun against whoever
planted it there, still anonymous, and everything
pointed to an act of provocation. But the media had what
they wanted. And so did the members of the Bundestag.

The main attack was on those supporting the "Gaza
flotilla", now gathering for a renewed attempt to break
through the sea blockade of that besieged Palestinian
enclave on the Mediterranean coast, this time,
symbolically, with urgently-needed medical supplies. In
a similar action last year, two deputies from the Left
were on the "Mavi Marmara" when it was forcibly seized
by Israeli soldiers, resulting in the deaths of nine of
those aboard.

In answer to these attacks the Left delegates in the
Bundestag, meeting in caucus on June 7th, unanimously
adopted the following resolution:

"The delegates of the Left caucus will continue in
future to act against every form of anti-Semitism in
society. Today, as always, neither right-wing extremism
nor anti-Semitism are tolerated in our party. The caucus
of The Left vehemently opposes anti-Semitic thinking and
right-wing extremist acts.

"The members of the caucus declare that regardless of
all differences of opinion and in line with the decision
of the Party Executive on May 21st:

"We shall not take part in any initiatives involving the
Middle East conflict which demand a one-state solution
for Palestine and Israel nor in calls to boycott Israeli
products nor shall we take part in this year's `Gaza
flotilla'".

"We expect that all our staff members and members of the
caucus conform to these positions."

By agreement, fourteen delegates who opposed this
statement left the room before the vote so that it could
be called unanimous (there are 76 members in all).

There were two prompt reactions. It became clear that no
matter what the Left decided or resolved it would not
satisfy people opposed to it. Dieter Graumann, president
of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, wrote a long
article in a leading newspaper, the Süddeutsche
Zeitung." After admitting that the Left had been
particularly active in fighting neo-Nazis, as in the
blockade of their annual rally in Dresden last February,
he claimed that anti-Semitism was rife in the party. On
the one hand, he recalled that the (East) German
Democratic Republic (GDR) had maintained close
connections with Arab movements and countries willing to
recognize the GDR, but never established relations with
Israel, which had soon established close ties with the
(West) German Federal Republic. Yet it was largely those
Left party leaders from the East German states who could
currently be considered more "pro-Israel". So he turned
to what he called "downright pathological" hatred of
Israel especially in West German sections of the Left.
The main tenor of his criticism, reflecting the very
close ties of his Central Council with Israel, was a
rejection of most if not all criticism of Israeli policy
toward Gaza and the Palestinians as "anti-Zionist" and
anti-Semitic.

The reaction to the Bundestag statement, at least at the
leadership level of the party, was more than turbulent.
While no one was against the statement opposing anti-
Semitism, always a basic principle of the Left, many
were unhappy at the rejection even of discussion on
other issues like the boycott. As for the question of a
one-state solution, most tended to consider this a
matter for Jewish and Arab Israelis and Palestinians to
work out for themselves. But the question of the "Gaza
flotilla" was especially sensitive; one or two Bundestag
delegates of the Left planned to take part once again
this year. And many were especially angry at the last
restrictive sentence which was viewed as a gag rule -
the first one in the young party. Some Left party
groups, especially in West Germany, protested.

Of course this debate has raged fiercely for years in
Jewish circles and beyond, in many countries. Especially
in Germany, however, there is always the added danger
that Nazis, young or old, might take advantage of
growing disquiet among many Germans about Israeli policy
on the West Bank, against Gaza during the war of
2008-2009, about the seizure of the "Mavi Marmara" and
the deliberate snubbing of Biden, Obama and the United
Nations with its settlement construction in East
Jerusalem and the West Bank. While the Central Council
of Jews and its friends in the media and government
circles rarely if ever criticized these policies, some
prominent Jewish figures in Germany have been doing just
that, like the famous Israeli lawyer Felicia Langer, now
living in Germany, Evelyn Hecht-Galinski, daughter of a
past president of the Central Council of Jews until his
death in 1992, and Rolf Verleger, a leader in the
Council until he was thrown out for opposing Israel's
invasion of Lebanon. And it was an organization of
Jewish Germans who were most active in organizing a
"German boat" for the second "Gaza flotilla".

Where did criticism of Israel end and anti-Semitism
begin? Israel's existence was hardly ever an issue
anywhere on the Left, but where did legitimate defense
end and unquestioning obedience to Israeli policies
begin, such as the strict rejection of the Goldstone
report or Palestinian statehood in September? How
difficult and delicate these questions are everywhere,
but most drastically in Germany! An open letter from
over a hundred Israelis, active in fighting for equality
for Palestinians, angrily opposed the Bundestag
statement of the Left, especially in its "Verbot" of
participation in the "Gaza flotilla," and implied that
it represented weak-kneed capitulation.  Some agreed
with them, but others in the Left publicly supported the
drastic criticism of the party by the head of the
Central Council of Jews.

One group within the party, or more exactly within
"solid", the youth partner of the party, had been trying
for years to centralize this question, in full knowledge
of its potential for splitting the party if not fatally
tearing it apart. This group, calling itself "Shalom"
and led by a few university teachers, not only advocated
single-mindedly positions applauding virtually
everything the Israeli government said or did but
extended its praise to Washington policies, landing
almost to the right of George W. Bush, in full support
of the Iraq War, for example, and in basically racist
attacks on all of Islam and the Muslims. Even criticism
of USA policies was somehow branded as anti-Semitic!
Though hostile to virtually all principles of the Left,
it could always count on some support within the party
and favorable placing in the media.

Now the group has again become prominent as two
different wings of the party, which have long been
flapping unhappily against each other in other matters,
became involved once more in an Israel-Palestine debate.
One wing is stronger in East Berlin and East Germany,
where the relatively large vote for the Left (often over
20 percent) provided many opportunities to hold office
on the local, county or state level. Indeed, the Left is
part of the governing coalition in the states of Berlin
and Brandenburg, and is second strongest party in other
states. Many East German party leaders feared being seen
as too radical to hold office; some in the party even
dreamed of becoming partners with the Social Democrats
and Greens in a national government after the 2013
elections. They did not want to alienate these two
parties more than necessary, and this extended to the
Israel-Palestine question as well.

The other wing, stronger in West German states, was far
weaker in election results, and only rarely had chances
to join governments on any level. That, and its
generally more militant past, made it the basis of the
more radical wing of the party. Pointing to the history
books, for example, it demanded the rejection of any and
all operations by German armed forces outside the
country, even those authorized by the UN. Since the
Social Democrats and Greens would never accept a partner
with such a position the "reform" wing wanted to
moderate it, permitting exceptions. The militants
demanded a clear commitment to socialism as a goal and
rejected all privatization of public utilities, while
some reformers insisted that capitalism, though
basically wrong, no doubt, was currently not quite so
terrible as the others maintained. These quarrels were
currently involved in sometimes heated debate on an
official long-range program of the party, whose current
version is considered far too "leftist" by the
reformers. They demand vigorous changes while the
militants, while also wishing some alterations, insist
on the basic anti-capitalist, anti-militarist direction.

And now, to heat up these differences even further, the
long-smoldering debate on the Middle East has again come
into the spotlight, with divisions along much the same
lines. Gregor Gysi, chair of the Left caucus in the
Bundestag, and ironically the only leader of any party
in Germany who is himself Jewish, while again stressing
the sharp rejection of any anti-Semitic influences in
the party, now wishes to moderate the statement in the
Bundestag, most probably in regard to those supporting
the "Gaza flotilla" and to freedom of opinion.

It is ironic, of course, that the older parties,
especially the two now in government, were chock-full of
old Nazis as long as they were alive and kicking, many
of whom kept past views and vita data to themselves but
were careful to gain acceptance by stressing ties with
Israel. And it has indeed been the Left which most
actively fights the neo-Nazis, often enough in defiance
of politicians from the old parties.

But, meanwhile, the polls give the Left 7 to 9 percent
support nationally, down from a one-time high of nearly
12 percent, and indicate probable losses in the two
remaining state elections this year, including a crucial
one in Berlin. Many members in both eastern and western
states are asking whether the party should tear itself
apart about theoretical or distant issues, including the
Middle East conflict, while they face painful rent
increases, growing dental and medical costs and, despite
an easing of the unemployment problem (in part at the
cost of southern Europe), a great number of low-paid and
temporary jobs which provide wages too low to live on.

Can this picture change? Can the fissures be repaired?
The months ahead may be very decisive ones for the still
so vitally necessary party called The Left.

___________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

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