Scapegoat upon scapegoat: Angela Merkel addresses the Knesset

19 March 2008

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Scapegoating the Palestinains for Germany’s past: German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, January 2006. (Inbal Rose/MaanImages)


German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s historic speech to the Israeli Knesset on 18 March 2008 has been almost universally applauded, and has been described by Charlotte Knobloch, President of the Central Council of German Jews, as having “opened a new chapter in the relationship between Israel and Germany.”

Given the huge influence of Germany within the European Union, it is imperative to subject Merkel’s speech to a close reading and to question the assumptions implicit both in the speech itself and in the German media response to it.

Having expressed Germans’ “shame” for the Holocaust, she goes on to point out that “while we are speaking here, thousands of people are living in fear and terror of Hamas’s rocket-attacks and terrorism.” Her clumsy choice of words seems to emphasize the failure to mention the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who are living in daily fear and terror of Israeli incursions, home demolitions, assassinations, air-strikes, arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and torture.

However, in fairness, she does in fact mention the Palestinians: “Terror attacks … bring no solutions to the conflict that overshadows the region and the daily lives of people in Israel and the lives of people in the areas of Palestinian self-rule.”

So it is in fact not Israel’s colonization, wall-construction, and violent militarism that are overshadowing the lives of Palestinians, but the actions of Hamas. Note that these Palestinians don’t live in “occupied” or even “disputed” territories, but in “areas of self-rule” (autonomiegebieten), which sounds much more innocuous. This term, which was in universal use in the early days of the Oslo process, is now only used by the Germans as it conceals the uncomfortable fact that the Palestinians live under a cruel EU-backed occupation. “Germany firmly supports the vision of two states in peace and within secure borders, for the Jewish people in Israel and the Palestinians in Palestine,” Merkel said. Regrettably she never misses an opportunity to proffer a thumping cliche, and her proneness to “visions” is uncomfortably reminiscent of the current US president. Her wording here seems to endorse ethnic nationalism and perhaps even ethnic cleansing, since she implies that Israel’s Palestinian citizens should find a home within the hypothetical “Palestinian state.” Finally, marveling at the wonderful relationship between Germany and Israel and speculating about the future of the Middle East, Merkel quotes David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister: “Whoever doesn’t believe in miracles is no realist.”

One wonders whether Merkel is aware that there was nothing innocent about Ben-Gurion’s choice of words here. He was echoing Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, for whom the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians was “a miraculous clearing of the land: the miraculous simplification of Israel’s task.” While a miracle is an act of God, unrelated to human agency, the “exodus” of Palestinians was the result of a deliberate military campaign. Ben-Gurion’s belief in miracles amounted to the shrewd certainty that Israel would again and again be able to pull off similar stunts while putting the blame on God, as long as it had powerful backing such as that which Germany is abjectly proud to provide.

Chancellor Merkel’s speech, in short, is a compendium of banalities, lies, omissions, threats, and sycophantic bunkum. Yet it earned her a standing ovation in the Knesset, and its reception in Germany has been little short of ecstatic. Here, for example, is Thorsten Schmitz in the respected Sueddeutsche Zeitung: “Israel wouldn’t exist without the Germans. The state of the Jews is the answer to the Holocaust … Every further year that Israel exists is … metaphorically speaking a victory over Hitler … Angela Merkel did not wish to take her place in the line of well-wishers [on Israel’s 60th birthday], but wished to lead it.” Once again, we find the poisonous blend of historical half-truth — the move towards establishing a Jewish state in Palestine began decades before the Holocaust, although the latter undoubtedly hastened its establishment — with silence about the crimes attendant upon the foundation of that state, its maintenance and its inexorable expansion.

Of course from a German perspective Merkel’s speech had one great virtue: it was simultaneously so penitential and so uncritical of Israel that its enthusiastic reception by the Knesset can henceforth make Germans — or at least German politicians and their stooges in the media — feel good about themselves, as a child feels who has just been absolved of his/her sins by a friendly if stern priest and hasn’t had to perform an unduly painful penance.

However, a penance is being paid for Germany’s past crimes, and it is being paid by the Palestinians to whose plight Merkel is so indifferent. There is a name for someone who bears another person’s sins: a scapegoat. And there is one European state that has a dark history of scapegoating a Semitic people for its own failings: Germany. For this reason, those who believe that Germany’s policy towards Israel in some way redeems it are seriously deceiving themselves. By scapegoating the victims of its former victims, Germany is compounding its past crimes.

If the Holocaust has imposed a historical obligation upon Germany, then it is in large measure towards the Jewish people. Germany, however, has chosen to interpret this obligation as entailing unconditional support for the State of Israel, a state that did not exist at the time of the Holocaust, thus implicitly or explicitly affirming that state’s disputed claim to represent Jewish people everywhere. Germany thereby cuts the ground from under all Jews throughout the world — including within Israel — who bravely dissociate themselves from the crimes of the Jewish state. Since ultimately it is such people who have the greatest chance of influencing Israeli political life for the better, Germany is in fact acting as an obstacle to positive change within Israel.

Germany will not have come to terms with its past until it sheds its need for scapegoats, and until it abandons its unconditional support for the Israeli rogue state. Such support entails unconditional participation in the dispossession and politicide of the Palestinian people, hardly a stance consistent with Germany’s professed desire to shrive itself. In turn, because the Palestinians are a proud and stubborn people who will “not go gentle into that good night” of national and cultural oblivion, the violence and bloodshed will continue on all sides (I don’t write “both sides”, because the war against the Palestinian people has ramifications beyond Israel and Palestine). The Israeli politicians and German journalists who laud Angela Merkel to the skies are unwittingly celebrating an enemy of peace and justice, and are playing their part in delaying the advent of a just peace to the Middle East.

Raymond Deane is a composer and activist. He is currently living for part of the year in southern Germany.