Finkelstein and Germany

March 19, 2010

In News

German political foundations lead a curious double life. On the one hand they consider themselves independent, yet they are aware of their fraternal bonds with the party who initially brought them into being, and now they exist “close to the party” which basically means nothing else but unconditional loyalty to the party. There is nothing wrong with that. Political entities need agencies to be effective in all areas where politics are spreading, that is, everywhere. It is therefore not surprising that those foundations would never think of organising an event or debating a topic that substantially contradicts the hegemonic direction of their party; their room for manoeuvre is limited and constrained by the intent and reason of the party in a pre-existing implicit agreement. Structurally nothing can change that and ultimately it does not need to.

Nevertheless, it is interesting what names the political foundations use to decorate themselves with. For comprehensible reasons the most important foundations have appropriated the names of historical, cultural and political personalities and heroes who embody the ethos and charter of values of these foundations (and their party). But the name says it all and is therefore also in part its intellectual and political programme. Thus it seems appropriate that the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) chose Konrad Adenauer and the Liberal Democratic Party (FDP) Friedrich Naumann as patrons for their foundations. Whether Friedrich Ebert would have found himself in agreement with the now deeply unsocial Social Democratic Party (SPD) is anyone’s guess. And Heinrich Böll too would hardly have been happy with the actions of the Green Party since they became part of the SPD/Green coalition government, considering with whom he showed solidarity during his life. But it appears downright insidiousness when the foundation of “The Left” thinks it can still carry the name Rosa Luxemburg.

Rosa Lux, Heinrich Böll and Norman Finkelstein

Cartoon by Ben Heine, Tlaxcala

Strong Stuff

Rosa Luxemburg’s name stands (at least in the sphere of a genuine left ethos and moral) for something that cannot be done away with just like that by the “necessities” of realpolitik. Rosa Luxemburg’s life, achievements and death symbolise unwavering humanism, rigorous resistance against the cheering on of wars and aggression, absolute insistence on the adherence of Marx’s postulates of emancipation, consistent fight against enslavement of spirit and conscience and an endless capacity for compassion, a natural readiness to perceive the pain and suffering of human beings and animals. Being a member of an institution that carries Rosa Luxemburg’s name does not mean wanting to be like her, but what it does mean is showing a modicum of regard to that which would become a guiding idea and point of orientation by the use of her name; indeed, this means being able and ready to expose ordinary thinking and fossilised consensus if this is required, even if it does not necessarily appear to be expedient.

Regardless of what Norman Finkelstein wanted to speak about in Germany last month [February 2010], it was clear from the beginning that his statements would be hotly debated, even before their actual content was made available for scrutiny. That is how it is when someone well known and provocative says something unpleasant which has already been registered in preconsciousness but which the self refuses to admit. Norman Finkelstein is not a dark horse: he has reported on the “Holocaust industry”, of “anti-Semitism as a political weapon”. That’s a bit much for sensitive German souls who neither want their honestly meant “redress” discredited, nor their fetish “Israel”, chosen as the dumping ground for their guilt-laden sensitivities, dissected. In terms of psychological economy it is more opportune, but above all it is ideologically more worthwhile to apostrophise Finkelstein from the outset as (Jewish) “anti-Semite” and “revisionist historian”, which then makes the required debate about his statements superfluous. The carefree presumptuousness with which non-Jewish Germans defame Jews as “anti-Semites” when they throw doubt on their own shaky identity derived from “Jews” and “Israel” is curious indeed.

Escape into Unconsciousness

What happened? Rolf Verleger summed it up as follows: The German “lobby group for the Israeli hit-and-smash nationalism” is very afraid of the truth that Normal Finkelstein was meant to expound and discuss. “Thus a campaign was launched. Finkelstein, a man proud of the Jewish traditions bequeathed to him by his parents, was defamed as “anti-Semite” and “revisionist historian”, and thus made out to be in league with the Nazis. The Jewish Community of Berlin, look-alike Jewish groups in the party “The Left” (working committees under the name of ‘Shalom’) and a Jewish working committee in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) called for a demonstration against Finkelstein. The Protestant church did not want to poison its relations with these groups for no good reason. The same held for the Heinrich Böll Foundation associated with the Green Party, and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation associated with “The Left”, also. All of them withdrew their offers to help organise the event. It was not enough that Finkelstein himself is a Jew and that we – the “Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East” – were co-organisers.” A new forum for Finkelstein’s talk was found in the “Junge Welt Ladengalerie” in Berlin. But this is a relatively small room, and Finkelstein’s assessment of the situation was that the battle around his person would overshadow his real political concern, and cancelled his visit to Germany.

Rolf Verleger interprets this success of the “lobby”, which has brought the church, the Greens and The Left in Berlin “into line again”, as a “Pyrrhic victory”. He thinks that it will bring counter-force into the arena and even suspects that there is already some “grumbling” going on at the Rosa Luxemburg foundation. Such optimism is laudable, as a political person one should after all open new or maintain existing perspectives. However, the accuracy of Verleger’s assessment is doubtful. To justify these doubts, particularly with regard to the recent machinations in the realms of “The Left”, two characteristic statements of relevant protagonists should be considered first of all. The chairman of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, Heinz Vietze, and the director, Florian Weis, explained the official cancellation of the venue to Finkelstein thus: “We think that a debate on the Goldstone Report is urgently needed. However, when we arranged a venue for this project in December 2009 we underestimated the political explosiveness of Norman Finkelstein’s lecture. We sincerely regret this. Unfortunately, our request to provide for a counterpart to Normal Finkelstein on the podium on 26 February 2010 has been rejected by the organisers. Our educational mission, however, postulates controversial and pluralistic debate amongst other things. The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation is currently preparing its own series of events to facilitate a factual and balanced debate on the conflict in the Middle East.”

Making excuses is not a very respectable means to compensate for a lack of action and ethos, but they should at least have reasonable credibility and, if possible, be intelligent. What sort of political competence does it show when leading members of the political foundation of “The Left” think they ought to admit having “underestimated the political explosiveness of Norman Finkelstein’s lecture” on the issue of the Goldstone Report? What could they not have known from the outset? Who Finkelstein is? The content of the Goldstone Report? What is to be expected from an analysis of this report by Finkelstein? And finally the “request to provide for a counterpart to Norman Finkelstein on the podium”. Why did they think they had to do that? Does the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation always ensure that it has a counterpart with controversial topics or is it actually the case that Finkelstein himself is the counterpart of the current orientation of the party and foundation and that a counterpart was needed to counter that counterpart as soon as public uneasiness set in and they practically crumbled in the face of their own courage? In the statement it was claimed that the conflict should be debated in a “factual and balanced” manner. Do people seriously think that they are balanced in the actually existing arena of powers in the current German discourse on the conflict in the Middle East if they counter Finkelstein, who was ostracised even before the lecture, with a “counterpart” dragged along from the hegemonic consensus? And how “factual” can one be when the topic of the Goldstone Report is not conceived of initially as the result of that which characterises the unbalanced nature of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, particularly in the use of force? As far as those kinds of realities are concerned, the left once knew how to debunk “balance” as euphemistic ideology.

Heinz Vietze, Chairman of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Foundation (Photo from 2007)
Photo: dpa

“… successfully prevented”

“The Left” not only has a foundation concerned with balanced campaigning, but also a new confident and forward-looking generation being nurtured by the party. Within the last few years the national working committee Shalom (BAK Shalom) has been forming within the Youth Association of the Party “Left Youth”; its raison d’être appears to be articulating an enormous degree of solidarity with Israel in the German public sphere that might seem almost weird to Israelis. So much waving of Israeli flags in Israeli everyday life is only done, if at all, by the enthused nationalistic right. Besides, there are probably plenty of Jewish Israelis who might react with some neurotic  suspicion to a borrowed and appropriated “Jewish” identity of Germans; there is embarrassment when Germans are excessively crazy about “all things Jewish”. Associations arise.

Of course, the BAK Shalom could not restrain itself when it was about saving Israel from Finkelstein (in Germany). It is no coincidence that the main article on the BAK Shalom homepage on this topic carries a title saturated with victorious euphoria: “Norman Finkelstein successfully prevented”. What they managed to do “successfully” cannot be described as anything else but a smear campaign against Finkelstein, something which the BAK Shalom has obviously been specialising in during the brief time of its existence and which the national spokesperson of the working committee has justified with these words amongst others: “Finkelstein is internationally popular with anti-Semites simply due to the fact that he describes himself as a Jew and as the son of Holocaust survivors his credibility and the absolute truth is evidenced.” After fierce protests against his statement, Krüger made the following announcement: “A minor comment on this article. The paragraph “Finkelstein is internationally popular with anti-Semites simply due to the fact that he describes himself as a Jew and the son of Holocaust survivors his credibility and the absolute truth is evidenced” has been changed into “Finkelstein is internationally popular with anti-Semites because simply due to the fact that he is a Jew and as the son of Holocaust survivors his credibility and the absolute truth is evidenced”. There was some irritation with the first version because it could have been misconstrued too. Of course, there is no intention at all to take away from the fact that Finkelstein is a Jew and the son of Holocaust survivors. The updated version now expresses clearly what we mean.”

Isn’t it nice that they do not want to take away from the fact that Norman Finkelstein is a Jew and the son of Holocaust survivors? Not to mention that when these people are really generous then their courtesy will know no bounds and they will even uphold such facts. Whether or not Krüger’s admission can be trusted remains to be seen. At times it seems that he and his ilk would dearly love to “take away” the Judaism of those Jews who do not fit into their ideological landscape, but above all that which appears to them like a desirable cultural good: that they are children of Holocaust survivors. Let it be known to Krüger once and for all: being a descendent of Shoah survivors is a very small pleasure in terms of life story, and in particular German institutions (indeed, those professing to belong to the left) should be very wary of playing their insidious rhetorical juggling games with this “fact”. If Benjamin Krüger thinks he ought to fight anti-Semitism, he should first of all provide a basic intellectual explanation of this term; he should avoid it in particular to throw Israel, Judaism and Zionism, hence anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and critiques of Israel all into one German pot to cook up into an opportunistic stew and use for demagogical purposes, depending on the situation; but above all he should ensure that he stops attesting Jews their Judaism and the children of Shoah survivors their life tragedy in a rude German manner. There are unsavoury aspects which cannot be made allowances for, even with a young ideologue.

Finkelstein’s Concern

As far as Finkelstein himself is concerned, he has probably got no influence over who he is appropriated by and for which purposes. And who could wield that influence? Really only those that call themselves balanced, who practice the balance of views so rigorously that with so much equilibrium of opinions anything can go as “neutral” (but only to then notice that it is ultimately impossible to escape appropriation). Finkelstein, who is often attacked for his honesty, explains his concern as follows: “The moral challenge resulting for Germans could not be greater. On the one hand it consists in living up to the responsibility which arises from the crimes of the ‘Third Reich’ against the Jewish people, and on the other hand it means not letting this terrible legacy deny them the right to denounce the crimes of the present only because they are committed by a state which defines itself as Jewish. To face this challenge is in truth the most dignified way of remembering the Holocaust.

Whether Israel is a Jewish state, a state of the Jews, an ethnic democracy hegemonically dominated by Jews and further similar definitions is a subject of lengthy and intensive debates in Israel itself, as is well known. Orthodox Jews deny the state its Jewishness. Parts of the settler movement deny the state its Zionism (that is, their vision of it). Arabs living in Israel demand a “state of all its citizens”. Sometimes even the possibility of Israel-Palestine as a binational state is mentioned, a possibility which appears structurally inevitable, and a few other alternatives which all show that that which is generally pictured as “Israel” is much more complex for many of the stakeholders than those German debaters impregnated with all sorts of sensitivities might imagine from afar. Norman Finkelstein is avowedly not a Zionist, which is a completely legitimate Jewish position. That may disturb or even enrage Israelis as well as non-Israelis, non-Jews showing solidarity with Israel and non-Jewish “Zionists”. That is also comprehensible when such annoyances are to be understood absolutely. But what makes an allegedly leftist political foundation withdraw Finkelstein from the agreed platform for the articulation of his positions? What is it about when the Youth Association of a Left Party (which is how it calls itself) joyously boasts to have “successfully prevented” Norman Finkelstein (from speaking)?

Metamorphosis of the Left

The reason seems to be primarily that “The Left”, which grew out of the Party of the Democratic Socialism (PDS), is obviously keen to lose its status as a marginal force in Germany as a whole, to be able to command a majority, to be electable by a consensus, in short, to move to the political centre. This is not easy because it has to throw off much of what is attributed to and held against them by the (West) German consensus as old baggage. The parting with Socialism is one of the easiest things: If nothing can be achieved socially in a capitalism which is raging more than ever, there is plenty of reason to pay lip service to a Socialism which is not going to happen anyway, depending on how opportune it appears to be in power-political and discursive terms. It is then a secondary issue whether they still want Socialism or whether they want to be seen as reformed pro-capitalists.

But the real acid test in the German odyssey to arrive in the national consensus is the publicly acceptable answer of the new million dollar question: one’s stance on Israel, Jews, Zionism, anti-Semitism and so on and so forth. Gregor Gysi’s lecture at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s event to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state Israel in the spring of 2008 already indicated the ideological strategy of the initially subtly looming change in attitude; he indicated (motivated by realpolitik) that it was time for a new orientation. Former anti-Zionists with a loyalty to the Socialist Unity Party (SED) therefore have a hard time, they think they ought to “make up” for the “sin of their youth” with an even more steadfast love of Zionism and solidarity with Israel. Many former West German leftists are currently reshaping their firmly anti-Israeli past by insisting that it is unfair holding it against them since they have been disabused in the meantime, hence they have progressed to busy hunters of anti-Semites and active campaigners against anti-Zionism and anything on the left that does not profess unreserved solidarity with Israel (and which is thus “anti-Semitic”). While people should indeed be allowed to change, we should always be suspicious of those who have turned in an overly carefree manner from once-staunch opponents of Zionism and Israel into fetish-obsessed lovers and admirers of Israel; the radicalness of their transformation says a lot, it thus raised the suspicion that both now and then it was the same resentments that prompted them to stay and act on both sides of the ideological fence. The political reliability of persons who are led mainly by their own narcissistic sensitivities when it comes to the confrontation with the collective history of their people, which is ostensibly guided by responsibility, is an entirely different question.