Why is German media so pro-Israel?

Surprised by coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict in the German media? Taken aback by how any criticism of Israel is labelled antisemitic? Leading German-Jewish journalist Fabian Wolff unpacks the factors at play.

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Newcomers to Germany, especially those with leftwing views, are often shocked by the way the country’s media covers the Israel-Palestine conflict. In the days following a series of mostly peaceful pro-Palestine protests throughout Germany, including Berlin, these were some of the headlines that followed: Police stop antisemitic demo; The helpless search for answers to hatred of Jews; Antisemitism, violence at pro-Palestine demonstration; Germany and Israel: A special relationship; What can be done against antisemitism among Muslims?

If you were a foreigner who empathised with the Palestinians, you were an overnight antisemite – according to the media, at least. Fabian Wolff, a freelance journalist and respected Jewish writer, is known for his strong criticism of the German media’s Israel-Palestine discourse. Days before the latest round of the conflict broke out, he published an essay that went deep into these issues. It was read more than 200,000 times within 24 hours and generated a fresh round of debate, loved by many and attacked by some.

We asked Wolff to help us unpack the German media’s tricky relationship with Israel, Palestine and antisemitism.

Earlier this month, Deutsche Welle immediately took down an interview they did with Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian activist who criticised Germany’s support of Israel. They apologised for its “antisemitic content” and then sent a memo to staff reminding them to not use terms such as “colonisation” and “apartheid” when mentioning Israel. What’s your take on that?

What Ali Abunimah said was provocative, but it wasn’t antisemitic. They deplatformed his interview not because what he said was factually wrong, but because what he said goes against the standards of speech at Deutsche Welle, and because he’s somebody with a clear point of view. He’s not neutral, which is fine, because they have pro-Israel guests all the time, but someone speaking from a pro-Palestinian perspective isn’t really a thing in German media. People are not used to that, so they confuse it with antisemitism all the time – sometimes wilfully, and sometimes because people just aren’t used to hearing certain facts.

Why did being pro-Palestine become synonymous with antisemitism?

The German left in the 1960s and 1970s really did have an antisemitism issue. It just became accepted wisdom that, essentially, both sides of politics were antisemitic, and that the left’s antisemitism was focussed squarely on Israel – the Red Army Faction collaborating with Fatah didn’t have anything to do with the liberation of Palestine, and everything to do with the Jews. Eventually, criticism of Israel was seen as antisemitism, and people grew up with that.

Speaking from a pro-Palestinian perspective isn’t really a thing in German media. People are not used to that, so they confuse it with antisemitism.

Criticism of Israel is still seen as an expression of deep-seated antisemitism, an idea that’s become part of the German and German Jewish psyche. But there are many people now, perhaps with a migrant background, who have nothing to do with that particular German complex and see something totally different in Israel. And people just haven’t gotten used to that. 

A few months ago, on Twitter, you started talking about what you thought were some toxic, dangerous trends in the antisemitism and Israel-Palestine discourse in the German media. What are those trends, exactly?

The German media’s approach is not centred on Jews or how to best combat antisemitism. It’s more about making Germans feel good about themselves and feeding into a German superiority complex. I think it was Timothy Garton Ash who called Germany the Erinnerungsweltmeister, or world champion of memory and remembrance.

I saw foreign leftist thinkers involved in issues of injustice and progress being attacked when they come to Germany as antisemitic, either based on nothing or based on having a different set of attitudes towards Israel than what Germany is used to. Or for possessing a set of leftist Jewish values that people aren’t aware of in Germany. I think that’s dangerous. I would like Germany to be a safe, open and multicultural country, and I thought those smears go against that.

These trends are amplified whenever Israel is in the news, as we saw over the past few weeks. Many German media outlets focus on antisemitism at pro-Palestine rallies, a claim mostly directed at migrants. Leading newspapers, such as Tagesspiegel, have even asked if Germany has “imported” antisemitism. Do you think the term has become weaponised?

Yes, in a way. And not weaponised by the Jewish community, but usually by people with a right-wing or conservative political vision. They see that highlighting voices from certain people – people of colour, post-colonial activists, leftists voices – effectively silences or ostracises these people. That’s what makes it different from similar discussions in the US. In Germany, it’s not the Jewish community fighting antisemites. 

It’s more about Germans pretending to be on the side of Jews, so they can fight with people they disagree with politically, and then pretending it’s for the protection of the Jewish community, while often attacking people who are themselves Jewish. The people who use these accusations will totally consider themselves good defenders of Jews, even as they attack Jews in antisemitic ways. For years, my joke used to be that, if I ever started talking openly about how I feel about Israel, it will be the Germans who turn away from me – not the Jews. 

It’s definitely not making Jews safer or allowing Jewish life to prosper if, literally, the only reason people would speak about the Jewish community in Germany is when it’s about antisemitism…

You mentioned one example of this in your essay, when the Jewish promoter of a show by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters was attacked by a non-Jewish journalist – for supporting a BDS supporter.

The well-known organiser of the concert, Marek Lieberberg, is the son of Holocaust survivors and a proud member of the Jewish community. He said he knew Roger and didn’t see eye-to-eye with him, but that he wasn’t an antisemite. Then a German, non-Jewish pop critic, said, “Of course Lieberberg is going to say that – he wants to keep making money.”

Lieberberg has lived with trauma his entire life and extended his hand to Waters. Instead of seeing the value in that gesture, this one German dares to accuse the guy of being a money-grubbing Jew. And in the name of fighting antisemitism. Where do you even start? I don’t want to play the victim, but the number of times I’ve been called an urban elite with no homeland, sucking on the teat of public money…

Supporting BDS, the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, is a no-no in Germany. It was even officially designated antisemitic by the German government in 2019. What’s your take on this?

This talking point, that people boycotting the only Jewish state must be antisemites, is a very specific German attitude. It comes from a couple of things, like the boycott of Jewish shops being a precursor to the Holocaust. If you see Israel as the manifestation of the Jews, then the idea of boycotting Israel is a boycott of the Jews. People also don’t really know what BDS wants or stands for. [Wolff was among hundreds of artists, academics and writers who called on the German parliament to reverse a 2019 resolution that labels BDS as “anti-Semitic”.]

Whenever Palestinians are featured in German media, it’s as an angry or antisemitic mob. It’s never a leftist Palestinian who wants liberation, coexistence or basic awareness.

Don’t you feel some people may sincerely care about Jews and the threat of renewed antisemitism? 

It’s definitely not making Jews safer or allowing Jewish life to prosper if, literally, the only reason people would speak about the Jewish community in Germany is when it’s about antisemitism – especially when the antisemitism in question is not real antisemitism. Or minuscule compared to the very real danger posed, for example, by a militant, armed faction of the right-wing. Or Neo-Nazi terrorism. The antisemitism discourse in Germany, as far as I can tell, doesn’t do a lot to actually protect Jews.

Each time the Israel-Palestine conflict flares up, there is a rise in antisemitic incidents in Germany – at least in terms of what makes the news. How should the media deal with antisemitism in the pro-Palestine movement?

The Palestinians and Muslims I know, plus Arab Christians and Alevis, are totally aware of whatever problems there are in their communities, and are trying to combat them internally. They would need support, but they’re rightfully hesitant to openly address those problems if they feel they are inviting racism. Whenever Palestinians are featured in German media, it’s as an angry or antisemitic mob. It’s never a leftist Palestinian who wants liberation, coexistence or basic awareness. If that person doesn’t get any space in the discourse, and they just show the angry mob, the people we should be supporting become more marginalised.

This doesn’t only go for migrant communities, but also East Germany. Even as the Neo-Nazi wave grows, there are a lot of anti-fascist activists on the ground doing the important work combatting that. But they don’t get any attention. Ultimately, hate is more attractive to journalists, whose instinct is not to accurately portray reality, but to attract eyes. Progressive voices inside certain communities, migrant and not migrant, are just not getting support. That’s a real failure.

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How should the media here cover the Israel-Palestine conflict itself, given Germany’s history? You could argue this country’s media has some responsibilities that the media in other countries doesn’t.

I think it needs to cover everything accurately and not follow a nation-based agenda. Covering world events shouldn’t necessarily happen through a historical lens. We need to talk about the actions of the IDF as an army, rather than the spectre in Germany’s imagination or a manifestation of Jewish power. We can clearly see which side is the victim – the Palestinians.

Any attempt to let Palestinians speak for themselves is treated with hostility. We saw what happened with Ali Abunimah. That’s not just oversight – it’s a moral and journalistic failing. One claim is getting all the attention and justification, and one narrative isn’t. That’s a real problem. The conflict happening now has very little to do with Germany, but Germany tries to make it about itself. That’s a failure of the German news media.

Many newcomers to Germany, including Jews from around the world, share your beliefs and are considered antisemitic by many German leftists, not to mention the media. What could be the long-term effects of this?

It’s becoming so insular and provincial. German leftists may have a strong vision for the social security net inside Germany, but in terms of foreign policy, they are totally helpless. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posted something about an apartheid state not being a democracy, without mentioning Israel. First of all, if you read that and assume she’s talking about Israel and get mad, then maybe you understand something about Israel you’re not willing to admit to yourself.

The antisemitism discourse in Germany, as far as I can tell, doesn’t do a lot to actually protect Jews.

To then see these Antideutsche clowns in broken English saying, “Ummm, this is actually antisemitic and I’m disappointed with you…” shows how isolated the German left has become. There are people in Germany who look at AOC and think she’s a committed antisemite. That’s so bizarre to me, and makes me lose hope that the German left can find its way in a broader, internationalist coalition.

Do you feel nuance is lost and there’s a lack of proper debate?

For there to be nuance, you need people on both sides of the argument who understand complexity, ambiguity and contradictions. Those are things Germans, in general, are not comfortable with. The discourse is set up in such a way that Germans are not arguing with true proponents of Palestinian liberation, but with whatever nightmare they’ve created in their head. Whenever there’s a chance to get together and have these discussions, Germans are already so entrenched in their position that they’re unable to actually debate.

Behind closed doors, are German journalists having more complex discussions than the viewpoints that end up being published?

No. A lot of it is also just a cynical power play to them. I’ve often tried to explain the beauty of Jewish pluralism to Germans with a strong anti-BDS bent, and they’ve just rolled their eyes. Ultimately, that’s not what this is all about. It’s about the German sensibility and desire to make everything fit their image of the world.

Given the journalistic environment you’re in, and the fact you’re a Jew yourself, how did you come to form these beliefs? 

I spoke with people from Israel, the US and Arab countries who exposed me to different ways of thinking. Of course, that included being disturbed and confused by certain arguments. It’s about being Jewish, but it’s also about being a leftist. Leftism should be internationalist, and people have different narratives, sensibilities and ways of talking about things. You have to draw the line at bigotry, but there are things you can debate and you can find common ground in, as long as there’s solidarity and no intent to harm.

As Sarah Schulman would say, conflict is not abuse. Without being corny about it, that’s what a democracy is about – to be principled and fight for the right things, but to also find common ground and even compromise. I’m worried that Germany is losing sight of that.