the german shibboleth

Jun 18, 2024

Partners in Crime – Political philosopher John Keane writes for PEN Sydney on Germany’s historical relationship with Israel and censorship of Pro-Palestinian voices in Germany today.

Karl Marx, a rebel son of Jewish parents, famously remarked that in politics Germans had only thought what others had already done. His quip needs a flip: Germans are nowadays doing things others find unthinkable. Virtually every major institution in the country is engaged in tracking down, harassing and bullying into silence critics of Israel. Palestinians, Muslims, peoples of colour, Jewish anti-Zionists, writers, musicians, poets, rappers, filmmakers – anybody who dares criticise or cast doubts on Israel is smeared with charges of ‘anti-semitism’. Shortly after October 7th, Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck reaffirmed the template and set the tone with a tough-tongued media statement that emphasised that Israel’s security is part of Germany’s Staatsräson (raison d’état). The ‘special relationship’ arose from Germany’s ‘historical responsibility’ for atoning for the Holocaust through the founding of the state of Israel, he explained. ‘Israel’s security is our obligation’, he concluded. ‘Germany knows this.’ 

Few Germans seemed either to notice or care that Habeck’s words practically absolved Germany from past Israeli crimes against Palestinians, or that they granted Netanyahu’s government de facto a ‘sovereign’ right to imperil the ‘security’ of millions of people, including starving and terrified Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank and Arab and Jewish citizens living inside Israel. 

And so, immediately after October 7th, with little public fuss or pushback, Germany began to practise the unthinkable. In the name of combatting ‘anti-semitism’, pro-Palestinian rallies are now regularly broken up by riot police. Commemorations of Nakba, wearing keffiyehs and displays of Palestinian flags and colours are discouraged or prohibited. Gatherings of liberal and leftist Jewish citizens who despise Netanyahu are banned because (police say) they are mis-used by troublemakers of ‘Palestinian origin’. Springer and other employers enforce oaths of loyalty to Israel. Germany’s dockyards have long supplied Israel with nuclear-tipped U-boats while last year German arms sales to Israel increased ten-fold. Even the Bundeswehr comes to its defence. In early February, without a Bundestag mandate, the warship Hessen sailed from Wilhelmshaven, headed for the Red Sea, carrying an unspecified number of ‘Seebataillon’ naval infantry troops mobilised to deal with the anti-Israel, Yemen-based Houthi ‘terrorist’ militia. 

So what are German intellectuals saying about all these worrying trends? Almost nothing. Their cowardice is shocking. There are indeed brave souls who dare to dissent from the orthodoxy, but even when the intelligentsia comment on Israel’s war on Gaza, or pronounce on the principles of ethics and politics, as Jürgen Habermas, Rainer Forst and others did some months ago, their stated ‘solidarity with Israel’ functions as a German shibboleth unquestionably inscribed on Israeli stone.

The ancient Hebrew word shibboleth (שִׁבֹּלֶת) is the appropriate word needed here, for a shibboleth, as readers of the biblical Book of Judges know, is an utterance that functions as a password used by adherents of a group or sect to distinguish themselves from their enemies and, if necessary, as the biblical Gileadites did to the Ephraimites, exterminate them. The shibboleth ‘loyalty to Israel’ is oddly thin, but powerfully thick.  It functions as an empty floating signifier with full-on inclusionary and  exclusionary effects. Its semantic elasticity is used to mobilise and bind together its adherents by targeting their opponents as outsiders and foes. In consequence, as the Berlin-based group Archive of Silence is documenting, the list of German institutions shamelessly collaborating with Israeli genocide is long, and fast growing longer. Finger pointing is rife. Rumour and suspicion rule. Bullshit alibis flourish. Shadows are falling over universities and other supposedly enlightened, ‘reasonable’ institutions in which evidence, honesty and integrity nowadays seem to count for nothing. 

Loyalty to Israel is a bullying shibboleth with silencing effects, as I discovered first hand when receiving a nasty kangaroo-court letter accusing me of sympathy for ‘terrorism’ from Jutta Allmendinger, the Praesidentin of the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB), where I had worked as a research professor for a quarter of a century. The letter accused me of being a secret supporter of a fear-spreading ‘terrorist organisation’ known as Hamas and therefore under German law liable to criminal prosecution. I replied with a letter of resignation, in which I emphasised the Praesidentin’s one-sided, prejudiced preoccupation with Hamas and unthinking support for official state-sanctioned definitions of ‘terrorism’. I asked her two questions: Why was her letter silent about such vile matters as non-stop aerial bombardment, settler violence, the ruthless and reckless destruction of hospitals, schools, mosques, churches and universities, and crazed Israeli plans for the forcible removal and starvation of millions of people from their ancient homelands? And why is the WZB denying scholars their right to speak honestly, to say the unsayable, to ask why a state born of the ashes of genocide is now militarily hellbent on the ‘physical destruction in whole or in part’ (Genocide Convention Article II c) of an uprooted, terrorised people known as Palestinians? 

More than a million people read my resignation letter on ‘X’ and Facebook; untold others commented and praised it on other social media platforms; private messages of support poured in from all points on our planet; while in China, where my work is read and discussed, my resignation letter truly went viral on the Little Red Book (xiǎohóngshū) lifestyle sharing platform. Several professors living outside of Germany bravely called on President Allmendinger and the WZB to apologise publicly for the unscholarly tone and insulting substance of her allegations. But she fell silent. Seemingly unbothered by the barbarous and terroristic behaviour of the current Israeli government, the WZB professors and researchers followed her lead. Putting down their pens and zipping their lips, they closed their laptops and folded their arms. Their reasoning? Perhaps: better to do nothing than risk opprobrium, disgrace and unemployment. Or perhaps (as the distinguished German philosopher Karl Jaspers long ago predicted) their silence is the haughty self-righteousness of people convinced that their parents’ confessions of guilt to past crimes and their own unquestioning loyalty to Israel grant them absolution. Or more primevally: conform to German folklore (Deutsche Volkskunde).  Rather be wrong than different. Respect and bow down to the rules of ‘political coordination’ (Gleichschaltung). Be proud of being German. Whatever satisfies the soul is truth. 

Making sense of silence is notoriously difficult, but what can safely be said is that the cowardly silence of one of Europe’s most prestigious research institutes typifies the general atmosphere in a Germany now in the grip of a shibboleth whose roots stretch back to the 1950s Adenauer period and which nowadays is producing ruinous political, reputational, legal and moral consequences. German Jews whose faith moves them to condemn Israel feel stifled; it’s as if they don’t belong in a country claiming atonement for its past annihilation of Jews. Perversely, German government praise for Israel’s steel-fisted stance against ‘terrorism’ and ‘Islamic extremism’ is feeding support for the avowedly pro-Israel, xenophobic, far-right populist AfD party, which commands the support of around 20% of voters and is now represented in 15 out of 16 state parliaments. Enormous damage is also being inflicted on the global reputation of Germany, Germans and things German. The last generation’s efforts to rid the country of fascist thinking and sentiments by purging guilt and shame were impressive. In a matter of months, all the reputational gains have been undone globally by foolish declarations of unconditional loyalty to Israel. By condoning Israel’s self-destructive cruelty, Germany’s self-inflicted moral bankruptcy benefits neither state. And the damage done by the German shibboleth has legal consequences, as Nicaragua is demonstrating in the International Court of Justice by suing Germany for ‘facilitating the commission of genocide’ by selling weapons to Israel and cutting aid to the UN Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA). 

Worst of all, most tragically but least obviously, the German shibboleth prompts doubts about the grand legitimation narrative of the German state. The preamble of its constitution (Grundgesetz) states that ‘the German people’ are the foundation of the republic, but the inconvenient truth is that the German shibboleth serves as a reminder of what W.G. (Max) Sebald, one of the greatest writers of the post-1945 generation, called the ‘well kept secret’ of Germany’s remarkable bounceback after the disasters of the first half of the 20th century. The secret is dirty: buried in the foundations of the German state are the millions of corpses of Nazi genocide, the Allies’ revenge bombing of German cities, which killed 600,000 civilians and left more than seven million homeless, and an earlier genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples in the colony of Southwest Africa – the first genocide of the 20th century only recently and reluctantly acknowledged by German politicians, but so far without offers of reparation to its victims. And now there’s another secret out in the open, in all its filth: a collaboration with genocide in which the foundations of the German state are mixed with the corpses of thousands and thousands of innocent Palestinian women, children and men who yearned only for a better future freed from the chains of racist humiliation, colonial injustice, organised hunger and murder.

Opinions expressed in this essay are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.

This article also appears in Arabic, translated by the Doha Institute.

The article has also been translated into German.

John Keane is Professor of Politics at the University of Sydney. Renowned globally for his creative thinking about politics, history, media and democracy, he is the author of the best-selling Tom Paine: A Political Life (1995), The Life and Death of Democracy (2009), Power and Humility (2018), The New Despotism (2020) and The Shortest History of Democracy (2022), which has been published in more than a dozen languages. He was nominated for the 2021 Balzan Prize (Italy) and the Holberg Prize (Norway) for outstanding global contributions to the human sciences. His latest book is China’s Galaxy Empire, published this month.

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