By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Like last time around, Walser again said he was addressing freedom of expression; he claimed his book was about the censorial power wielded by the German literary and media establishment. The whole dustup, he said, proved his point.
As with Mollemann, there’s a strong whiff of a setup. Death of a Critic is selling (the last three times I personally went into a Berlin bookstore, there was someone at the register buying it) despite universally bad reviews of its literary merit. Without plucking German culture‘s central nerve, Walser’s latest would have been another of his unnoticed minor editions. And that‘s what German Jews are worried about -- that Mollemann’s and Walser‘s audacious moves were calculations rather than blunders.
But are these ploys finding fertile soil? The readiness to resort to anti-Semitic expression has rebounded somewhat in the past few months. Dr. Irene Runge, the director of the Jewish Cultural Community in Berlin, says her office has recently gotten more nasty and threatening mail than usual. Broder at Der Spiegel says he’s received hundreds. Then there was the “Mollemann Mobile,” a fake FDP entourage created by the German satirical magazine Titanic, which toured small towns in east Germany brandishing placards with pictures of Mollemann and slogans like “Judenfrei -- und spaß dabei,” which a might be best translated as “Getting rid of the Jews is fun!” Some locals greeted them with a big thumbs up, and one small-town FDP party chief was even photographed shaking hands with the impostor liberals, not noticing that their slogans were decidedly illiberal, or that word Judenfrei alone was extremely unusual for a contemporary political poster, since that‘s the term that the Nazis used to describe an area that had been “cleansed” of Jews.
And yet, Germany, one should remember, is by far the most progressive country in Europe when it comes to reconciling with the Jews, the past and the Holocaust. The culture of commemoration here is strong and frank. There are 39 separate Holocaust-related memorials in Berlin alone, and a vast new one is being built right next to the Brandenburg Gate, within view of the chancellor’s private apartment down the road. Hundreds of thousands of Germans marched in Berlin last year to protest against anti-Semitism. The new Jewish museum became the most popular museum in the country, even when it was still empty.
“Actually, I think the whole thing was blown out of proportion,” says Runge, getting a little bit impatient with the topic. “Yes, there have been more cemetery desecrations and even a few violent incidents on the street, but that means several in the past few months rather than in the last year. It‘s still not a lot. Probably 5 percent of Germans are real anti-Semites, maybe less. And then there are maybe 17 percent -- you always hear about this 17 percent -- who have some latent anti-Semitic feeling.”
Dr. Wolfgang Benz agrees that there’s been an overreaction. He‘s the head of the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism, a large interdisciplinary institute affiliated with the Technical University in Berlin. He doesn’t back down from criticizing Mollemann, but he also points out that poll after poll shows that few Germans harbor anti-Semitic ideas, and what sentiment can be detected is declining further. “We work with long-term trends, observations, data,” he explains in an office filled with shelves and stacks of books, papers and reports. “Yet Jewish community officials or writers or politicians always think they know better.” What‘s more interesting, Benz says, is that Mollemann’s stunt backfired. “He wasn‘t able to get any political traction. The FDP lost ground. Of course,” Benz acknowledges, “it is hard to tell the children of survivors not to worry when a Mollemann comes along. For them, anti-Semitism is not academic; it’s biography. But there is also some paranoia. When people say, ‘The Germans haven’t changed,‘ they’re wrong. That‘s ideology talking.”
What is new, Benz admits, is that anti-Semitism has become intertwined with criticism of Israel. Mollemann, who is the head of the German-Arab Friendship Committee, got his affair started by defending a Syrian-German politician who likes to talk about international Zionist power alongside Israel’s “Nazi methods.” Anti-Semitic crimes in the streets have moved in tandem with flare-ups in the Middle East. The hate mail coming in at Jewish organizations combines classic anti-Semitism with pro-Palestinian rhetoric.
“And what is also new,” Runge says, “is that we get letters from regular-sounding people who are anti-Sharon and assume that he represents us in some way, which he doesn‘t. Anti-Semitism isn’t just when you knock over gravestones; it‘s also when you start talking about ’the Jews,‘ especially if you confuse them with a specific government in Israel. You can criticize Israel,” says Dr. Runge. “I do. But you have to differentiate. When you get into ’the Jews‘ and the ’Zionist lobby,‘ then you’re in dangerous territory.”
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