Triumph of the BILD: Nemi El-Hassan’s firing was just plain wrong

Following a racist campaign by the Springer press, WDR annulled their contract with science journalist Nemi El-Hassan. This sets a dangerous precedent.

Medic and journalist Nemi El-Hassan.
Medic and journalist Nemi El-Hassan.Alexander Probst

Berlin-Over the past three weeks, Nemi El-Hassan has been publicly declared a persona non grata by a fervent, in parts racist, media campaign. Started by the Springer press, it all began when footage „emerged“ of Nemi El-Hassan attending an antizionist protest in 2014 known as the „Al-Quds March,“ where antisemitic chants have been reported in recent years. ZEIT Online traced that footage back to a YouTube producer called Irfan Peci, who has ties to the far-right AfD. He proudly took credit for the revelations.

Actually antisemitic rhetoric and acts shouldn't be tolerated, and attending an event like the Al-Quds-March is no trivial matter. We should, however, allow for the possibility that people change. El-Hassan is an award-winning journalist. Her work is dedicated to fostering intercultural dialogue and fighting antisemitism and racism. She has apologized substantively for her participation in the protest, which the Springer newspapers BILD and WELT covered in multiple articles and tweets. She also subjected herself to an interview with SPIEGEL that resembled a hostile cross-examination.

In it, she apologized and detailed how her thinking had changed over the years. The campaign against her is yet another chapter in the story of Germany's burning and increasingly widespread desire to force its parochial definition of antisemitism onto minorities — whether they be Muslim, Jewish, or people of the left.

The idea behind these rhetorical attacks seems to be: by proudly and brashly pretending we're the antisemitism police, we Germans get to forgo dicey questions about our history. This formulaic and bureaucratic mindset allows „us“ to seem „reformed by history,“ a privilege that needs to be defended from the wild and uncivilized Other.

The German mainstream media is more intent on framing El-Hassan as an antisemitic Islamist than on finding out what she really thought about Israel and Palestine in 2014 — or what she’s done since to foster dialogue and fight antisemitism. That kind of nuance might cost them clicks and google hits. It would also require some self-reflection. As a German journalist with Palestinian roots who has grappled with the lived reality of Israelis and Palestinians, El-Hassan has a much more direct connection to Israel than the Germans who now feel entitled to discredit and silence her.

WDR is now nonetheless parting with El-Hassan

El-Hassan was scheduled to start hosting the science show „Quarks“ for WDR in November. After some internal consideration, the channel has now decided to forfeit its contract with her to host the show. According to Tom Buhrow, head of WDR, the problem is not so much her participation in the Al-Quds-Demonstration seven years ago, for which she has apologized, but her „problematic likes.“

Just as the media campaign against El-Hassan seemed to be flaming out, BILD started covering El-Hassan's Instagram activities. Apparently, she had liked posts from an Instagram account called „Jewish Voice for Peace,“ belonging to a left-wing organization from the US known for its critical stance on Israel. Members on its advisory board include the playwright Tony Kushner, the writers Sarah Schulman, activist Naomi Klein, and linugist Noam Chomsky.

Speaking to this paper, El-Hassan has expressed her „deep sadness“ about being removed from her presenter role. She feels that some people are allowed to make more mistakes than others. „The latest accusations are about liking Instagram posts from Jewish Voice for Peace, one of the biggest Jewish groups in the US. A ‚like‘ doesn’t signalize total endorsement or blind support. Sometimes on social media you just like things because they have news value. I was naive to think that I was allowed to act freely on social media.“

She finds the WDR's decision to not let her host the TV program distressing, „but it's also what I expected.“ Many important figures in culture, science and media have since declared their solidarity with El-Hassan.* She says she's grateful for the support but also feels that the debate has harmed her reputation.

The WDR's reasoning is questionable

The WDR's reasoning is questionable at best. It's clear that Tom Buhrow, the head of a channel dealing in news and information, doesn't quite understand the logic of social media. To „like“ something is not an endorsement, a vote, a sign of total affirmation. In some cases, it's just a quick click meant to symbolize that, amidst the fast-paced stream of posts and takes, a user has seen a post.

Also, let's be honest: if journalistic integrity was measured by what people liked on social media, many journalists of my generation would be out of a job. Over the past 15 years, many of us have liked and shared things we now find cringeworthy, and might in fact like to apologize for. The difference is: most of us are white. Most of us don't have Palestinian roots. And very few of us ever have ever worn a headscarf to express our religious beliefs.

The WDR's interpretation of the likes is deeply weird. The „problematic posts“ are by a leftist Jewish group, who stridently criticize the Israeli occupation and settlements policies. In that context, they sometime use terms, images and demands that to a German ear may indeed sound „problematic“ — and are sometimes associated with antisemitism. That doesn't change the fact that they, and the critical discussions they are part of, are seen as a normal part of Israeli, American, or Palestinian discourse.

Let's take the term „Apartheid,“ which was used in the JVP post in question and thoroughly scandalized by the authors of the BILD article. If the term is provocative, it is purposely so: it compares the undeniable ethnic component of the violence that the Israeli military and Israeli settlers enact on Palestinians to South African white terror. The Israeli NGO B’tselem and Human Rights Watch employ the term and concept to describe the power dynamic in Israel/Palestine. This summer the Meretz politician Mossi Raz organized a conference titled „From Occupation to Apartheid,“ focusing on Apartheid-like conditions in Israel. The conference was held in the Knesset.

Another example is the Palestinian „right of return,“ which has been used in the campaign against El-Hassan as evidence of her alleged radicalism. It denotes, as Meron Mendel explained in the daily Tagesspiegel, an ultimately improbable demand for recognition and material compensation for Palestinian displacement and suffering.

Concepts like these are regularly used in Israeli media, by journalists working for the Israeli daily Haaretz, where they are often defended and also criticized. No matter whether one thinks they accurately describe the situation in Israel and Palestine: to say that uttering them – or just liking posts that use them – is akin to denying Israel's right to exist, or denote a „problematic“ pattern that by itself justifies recanting employment, is pure ideology.

A specifically German sensitivity

Of course, this special German „sensitivity“ is understandable, given German history and the existence of real Israel-related antisemitism. However, simply labelling these contested terms antisemitic in no way helps fighting antisemitism. On the contrary. It does a great disservice to the complicated international debate around Israeli politics. It also hinders us from accurately defining „antisemitism,“ which is crucial to fighting it. It contributes to the hollowing out of the charge of antisemitism, stripping it of symbolic and legal power.

The same logic that led to Nemi El-Hassan losing her job is at work elsewhere, too. A few weeks ago, I asked the philosopher Judith Butler for an interview. I wanted to talk to them about the debates that had filled the German culture pages in the past few months — debates that had been billed as a second „Historikerstreit“ – about how connecting the history of German colonialism with the Holocaust can actually strengthen commemoration of the latter, and why these attempts are so often fended off as alleged „relativization“ of antisemitism. Their response was brief: „I no longer talk or write about this subject in a German context.“ This might be ironic if it weren't so sad. With our Germano-centric perspective, „we“ Germans have accomplished something no other country could: we have successfully excluded one of world’s most important Jewish intellectuals from speaking out on one of the central questions of Jewish identity in the twenty-first century.

Why? Because Judith Butler, according to the officially sanctioned „3D rule“ and the Bundestag's BDS resolution, is an antisemite. This specifically German approach to fighting antisemitism detects it wherever German shame of being the descendants of Nazis is triggered. As recently shown by the philosopher Elad Lapidot in an insightful study, it is conceptually and discursively closer to antisemitism than to any Jewish tradition it purports to protect.

Racism and antisemitism

With all this in mind, it seems almost redundant to stress how racist this campaign against El-Hassan has been. Whoever has any doubts should watch the video of Julian Reichelt calling her „an Islamist“ — one being supported „by our taxes“ — and arguing that her background means that she has no scientific credibility whatsoever.

It’s worth asking: where was the WELT am Sonntag's assembled team of anti-hate avengers  when German CDU politician and former head of the Verfassungsschutz intelligence angency Hans-Georg Maaßen started ranting about „globalists,“ thus dabbling in antisemitic tropes? Or when Schäuble came to Maaßen's defense? Where was the BILD, when „Querdenker,“ the AfD and a popular vegan chef used the Covid-19 pandemic to tease antisemitic and völkisch thought out of the German subconscious?

The WELT am Sonntag is not unable to make these distinctions even in theory. „Clarity,“ its editor Johannes Boie wrote in the spring of 2020, „often means tracing ambiguities, ironing out ambivalences. […] The whole truth is more complicated than a one-dimensional ideology.“ What triggered Boie's call for nuance? The question whether the Hanau killer was a right-wing extremist, or, as Boie's article suggested, just a confused lone wolf. Journalists, according to Boie, shouldn’t allow third parties to influence their judgment.

Now that so many German journalists are eagerly painting Nemi El-Hassan as a covert Islamist who wants nothing more than Israel's destruction, it’s curious to see Boie suddenly lose his love for nuance.

Reading his op-ed on El-Hassan and the Al-Quds demonstration in 2014, it's easy to see that it's about more than fighting antisemitism. He describes the problem of the Al-Quds demonstration as „migrants yelling allahu akbar.“ Is this not the sound, the rhetoric, of hate? Is it possible to take this seriously as what it purports to be, a good-faith attempt to protect Jewish live? Hardly.

Whoever thinks campaigns such as these are just tempests in a teacup should read the accompanying comments on social media. „We are being infiltrated,“ one of many such comments under my latest piece on the matter on this paper's Facebook page reads. Or: „maybe if she takes a bath in holy water and eats a porkchop, I’ll believe her.“ Or, as a reader response email to me puts it: „Islam isn't a religion, it's a cult that produces infidel-murderers.“ Another called El-Hassan „perverted,“ adding that „she should be sent to the Gulag.“

Stressing that this ‚debate‘ is actually not about antisemitism, but in fact about the racism of the campaign against Nemi El-Hassan, could be seen as lending credence to the alleged „Opferkonkurrenz“, oppression olympics — an elementary part of the divisive rhetoric used by Springer media. At the turn of the century, the histories of persecution endured by „Blacks and Jews“ were frequently contrasted and compared, weakening solidarity between the two groups. We are now witnessing a German revival of this approach, with Jewish people and migrants being pitted against each other as natural opponents.

This makes the open letter in solidarity with El-Hassan all the more important. It features prominent Jewish and Muslim voices denouncing the smear campaign — and these attempts to deepen the chasm between Jewish and Muslim communities in Germany.

It's alarming to see the WDR ignore this open letter and instead give in to a pressure campaign created by right-wing spin doctors and the AfD. Buhrow described his decision as the result of „difficult, difficult reflection.“ Allowing El-Hassan to host the show she had been promised would be seen as „misplaced politicization“ of the science show in question. He kept a possible loophole open, however: El-Hassan, he suggested, might work behind the camera as a writer.

This condescending gesture, barely masking a deeply incoherent position, is telling. Is the WDR attempting to hide Nemi El-Hassan from the German public, relegating her to the back of the bus? Buhrow’s offer makes no sense: El-Hassan's Instagram likes are bad enough to not allow her on TV, but harmless enough to let her write the show? This reasoning is hypocritical and, frankly, bizarre.

Just a year ago, the WDR defended German comedian Lisa Eckhart, who made antisemitic jokes, explicitly about Jews, on its airwaves — only to now cancel its contract with an acclaimed journalist based on „problematic likes“ of a Jewish social media account? It's question like these that the broadcaster should ask itself, and answer — lest it damage its reputation even more.

Editor's note: The writer of this piece signed the open letter.

This article was translated by Fabian Wolff and Leon Dische-Becker