Photo: imago images/suedraumfoto

BerlinIn late July, Israeli professor emeritus Gideon Freudenthal signed an open letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel. The letter criticises Felix Klein, Germanys Antisemitism Commissioner, of “excessive criticism” of Israel. In Germany and elsewhere, says Freudenthal, criticism of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories is all-too-quickly branded as antisemitic. Other signatories of the letter include high-profile academics such as Aleida and Jan Assmann, and Micha Brumlik

Mr Freudenthal, imagine you’re sitting in a café with Felix Klein. What would your advice to him be? How could he make better use of his post?

I believe we need to differentiate. You have the traditional antisemitism coming from the right, from fascist, racist circles. This type is ‘unproblematic’. Not that it doesn’t pose a problem: it’s a burning problem! But it’s not hard to identify who belongs to these groups and who doesn’t. The antisemitism that poses a problem is the kind that hides behind criticism of Israel. Sometimes it originates in a radical Islamist scene. To use that as excuse to silence any criticism of Israel is a big mistake. I believe that the difference between someone who attacks Israel with antisemitic arguments and someone who criticises the Israeli government are easy to recognise.

What motivated you to sign the open letter to Angela Merkel?

Two things motivated me. First, the fact that the accusation of antisemitism has, in recent years, also been used in Germany to suppress criticism of Israel. It wasn’t the first time that I signed such an appeal. And I’ll sign such letters in the future because I believe that every boundary has been overstepped. Second, a more specific reason is the accusation that [German historian] Rainer Bernstein is an antisemite. I’ve known Rainer Bernstein for decades. He takes the position of Jossi Beilin’s Geneva Initiative, which was also adopted by the Israeli labour movement. If this position is considered antisemitic today, then there’s no longer a way to criticise Israeli policies. Rainer Bernstein is the very last person to deserve such an accusation.

Prof. Dr. Gideon Freudenthal

Gideon Freudenthal was born in 1947 in Jerusalem and is an Israeli professor emeritus in history and philosophy. His well-known publications include: Atom and Individual in the Age of Newton, a book on the genesis of mechanical philosophy, and No Religion Without Idolatry, on philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and the Jewish Enlightenment. Freudenthal’s mother tongues are Hebrew and German. In recent years, he stood out as a sharp critic of Israeli prime minister Bejamin Netanyahu and lent his support to various initiatives against equating criticism of Israel with antisemitism.

In the open letter you accuse Germanys Antisemitism Commissioner Felix Klein of supporting right-wing populist forces in Israel. Could you explain?

Cooperation between the antisemitism commissioner and the Israeli government happens on many levels. Take, for example, Arye Shalicar. Shalicar is a government official who wrote a book in which he denounces Rainer Bernstein as an antisemite. And the German commissioner for antisemitism supports his lecture tour. No one promoted the book directly, but there was financial support, which is a form of cooperation. Here in Israel, we’re accustomed to the government using the accusation of antisemitism to silence critics. In recent years, it’s even become official policy. Here there is a minister whose duties include thwarting the so-called BDS campaign outside of Israel. Mr Shalicar is part of a larger development. The freezing of the bank account of the non-profit European Jews for a Just Peace also fell under these measures.

Is that an Israeli group?

No, it’s a Berlin-based group of Israel-critical Jews, Palestinians and others. Look, the letter that I signed is still very generous towards the Israeli government. It alleges, for example, that until 1995, until the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Israel sought dialogue and peace with Palestine.

And you would dispute that?

I would say that between 1967 and 1995 Israel did very little to allow an independent state to develop. And even less since 1995. In the meantime, one should have serious doubts about whether Israel wants to achieve peace in the Middle East at all.

You mention the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. The letter states that a political attitude close to the views of the assassin lives on in the policies of the Israeli government. What do you mean exactly?

Rabin’s murder was probably one of the most successful political hit jobs in history. It derailed the Oslo process, which had the potential of creating peace. The assassin actually achieved his goal. Today, the Israeli government, including the “blue-white” faction, which originally opposed Netanyahu, officially declares that it wants to annex the occupied territories in the West Bank. This is no longer contested by anyone in the government.  If there is any opposition, then it’s about the question of distribution [of territory], not the issue as such.

Don’t you see any opposition in Israel at all? What about the Meretz party, Avoda or the “United List” party?

They are infinitesimally small. Therefore, those who still want a two-state solution must rely on international pressure. Otherwise, we won’t be able to hold on to our position.

So, you want Europe to exert pressure on Israel?

Yes, but don’t get me wrong. I hope for pressure to be put on the Israeli government, not on Israel per se. The policies of the government must change. That has nothing to do with the state. We all stand behind Israel’s right to exist.

And what form would this pressure on the government take?

As is well known, Israel depends on support from the US and the EU. Pressure could be applied in different ways, for example in the form of coalition treaties, economic aid or military cooperation. One could begin in these areas. It’s not as if the German government hasn’t made clear that it doesn’t approve of Netanyahu’s policies, especially his desire to annex parts of the West Bank. But if you silence Jewish, German and Israeli critics of Israeli government policy with the general accusation of antisemitism, you support Netanyahu at the end of the day.

The open letter explicitly addresses the definition of antisemitism. The working definition of antisemitism from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) states that “manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish community. However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” Aleida Assmann argues that the German government adopted this declaration in 2017 but scratched out the last sentence, thereby narrowing the scope of the discussion. Do you share this assessment?

I am familiar with this “working definition”. I find it disastrous.

How so?

Because it is so open-ended that you can include all sorts of things that have nothing to do with antisemitism.

The two-state solution remains the most realistic

Over the last few months in Berlin we have seen protests by so-called corona deniers who spread conspiracy theories, often borrowing from antisemitic attitudes. Last year, in Halle, there was a terror attack on a synagogue. It’s not as if Germany doesn’t have a serious antisemitism problem.

You’ve never heard me say that Germany didn’t have an antisemitism problem!

So, in your view, that means there’s just a misguided emphasis on who is being accused of antisemitism?

I find the word “emphasis” way too weak. The real problem of antisemitism is that it is being used to suppress criticism of the Israeli government.

You mentioned Netanyahu’s annexation plans and the alternative model of a two-state solution. The latter has been discussed for decades. Is it even still realistic?

It has certainly become more difficult. But of the proposed solutions out there, the two-state solution remains the most realistic. Will a two-state solution be simple with so many settlements in the occupied territories? Surely not. But what other solutions have you got? There simply aren’t any others.

You are professor emeritus for the Philosophy and History of Science at the University of Tel Aviv. The open letter points to the historical tradition of criticism, as occurred with groups like Brit Shalom that were linked to Martin Buber and Gerhom Sholem. Where can those kinds of voices be found in Israel today?

There are many different approaches that continue this kind of tradition. One of the most effective movements is Rabbis for Human Rights, which is committed to creating another kind of politics. At the demonstrations taking place in Israel these days you hear loud criticism of the government. In the 1920s, Buber and Sholem were just one movement among many. They’re just especially relevant for the German-speaking world.