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Peter Ullrich on the protests against the war in Gaza, the public backlash in Germany, and the complexities of antisemitism


Peter Ullrich

When university occupations against the war in Gaza began catching on in Germany several weeks ago, the public backlash was immediate — and intense. Although by and large much smaller than their counterparts in the US and UK, the German university protesters saw themselves confronted with a wave of criticism and accusations of antisemitism from the press and most of the political establishment.

Peter Ullrich is a sociologist, alumni coordinator at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, senior researcher in the field of “Social Movements, Technology, and Conflicts” at the Center for Technology and Society, and a fellow at the Center for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University Berlin.

Soon, those attacks also targeted anyone defending students’ right to protest — whether they agreed with the aims of the protest or not. The campaign against the protest camps reached an initial climax earlier this month, when the right-wing tabloid Bild began publishing the names and faces of university lecturers and pro-Palestine protesters in a move reminiscent of the hysteria the same newspaper whipped up against leftists in the 1960s and 1970s.

One of the names featured in Bild was Peter Ullrich, a Rosa Luxemburg Foundation employee and scholar of antisemitism in Berlin. He spoke with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Henning Obens about the protests against the war in Gaza, Bild’s campaign against academics, and complexities and nuances involved in understanding antisemitism today.

Bild recently published a major article criticizing the signatories of an open letter against the restrictions on students’ right to free speech and free assembly on campus at the Freie Universität (FU) Berlin. The article’s title is “UniversiTäter” (a play on words that adds “Täter”, perpetrators, to “Universität”, university). It also included the names and photos of some of the signatories — including you. What do you make of this?

This campaign is not surprising coming from a tabloid like Bild, although it is undoubtedly a blatant escalation. It is important to realize who and what Springer, Bild’s publisher, is actually attacking. The protests at the FU were held by pro-Palestinian students who were calling for an end to the war in Gaza. They launched an encampment on campus as part of the protest, which the university administration cleared out immediately.

If you consider the police reports and the various eyewitness accounts, it is clear that the camp was evicted not because any laws were broken, but simply because the university chose to exercise its authority to determine who was and was not permitted on the premises. The protests were not registered and there was some damage to property in the course of the eviction, but the fact of the matter is that the university administration simply wanted the camp cleared.

As a result, many faculty members got together and wrote a statement, which I signed. This statement emphasizes that we signatories have a fundamentally different vision than the FU administration as to how protests at universities should be handled and how universities should be public spaces and spaces for debate. We advocate firmly in favour of the demonstrators’ right to peaceful protest and are opposed to such protests being met with police violence.

In the open letter, we explicitly refrain from commenting on the specific demands of the protesters. Although I assume that the majority of the signatories have certain sympathies in this regard, this was not the focus of the letter. We were more concerned with defending the right to freedom of speech and upholding basic standards for the right of assembly. In other words, we wanted to point out that freedom of assembly also applies in semi-public spaces and that even in cases where minor violations of the law occur, it is possible to handle them without immediately criminalizing the entire protest.

The conflicts surrounding the topic of antisemitism in Germany have undergone a very specific development, which I analyse as the juridification and securitization of the debate on the Middle East and antisemitism.

It was important for us to take the position that universities should engage in dialogue around such conflictual issues and support students. Professors in particular also have certain responsibilities for the students who attend these protests, and a different idea of how such conflictual situations should be handled.

However, what is dramatic about this situation is not so much the predictable scandal the Bild tried to stir up, which made completely baseless accusations amounting to nothing less than abusive criticism. What is more shocking is that these accusations have received backing from prominent political officials, from the Federal Minister of Education to the Mayor of Berlin, who supported this smear campaign with their simplistic, boilerplate statements stating that the camp was a gathering of antisemites and Israel-haters.

In response, there has been a broad wave of support against these absurd accusations. Over 1,000 academics have now signed the letter. Who did Springer’s report focus on?

It’s quite interesting to look at this. All the signatories in the article were from Berlin. They were listed by name, with their institution, and even a photo. Naika Foroutan, the director of the Berlin Institute for Empirical Integration and Migration Research, was placed at the centre, as well as people whose connection to the issue makes these accusations seem particularly absurd, such as Michael Wildt, one of the most prominent German Holocaust researchers, or myself, an antisemitism researcher. In addition, people who specialize in subjects that are already a thorn in the side of the right-wing, such as gender and diversity, and several representatives of Arabic studies and similar fields were singled out. It really makes you wonder how some people ended up on this list.

That’s why it all seems a bit arbitrary, and I think it’s easy to recognize that it’s an attempt to intimidate people. The idea is to frighten people who are considering making similar public statements and to make them all feel like potential targets. This is particularly alarming for those whose residential or employment status is precarious. When people like this are targeted publicly, they immediately fear for their livelihood.

Things are similar in the United States, where there have even been hearings in Congress about the university protests and conflicts over the supposedly catastrophic situation on campuses. Is what is happening in the US a kind of blueprint that has been imported into Germany, in order to attack universities as sites of critical thinking, and to seek to shut down disciplines considered to be disagreeable?

I would like to distinguish between two different levels here. On the one hand, there is a broader trend of attacks on disciplines which are somehow considered “left-wing”, paired with authoritarian attacks on certain academic positions which are discredited as being non-scholarly. This is accompanied by authoritarian political interventions at the universities.

But on the other hand, there is a unique aspect to the whole issue. The conflicts surrounding the topic of antisemitism in Germany have undergone a very specific development, which I analyse as the juridification and securitization of the debate on the Middle East and antisemitism. In this arena of conflict, antisemitism and racism both play a role — it is an extremely contradictory landscape, and many different kinds of people have stakes in the debate. This complex conflict, in which those involved do not always express themselves in an analytical and nuanced manner, is increasingly being turned into a problem of public order, such as ought to be dealt with administratively using measures involving police.

However, what’s remarkable — particularly at the FU, but also at other universities in Berlin — is that these universities are reconsidering their approach after realizing that they cannot simply escape the contradictory situation by creating a semblance of calm. After all, that doesn’t by any means resolve the issue. There is a large number of people who are involved from very different perspectives or who are affected by the conflict in different ways, and this fact calls for a fundamentally different approach — one that emphasizes dialogue and open debate, one that recognizes and takes other positions seriously.

As luck would have it, you have just co-written a book funded by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation that attempts to define what antisemitism is in all its complexity. How did this project come about?

Our starting point was the intense debate in recent years surrounding a definition of antisemitism or, as one might put it, the search for a definition of antisemitism that people from all backgrounds would be satisfied with and which would be binding for everyone. A few years back, in an expert report for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and Medico International, I conducted a critical analysis of the best-known working definition of antisemitism, which comes from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

However, we at the RLS have also committed ourselves to ensuring that our engagement with the topic does not stop at criticizing the discourse. We recognize that it is a very important topic which demands to be taken seriously and worked through, including with regards to a certain antisemitic tradition that exists on the political left. In this context, we came up with the idea of making a productive contribution to a more robust definition of antisemitism.

But in 2021, the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism was published (which I also worked on), and it quickly became clear that anyone who contributes to the debate is automatically categorized in one of the opposing camps of the debate on the Middle East. It became clear that all such definitions have a symbolic function. That is why we tried to get to the bottom of the issue of definitions. What can and do definitions do, what criteria need to be considered when making definitions, and how has antisemitism research dealt with this in concrete terms to date?

Jews are also involved in marital disputes, economic conflicts, and even national conflicts. It becomes antisemitic when, within such conflicts, one side makes use of antisemitic stereotypes.

From my perspective, there are many good reasons why people from different professions and with different historical analyses have reached very different conclusions about what antisemitism actually is and where the boundaries between it and other phenomena lie. This necessitates intense engagement because it is an extremely complex field that is often treated simplistically in political discourse. The debates often focus too much on the wording of definitions and too little on their symbolic content and the preconceptions implied therein. Furthermore, to date, there is an almost complete lack of perspectives coming from experts in conceptualization, i.e. the theory of scientific knowledge and epistemology. We wanted to address all of these issues.

What are the debates about, and can you characterize them in terms of one of the fields of conflict you mentioned?

One important opposition is between what is called the eternalist and “modernist” positions — in other words, those who claim that antisemitism has existed for 2,500 years, since ancient Greece, and those who see it as a product of modernity with a history of approximately 150 to 200 years. However, this opposition has now largely been resolved in scholarly research. Nowadays, the predominant positions recognize both continuities and discontinuities, with the discussions tending to focus on where the discontinuities are located.

This is certainly productive, but it also poses certain challenges. For example, are the ways in which modern societies construct belonging, which are decisive for the form antisemitism takes today, at all comparable with ideas of community in ancient Greece or in early Christianity? Today, these positions are often put forward in the public debate with a zeal that is surprising given the complexity of the many technical issues involved.

Another example: what is actually the distinguishing characteristic of antisemitism? When does it make sense to speak of antisemitism instead of conflictual situations to which Jewish people are also a party? To put it somewhat flippantly: Jews are also involved in marital disputes, economic conflicts, and even national conflicts. It becomes antisemitic when, within such conflicts, one side makes use of antisemitic stereotypes.

As far as the historical dimension is concerned, there are very different answers. For example, Gavin Langmuir locates the turning point in the late Middle Ages, when the well-known anti-Jewish legends emerged: ritual murder, infanticide, the poisoning of wells, etc. From this point onwards, antisemitism took on a “chimerical” quality and became completely detached from the reality of Jewish existence. This distinguishes it from antiquity, for example, where anti-Jewish tendencies were perhaps based more on group-based conflicts that were religiously charged, but where being Jewish was not as decisive as it was in other situations, where the anti-Jewish bogeyman assumes the power to explain the nature of the world.

There is a definition of Israel-related antisemitism in your book. This marks a new dimension in the discourse on the two and a half millennia-old history of antisemitism. Can you describe this form of antisemitism?

The question is whether this antisemitism is really new. In our book, Thomas Haury argues that the modern, national form of antisemitism that emerged in the mid-eighteenth century — when the question of the legal emancipation of Jewish people arose — was fundamentally hostile to a Jewish national project from the outset. This is also linked antisemitic clichés about about Judaism and Jews: that they were incapable of building community, of settling down, of being productive.

These stereotypes suggest that a Jewish nation state is unimaginable. Seen in this light, modern antisemitism — and there are many concise expressions of this — has always been anti-Zionist and anti-Israel. This also applies to right-wing extremists in particular, even if today they make superficial comments supporting Israel, since they consider it an ally against Muslims or Arabs.

We should recognize that each of the different views may have valid reasons, and that those views might also have certain blind spots.

In principle, one can speak of Israel-related antisemitism when interpretations or behaviour towards Israel reproduce antisemitic patterns. Throughout history, this has been more or less well concealed. There have been many sorry phases and episodes of this, including in the history of the Left. But that is precisely what distinguishes this form of antisemitism. It is not a question of whether the criticism is valid, or whether it is particularly radical or extreme, but whether it reproduces antisemitic semantic paradigms: in other words, whether it demarcates a “we” which is declared to be incompatible with a Jewish group that is not recognized as having this kind of collective character — and in so doing introduces a dichotomy that denigrates the enemy group (in this case, Jews).

From this perspective, the Jews are not just another group, such as the French or what have you, but rather a group that allegedly undermines and threatens the “natural”, national order of the world. The Middle East conflict offers many potential grounds for opportunistic structures in which antisemitic paradigms can be hidden behind the fact that one speaks of Israel instead of Jews. But once again, the question is not whether a particular criticism is accurate or harsh, but whether it reproduces antisemitic tropes.

We have actually have a pretty clear idea that hidden antisemitism is at play when antisemitic patterns are used to criticize the policies of the Israeli government. In political debates, however, this accusation of Israel-related antisemitism is continually being interpreted differently and more broadly. The question that arises for me here is: why is this the case?

This is a phenomenon that could be called “concept creep”, which is when the meaning of a concept expands. In this instance, it could lead some people to espouse a concept of antisemitism which no longer requires an anti-Jewish bogeyman. Particularly ignominious in this regard is Natan Sharansky’s “3-D test”, which argues that Israel is a Jewish state, and if Israel is judged by double standards, delegitimized, or demonized, then that must be considered antisemitism. In this conception, it is no longer necessary to prove that what’s at issue is the Jewish character of the state of Israel; it is enough that Israel defines itself as Jewish.

In this way, all criticism of Israel is automatically labelled antisemitic. This is disconcerting, since it neglects all other dimensions that (might well) play a role, such as the fact that there is a decades-long nationalist and religious conflict, a conflict over resources and life opportunities, and a decades-long occupation. And that is a problem.

This phenomenon has different sources that merge in a so-called “coalition of terror”. On the one hand, Israeli politicians use this phrase to legitimize themselves, even going so far as to try to somehow sugarcoat the openly genocidal ambitions of part of the Israeli government. Yet on the other hand there is also a left-wing tradition that had its starting point in a critique of antisemitism within the Left but which ultimately ended up becoming radicalized into a right-wing Zionist position. This happens through what can only be described as a process of both identification and radicalization. But both positions — and others, including a religious philosemitism — are now converging and are contributing to the debasement of the concept of antisemitism into a tawdry accusation.

Is there a way out of this deadlock? Do we have to all engage with these different definitions, or does it make more sense to take a closer look at the different interests involved in forming them in the first place? In other words: is there a way to agree on a common framework?

Here, too, we have to distinguish between different levels. In cases where such discussions are predominantly driven by vested interests, a rational discussion will not get us anywhere because the arguments in these cases are purely instrumental in nature. In public debates, in journalistic reporting, and in scholarly discussions, we can and must demand something more coherent. Basically, we would have to compile a catalogue of demands.

One such demand would of course be greater transparency and disclosure of the political agendas that play a major role here. This is particularly true of academia, since it is particularly influenced by politics and activism. Then we need to recognize the variety of perspectives at play. In my opinion, this is the most important contribution of our book: presenting the diversity and complexity of this issue, acknowledging how it informs research in the field, and moving away from the hermeneutics of suspicion, in which one assumes that the other party has some kind of evil motive.

Instead, we should recognize that each of the different views may have valid reasons, and that those views might also have certain blind spots. The point is to enter the debate, and this would be more successful if the field were not so isolated, i.e. if it were in more robust dialogue — with research on racism, for example. For at present, the antagonisms between antisemitism and racism are sometimes exaggerated. In short, it is a call for intellectual honesty.

Translated by Gegensatz Translation Collective