Chained to Its Past: A German Recipe for Injustice toward the People of Palestine
17 Sep 2019 – The following collaborative article written jointly with my longtime cherished friend, Hans von Sponeck, who by family experience and moral disposition is acutely aware of the German policy dilemmas associated with its past. These issues have recently surfaced in the context of suppressing pro-Palestinian nonviolent activism, which we believe are being handled in ways that tend to reproduce rather than transcend the evils of the Nazi Era by taking a variety of steps to shield Israeli criminality from pressures exerted by the Palestinian global solidarity movement. We attempted to publish this opinion piece first in a series of leading German newspapers, but were turned down. Apparently, the media guardians of public opinion in Germany regard silence as preferable to discussion and debate on this crucial issue.
As a biographical aside, Hans is a former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations who headed Oil for Food Program in Iraq in his role as Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq in the period following the First Gulf War (1993) until he resigned on principle because of the maintenance of punitive sanctions that were responsible for massive civilian casualties in Iraq.
The Bundestag resolution on May 15th that condemned the BDS Campaign as contributing to a rising threat of antisemitism in Europe is a grave cause of concern. It brands the BDS, a nonviolent Palestinian initiative, anti-Semitic and urges German government to refuse support, not only to BDS itself, but to any organization that is supportive of BDS. It takes this stand, pointing out Germany’s special responsibility toward Jews, without any reference at all to Israel’s prolonged abuse of the most fundamental of human rights, that of self-determination, of the Palestinian people. The German resolution also fails to refer to the important role that an earlier BDS Campaign against South African racism played in bringing about a nonviolent end to the apartheid regime, and that even those who opposed BDS on strategic or pragmatic ground never sought to demonize its advocates.
What particularly disturbs us is the punitive approach to BDS taken by the German legislative branch. It should be remembered that despite lots of opposition to the South African campaign those who were BDS activists were never told that it was legally and morally unacceptable to take part. Objections based on feasibility and effects, as well as specious claims that Africans in South Africa were better off under apartheid than were their brothers and sisters throughout the continent.
In essence, we believe this resolution is the wrong way to learn from the German past. Instead of opting for justice, for law, and for human rights, the Bundestag never even mentions the Palestinian people, and the ordeal that they are experiencing, and BDS is challenging. To give a green light to Israeli oppressive and expansionist policies is to endorse implicitly policies of collective punishment and abuse of the weak that were, it should be recalled, the most reprehensible features of the Nazi era.
We write as two individuals with very different pasts, yet sharing a commitment to a strong United Nations and the duty of countries large and small to respect international law and promote global justice
We also share a continuing awareness of the Holocaust as a terrible tragedy befalling the Jewish people and others, as well as a horrendous crime by Germany and other countries in the past. We share an overriding commitment to a global order in which such tragedy and criminality do not occur with respect to the Jewish people and to all others everywhere. We are also mindful that such tragedies and crimes have been perpetrated since 1945 against various ethnicities and targeted peoples, including in Cambodia, Rwanda, Serbia and more recently, the Rohingya people in Myanmar.
Our backgrounds are (also) quite different. One of us is German and Christian (von Sponeck) , the other (Falk) is American and Jewish. Von Sponeck is the son of a general executed by the Nazis in the latter stages of World War II and had gone to Israel in 1957 to work in a moshav and several kibbutzim. He served for 32 years as an international civil servant within the United Nations, rising to the rank of Assistant Secretary General. His UN career ended when he resigned as the UN
Coordinator of the Oil-for-Food Programme (1998-2000) in protest over the Iraq sanctions policy of the UN Security Council leading to the death of many innocent Iraqi civilians. Since his resignation von Sponeck has been teaching and lecturing in various venues and publishing on UN topics including The Politics of Sanctions on Iraq and the UN Humanitarian Exception (2017).
Falk is American and was a member of the faculty of Princeton University for 40 years, holding the position of Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law. His family background includes paternal German ancestry with both grandparents born in Bavaria. not far from Munich, emigrating to the United States in the middle of the 19thCentury. Between 2008 and 2014, Falk served as Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine on behalf of the UN Human Rights Council. He has published widely on international topics, including recently Power Shift: On the New Global Order (2016) and Palestine: The Legitimacy of Hope (2017).
We have analyzed the failure of international diplomacy to find a solution for the conflict between Israel and Palestine. We believe that Israel bears the main responsibility for this failure, which has resulted in decades of acute suffering for the Palestinian people. We believe that the root of this failure is the Zionist project to impose a Jewish state on an essentially non-Jewish society. This has inevitably occasioned Palestinian resistance, and an increasingly racist based set of structures designed to keep the Palestinian people as a whole subjugated within their own country. We believe further that peace can only come for both peoples when these apartheid structures are dismantled as they were in South Africa over 25 years ago.
Against this background we find the reluctance of the German government and the German people to respond to this circumstance of injustice to be unacceptable and its tacit acquiescence in Germany particularly worrisome and extremely regrettable. Both of us and our families are in different senses victims of Nazism. This, however, does not prevent us from insisting that German hesitation to be critical of Israeli ethnocentrism exhibits a dangerous misunderstanding of the relevance of the Nazi past. The Holocaust should above all serve to warn the world against injustice, state crime, and the victimization of a people based on their racial and religious identity. It should not exempt Israel from legal and moral accountability just because its leadership is Jewish and many of its Jewish citizens are related to victims of the Holocaust.
Israel claims an identity through the 2018 adoption by the Knesset of a Basic Law as the Nation-State of the Jewish people as if this confers a mandate of impunity. The lesson of the Holocaust has to do with abuse, criminality, and victimization, and should not be perverted by any subversive implication that because Jews endured horrific crimes in the past they are exempt from accountability when they commit present crimes. We recall Albert Einstein’s letter to Chaim Weizmann in 1929 in which he wrote,
“If we do not succeed in finding the path of honest co-operation and coming to terms with the Arabs, we will not have learnt anything from our two thousand year old ordeal and will deserve the fate which will beset us!”
The Israeli Government must realize that much of the menacing rise in anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli sentiments in Europe and elsewhere has its origin in the very policies it pursues.
We expect that our plea will be strongly attacked as anti-Zionist and even anti-Semitic. Part of the function of such attacks is to freeze German responses by reminders of the Holocaust, and the false suggestion that criticizing Israel and Zionism is a renewal of an attack on Jews and Judaism. We insist that this is absolutely not the case. It is quite the opposite. It affirms that the core values of the Jewish religion and humanistic values generally are connected with justice, and that this use of anti-Semitic smears is a totally unacceptable tactic to shield Israel from justifiable criticism. This kind of intimidation should be opposed and overcome.
From this perspective it is our belief and hope that Germany and the German people have the strength to rid themselves of the moral numbness induced by the bad memories from the past, and can join in the struggle against injustice. Such a dynamic of moral empowerment would be clear if Germany were to show empathy for the Palestinian ordeal, and lend their support to nonviolent initiatives designed to express solidarity with and encouragement for the Palestinian national movement to uphold basic rights, including above all, the inalienable right of self-determination.
We are most encouraged that our actions are not occurring in a vacuum here in Germany. We take note of the dedicated efforts by the Humboldt Three to protest Israeli apartheid, and the popular support the action of these young people, two Israelis and one Palestinian, have received. Their inspirational message is similar to ours. It is time for the German government and its citizens to break their silence, recognize that the Nazi past is best overcome by active opposition to the unjust oppression of the Palestinian people. We also feel kinship with the Open Letter widely endorsed by intellectuals around the world, including many in Israel, calling on ‘Individuals and Institutions in Germany’ to end all efforts to conflate criticisms of Israel with antisemitism.
We believe that peace between Jews and Arabs in Palestine depends on taking steps to restore equality of relations between these too long embattled peoples. This can only happen if the current apartheid structures are dismantled as a prelude to peace. The South African precedent shows us that this can happen, but only when international pressures combine with national resistance. It seemed impossible in South Africa until the very moment that it happened. It seems impossible at this time with respect to Israel, but the impossible happens when it is aligned with the demands of justice, and mobilizes the support of people of good will from around the world. The flow of history has favored the weaker side militarily in the great anti-colonial movements of the last half of the 20th century, and so we should not lose hope in a just outcome for Israeli and Palestinians despite the fact that the present balance of forces now favors Israeli dominance.
It is also important to keep in mind that as long as the Palestinian people are denied their basic rights, there can be no peace. Any agreement reached while apartheid remains will be nothing more than a ceasefire. A sustainable peace depends on recognizing and implementing the equality of the two peoples on the basis of mutual self-determination. Germany and Germans have a great opportunity to promote such a vision, and by doing so, liberating the country from its past. In a profound sense, whether German, American, or other we each owe the Jewish and Palestinian peoples nothing less.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, Distinguished Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).
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