Last month, Germany awarded one of its highest honors, the “Federal Merit Cross, First Class,” to the Israeli lawyer and political activist Felicia Langer. The Merit Cross is awarded by the German president, currently Horst Köhler, for “special contributions to the Federal Republic of Germany.” A former member of the Central Committee of the Israeli Communist Party, Langer is known in Germany, above all, as a ferocious critic of Israel. She has lived in Germany since 1990.
By her own account, Langer left Israel out of protest and she has said that she made “a politically conscious choice for Germany … because I understood with what brutality and sophistication Israel was exploiting the Germans’ guilt.” In numerous public statements in books, lectures, and interviews, she has, among other things, called for war-crimes trials against Israeli leaders, dismissed Palestinian suicide bombings as the consequence of “suicidal desperation,” and endorsed the charge that Israelis were behaving like a “master race.” Coy comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany are indeed a regular part of Langer’s repertoire. (For a selection of translated quotes, see here.)
The news of Langer’s award has prompted incredulous reactions from both Israeli officials and officials of Germany’s leading Jewish organization, the publicly-funded Central Council of Jews in Germany. It has also prompted other Jewish recipients of the Merit Cross, in both Germany and Israel, to threaten to return their awards in protest if Langer’s award is not rescinded.
According to an article in the Jerusalem Post, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Charlotte Knobloch, has suggested that the “decision [to honor Langer] was not properly researched.” A closer look at the circumstances surrounding the award, however, reveals this relatively benign explanation to be wishful thinking at best.
Thus, we now know that Langer was nominated for the award by none other than Evelyn Hecht-Galinski. (Hecht-Galinski mentions this fact in a letter that appeared in the July 23 edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.) Now, as it so happens, Hecht-Galinski is herself well-known in Germany as an especially virulent critic of Israel. Indeed, this and the fact that she is the daughter of one of the leading figures of Germany’s small post-war Jewish community are, in effect, the only things for which she is known. Like Langer, Hecht-Galinski does not shy away from comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany. Only last year, she was involved in a highly publicized dispute with the journalist Henryk Broder after Broder accused her of “specializing” in a sort of “anti-Semitic anti-Zionism.” (On that controversy, see my contemporaneous report here.)
In the meanwhile, moreover, the full text of the speech given in Langer’s honor at the award ceremony has been made available. Langer is a resident of Tübingen in the German state of Baden-Württemberg and the ceremony was held in Stuttgart, the state capital. Lieutenant Governor (or “Staatssekretär”) Hubert Wicker presented the award. Responding to the controversy over Langer’s award, a spokesperson for the state government has insisted that Langer was honored “for her humanitarian contributions, independently of political, ideological or religious motivations” and her “efforts to help persons in need regardless of nationality or religion” (source: Spiegel-Online).
But the text of Wicker’s award speech clearly reveals that Langer was honored not despite her anti-Israeli invective, but precisely because of it. More precisely, it shows that government officials were fully aware of what author Ralph Giordano has called Langer’s encouragement of the “widespread” tendency in Germany to “unload the burden of one’s own guilt via criticism of Israel.” Giordano, who has written numerous books on the Third Reich and Germany’s troubled relation to its Nazi past, is one of the Merit Cross recipients who has threatened to return his award.
Describing Langer’s professional and political activities in Israel, Wicker told her:
Moved by the treatment of the Palestinians after the Six Day War as well as since the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, you saw it henceforth as your task to defend the underprivileged in Israel and in the neighboring occupied territories. …
For 23 years you fought against expropriations, the destruction of homes and deportations.
Your clients informed you about torture, forced confessions, deportations in violation of international law, and punishments resembling clan-liability such as the tearing down of suspects’ houses.
In those trying times, you accomplished much. …
Note the two references in quick succession to “deportations,” an idiom that clearly suggests that Israelis are guilty of “Nazi-like” crimes. The reference to “punishments resembling clan-liability” [sippenhaftähnliche Bestrafungen] likewise carries a strong whiff of the Third Reich. “Sippenhaft” is the practice of punishing family members for an individual’s alleged crimes. The Nazis were notorious for employing this form of punishment: notably, against members of the resistance in the occupied territories.
The full import of these remarks, moreover, can only be appreciated on the background of Wicker’s previous remarks on Langer’s childhood and family history. Langer was born in Poland in 1930 and she is reported to have fled to the Soviet Union with her family in 1939 following the German invasion. (At the time, roughly half of Polish territory was, in any case, directly annexed to the Soviet Union.) She thus in fact escaped persecution, but she has referred to herself, nonetheless, as an “indirect” Holocaust survivor, “since directly my husband is a survivor.” (For the full quote and source, see here.)
Wicker’s speech likewise, in effect, elevates Langer to the status of an “indirect” Holocaust survivor:
None of us who were born after the War can properly appreciate the human suffering and decades-long grief that have marked your life.
The only thing that remains for us today is to bow down in respect before the victims and the obligation to do everything we can so that this sort of thing [Derartiges] never happens again.
This sort of thing?! But Wicker’s description of Israeli treatment of the Palestinians clearly suggests that “this sort of thing” is happening again — namely, in the Middle East. Employing precisely the same convoluted logic as Wicker, Felicia Langer has in fact explicitly called on Germany to intervene in the Middle East conflict on behalf of the Palestinians. “Germans,” she has said, “have not only the right, but the obligation, to intervene. Precisely because they kept silent once before.” (For full quote and source, see here.)
The text of Wicker’s award speech has been published on the pro-Palestinian German website Das Palästina Portal. The revealing motto of the site is “Never Again — No One — Nowhere.” The obvious implication is that something like the Holocaust is now happening again (“Never Again”) — not in Europe, but in the Middle East (“Nowhere”) and not to Jews, but to Palestinians (“No One”). In the view of Das Palästina Portal and Felicia Langer, the Jews have become the perpetrators. Hubert Wicker and the government of Baden-Württemberg evidently share this assessment. Does German President Horst Köhler agree?