Why Did Germany Honor an Israel-Basher?

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of the Merit Cross, in both Germany and Israel, to threaten to return their awards in protest if Langer’s award is not rescinded.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).