Mischaracterisation, alleged and real

A recent conference in Berlin [„Hijacking Memory. The Holocaust and the New Right”, co-organized by the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, the Einstein Forum and the ZfA Center for Research on Antisemitism at the TU Berlin, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, June 9-12, 2022] in which we had both participated underscored the danger of abuse of the memory of the Shoah to serve the political goals of the new European right. Forty speakers documented the rewiring of the history of WWII by nationalist regimes in the eastern half of the continent (our two presentations dealt with that issue in Poland), and the abuse of the memory of the Shoah to delegitimize certain forms of speech, in particular certain criticisms of Israel, in Germany and elsewhere in its western part. The lively debate which followed these last presentations in particular showed – if it needed to be proven at all – that it is obviously possible to criticize Israel without being antisemitic or biased, even if we often encounter criticism that is so tainted. Furthermore, the entire conference, which was both sorely needed and highly successful, showed that an intelligent and insightful debate of sensitive issues is in fact possible. The discussion which followed the conference, however, just how rare an event such a debate can be.

We had been surprised and shocked to hear, at the conference, the presentation of the sole Palestinian speaker, Mr Tareq Baconi. A relevant Palestinian perspective would have immensely enriched the conference. It could have illuminated the abuse of the Shoah in Israeli politics, from PM Menahem Begin comparing in 1982 Arafat in Beirut to “Hitler holed up on his bunker in Berlin in 1945”, to PM Benjamin Netanyahu alleging in 2012 that it was the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el-Husseini, who “had given Hitler the idea of the Holocaust”. Of no less value would have been an interpretation of the educational policies of the Palestinian Authority and of Hamas in Gaza in that respect, from the ban on education about the Shoah in Palestinian schools, through the systematic allegation that Palestinians, not Jews, were “true” victims of a genocide, to the persecution of Al Quds University professor Mohammed Dajani for having taken a group of his students to visit Auschwitz.

Sadly, Mr Baconi, as we said in a protest statement we read out before our presentations, “chose to frontally attack Israel as i.a. an “apartheid”, “colonial” and “child-killing” entity, expressed outrage at the idea that “a Jewish state may exist on 78% of historical Palestine”, and deplored the fact that at such gatherings as this one, the Palestinian issue is “merely a backdrop” while a sort of a “Jewish psycho-drama” is playing itself out in the context of Palestinian tragedy.” “Mr Baconi – we continued – is certainly entitled to his opinions, which would, however, be more appropriate at a conference on Palestinian activism, just as our presentations would be out of place there.

We fail to see, however, how his remarks may contribute to the subject of this conference.” What was especially worrying was the rapturous enthusiasm with which his words had been received by part of the audience, and the lack of reaction of the organizers to his presentation.
We were later told that the organizers had adopted a policy of not commenting on any presentation, while some of those who cheered Baconi were a group which apparently came to listen to him only, and departed soon after his presentation. Be it as it may, we found the entire incident deeply disturbing.. One of us, Jan Grabowski, developed the reasons for that concern in a subsequent interview for “Die Welt”.

And that reaction, rather than Baconi’s outrageous statements, or indeed the conference itself, seems to have become a main topic in the media and public discussions following the event. The left-wing Israel portal +972 published an edited version of Baconi’s remarks with the following comment: “The day after delivering the speech, two fellow speakers, Jan Grabowski and Konstanty Gebert, publicly read a joint statement that misrepresented Baconi’s talk and condemned his very presence at the conference. In the days that followed, Grabowski continued to denounce Baconi in the right-leaning German newspaper Die Welt.” Needless to say, no proof of the alleged distortion was provided, nor was our statement quoted, which made readers of +972 unaware that we had denounced Mr Baconi’s presentation, not his presence.

The piece was republished in other left-wing portals, including one called “Shoah. The Palestinian Holocaust”. Another author, Rivkah Brown, also accused us, and also without evidence, of “mischaracterizing” Baconi’s arguments, and claimed that we suggested “that Baconi get his own damn conference”. She also alleged that, by speaking one day after Baconi, we “gave Baconi no chance to defend himself”.

Finally, she informs of an initiative by a participant, +972 editor Haggai Matar, to have a group photo “in solidarity with Palestinians and anti-apartheid activists facing German state repression”. “ “Silencing Palestinians is NOT fighting anti-semitism,” Matar said in his invitation to conference attendees. The Polish speakers clearly didn’t get the memo” Brown concludes. Needless to say, we did not suggest that Baconi “get his conference”, and the delay in answering him was due to the fact that one of us is religious and could not use the mike on Shabbat, the day Baconi spoke. And obviously we did not get the memo, probably because it was not sent to us.

Similarly, the editor of the American Jewish left-wing portal Joshua Leifer wrote: “After Palestinian scholar Tareq Baconi argued in a speech that European Holocaust guilt must not be used as a pretext to deny Palestinians freedom and equality, Polish historian Jan Grabowski and journalist Konstanty Gebert denounced Baconi from the conference stage and then in the German press, accusing him of antisemitism.” Needless to say, we made no such accusation, nor did Leifer address the accusations we had in fact made. It would seem there is not much hope for a reasonable debate of the issue on the left. It is also a convincing argument, as we hinted in the opening part of this text, in favor of organizing another conference which this time would look at the issue of the Left abusing the memory of the Shoah.

The lack of willingness to engage in an open debate extends from left to center to right. In a presentation to the Cultural Committee of the Bundestag, dealing mainly with the documenta Kassel scandal which had erupted just after the conference, Daniel Botmann had said, in the name of the Central Council of Jews in Germany: “As recently as June 2022, the “Hijacking Memory” conference took place at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. It was a massive attempt to shift the German discourse of remembrance about the Shoah, and similar to the documenta, representatives of postcolonial positions were also particularly active there in ridiculing the fears and anxieties of Jews living in Germany.” This is nonsense: no “postcolonial positions” were presented, no attempt to “shift the discourse about the Shoah” was made, nor were Jewish fears ridiculed.

In the follow-up discussion, Mr Botmann added that “The “Hijacking memory” conference conveyed extremely problematic and anti-Semitic content, tantamount to the relativization of the Shoah” and concluded, having earlier listed the conference organizers: “We also do not have to accept that BDS promoters run cultural institutions, and this self-purging process is very important”. Again: no antisemitic contents was expressed and the Shoah was not relativized. Nor can the organizers be held responsible for one unacceptable presentation.

To be responsible, they would have needed to read and approve it in advance. But such a procedure would have been censorship, and we would not have accepted submitting our own presentations to it. Needless to say, none of the organizers expressed sympathy for BDS, let alone promoted it. Such insinuations are unacceptable, just as are appeals for “self-purging”, redolent of a past we had hoped remains buried.

Mal nommer les choses, c’est ajouter aux malheurs du monde, Albert Camus once wrote. The conference was largely successful in naming things well; why can’t its critics?

Jan Grabowski
Konstanty Gebert


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