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Mahmoud Abbas Highlights a German Problem

avatar by Ben Cohen / JNS.org

Opinion

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks at a joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Photo: Reuters/Lisi Niesner

JNS.orgIn tabled rankings of international donors to the Palestinians, Germany consistently features among the top five nations. According to the foreign ministry in Berlin, since the 1980s, Germany has donated $1.3 billion to Palestinian humanitarian development and institution-building. In 2020 alone, Germany provided nearly $200 million to the Palestinian Authority, the bulk of which was earmarked for what is rather vaguely called “transitional development assistance.” Germany also provides additional funding through the European Union, as well as its direct grant to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), the U.N. refugee agency solely dedicated to the Palestinians; a further $180 million was contributed to UNRWA in 2020, making Germany the agency’s single largest donor in that year.

Yet that old chestnut about money buying influence as surely as ice melts into water doesn’t apply in this case. Arguably, the reverse is true; the behavior of Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas in Germany last week suggests that the Palestinian leadership believes the funds will continue to flow irrespective of whether they listen to German perspectives and advice.

At a joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz last Tuesday, Abbas was asked whether he had an apology for the families of the Israeli athletes murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Olympics 50 years ago. Crumpling his facial expression into his familiar scowl, Abbas snapped back that if the goal was to rake over the past, we should all remember that “from 1947 to the present day, Israel has committed 50 massacres in Palestinian villages and cities, in Deir Yassin, Tantura, Kafr Qasim and many others, 50 massacres, 50 Holocausts.”

As several German politicians commented afterwards, this was the most insulting trivialization of the Nazi Holocaust ever uttered in the office of the chancellor, so it was perhaps fitting that the speaker was Abbas. In the early 1980s, Abbas was awarded a doctorate by a Soviet university for a thesis that both minimized the scale of the Nazi extermination program and blamed “Zionists” for those atrocities that were acknowledged. Had Abbas written something similar in Germany, he could have faced quite severe penalties under German law, which frowns on Holocaust denial and takes a dim view of those who exploit the Holocaust for propaganda purposes (as was the case with the COVID-19 conspiracy theorists at the height of the pandemic.) Unfortunately, as far as the Germans and everyone else are concerned, Abbas’s status as the leader of the P.A. outweighs his record as a purveyor of monstrous lies.

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The dilemma that these two sides of Abbas poses for those foreign leaders who engage him was captured perfectly by Scholz. As many German media outlets observed, Scholz did not contradict Abbas at the podium and even shook hands with him at the close of the press conference. At the same time, Scholz looked visibly angry with Abbas, and later on, reportedly berated his staff for ending the press conference before he’d had an opportunity to respond. One day later, smarting from the media criticism, he labeled Abbas’s comments “disgusting” and apologized during a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

But sniping at Abbas after giving him a pass in front of the world’s press is not what a principled leader should do. If Scholz really is kicking himself for not junking protocol, grabbing the microphone and telling Abbas to his face that his words were “disgusting,” then that is mildly encouraging, but it doesn’t change the fact that the press conference was a colossal failure for Germany as a whole—and not just for Scholz alone.

If Scholz wants to repair the reputational damage wrought by Abbas, he needs to make the fight against antisemitism a personal priority. Simply put, antisemitism is rife these days in Germany. In 2021, more than 3,000 antisemitic hate crimes were recorded—likely just the tip of the iceberg even though the community numbers fewer than 120,000 souls to begin with. An official report last year noted that the “demonstrations and riots that took place against the background of the escalation in the Middle East conflict in the spring of 2021 demonstrated how antisemitism is currently and directly manifesting itself in Germany.”

The source of the problem is not just the Middle East conflict or the presence of radicals among Germany’s Muslim minorities. There is also a disturbing threat from the far-right, as Josef Schuster, the head of the German Jewish community, pointed out in July. And most disquietingly of all, according to one seasoned observer, there is a general indifference to, as well as ignorance and indulgence of, antisemitic conspiracy theories in German society more broadly.

Last week, Julia Alfandari, the educational director of the Anne Frank Educational Institute in Frankfurt, told a German newspaper that antisemitism was “anchored” within the German middle class. She should know; for the last several weeks, Alfandari has been monitoring the Documenta-15 festival of contemporary art in the city of Kassel—an event that has been consumed by successive scandals involving antisemitic artworks, with the most recent outrage involving a triptych produced by an Indonesian artists collective that features a caricature with a long nose and a kipah who eagerly proffers bags of money to a group of onlookers.

“If educated citizens come to our stand and express crude antisemitic conspiracy theories as a matter of course, then that must alarm us all,” she remarked. While the antisemitism at Documenta has been panned in the media and by politicians, including Scholz himself, the federally funded festival has faced no meaningful sanctions and remains scheduled to run for its full 100 days as normal. But is that really surprising, when Germany is also a country where a 17-year-old antisemitic assailant who nearly blinded an elderly Jewish man attending a rally in support of Israel receives a short, non-custodial sentence based around community service, as happened last week?

Sure, German politicians are almost as quick as their American counterparts to condemn manifestations of antisemitism, and the government has appointed officials at both federal and state levels to counter the problem of rising Jew-hatred. The glaring problem, however, is that German rejection of antisemitism largely consists of official rhetoric. The country’s police officers are slow to register such incidents and even slower when it comes to pursuing the offenders. Its courts will readily and eloquently condemn those convicted of antisemitism, and then hand down sentences that are so light that they make the original crime seem trifling. And increasingly, as Alfandari has indicated, its citizens are either tired of hearing about antisemitism or open to exploring its claims.

Germany cannot claim to be the guardian of the integrity of the Holocaust and then allow diplomatic protocol to shield a Holocaust denier like Abbas. In the same vein, German politicians can no longer be allowed to present yet more Holocaust memorials or emotional speeches embracing Jews as a substitute for grappling with a major social problem. What is needed are actions. Germany should condition funding to the Palestinians upon a commitment—from Abbas downwards—to refrain from Holocaust abuse and to end antisemitic incitement. It should cancel federal funds for the Documenta festival pending an investigation into the shameful episodes of anti-Jewish propaganda at this year’s edition. And it needs to toughen up the response of the police and the judiciary to antisemitic crimes, first of all by recognizing that there are prices far more exacting than a few months of community service.

If that can’t happen, then at least save us from the empathy-drenched speeches that sound more and more hollow at every instance.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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