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Shir Hever talks about the Göttingen Peace Prize and how it transformed the debate around Palestinian rights in Germany, despite efforts by right-wing politicians to prevent the prize from being given to Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East

Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you with us once again.

The Gottingen Peace Prize in Germany is not something that normally makes headlines, even in Germany where the prize is awarded. This year, however, newspapers, radio stations, and television stations across Germany have covered it with intensity. Why? Because the prize was awarded to a group called Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East. The prize is given in the name of the journalist Roland Rohl, who passed away in 1997. The Jewish Voice members are German Jews, many of whom are descendants from families of Holocaust survivors and Israelis who have moved to Germany.

When the announcement of the award came, the attacks soon followed, first from the Central Committee of the Jews in Germany, then from the mayor of Gottingen itself and the president of the university of that name that awards the prize, and the local bank. They accused Jewish Voice of supporting the BDS movement, demanding that the prize not be awarded to them. In protest, support was withdrawn from the foundation, along with funding for the prize and even not allowing the hall to be used for the awards ceremony. Despite all this and the pressure, the jury unanimously decided to award the prize last Saturday.

Supporters from all over Germany donated 28,000 euros to show their support for Jewish voice, and 450 people came from all over the country to attend the ceremony. The chairwoman of Jewish Voice, Iris Hefets, explained in her speech at the ceremony the political reason why Germany’s far right cannot tolerate the idea of Jews who are in solidarity with Palestinian rights. There lies the story, and here lies what she said.

Here with us to discuss both the far right in Germany and the prize for the Jewish Voice is Shir Hever, who is a board member of Jewish Voice, as well as being a correspondent here at The Real News Network, living in Heidelberg, Germany. His most recent book is Privatization of Israeli Security. And Shir, welcome back. Good to have you with us.

SHIR HEVER: Thanks for having me.

MARC STEINER: So this is a complex kind of subject, like this always is. Let’s first talk about Josef Schuster, who is from the Central Committee of the Jews of Germany, and accused everyone involved with the Jewish Voice for Peace of being anti-Semitic. He also expressed, however, that he was against the far right Alternative for Germany, which we can talk about. And you also claimed that he is much closer to the party than he admits. What do you mean by that, and what is that all about?

SHIR HEVER: The Alternative for Germany is a new political party in Germany which is from the most extreme right wing, and making statements that were considered completely taboo in Germany up to two years ago. It’s a party which was created mainly against refugees, and it is a very Islamophobic and xenophobic party, although it claims to be pro-Israel and has nothing against Jews. But of course, some members of that party made statements about the Second World War and about the Holocaust, which are very chilling to any Jewish person who hears them.

Josef Schuster has spoken against that party two times, but he has also made statements, for example, he said that anti-Semitism has been imported into Germany in 2015 by refugees from Syria. And is a very Islamophobic statement, but in addition to that, it’s also a statement that denies the anti-Semitism that existed in Germany in the last decades. He just glosses over the murders of Jews by neo-Nazis and the kind of underground culture.

MARC STEINER: He called it a speck of pigeon poop if I remember correctly. Is that right? Or chicken poop?

SHIR HEVER: Yeah, calling those twelve years in which the Nazi party was in power a pigeon poop on the face of history, which is not exactly praising the Nazi party, but it is erasing the importance of that time and the significance of that in shaping the German society until today, and of course the fact that it didn’t quite end so abruptly as people think, but there are still far right people in Germany and still a lot of racism and a lot of hatred. So I think it’s no surprise when this party, Alternative for Germany, is quoting from Josef Schuster and taking his position and saying, well, we’re not anti-Semites because even a Jewish person made those statements, and we just hate Muslims, but we don’t hate Jews. But of course, this is a very Christian party, and Jews will come next after this party manages to get rid of the Muslims.

I just want to make one point about the way that Josef Schuster handled himself in this particular scandal, because what he did, he acted behind the scenes in order to put pressure on various organizations, to try to get them to boycott the Jewish Voice for a Just Peace. And he did that by basically making them choose between two options; either you choose a Jewish group which is supporting the rights of Jewish people and also Palestinian people, or you support a Jewish group that supports the State of Israel.

And Ilhan Omar, the U.S. congresswoman, just got in trouble for mentioning that the pro-Israel lobby is calling on Americans, not necessarily Jewish Americans, to be loyal to a foreign state. But what Josef Schuster is saying, if you don’t want to be called an anti-Semite, you have to be loyal to a foreign state instead of supporting the Jews who live in Germany. And I think that’s a very serious problem. But for right wing parties like Alternative for Germany, this is a present that’s wonderful for them, because they’re very happy to support Israel. In fact, they call themselves the most pro-Israel party in Germany, and they would like nothing more than to see the German Jews leave and go Israel.

MARC STEINER: So a couple of things. And by the way, I haven’t said congratulations to you with the Jewish Voice for getting the prize. But there are a couple of things here. First, describe very quickly, there was a couple of groups mentioned in the remarks by your chairwoman in the Jewish Voice, Pegida and Legida and the alligator and the Alt Germany party. So who are the first two groups? And it seems to me, the fastest rising political group in Germany may be this alt-right group, this very right wing group that won, what was it, twenty percent of the vote if I’m correct, and is the major opposition of the German parliament. So Shir, you won the prize, but how does all this fit into that part of general politics and who are these groups?

SHIR HEVER: Yeah. Well, Legida and Pagida were sort of the initial groups that later grew into the Alternative for Germany. They started in Dresden and then in Leipzig, in Legida the “L” is for Leipzif. And these were just anti-immigration groups calling foreigners out, and later, they sort of formed into the party, Alternative for Germany. And these groups are–the kind of language that they use scares a lot of people in Germany because it’s reminiscent of the Nazi era. But I have to say that if we’re really honest, there are right wing, xenophobic groups like this in almost every country. It is the political traditions in Germany to be very careful about racism that made groups such relatively marginal until the rise of Pegida, Legida, and now the Alternative for Germany.

They still don’t have twenty percent, they’re between twelve and seventeen percent depending on the state. Germany has sixteen states. But so far, the other political parties said that they will never form a coalition with them. But at some point, if it continues to grow, then they won’t have a choice.

MARC STEINER: Do you think they’re going to grow? I mean, there’s a potential for this party actually to grow?

SHIR HEVER: I think, just like the alt-right movement in the U.S. and elsewhere, there is a potential of growth, because a lot of people feel like they are being liberated by this sort of right wing language. And when people like Steve Bannon come to Europe and say that the liberal elite is not allowing us to express our opinions, then they feel like supporting such a far right party is something that is an anti-institutional statement and a way for them to express their freedom of opinion. And that is, of course, very scary. And I think it’s also part of a reaction to the very conservative political tradition in Germany.

But on the other hand, the flow of refugees to Germany is slowing down a lot and the civil war in Syria is winding down. So there is also cause for hope that these right wing parties, their main issue and their main topic is no longer as burning. And because the refugees who have arrived in Germany are becoming very useful to the German economy and they are increasing economic growth, then the argument that they should all be kicked out is not as attractive to Germans as it was two years ago.

MARC STEINER: So The Real News, and also my own work, have been covering the debate around anti-Semitism a lot, and how the critique of the Israeli occupation is framed often as anti-Semitic, and kind of the right wing approach for the groups here in the U.S. and U.K., Germany, all over the place. So what makes the attacks on the Jewish Voice in Germany so different from the attacks, let’s say, on Congresswoman Ilhan Omar or Jeremy Corbyn, how they’re related? Because the reality is there is this rise in anti-Semitism in the world, there is a right wing government in Israel, and all those things are playing into kind of a weird, sad dance together. So I mean, how you relate all this together?

SHIR HEVER: Well, unfortunately, within the German political discourse, there’s very little knowledge on what’s actually happening in Israel-Palestine. In the U.S. or in the U.K., when you have these debates, people bring evidence and say, “Well, Netanyahu said this and denounced that,” and they discuss it. But in Germany, people just don’t know. Germans are not even aware that Netanyahu made a statement that is illegal in Germany, if somebody says that in Germany they could be arrested. He said that the genocide against Jews in the Holocaust was not the idea of Adolf Hitler, but actually came from a Palestinian. And that is nothing short of Holocaust denial. So in the German context, that would be illegal, but few people are even aware of it. It’s because the idea of anti-Semitism and the fight against anti-Semitism has become a part of German identity that is completely disconnected from what’s happening in Israel-Palestine.

And what I think, for me, is always very shocking in the German discourse is how easy it is for German institutions to accept, and even to promote, a reality in which Christians decide for Jews whether the Jews are anti-Semites or not. The mayor of Gottingen, who said, “I’m not going to allow the Jewish Voice for Peace to receive any prize in in any state-owned building,” then came to us and said, “Oh, you know that my father was in the SS, and that’s why I have to boycott you.” And I think that’s a very weird kind of logic, that he thinks that anti-Semitism belongs to him, the Holocaust is his thing, the Jewish victims are just incidental characters in that story.

And in fact, there are German organizations, including a special like czar for the fight against anti-Semitism, who not Jews and know very little about Judaism and know very little about Israel-Palestine. But they decide who is anti-Semitic and who is not. And they very much like to say that anyone who supports BDS is anti-Semitic, and then anyone who is a friend of anyone who supports BDS is anti-Semitic, or anyone who’s a family member of somebody who supports BDS is anti-Semitic. And they use this kind of guilt by association in order to get as many people as possible to count as anti-Semites, including a lot of the German Jews, while feeling that their own conscience can be clear because that’s how they are fighting anti-Semitism.

MARC STEINER: So let me conclude very quickly with this, because it’s a very difficult subject, it seems to me, in Germany, obviously with Germany being the place that created the Holocaust. And Germans are very sensitive to this issue. I mean, so it does play a huge role in schools, in German culture, as you just said, as you described. So I’m curious, when you have a group like yours, Jewish Voice, how you address that, how you break through that very difficult clutter. Because it’s very real and people do feel this thing about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in Germany because of what happened. So I mean, six million Jews killed, five million others dead in the concentration camps, fifty million killed in World War II. So it’s a very difficult issue to parse. How do you begin to do that, as Jewish Voice?

SHIR HEVER: We were founded as an organization first in 2003, but officially registered in 2007, as an organization to support Palestinian rights, and to support equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians and a just peace. And we didn’t really think that most of our work is going to be about German society, and we were very wrong about that. Because there is now a situation in Germany in which speaking out for equal rights of people is considered an anti-Semitic act and the Holocaust has been manipulated and instrumentalized by right wing groups. Even right wing Jewish groups, pro-Israeli Jewish groups, voted to protect the state of Israel in the interest of the Israeli government at the expense of the memory of the victims of the Holocaust.

So we find ourselves, even though we’re an organisation for a just peace in the Middle East, dealing a lot with German Jews who are being attacked for their opinions. So in Germany, people are allowed to have a lot of different opinions. It’s a somewhat liberal country, more or less like the United States, and there are a lot of people from Turkey who can criticize the Turkish government, a lot of people from Greece who can criticize the Greek government, but people from Israel are not allowed to criticize the Israeli government. And so, we as an organization have to fight in order to do that. And we believe that the only way to protect the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, and more important than that, to protect people who live today from persecution and from racism, is to make a universal statement that it’s not just that we have to say never again for the Jews, but never again for anyone.

MARC STEINER: Shir Hever, it’s always a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much. Once again, congratulations to you and the Jewish Voice in Germany for getting the Gottingam Peace Price. I appreciate your thoughts and always talking with you. Thank you so much.

SHIR HEVER: Thank you very much, Marc.

MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner, here for The Real News Network. Thank you so much for being with us. Take care.

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Dr. Shir Hever grew up in Israel and now lives in Germany. He has been reporting on Israel/Palestine stories for 16 years, and for the Real News specifically since 2016. He’s the author of two books and many articles, and is a committed member of several Palestine solidarity groups.