Nazi History, Muslim Immigrants, Social Media: Talking Gaza In Germany Is A Hot Mess
The debate over the war in Israel is raging on social media. In this divisive atmosphere, it is impossible to call out anti-Semitism in Muslim communities or on the right wing without being applauded by all the wrong people. What Germans are failing to acknowledge is how much the country’s own history has to do with this.
BERLIN — These are dark times. The brutal Hamas attacks on Israel have crushed all hope of recovery, peace, freedom – of a victory for light over darkness. The global focus has shifted to the threat of political Islam rather than the horrors of the war in Ukraine, although this and other crises remain very much alive. Whichever way you turn, there is another threat looming: the economic crisis, the migrant crisis, climate change, the possible return of Donald Trump. There is no end in sight.
However, since October 7, which is euphemistically being referred to in media reports as the day of "escalation" in the Middle East, there has been another form of escalation, this time around the tone of public debate in Germany. As the political boundaries are shifting, so are the limits of what is unsayable.
Admittedly, social media only represents a part of the public sphere, but nonetheless it has a profound influence on the debate. We can see this shift in all forms of online communication, which shape how we speak, what we share and what we see. The current discourse on social media reflects a wider breakdown of inhibitions and taboos, which makes it all the harder to find the one thing we need in order to have a reasoned discussion: objectivity.
In the current climate, it is impossible to talk about anti-Semitism without risking praise from all the wrong people. Anyone who reminds Germans of their country’s own history of anti-Semitism and calls out discrimination against Muslims meets with vociferous agreement from the left wing – and finds themselves lumped together with all those who deny that there is any form of imported anti-Semitism and accuse anyone of racism who highlights anti-Semitism within Muslim communities.
Historical guilt around the Holocaust still influences the dynamics of the debate in our country.
Conversely, the right wing is quick to praise anyone who argues that the atrocious anti-Semitic marches of some pro-Palestinian groups in the Neukölln district of Berlin represent a failure of integration. In this charged atmosphere, it is almost impossible to explain the difference between reasonable migration policy and unbridled xenophobia.
And under the surface of the debate is that other important factor of Germany's singular history. It goes largely unspoken, but the historical guilt around the Holocaust still influences the dynamics of the debate in our country. As a result, Germans often shy away from critical self-reflection on the country’s current situation, and the debate quickly escalates.
It is absolutely right to call out Muslim anti-Semitism for what it is. However, the zeal with which it is currently being denounced suggests that – once again – Germany is at risk of all too easily forgetting its own history. The argument goes that right-wing anti-Semitism is not the main issue today. But is that really true? The opinion polls tell a different story. Voters for the far-right Alternative for Germany party are more likely to be critical of Israel and endorse anti-Semitic views – and across recent surveys, the party’s level of support has remained stable at around 20%. That is just one indication of the persistent tradition of right-wing thought in Germany.
On November 5, 2023, Berlin witnessed a significant pro-Israel rally as hundreds convened at Wittenbergplatz.
Blaming Muslims and leftists
However, the outraged reactions on social media prefer to cling to the same old familiar bogeymen: some blame Muslims or the left, while others accuse anyone who criticizes parallel migrant societies of being “right-wing”. Although they wouldn’t acknowledge it, both responses are shaped by the enduring legacy of German guilt.
The sense of individual or collective guilt is looming once again. The remarkable self-assurance with which people are making sweeping judgements about complex issues reflects the culture of public shaming on social media. One wrong word – or even just choosing to stay silent – can be enough to make you a target of these confident accusers, who seem to have no doubts or personal failings themselves.
This is a hangover from Germany’s failure to address its past. Germans have been silent about the crimes of the Nazi period for so long that now, in an unconscious act of overcompensation, they are ready to pillory anyone who stays silent about the war in Israel and Gaza – although individuals have every right not to comment on it, as long as they are not elected officials. However, the result is that blind outrage replaces nuance and understanding.
When it's better to stay silent
It is important to ensure that Islamist terrorism is never minimized, and that people don’t attempt to excuse it by pointing to supposed “context.” When it comes to brutal murders and crimes on this scale, there is no nuance to explore.
But the question of Muslim integration in our own country is a very different matter. While it is clearly right to condemn the pro-Palestinian groups celebrating the actions of Hamas, it would be an overreaction to suspect all people of Arab heritage of anti-Semitism.
We must not avert our eyes.
The unfiltered rage and polarization of social media do nothing to help the suffering of people in Israel and Gaza. Users are sharing the most shocking videos of hatred, aggression and violence. Of course, we must not avert our eyes. We must be informed. However, sharing these images again and again on social networks has an inflammatory effect and carries a hint of voyeurism.
There is a certain ambivalence in the act of sharing these images, these rage-filled words, although these emotions are of course understandable in such a terrible time. But sometimes, yes, it is better to stay silent. The suffering of the victims is so unbearable that it can leave us speechless. Silence does not necessarily represent a lack of solidarity, but a sign of empathy and condolence amid the constant raging of social media. A moment’s silence. An acknowledgment that this is the world in which we live. That the hope of a better future seems very far away.
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