Lord Acton's famous phrase about the corrupting effect of power (and absolute power) should have come with a footnote about the "clinging" factor. On any given day, it isn't hard to find someone in charge, somewhere in the world, using all their wits and energy to hold onto power beyond any reasonable claim to be doing so for the greater good of the nation, business or other realm supposedly being served.
Robert Mugabe is currently in the final throes of his decades-long iron grip on power in the southern African nation of Zimbabwe. A slow-motion military coup that began last week (which the generals continue to deny is a coup) is up against a 93-year-old dictator with nine lives, at least.
Observers were expecting Mugabe's address to the nation Sunday to include a declaration that he was signing away power. Well, guess what? The fear is that when such a power cling is up against a power play, the country is bound to pay in blood. Sudanese billionaire Mo Ibrahim recognized how important it was for African rulers to learn to voluntarily give up power — so much so that he set up a prize whose central purpose was to honor (and pay) national leaders to step aside.
Across the South Atlantic, another continent has seen its share of autocratic power-clingers. To its credit, South America has largely opted for bona fide democratic systems over the past two decades, following years of dictatorships across the region. Several countries have even included constitutional provisions against power-clinging, prohibiting a president from serving consecutive terms. In Chile, as a next-best alternative, we've seen recent presidents step aside for the obligatory term out of office ... only to return to run again in the next election.
After the first round of voting on Sunday, Sebastian Piñera, who was Chile's president from 2010 to 2014, won the first round ahead of a runoff next month to move back into his old office. He would replace Michelle Bachelet, who herself returned to the presidency after Piñera served his first term. It may seem like an odd form of democracy, but musical chairs always beats clinging to your seat.
At the same time, we are witnessing another political drama playing out in Germany: Chancellor Angela Merkel announced early Monday that negotiations had broken down in her attempt to form a coalition government with two other parties.
"We are standing here, disappointed and concerned / We've closed the curtains and opened all questions From Bertolt Brecht's "The Good Person of Szechwan" — German daily Die Tageszeitung"s Nov. 20 front page
This comes nearly two months after Merkel came out atop national elections, and looked to be headed to a fourth term as the leader of Germany's government, which has no term limits for the position. Will Merkel opt for new elections? If she does, will she stand as her party's candidate? Or will she instead choose to remain as chancellor even without a parliamentary majority? To cling or not to cling …
A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.
BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.
Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.
The incident at the cemetery
They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."
There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.
It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.
The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.
The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender
Crimes against Jews are rising
Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.
Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.
Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.
And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?
Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously
This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.
That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.
Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.
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