Controversy over Israel and anti-Semitism embroils German left

BERLIN – Heated debate that had been tearing at this country’s Left Party seems to have abated after June 28, when its Bundestag members modified a controversial position on Israel.

Since its formation in 2007, the party has been under attack from all four other major German parties. But nasty charges of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel policies recently rose to a crescendo, when few minor, controversial incidents, one of them undoubtedly the work of a German Internet version of Andrew Breitbart, were employed in an attempt to again disparage and disqualify the party.

After a raucous, day-long attack in the Bundestag June 7 by the other parties, with only a very brief chance to respond, the Left caucus, reacting to the pressure, approved a resolution condemning any calls for a one-state solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict, rejecting all participation in the boycott of Israeli products currently promoted in various countries (including one variant boycotting only products made in the West Bank settlements but wrongly labeled “Made in Israel”) and disapproving the flotilla currently moving to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. The resolution also obligated party delegates in the Bundestag and their staff to conform to these decisions.

This created a storm of controversy within the party. Two Bundestag members had taken part in last year’s flotilla, one local leader had approved the boycott and another group had rejected total condemnation of it, though stating that such a campaign was wrong in Germany due to its Nazi past.

Some were angered most by the demand for conformity, which was seen as a gag rule and therefore contrary to party practice.

There was also opposition, often angry, from groups outside the party who support Palestinian independence and civil rights or demand equal treatment of both sides, among them the pacifist Catholic organization Pax Christi and a group of over 100 Israeli opponents of Netanyahu policies.

The caucus held another meeting June 28, this time with 62 of the 76 members present and voting (the previous decision, though announced as unanimous, was attended by only about two thirds of the caucus, and fourteen members agreed to leave before the count so there would be no negative votes).

This meeting’s resolution, “Criticism of Israeli Government Policy Is Not Anti-Semitism,” stated that the delegates from the Left Party could and would indeed criticize Israeli policies toward Palestinians “whenever this is necessary because of their violation of international law and human rights.”

It was deemed unacceptable for criticism of this kind to be denigrated as anti-Semitism. “We will not accept public denunciation of members of our delegation and our party as anti-Semites when they criticize such policies of the Israeli government.”

Gregor Gysi, chair of the caucus, stressed in a press conference that the Left is not anti-Semitic, but “anti-fascist to the core” and criticized the “inflationary use of the term anti-Semitism” in connection with the struggle against it. Others, including a lone Green delegate, recalled the very large number of former Nazis in the present coalition parties.

Of the 62 delegates present at the meeting, 45 voted for the new resolution, six opposed it and eleven abstained, some because they wanted a more precise definition of what was meant by “anti-Semitic criticism” and others because they wanted the party to engage in a longer period of discussion before passing any resolution.

Some of those opposing the resolution called for explicit support of Israel’s right of exist. Party co-chair Gesine Loetzsch responded that this had long been the clear position of the party – but should certainly be adopted officially during the debate on the party program in October.

Aside from this statement, The Left has also introduced a resolution for debate in the Bundestag calling for both sides in the Israeli-Palestine conflict to refrain from violence, for Hamas to recognize Israel’s right to existence, for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and East Jerusalem and for both sides to come to a peaceful agreement, and for Germany to join well over a hundred other countries in plans to recognize an independent Palestinian state if it is declared in the autumn.

It can hardly be expected that this will get many votes aside from those in the Left Party, or even be permitted to come up for debate and a vote.

Of course the controversy within the party, though now on a different level, has not been ended by any means. But many grassroots members and groups have demanded that the party come to some agreement on this issue and move on actively to matters of more immediate interest to the German people, especially in view of the important state elections due in September in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania and, most critically, in the city-state of Berlin.

Photo: A recent Left Party meeting, via the organization’s website.


Victor Grossman
Victor Grossman

Victor Grossman is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He fled the U.S. in the 1950s in danger of reprisals for his left-wing activities at Harvard and in Buffalo, New York. He landed in the former German Democratic Republic (Socialist East Germany), studied journalism, founded a Paul Robeson Archive and became a freelance journalist and author. One of his books is available in English: "Crossing the River. A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany" (2003, University of Massachusetts Press).