On anti-Semitism, boycotts, and the case of Hermann Dierkes

An open letter from Jewish peace activists in late March:

We are peace activists of Jewish background. Some of us typically identify in this way; others of us do not. But we all object to those who claim to speak for all Jews or who use charges of anti-Semitism to attempt to squelch legitimate dissent.

We have learned with dismay the allegations regarding Hermann Dierkes, a trade unionist and leader of the Left Party (DIE LINKE) in the German city of Duisburg. Dierkes, in response to the recent Israeli assault on Gaza expressed the view that one way people could help Palestinians obtain justice would be to support the call of the World Social Forum to boycott Israeli goods, so as to put pressure on the Israeli government.

Dierkes has been subjected to widespread and vitriolic denunciations for anti-Semitism, and accused of calling for a repeat of the Nazi policy of the 1930s of boycotting Jewish products. Dierkes responded that “The demands of the World Social Forum have nothing in common with Nazi-type racist campaigns against Jews, but aim at changing the Israeli government’s policy of oppression of the Palestinians.”

No one has made any claims of anti-Semitism against Dierkes for anything other than his support of the boycott. Yet he has been accused of “pure anti-Semitism” (Dieter Graumann the Vice-President of the Central Jewish Council), of uttering words comparable to “a mass execution at the edge of a Ukrainian forest” (Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung editorialist Achim Beer), and of expressing “Nazi propaganda” (Hendrik Wuest, General Secretary of the Christian Democratic Party).

We signatories have differing views on the wisdom and efficacy of calling for a boycott of Israeli goods. Some of us believe that such a boycott is an essential component of a…  campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions that can end the four-decade-long Israeli occupation; others think the better way to pressure the Israeli government is with a more selective boycott focused on institutions and corporations supporting the occupation. But all of us agree that it is essential to apply pressure against the Israeli government if peace and justice are to prevail in the Middle East and all of us agree that a call for a boycott of Israel has nothing in common with the Nazi policy of “Don’t buy from Jews.” It is no more anti-Semitic to boycott Israel to end the occupation than it was anti-white to boycott South Africa to end apartheid. Social justice movements have often called for boycotts or divestment, whether against the military regime in Burma or the government of Sudan. Wise or not, such calls are in no way discriminatory.

Violence in the Middle East has indeed led to some acts of anti-Semitism in Europe. There was a call to boycott Jewish-owned stores in Rome that was widely and appropriately condemned. We deplore such bigotry. Israel’s crimes cannot be attributed to Jews as a whole. But, at the same time, a boycott of Israel cannot be equated with a boycott of Jews as a whole.

An acute and disturbing form of racism rising in Europe today is Islamophobia and xenophobia directed at immigrants from Muslim countries. Dierkes has been a champion in defense of the rights of immigrants, while some of those who accuse all critics of Israel of being anti-Semitic often participate themselves — like the Israeli government and state — in such forms of racism.

The Holocaust was one of the most horrific events in modern history. It is a dishonor to its victims to use its memory as a bludgeon to silence principled critics of Israel’s unconscionable treatment of Palestinians.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

Site by Common