antisemitism

Germany’s Ambassador to Israel Steffen Seibert has been accused of being a Nazi on social media for his comments on Israel by both friends and foes of the Jewish state.

“I get called a Nazi [by] pro-Palestinians… not all of them, but some of them… because I stand with Israel on some very principled questions,” Seibert said as he spoke with The Jerusalem Post in his Tel Aviv office about the antisemitism and vitriolic debate that has surrounded the Israel-Hamas war.

Standing with Israel as a German 

“I also get called a Nazi” by some people “on the Israeli side, when I criticize, as I think I must, the terrible extremist settler violence” against innocent Palestinians, he said.

antisemitism
antisemitism

“Then very, very quickly” someone comments, “well, he, as a German, has to talk.” Then “five seconds later, someone will use the word Nazi.”

It’s a barb that particularly hits home for Seibert given the complex history of the two peoples and nations, re-forging a new relationship in the aftermath of the Holocaust that speaks to the power of memory and forgiveness.

An Israeli flag flutters next to a German and a EU flag, one day after Hamas’ attacks on Israel, outside the Reichstag building in Berlin, Germany, October 8, 2023. (credit: REUTERS/Liesa Johannssen)

“When you’re the German ambassador, you’re reminded every day that you’re not the Finnish or the Mexican ambassador and that there is a history behind you,” he said.

The tall, dynamic envoy so loves Israel and the Jewish people that he has taken time to study Hebrew with a tutor.

”I could do my daily work as an ambassador without Hebrew, but I would miss much. It opens the doors to a very Israeli and Jewish way of thinking.

antisemitism
antisemitism

“You start thinking about a word and that takes you 3,000 years back in some cases,” exposing layers of Jewish thought and tradition, explained Seibert.

He has an unusual history for a diplomat, arriving in Israel in 2022 after working for 21 years as a television journalist and then for another decade as the spokesperson for former German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Typically, he said, “98% of our ambassadors are from within the diplomatic services.”

So he was glad an exception was made in his case, he said, and even more appreciative to have been sent to Israel.

“In the whole diplomatic service of Germany,” Seibert said, there “is no more challenging, and no more rewarding post than this.”

Then came the invasion of Hamas, in October, in which Germany stood shoulder to shoulder with Israel.

“I represent a new kind of Germany that has learned the lesson [of the Holocaust]. And this is very important to me.”

Seibert recalled how Merkel in addressing the Knesset in 2008 said that every “chancellor before me has shouldered Germany’s special historical responsibility for Israel’s security. This historical responsibility is part of my country’s raison d’etre” and can never be “open to negotiation.”

“I think that October 7 was a moment to show that this is true, and not just a sentence in a speech,” Seibert explained.

He arrived in Israel at a dramatic moment for the country, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government first attempted to push through judicial reform, which he opposed. 

Germany, however, has been one of the countries that has stood strongly with Israel, in the aftermath of the October 7 Hamas invasion of the country, in which over 1,200 people were killed and another 253 were seized as hostages.

Seibert recalled how he was woken up early on October 7 by warning sirens on what was “supposed to be a lazy day” for the German ambassador given that it was both the Sabbath and the Jewish holiday of Simhat Torah. 

He sat in the safe room in his apartment, watching shocking videos and photographs on social media.

There were these horrible pictures of terrorists on a pickup truck driving through the streets of Sderot, filmed by people who were scared, terrified inside their apartments,” he said.

Initially, he thought the IDF would quickly stem the attack, but the reality of its extent dawned slowly. 

“There were more and more reports, and they became more horrifying by the minute,” including photographs of terrorists landing in Israel on para-gliders.

“Piece by piece the story became more and more horrifying. You did have the impression very early on that something was happening, unlike anything that anyone had seen before” or “thought possible” or that the country “was prepared for,” Seibert said.

It was clear, he said, that October 7 would “deeply change Israel and the region.”

Since the attack, he has visited the communities that were destroyed by Hamas and whose citizens have not yet been able to return, including Kibbutz Be’eri. 

“I walked through the streets and past the burnt-down houses that still show the scars of what happened,” he said, adding that he felt chills as he stood there.

These communities, he said, had been described to him as a kind of paradise on earth. “I hope that one day, that’s what it’s gonna be again,” he said.

To show its solidarity with them, Seibert said, Germany has committed to funding the reconstruction of the gallery building in Kibbutz Be’eri.

Berlin has held a strong line on supporting Israel’s right to self-defense and its goals of defeating Hamas, while at the same time joining those who have called on the Jewish state to do more to protect Palestinian civilians in Gaza and ensure humanitarian aid.

Along with Israel’s other allies, such as the US and Great Britain, it has been concerned with the high fatality count, as Hamas has reported a death toll of over 33,000, and UN officials have warned of a pending famine.

The growing international backlash against the war has sparked harsh pro-Palestinian street protests against Israel around the globe, including calls for its destruction.

Germany, much like Seibert himself, has been particularly sensitive to the nuances between support for the Palestinians in Gaza and antisemitism against Israel.

The antisemitism laced into Hamas’s October 7 attack has been clear from the start, Seibert said.

It was particularly evident to him as he heard the recording in which a Palestinian terrorist phoned his parents on October 7 to boast of killing Jews with his own hands, while his mother lauded his actions.

“How much more obvious can vicious antisemitism be?” Seibert said.

“There is no fine line there. This was antisemitic,” and given Hamas’s stated goal of wanting to destroy Israel, “there are not two ways of thinking about what Hamas did on the 7th.”

But just as surprising as the attack itself, he said, has been the resurgence of antisemitism in its wake.

“I knew that antisemitism exists. We’ve never been able to fully eradicate it. Not in Germany, not anywhere else. 

“I did not expect so much of it to still be out there and so easily awakened,” he said.

“There are ancient tropes of antisemitism that are being raised again,” Seibert explained, such as claims that Jews control governments, finance, and the media.

Among the litmus tests of what qualifies as antisemitism in the discussion of Israel, he said, are those who call for Israel’s demise.

“When I hear people say, ‘from the river to the sea, I’m not so naïve to believe that what they really want to say is, ‘let’s have a good life,’” he said.

“In 90% of the cases, it means, you know, get rid of the Jewish state, get rid of Israel,” Seibert stated.

“To me it is unacceptable. Israel is a fully justified internationally acknowledged state member of the UN. 

“Everybody knows or should know, the story of the history of centuries and centuries of persecution and discrimination. 

“And as Germans, we’ve added a chapter that can never be forgotten,” Seibert said.

“It was clear before and it has become more clear on October 7, that Hamas can not claim to speak for the Palestinian people or for [Palestinian] political aspirations to have their own state next to Israel,” he said.

Hamas long ago chose the path of violence and hatred, as demonstrated by October 7, Seibert stated, adding that it is necessary to differentiate between Hamas and the Palestinian people, he said.

“I draw the line wherever anybody sympathizes with the crimes of October 7 or tries to legitimize them, or in any other way shows empathy towards them” as an acceptable act in support of a political gain. 

“No cause on earth, certainly not the very justified cause of Palestinian sovereignty, can be achieved by murdering children in front of their parents or murdering parents in front of their children,” he said.

Support for Palestinian self-determination and statehood can coincide with support for the Jewish state of Israel, he said.

“My personal but more importantly, my country’s position is very strongly” in support of Israel’s right to exist and its security, he said.Germany also strongly backs the “right of the Palestinians to live in a dignified way in their sovereign state.”

These aren’t contradictions, they are strongly connected,” he said.“Both peoples… have a story of suffering to tell, “ he said.

“It would be good if they could look at each other and say, you tell me your story, I’ll tell you mine.”

Both narratives have a right to be told, he said.

“But so many people don’t know the complexities” of the situation and that makes them look at the present situation here in the country and in the region in such a woodcut black and white way,” he said.

“We are so committed to the security of Israel as Germans. And that leads us to ask questions that go beyond .. this war with Hamas.

“That leads us to say, what could be a long-term security for this country?

“Maybe that is why our commitment to a new Middle East is so strong, where Palestinians, in their state, and Israelis in their own state, live together side by side, with security guarantees. Of course, there must be no threat to the State of Israel anymore,” he said.



 





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