Supporting plausible acts of genocide: Red lines and the failure of German Middle Eastern Studies

Benjamin Schuetze, Arnold Bergstraesser Institute (ABI) Freiburg, Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS), Germany


Since the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling on January 26, 2024, it is official that Germany, the perpetrator of the largest genocide ever deliberately executed, is one of the primary supporters of what the principal judicial organ of the United Nation has described as plausibly amounting to genocide.[1] German support for Israel’s onslaught on Gaza stretches from an intervention in front of the ICJ; a 10-fold increase of German military exports to Israel,[2] including tank ammunition;[3] an unparalleled crackdown on pro-Palestine protests due to ‘possible antisemitism’;[4] the decision to not approve new funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza in light of unsubstantiated Israeli claims that employees had aided Hamas;[5] and the assurance of unconditional support for Israel by effectively the entire German political elite – as expressed in the unanimous parliamentary approval of a motion that assures Israel of Germany’s ‘full solidarity and any support needed’.[6]

It is hard to overestimate the scale of human suffering that Germany’s unconditional backing of Israel has enabled and caused, and continues to do. First and foremost, Germany has willingly made itself complicit in the killing of – at the time of writing – at least 31,045 Palestinians, including more than 12,300 children, in the destruction of more than half of Gaza’s homes and all of Gaza’s universities, and in the forced displacement of more than 85% of the total population of Gaza.[7] It would take four times the space of this essay to merely spell out the first names of all Palestinian children killed by the Israeli military over the past months. While German political and military support for Israel is nothing new, the audacity with which German politicians and members of the public legitimise said support with claims of moral authority, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of Israeli war crimes, and criminalize any criticism of those crimes, is new. The latter include indiscriminate attacks on civilians, deliberate starvation, looting, torturing and genocidal language.[8] Evidence for it is abundantly available for everybody to see, including via videos, tweets and testimonies by Israeli soldiers, who proudly record themselves blowing up Palestinian homes in honour of the birthdays of their loved ones, and who use tanks to deliberately run over civilians alive, mutilate dead bodies, and shoot unarmed civilians.[9]

This is remarkable because for decades Germany has celebrated itself for its culture of remembrance and its acknowledgment of responsibility for the Holocaust. However, Germany’s culture of remembrance is first and foremost about Germany itself and about desired self-understandings. German atonement for the Holocaust did not emerge from, nor does it go hand in hand with, a full and unconditional embrace of international human rights, regardless of the current government’s claims of pursuing a value-based foreign policy. The ongoing colonial amnesia and widespread ignorance vis-à-vis ‘Germany’s other genocide’ – the killing of 75,000 Herero and Nama in today’s Namibia – are a case in point.[10] Germany’s almost exclusive focus on the Holocaust has enabled blatant ignorance of German colonial crimes. Insistence on the Holocaust’s singularity or exceptionality – while emotionally understandable given its monstrous scale – is analytically problematic, as it takes the Holocaust out of ‘normal history’, separating it, as remarked by Raz Segal, from ‘the piles of bodies and destroyed cultures that European imperialism and colonialism […] had left around the world in the preceding few centuries,’[11] and ignoring the prevalence of genocidal tendencies in Germany long before 1933, as well as racist continuities that stretch until today. Also, as stated by Michael Wildt, it ‘blocks an appropriate culture of remembrance, which should be open and ‘multidirectional’.’[12]

The dominant understanding of the Holocaust is centred around the elimination of six million European Jews. This narrative sidelines and relegates to lesser importance the German mass killing of people with disabilities, LGBT people, and Soviet prisoners of war, as well as the Romani genocide (porajmos).[13] This narrow definition of the Holocaust is a crucial first step in constructing Israel, the self-proclaimed homeland of all Jews worldwide, as ‘the Holocaust’s happy ending for Germans,’ as pointedly stated by German Jewish journalist Emily Dische-Becker.[14] For German political elites, Israel appears to constitute a source of redemption. Anything that challenges this and/or Israel’s own supposed moral authority might potentially open the floodgates to the uncomfortable realisation that antisemitism, racism and genocidal tendencies have shaped and continue to shape German politics much more profoundly than merely for the twelve years of Nazi rule.

The main character in Germany’s culture of remembrance are not the victims of past German crimes, but Germany itself, and desired self-understandings that revolve around German innocence, civilisation and moral authority. These are protected at all costs. While the monstrosity of the Holocaust is clearly irreconcilable with this, the open acknowledgment of said monstrosity and the almost exclusive centring of Germany’s institutionalised culture of remembrance around it has bizarrely been turned into just another sign of Germany’s moral superiority.[15] The process of doing so requires simple answers to complex questions, such as the mentioned narrow definition of the Holocaust, the equation of Judaism with Israel, and the repression of dissenting Jewish voices, as well as various acts of silencing, open disregard and omission, such as the mentioned colonial amnesia. Together, they facilitate easily implementable political acts and rituals that supposedly provide continuous evidence of Germany’s moral superiority, in reality however merely illustrate the extent to which German society and politics is deeply German-centric and marked by structural racism.

In this context, a number of red lines have emerged. Their combined effect is the continuous upholding of images of German redemption, civilisation and moral authority, irrespective of German support for what could plausibly amount to genocide. Since the October 7 Hamas attacks, these red lines have solidified at lightning speed, and are increasingly reminiscent of authoritarian contexts. One such red line is the use of well-established academic terminology, such as ‘genocide’, ‘Nakba’, ‘settler colonialism’ and ‘apartheid’. Comparisons of ongoing Israeli violence to the war crimes committed by Nazi Germany constitute another marked red line, as illustrated by the cases of Masha Gessen and Ghassan Hage.[16] Further, observation of a Palestinian right to resist Israeli occupation, and support, but also already merely indicating understanding for the non-violent Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement can be added as a third distinct red line. A fourth one concerns the question of contextualisation. Contextualisation, which is distinctively different from legitimisation, is arguably to quite some extent what social science research fundamentally is about. German mainstream discourse, however, not only insists on framing Israel’s ongoing horrific war on Gaza within the context of Hamas’s violent assault on October 7, it effectively seeks to legitimise the former by continuously centring the latter. This becomes all the more problematic as the insistence on the need for contextualisation is deployed selectively. References to the context of decades of Israeli occupation, within which both the Hamas attacks and the ongoing war on Gaza occur(red), are thus mostly avoided.

The upholding of these red lines and the associated discursive protection of German moral authority in the face of active political and material support for Israeli war crimes draws on a number of highly disturbing intersecting dynamics. These are based on the dangerous and factually incorrect equation of Judaism with Israel, and include the externalisation of German antisemitism onto Arabs, the criminalisation of pro-Palestine activism and Palestinian identity, the normalisation of Islamophobia, and a full-scale attack on postcolonial approaches. When it comes to responding to these worrying trends, there is no beating around the bush: we must state directly that German Middle Eastern Studies as a discipline has failed. Despite better knowledge and safe job contracts (at least in the case of the not insignificant number of Germany-based professors of Islamic law, Arabic language, and history, geography, economics and politics of the Middle East and North Africa), German Middle Eastern Studies excels in acquiescence, silence and/or absence from public engagement. This is not to say that individual scholars have not publicly taken a principled stance – but the field as a whole has failed its most existential challenge.

Jannis Grimm has argued that, in Germany, showing empathy for both Israeli and Palestinian victims of political violence ‘is a tricky balancing act’, and insisted that, in light of increasingly polarising debates, ‘universities must remain places of dialogue’.[17] The November 2023 statement ‘Principles of solidarity,’ in which Nicole Deitelhoff, Rainer Forst, Klaus Günther and Jürgen Habermas expressed the narrow limits of their solidarity, by fundamentally refusing to even engage ongoing discussions among genocide scholars about whether the legal standards for genocide have been met,[18] was followed, in early December, by a much more balanced analysis by Hanna Pfeifer and Irene Weipert-Fenner.[19] Both this article and the one by Grimm are important contributions, but primarily argue in favour of a more differentiated and balanced discussion. While both articles were, in the German context, much needed interventions, the ICJ decision and the escalating death toll among Palestinians warrant more critical assessments. The arguably most powerful latest intervention by a Germany-based Middle Eastern Studies scholar dates back to summer 2023, when Muriel Asseburg, in an interview, observed that many Palestinians accuse ‘the West’ of double standards, insisted on the legitimacy of certain forms of Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation, and expressed her understanding of BDS.[20] While Asseburg immediately became the target of a defamation campaign, including accusations of antisemitism by the Israeli embassy, she, luckily, also received significant official and public backing. Whether she would have received such support after October 7 is troublingly unclear.

It is clear that public interventions that challenge the above-mentioned red lines come at a cost. Given the scale of the dynamics that we are currently bearing witness to, each and every one of us, however, must do more to resist. This counts all the more for Germany-based Middle Eastern Studies scholars and/or political scientists, including this author, but especially for those on permanent contracts. This is not to say that all of the aforementioned dynamics can easily be overturned by a discipline that is seen as exotic by the mainstream and, when compared to others, remains rather small. Still, the relative silence of Germany-based professors of Middle Eastern studies, especially politics, is deeply troubling. It testifies to a widespread tendency to remain passive, to best avoid the topic of Israel/Palestine, and to certainly not seek to proactively impact public debate by adopting what may be seen as a controversial position.

But if an ICJ decision about the plausibility of Israel committing genocide does not make a scholar publicly speak out against unconditional German support for Israel, what will? What purpose does a state-funded expert in Arabic language have, who remains stuck in the ivory tower when politicians representing that state contemplate the generic prohibition of Arabic slogans at public protests?[21] What purpose has a renowned scholar of Ottoman and/or Arab history who fails to publicly speak out against the open distortion and/or negation of simple historical facts in state-funded exhibitions?[22]What purpose have scholars working on decoloniality, who are only decolonial in funding applications, or selectively on those topics where there is no controversy to be feared? What about an expert of MENA politics, who remains silent when politicians from the biggest German political party suggest withdrawing citizenship from anti-Semites, but in doing so only mean those with dual citizenship, i.e. Arab immigrants?[23] There is no lack of expertise, there is a lack of courage to take a principled stance against the large-scale dehumanisation of Arabs and Muslims, and the ongoing mass murder of Palestinians.

Given the extent to which almost all German political parties have adopted Islamophobic and/or anti-Arab discourses,[24] public engagement by Germany-based scholars studying Islam, the Arab world, and/or postcolonial politics is not anymore an option, but a duty. Resistance must occur on a number of fronts, including defending academic freedoms much more proactively, and imparting knowledge about the Arab world to German society at large, as well as to politicians and decision-makers in particular, who far too often still lack even basic knowledge of politics in the Arab world and orientalise it. The public showing of exhibitions about the Nakba,[25] and the establishment of more school and university exchange programs with the Arab world are only some examples of what is highly needed.

A key reason behind the silence of German Middle Eastern Studies is the widespread but incorrect and dangerous equation of Israel with Judaism and, relatedly, of antizionism with antisemitism, and the concomitant levels of self-censorship when it comes to publicly discussing Israel/Palestine. The German parliament’s designation of the BDS movement as anti-Semitic and public adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism – as opposed to the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism,[26] which provides much clearer guidance to identify and fight antisemitism – have heavily restricted freedom of speech on Israel/Palestine.[27] With its heavy focus on Israel, the IHRA definition helps gradually redefine antisemitism so that Germany can now, in light of its unconditional support for Israel and in light of initiatives like Strike Germany, bizarrely portray itself as victim of antisemitism.[28] Contrary to this, the state-condoned repression of Jewish voices in solidarity with Palestine however only barely conceals the German establishment’s own antisemitism.[29]

Antisemitism is thriving in Germany. For instance, ‘Jew’ is widely used as an insult in schoolyards.[30] Last year it was leaked that the Deputy Minister-President of Bavaria circulated an anti-Semitic pamphlet in his school days. Despite this, his party was re-elected with an increase of the vote. According to official figures, 83% of recorded violent anti-Semitic acts in Germany in 2022 were committed by the far-right.[31] It goes without saying that antisemitism must be fought no matter the context. If, however, critique of Israeli politics is almost automatically met with accusations of antisemitism, something is seriously going wrong.[32] This development has reached a point whereby the German mainstream has increasingly adopted the generic labelling of any critic of the occupation as anti-Semites, similar to, among other actors, the Israeli far-right.[33] It is hard to top the absurdity of non-Jewish German bureaucrats accusing Jews in solidarity with Palestine of antisemitism.[34]

Besides the active silencing of Jewish voices in the name of fighting antisemitism, German authorities have gone so far as to enable Berlin schools to prohibit mere indicators of Palestinian identity, such as the wearing of the Kuffiyah and the use of ‘free Palestine’ stickers or slogans.[35] The police in North Rhine-Westphalia started circulating an information brochure to regional schools, in which it states that accusing Israel of committing a genocide may constitute hate speech and may thus be indictable as a criminal offense.[36] If the ICJ was based 200 km further east of The Hague, its judges might face legal issues. In Germany, using well-established academic terminology, quoting the principal judicial organ of the UN and/or merely being Palestinian is widely interpreted as support for terrorism and/or antisemitism. According to an initiative for research on antisemitism based at the University of Trier, ‘Stop the genocide in Gaza’ is an anti-Semitic slogan.[37] Local Berlin authorities introduced a brochure to school programs that trivialises the Nakba. An exhibition on the establishment of Israel, officially supported by the Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Antisemitism, claims that the primary reason for Palestinian expulsion and flight in 1948 was ‘general fear of the threat of war’,[38] instead of deliberate ethnic cleansing, as is historically proven.[39] Among other places, the library of the University of Freiburg hosted this exhibition, which also reproduces the colonial trope of an empty Palestine that was available for Jewish colonisation. The term settler colonialism, which effectively is, as stated by the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) a ‘descriptor of the policies of dispossession and displacement implemented by the Israeli state against Palestinians’,[40] evokes similar reactions as the term apartheid, which the German government rejects outright, despite Amnesty International (among many other human rights organisations) providing ample evidence for its applicability in the case of Israel/Palestine.[41]

The criminalisation and/or public condemnation of terminology such as ‘genocide’, ‘Nakba’, ‘settler colonialism’ and ‘apartheid’ renders meaningful conversations about Palestine practically impossible. An ever-growing archive of cancelled public events, awards and/or job contracts gives testimony to the scale of ongoing attacks on academic freedom.[42] The idea that Israel could be a perpetrator of genocide fundamentally clashes with the German state’s self-understanding as defender of international human rights and its embrace of Israeli security as part of its own reason of state. As a consequence, German politicians and mainstream media fiercely police the use of the above terminology and almost instinctively insist on Israel as victim of genocide. As such, it can be portrayed as both the logical recipient of unconditional support and an easy source for moral redemption. Discursive framings matter, plausibly genocidal acts don’t.

Thus far, the most powerful and vocal resistance to the German state’s direct support of plausible acts of genocide comes from outside the political establishment. Creative artists, as well as Arab and Jewish activists, journalists, lawyers and intellectuals have been among the most prominent voices of dissent.[43] Instead of providing such critical Arab and Jewish voices with a platform, mainstream debate is, with a few exceptions, characterised by the silencing of Arab voices and the policing of Jewish ones, i.e. the integration of those who are pro-Zionist, and the turning of Anti-Zionist ones into passive objects to be patronised. At the core of public German debate are (non-Jewish) Germans who seek to speak on behalf of minorities, and who police Jewishness, anti-Semitism, and what is deemed to be acceptable terminology. Just as the ‘Antideutsche’ ‘weaponise the fetishisation of Jews through their obsessive Zionism,’ as stated by Rachael Shapiro,[44] the far-right use their support for Israel as entrance ticket into the mainstream.

In theory, German Middle Eastern Studies would be well equipped to offer a counterweight to the above-described developments. However, fear of reprisals and the curious persistence of the belief that scholarship can and should be apolitical have thus far prevented any form of more vocal public engagement by the German Middle Eastern Studies Association (DAVO). This institutional silence has only helped worsen an already toxic German public debate on the Arab world at large and Palestine, Palestinian suffering and the Palestinian right to resist Israeli occupation in particular. While promising efforts are under way to hopefully soon establish a DAVO Committee on Academic Freedom (CAF), akin to similar already existing committees operated by both BRISMES and MESA, the level of institutional and individual reluctance is considerable. What is certain is that if/when established, a DAVO CAF would have a lot of work to do.

[1] International Court of Justice (ICJ), 2024, ‘Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in the Gaza Strip (South Africa v. Israel)’, 26 January 2024, summary,

[2] Reuters, 2023, ‘German military exports to Israel up nearly 10-fold as Berlin fast-tracks permits’, 8 November 2023,

[3] Middle East Monitor, 2024, ‘Germany approves supply of tank shells to Israel amidst Gaza conflict’, 17 January 2024,

[4] ZDF heute, 2023, ‘Zahlreiche Verbote von Pro-Palästina-Demos‘, 13 October 2023,

[5] Auswärtiges Amt, 2024, ‚Gemeinsame Erklärung des Auswärtigen Amts und des Bundesministeriums für wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit und Entwicklung zu UNRWA‘, 27 January 2024,; The Guardian, 2024, ‚UNRWA staff accused by Israel sacked without evidence, chief admits‘, 9 February 2024,

[6] Deutscher Bundestag, 2023, ‚Solidarität mit Israel‘, 10 October 2023,

[7] Aljazeera, 2024, ‚Israel-Gaza war in maps and charts: Live tracker’, 27 February 2024,; Aljazeera, 2024, ‘How Israel has destroyed Gaza’s schools and universities’, 24 January 2024,

[8] Amnesty International, 2024, ‚Israel/OPT: New evidence of unlawful Israeli attacks in Gaza causing mass civilian casualties amid real risk of genocide’, 12 February 2024,; The Guardian, 2024, ‘Israel is deliberately starving Palestinians, UN rights expert says’, 27 February 2024,; Alessandra Bajec, 2024, ‘How Israeli soldiers are engaged in widespread looting in Gaza’, The New Arab, 18 January 2024,; Amnesty International, 2023, ‘Israel/OPT: Horrifying cases of torture and degrading treatment of Palestinian detainees amid spike in arbitrary arrests’, 8 November 2023,; United Nations, 2023, ‘Gaza: UN experts call on international community to prevent genocide against the Palestinian people’, 16 November 2023,

[9] See Middle East Eye, 2023, ‘Israeli soldier gifts explosion in Gaza to his daughter’, Youtube, 26 November 2023,; Reliefweb, 2024, ‘Israeli tanks have deliberately run over dozens of Palestinian civilians alive’, 4 March 2024,; Middle East Monitor, 2024, ‘Unarmed Palestinian fatally shot by Israeli sniper despite white flag in Khan Yunis’, 24 January 2024,

[10] Exberliner, 2020, ‘Historian Jürgen Zimmerer on Germany’s other genocide‘, 12 March 2020,

[11] Segal, Raz, 2024, ‘Opinion: Why International Court of Justice ruling against Israel’s war in Gaza is a game-changer’, Los Angeles Times, 27 January 2024,

[12] Wildt, Michael, 2023, ‘What does Singularity of the Holocaust Mean?’, Journal of Genocide Research,

[13] Wiedemann, Charlotte, 2022, Den Schmerz der Anderen Begreifen (Berlin: Propyläen), p. 67 and p. 107.

[14] Dische-Becker, Emily, quoted in Jackson, James, 2023, ‘Critics question the backstory of one of Germany’s leading counter-extremists’, Hyphen, 3 July 2023,

[15] Wiedemann, Charlotte, 2022, Den Schmerz der Anderen Begreifen (Berlin: Propyläen), p. 271.

[16] Fitzpatrick, Matt, 2024, ‘As the war in Gaza continues, Germany’s unstinting defence of Israel has unleashed a culture war that has just reached Australia’, The Conversation, 13 February 2024,

[17] Grimm, Jannis Julien, 2024, ‚Universities must remain places of dialogue’, Qantara, 15 February 2024,

[18] Deitelhoff, Nicole, Rainer Forst, Klaus Günther & Jürgen Habermas, 13 November 2023, Normative Orders,

[19] Pfeifer, Hanna & Irene Weipert-Fenner, 2023, ‚Israel-Gaza: A German War Discourse‘, PRIF blog,

[20] See interview with Muriel Asseburg, ‘Nahost-Expertin Muriel Asseburg über Israel & Palästina’, Jung & Naiv, 27 June 2023,

[21] Zacher, Tobias & Martin Teigeler, 2023, ‚Essener Islamisten-Demo: Reul will Deutsch als Demo-Sprache‘, WDR, 9 November 2023,

[22] See for instance DEIN e.V., ‘1948: Die Ausstellung. Wie der Staat Israel entstand’,

[23] CDU/CSU, ‘Antisemiten dürfen keinen Platz in unserer Gesellschaft haben‘, Pressemitteilung, 17 November 2023,

[24] Mustafa, Imad, 2023, Der Islam gehört (nicht) zu Deutschland: Islam und antimuslimischer Rassismus in Parteiensystem und Bundestag (Bielefeld: transcript).

[25] See for instance ‘Die Nakba: Flucht und Vertreibung der Palästinenser 1948‘,

[26] ‘The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism’,

[27] The German Rectors’ Conference called for the adoption of the IHRA definition at all German universities, ‘Kein Platz für Antisemitismus‘, Entschließung der HRK-MItgliederversammlung, 19 November 2019.

[28] Deutschlandfunk Kultur, 2024, ‚Folgen des Boykottaufrufs Strike Germany: Berlinale-Absage und Verlagstrennung‘, 19 January 2024,

[29] Flakin, Nathaniel, 2024, ‘German Elites are redefining Antisemitism so they can be the victims’, Portside, 20 January 2024,

[30] Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland, 2019, ‚“Du Jude“ als Schimpfwort auf dem Schulhof?‘, 25 October 2019,

[31] Bundesministerium des Innern und für Heimat, 2023, ‚Politisch motivierte Kriminalität erreicht neuen Höchststand‘, 9 May 2023,

[32] See also ‘Offener Brief jüdischer Intellektueller: Die Freiheit der Andersdenkenden‘, TAZ, 22 October 2023,!5965154/.

[33] Falah Saab, Sheren, 2024, ‘On Israeli TV, You’re an Antisemite if you dare mention the Occupation’, Haaretz Today, 26 February 2024, See also various German media reactions to the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival.

[34] See for instance the cancellation of the Hannah Arendt prize award ceremony for Masha Gessen and the prohibition of Jewish Palestine solidarity protests in Berlin, ‘”Gefahr der Volksverhetzung”: Berliner Polizei untersagt jüdische Kundgebung am Oranienplatz’, Tagesspiegel, 14 October 2023,

[35] RBB TV, 2023, ‘Berliner Schulen können Tragen von Palästinenser-Tüchern verbieten‘, 13 October 2023,

[36] Polizei Nordrhein-Westfalen LKA, 2023, ‚Nahost-Konflikt: Informationsbroschüre für Schulen, Lehrkräfte und Eltern‘, December,

[37] Initiative Interdisziplinäre Antisemitismusforschung, 2024, ‚Statement der IIA zu einem antisemitischen Graffiti auf dem Campus der Universität Trier‘, January,

[38] DEIN e.V., ‘1948: Die Ausstellung. Wie der Staat Israel entstand’,

[39] Pappe, Ilan, 2007, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (London: Oneworld Publications).

[40] BRISMES, 2024, ‚Statement on Settler Colonialism, Decolonisation and Antisemitism’, 19 February,

[41] Amnesty International, 2022, ‘Israel’s Apartheid against Palestinians’, 1 February,

[42] Archive of Silence – Cancellation & Silencing Public List, 2024,

[43] Some of the most prominent voices are Nadija Samour, Hebh Jamal, Hanno Hauenstein, Ghassan Hage, Masha Gessen, Deborah Feldman and Amro Ali.

[44] Shapiro, Rachael, 2024, ‘German memory culture, anti-Semitic Zionists and Palestinian liberation’, Aljazeera, 1 March 2024,