Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Political Warfare of BDS


An extensive excerpt from an interview (thanks to BT) with with Jeffrey Herf, Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Maryland. His books include Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World, The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust, Divided Memory: the Nazi Past and the Two Germanys, and Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich with Alan Johnson, editor of Fathom:


AJ: What do you mean by the term political warfare?


JH: It’s a term that the British foreign office used in World War Two. Political warfare entails the specific use of propaganda to reinforce an ongoing armed attack. For example, East Germany and the Soviet Union were able to use the United Nations effectively to legitimatise their undeclared war on Israel, through dozens of UN General Assembly resolutions in the 1970s and 1980s in which East Germany played an important role.

Political warfare persists to this day in the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement: never ever mention a terrorist attack on Israel, or, if there is an attack on Israeli citizens, refer to it as a form of ‘justified resistance’. Then, having refused to describe accurately the terrorist attack on Israel, focus instead on Israeli retaliation. And, because you have not discussed the previous terrorist attack, describe this Israeli retaliation as a form of ‘unjustified aggression’. All these rules were set down in this earlier period.

AJ: One fascinating part of the book examines how UN leaders, such as General Secretary Kurt Waldheim, ignored detailed reports from Israeli representatives about this political warfare campaign and about the Arab states’ armed attacks against Israel. Can you tell us about that?

JH: One of my great research discoveries was the extent of the UN’s bias, its unbalanced views and its indifference to attacks on Israel. The UN permits its members to send reports to the Secretary General and the President of the Security Council, which are then circulated to all members of the UN. Gideon Rafiah, Chaim Herzog, Yosef Tekoah and Yehuda Blum, all Israeli ambassadors to the UN during the 1960s and 1970s, made excellent use of this system by sending reports with details descriptions of the ongoing attacks on Israeli civilians to all member representatives to the UN. They are the most detailed record that we have, perhaps anywhere outside the Israeli archives, about the ongoing terrorist campaign that was being raged against Israel in those years. Yet the information in these reports was overwhelmingly ignored in the UN resolutions that were passed.

AJ: What was the response of the West to this undeclared war on Israel?

JH: The centrality of the US alliance to Israel’s security became obvious in the years following the Six-Day War and particularly during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. (Ironically, critically important American military assistance to Israel in 1973 came from US President Richard Nixon, who had minimal support among American Jews.) Over the course of Israel’s short history, when push came to shove, in the event of war and peace, Israel has had one ally with the will and ability to come to its defence – the US. At the UN , US Ambassadors Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jeanne Kirkpatrick fought off waves of attacks on Zionism, vetoing many UN resolutions. But any hopes of Europe joining these US efforts were suppressed after the Oil Crisis, when the Europeans came under increasing pressure from the Arab states.

AJ: Having touched upon the what, I would like to now focus on the why. Why did East Germany wage this war against Israel? Was it a hangover of attitudes from the Nazi period? Was it about antisemitism? Was it more to do with developments in left-wing thought at the time? Or was it cynical geopolitics to keep the Arab states on side?

JH: The book is about the leadership of the East German government. I don’t know how ordinary people who were living in East Germany thought about Jews and Israel. The book is not about the aftereffects of Nazi Germany in the population of the 17 million or so people living in East Germany. Of course, for many of them, it would defy common sense to assume there was no after effect of Nazi propaganda. But the communists took the position that they did because they were communists. They were not Nazis. And I think this is important. The problem of the communists is not that they were like Nazis. It  is that they were communists. And it was as communists that they rejected Zionism. To them, Zionism was an  anachronism, a form of reactionary nationalism. Anti-Imperialist nationalism was fine but not Zionist nationalism.

So East Germany’s war against Israel was a matter of ideological conviction; they genuinely despised Zionism. But it was also a matter of power politics and strategic calculation – the two reinforced each other. The communists rejected Zionism as a form of nationalism and as a competitor to Marxism in some working class constituencies in Europe. And after the anti-Cosmopolitan purges of the 1950s, the decent, pro-Zionist left, vanished in the Communist world.

East Germany’s other reason to oppose Israel was to do with Cold War competition with West Germany, which was busy trying to isolate the East German government diplomatically. Bonn defined East Germany as illegitimate and threatened to cut off diplomatic and economic ties with all East Germany’s allies. This was called the Hallstein Doctrine. The primary goal of East German foreign policy was to counteract the Hallstein doctrine by establishing diplomatic and political relations with other countries outside the Soviet bloc. And how was this to be done? Otto Winzer, East Germany’s foreign minister in the 1960s, made the argument that the key to breaking the Hallstein Doctrine was to play the anti-Zionist card by siding with the anti-Zionist Arab states – and the Palestinians. The fruits of Winzer’s plan were seen in 1959 when Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Yemen and Libya all signed agreements to start diplomatic relations with East Germany, and each denounced Zionism.

The reinforcing interaction of those two components – power politics and ideology – accounts for the passion with which East Germany went along with Soviet policy against Israel. 

AJ: Today we find that ‘Holocaust Inversion’ – treating Zionism as the new Nazism, Israelis as the new Nazis, and so on – is spreading. Do its roots lie in this period? 

JH: Two Israeli historians, Meir Litvak and Esther Webman, wrote a book called From Empathy to Denial: Arab Responses to the Holocaust in which they point out that the idea of Israelis as the new Nazis has been a theme in Arab politics since the late 1940s and early 1950s. In this sense, the Stalinists took an idea that originated in the Middle East and spread it throughout all the communist movements in world politics. The Israeli-as-Nazi theme was enormously important because – and I made this point in Fathom about Ken Livingstone – what the communists accomplished by accusing the Israelis of being Nazis was to take the language of anti-fascism, ironically, and turn it against the Jews and against Israel. Of course, the Nazis despised Zionism and it is completely ridiculous to say the Nazis were in favour of Zionism. Anti-Zionism was a part of Nazi propaganda and Nazi policy.

This Nazi analogy broke into world politics in a very big way at the start of the Six-Day War in 1967 when the Soviet ambassador to the UN compared Israel’s air attack to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. The Soviet ambassador was associating the Soviet Union as a victim of Nazi Germany with the third world as the victim of British colonialism, manifested in the form of Zionism. This placement of the language of anti-fascism – which has enormous moral prestige around the world and in the British left and in the left of Western Europe and all over the world – into the discourse of the assault on Israel, was devastating. It was one of the greatest accomplishments of communist political warfare at the time, and it endures to this day in a variety of forms.

In Germany, of course, there was the added component of the Holocaust. Dieter Kunzelmann was a West German leftist who wrote an essay in 1969 about the need for the West German left to overcome what he called ‘the Jewish complex’. ‘The Jewish complex’, he wrote, stood in the way of making the revolution in West Germany because it burdened the left with so much guilt about the Holocaust that they were unable to make a revolution. To view Israelis as the new Nazis and the PLO as the new revolutionary brothers and victims of fascism, would unlock the path to revolution in West Germany. Kunzelmann’s essay was called ‘Shalom and Napalm’ and it was an important break with the West German government tradition of coming to terms with the Nazi past and remembering the Holocaust.

AJ: The use of the Nazi analogy is actually growing today in the UK.

JH: Well, I noticed in my research into this period that there are really no new ideas in the BDS movement. I read a review in the Times Literary Supplement a couple of months ago about the ‘new discourse’ of BDS. Actually, what’s really happened is the academicisation of an older discourse – the political warfare discourse of the Communists, the PLO and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and the UN anti-Israel resolutions of the 1970s. All that has now entered into universities.

AJ: You claim that East Germany pioneered a ‘Eurocentric definition of counterterrorism.’ What did that definition entail and how did it shape the UN’s attitude towards terrorism aimed at Israel?

JH: This is one the most interesting aspects of the book and it made me understand how complicated the world of intelligence is.

The Stasi, East Germany’s state intelligence service, had a serious problem. On the one hand, East Germany was the transit for young PLO members seeking military training and hoping to attack Jewish institutions in West Germany or Western Europe. East Germany had a reputation in the Middle East for being a supporter of the PLO and the Arab states in their wars with Israel. Young men, mostly, came from Beirut and Damascus and Cairo to the Soviet Bloc and to East Germany and received military training or university fellowships or they learnt German, or whatever. And then, they wanted to go to West Germany or West Berlin or Western Europe and attack the imperialists that were supporting Israel. Or they wanted to attack the Jewish institutions in West Germany.

On the other hand, the Stasi knew that if anybody travelled from East Berlin to West Berlin and committed a terrorist act, condemnation would inevitably and swiftly be placed at the doorstep of the East German government by the West’s security services. The Stasi understood that if this happened it was going to put d├ętente at risk as well as the millions of deutschmarks that were coming to East Germany from West Germany.

So, the question was how to continue to support terrorism aimed at Western interests, and at Israel, but prevent terrorist attacks in West Germany. The Stasi tackled this problem by establishing a formal written relationship with the intelligence services of the PLO in order to locate and prevent the people who wanted to commit terrorist attacks in West Germany and Western Europe. Of course committing terrorist attacks anywhere else was encouraged – hence ‘the Eurocentric definition of counterterrorism.’

AJ: Was there opposition to the undeclared against Israel within East Germany itself?

JH: Within the Communist party after 1953, no. The last leading opponent of the East German communist party to oppose the undeclared war against Israel was Paul Merker. A non-Jewish member of the Communist Party politburo, Merker’s crime was to make the rational case that the communists – because they had fought against fascism and anti-Semitism in Europe – should be close allies with the new Jewish State, help fight anti-Semitism and the Arab governments who were attempting to destroy the Jewish state. Merker made these arguments in 1946 to the UN, as did Andrey Gromyko, the Soviet ambassador of the UN.

But with the beginning of the Cold War all of this became politically incorrect in the literal sense. Merker was an independent-minded communist, foolish enough to have put his brilliant views in print and therefore he could not deny it. Although Merker was one of the lucky victims of the anti-cosmopolitan purges not to be executed, his political career was effectively over. Most of the other people associated with support for Israel in the Communist Party left East Germany and went either to West Germany or other parts of the world. This was the moment when pro-Zionism ceased within the East German Communist Party.

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