In Germany, some see support for Palestine as anti-Semitic
Almost 400 journalists, academics and cultural figures have signed an open letter in support of Nemi El-Hassan, a prize-winning German journalist and TV host accused of anti-semitism over her attendance of a controversial 2014 pro-Palestine rally.
Signees of the letter, titled “Solidarity with Nemi El-Hassan”, point to a conservative campaign to de-platform El-Hassan, 28, that began when the right-wing tabloid Bild published a photo of her taking part in Quds Day, a demonstration widely viewed by Germans as anti-semitic.
The annual demo, which was cancelled due to the coronavirus this year, is Germany’s most notorious pro-Palestine rally. Numerous organisations have called for authorities to outright ban the event. In 2014, when El-Hassan attended, several newspapers reported anti-semitic chants and banners among the 2,000-strong crowd.
"Sections of Germany’s Jewish community have been known to come together to protect targets of what they deem unfair charges of antisemitism"
El-Hassan, then aged 20, apologised for her participation soon after the photo resurfaced on 13 September this year, calling her attendance a mistake and explaining that the demo took place during the 2014 Gaza War, a weeks-long offensive that the UN says killed 1,462 Palestinian civilians.
“I condemn all anti-semitic statements and actions, and any forms of violence, that took place in these demos,” El-Hassan, who has Lebanese and Palestinian roots, wrote on Instagram.
By the next day, the story had spread across Germany. The public television station Westdeutscher Rundfunk, or WDR, announced that El-Hassan would no longer moderate its science-focussed Quarks programme, a position she was due to start in November.
Right-wing media and politicians in Germany regularly target public television personalities. Bild produced its report on El-Hassan after she was announced as a new host on WDR. Right-wing media outlets in Germany are also among the country’s strongest supporters of Israel, accusing anyone with a pro-Palestine position, including Jews themselves, of antisemitism.
The most hostile criticism is often reserved for Muslims and people of colour. Malcolm Ohanwe, a public television journalist with Nigerian and Palestinian roots, was the target of a sustained right-wing campaign after he criticised Israel on a midweek talk show in May.
Bild’s reporting on El-Hassan, under the banner “Islamism scandal at WDR,” also included a 2015 video that features her explaining the meaning of the term jihad. Reporters accused her of relativising Islamic violence.
The frenzy around El-Hassan is the biggest of its kind in some time. Among the dozens of reports and opinion pieces published in Germany’s national news outlets, many warned of the seeping threat of “Islamism” into public life.
These stories played into racist tropes by using years-old photos of El-Hassan wearing a headscarf. She stopped wearing the veil in 2019.
"Right-wing media outlets in Germany are also among the country’s strongest supporters of Israel, accusing anyone with a pro-Palestine position, including Jews themselves, of antisemitism"
“The images linking the headscarf with accusations of Islamism play to prejudices and fears of Islamisation,” the open letter supporting El-Hassan said. “These have been stirred up by right-wing populists for many years.”
Reporting by Die Zeit found that the campaign against El-Hassan leads directly to the far right. Irfan Peci, a known anti-Muslim activist who calls himself an “Islamist hunter”, shared images of El-Hassan at the 2014 rally on a live stream a month before they were published in the Bild.
Other signees include some of Germany’s most prominent cultural figures. In addition to Wolff, many are Jewish, such as the US-born Unorthodox author Deborah Feldman and the pianist Igor Levit.
Other high-profile personalities supporting El-Hassan include the Jung & Naiv chief editor Tilo Jung, journalist and author Mohamed Amjahid and the journalist Margarete Stokowski.
Sections of Germany’s Jewish community have been known to come together to protect targets of what they deem unfair charges of antisemitism. In 2020, many backed Initiative GG 5.3 Weltoffenheit, or Initiative GG 5.3 Open-mindedess, which denounced a 2019 motion from the German government condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as anti-semitic.
Fabian Wolff, a Jewish journalist, was the open letter’s first signee.
“As a Jew, I signed to oppose a smear campaign and not allow the right to interpret antisemitism,” Wolff told Der Spiegel.
Matt Unicomb is a news and culture journalist based in Berlin, where he’s currently the online editor of Exberliner.