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Study Finds Anti-semitic Themes in German Reporting About Intifada

June 6, 2002
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A vengeful God. An eye for an eye. Israelis as Nazis.

Such themes are as common in German reporting about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as weeds on a summer lawn, according to a new study by the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee.

The themes are dangerous, the study suggests, because they perpetuate stereotypes that promote anti-Semitism.

The study, “Mideast Reporting on the Second Intifada in German Print Media,” concludes — as do many observers in Germany — that “there is often distortion in the image of Israel, a lack of context and an aggressive tone” in Germany’s Middle East reportage, said Deidre Berger, director of the AJCommittee’s Berlin office.

The study could provide the basis for a “dialogue on the subject in Germany,” she said, adding that she hopes members of the media would “take this further.”

Even before the study’s release, one major German paper was seeking to hire a German-speaking journalist living in Israel to balance its coverage.

“I told the editors that we need to hear the views of people living in Israel,” said a staff writer who asked to remain anonymous. “The editor said he would like that, but he did not know anyone there who could do it.”

Finding good journalists is only part of the solution. Getting rid of stereotypes is another, more difficult task, observers say.

Take, for example, a recent edition of the news magazine Der Spiegel.

On April 8, shortly after a suicide bomber killed 29 Israelis at a Passover seder in Israel, the magazine wrote that the Passover holiday “recalls the Exodus and at the same time the killing of the first-born Egyptian sons, destroyed by an angry Jehovah so that His People could leave — the first Passover massacre.”

And in the Frankfurter Rundschau of Dec. 3, 2001, Israelis are described in terms clearly linked to the Nazi genocide: Israel is pursuing “liquidation politics” against the Palestinians, the paper reported.

Observers say the outlook for change is not hopeful.

Working under deadline pressure and without a firm foundation in history, they say, journalists likely will continue to reach for the nearest descriptive tools at hand — the simplest metaphors, the oldest stereotypes, images that resonate with religious authority and, last but not least in Germany, comparisons with Nazi Germany that have the ultimate function of relativizing German guilt.

It is easy for German reporters to fall into that trap, said Richard Chaim Schneider, a Jewish journalist based in Munich and Israel.

“In order to describe certain phenomenon in Israel, they very often use expressions in German which come from Nazi terminology,” he said.

For example, in German, the expression “all Israel” becomes ” ‘gross Israel,’ which automatically has a Nazi interpretation,” because the term “gross Deutschland” is associated with the Nazi policy of deportation, conquest and genocide, he said.

“When the Israelis take Palestinians to camps, not to prisons, these are described in German as ‘concentration camps,’ ” Schneider added. “When you use the word” in Germany today, it creates images “of Auschwitz and Dachau and Treblinka.”

The AJCommittee study, undertaken by the Duisburg Institute for Linguistics and Social Research, examined German reporting on four incidents:

the visit by then-opposition leader Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount on Sept. 28, 2000;

the widely reported death of a 12-year-old-boy, Mohammad al-Darrah, who died in his father’s arms when they were caught in the middle of an Israeli-Palestinian gun battle in the Gaza Strip on Sept. 30, 2000;

the lynching of two Israeli reservists by a Palestinian mob in Ramallah on Oct. 12, 2000; and

the June 1, 2001, suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv disco.

The study found instances of “racist anti-Semitism”; abuse of the Holocaust; anti-Semitic fantasies of blood libels and Jews as child-murderers; and Zionist conspiracy theories.

The study also found anti-Islamic stereotypes.

The report’s author, Siegfried Jager of the Duisburg Institute for Linguistics and Social Research, said at a news conference last Friday where the study was released that images of “uneducated” and “uncontrollable masses” of Palestinians fed dangerous stereotypes regarding Muslims living in Germany.

One hazard of conducting such studies is that anti-Semitism can be difficult to pin down, said Christina Spaeti, a Swiss scholar at the University of Fribourg who is evaluating views of Israel in the Swiss left-wing press.

Many examples cited in the AJCommittee report are “very strong, pertinent and true,” said Spaeti, who had read a short version of the report.

But other examples, she added, are subject to debate.

For example, she thought not all experts on anti-Semitism would agree that calling Jewish settlers “fearful of attacks” was tapping into stereotypes of Jewish cowardliness.

“I think it is very important not to dismiss their argument” that this should be included, Spaeti said. “We do have to be aware that such terms as ‘fearful’ might resonate in some anti-Semite’s head. But then anything might, I fear.”

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