News from

We are continuing our series in which we give academics from various disciplines at Leipzig University the opportunity to speak on topics from research and teaching on the Middle East conflict. This time, we interviewed Slavonic studies specialist Professor Anna Artwinska and historian Professor Dirk van Laak. They explain the historical and cultural patterns that permeate the debate on the Gaza war in Germany and Eastern Europe, and why they attach particular importance to collaborating with academics in Israel. Artwinska and van Laak are part of Belongings, the new German-Israeli International Research Training Group that will focus on European Jewish history and culture from August 2024.

Two camps seem to have formed in Western public opinion, showing solidarity either with Israel or with the Palestinians. Could history help explain this?

Professor Dirk van Laak: History and the culture of remembrance play a key role in such issues, as they almost always do. Germany is, of course, particularly influenced in this respect, even if a comprehensive awareness of the exceptional nature of the Shoah has only developed since the 1980s. In the 1950s, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer forced through a reparations agreement with Israel against the will of the majority of West Germans. 

During the phase of decolonisation, especially after the Six-Day War in 1967, the thesis that Israel was an imperialist state and a kind of Western ‘settlement colony’ in the Arab world became firmly established in West German left-wing circles. This then implied solidarity with the displaced and ‘oppressed’ Palestinians. This critical attitude towards Israel was also a state doctrine in the GDR until it began to be relaxed in the late 1980s. 

For some time now, there has been a debate about whether the Holocaust should be placed more in the context of other genocides, such as colonial genocides. This is also happening, although the uniqueness of the state-sanctioned persecution and systematic murder of Jews in the Third Reich has yet to be overturned. Today, discourse trajectories are very difficult to identify and are laden with all sorts of things that can no longer be substantiated by historical knowledge. 

How are the massacre of 7 October and the war in Gaza being discussed in Poland? Are there any differences to the debate in Germany?

Professor Anna Artwinska: As in Germany, there is no uniform debate on the Middle East conflict in Poland, but rather a variety of voices, opinions and positions that cut across society. Comparing these debates with those in Germany, it is clear that, despite many differences that can be traced back to the respective historical pasts of the two countries, similar ‘pro-Israel’ and ‘pro-Palestine’ lines of argument are being used in Poland today. 

The conflict in the Middle East shows just how globalised society has become. Transnational alliances and groups can be observed, for example, among some left-wing groups who see Israel as a ‘colonial state’, or among student protesters. However, since Israel’s existence is not a raison d’état in Poland as it is in Germany, criticism of Israel is often – to generalise somewhat – more vehement and direct.

The debates about the Gaza war are also intertwined with those about violence and pushbacks on the Polish-Belarusian border, although the arguments are not made from a historical perspective but from the perspective of human rights violations. On the other hand, Poland was home to some 3.4 million Jews before the Second World War, and many Israelis have Polish roots. This is not without influence on the perspective from which the conflict is viewed – again, of course, only in certain circles.

To what extent does the Holocaust shape the view of the Middle East conflict in Eastern Europe?

Artwinska: In the 21st century, an intensive process of coming to terms with the Holocaust is taking place in the cultures of Eastern and East Central Europe. It emerges that Polish society, for example, which likes to think of itself as the most righteous of nations, was also an accomplice during the Holocaust. At the latest since the publication of Jan Tomasz Gross’ “Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland” (2001), it has become clear that Polish society must also come to terms with its own history of collaboration and the handing over of Jews to the Nazis. However, this remains an uncomfortable truth that many are reluctant to admit.

The conflict in the Middle East has unfortunately rekindled latent anti-Semitism in Poland. I see anti-Semitic statements from both the political ‘right’ and the ‘left’, both in mainstream newspapers and on social media. This is not to say that all Poles are anti-Semitic, but an unaddressed history of anti-Semitism can mean that anti-Semitic sentiments are passed on more easily and with impunity. 

The situation is different in the Czech Republic, where most Jews were German-speaking and more integrated into Czech society before 1939. Of course, anti-Semitism also existed in the Czech Republic, but to a different extent than in Poland. This means that the Holocaust has less influence on perceptions of the Middle East conflict in the Czech Republic. Incidentally, the Czech Republic voted against the UN resolution on an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza Strip in the autumn of 2023.

enlarge the image: Prof. Dr. Dirk van Laak
Professor Dirk van Laak. Photo: Christiane Gundlach

When it comes to Germany’s attitude towards Israel, reference is often made to Germany’s guilt for the Holocaust. What do you say to people who say that Germany’s support for Israel is too one-sided and too influenced by its own efforts to come to terms with the past?

van Laak: Here we can only repeat what is almost always stressed: Germany’s special responsibility for a home for the Jews and for their security does not automatically lead to uncritical acceptance of everything that Israeli governments decide. Nor does this imply any distinction between the right of Israelis and Palestinians to exist, that is self-evident – and also a lesson from history. This is something that also needs to be defended against the nationalist forces in Israel that deny the Palestinians their right of residence, but also against the neighbouring Arab states that have so far done little to resolve the conflict.

Artwinska: I would answer this with a counter-question: what does it mean to be “too influenced” by one’s own responsibility? Where and by whom is the line drawn? Can and should Germany distance itself from its own history, especially from its responsibility for the Holocaust? Is Germany really ready to say that enough has been said about the Holocaust? 

As Dirk van Laak has already said: putting things in this perspective does not call into question the right of Palestinians to exist, nor does it mean that one must always agree with the Israeli government. An example from a different context: support for Ukraine should not be equated with approval for any decision taken by President Zelenskyy.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators are also calling for an end to links with Israel over the Gaza war, such as research and exchange partnerships between German and Israeli universities. How do such calls for boycott fit into the historical context? Are there any parallels in history?

van Laak: The term ‘boycott’ can be traced back to an Englishman who was ostracised by the Irish and forced to leave Ireland in the 19th century. The act of boycotting itself is much older and has also been used against minorities, most notably in the boycott of Jewish businesses in April 1933. In the current climate, however, the use of such means is increasing as the interconnected world creates dependencies and makes individuals, groups and nations vulnerable. Boycotts are political, economic and social, and above all they serve to avoid military confrontation – in times of war, almost everything is done to harm the enemy anyway.

The impact of such acts is, of course, difficult to assess. The bus boycott in the American civil rights movement and the boycott of South African products during the apartheid era are considered relatively successful. The latter probably contributed to the opening up of the country in the 1980s. However, the boycott campaigns against Russia since 2022 show that such isolation can hardly be achieved any more, as the resulting damage can be compensated for elsewhere. If anything, they express a moral consequence on the part of the boycotters and, although not necessarily intended, are also having an impact on the population, not primarily on Putin and those in his circle. 

But an academic boycott of Israel would not make sense in our view. A large part of the population there is critical of the way the war is going and, unlike in Russia, is allowed to express this. It would be better to strengthen these balancing forces through cooperation, not weaken them through blanket boycotts.

Artwinska: Calls for a boycott of academic cooperation with Israel will not resolve the conflict: Israeli academics are generally in favour of an open society, and they strengthen the debate on the Middle East peace process.

enlarge the image: Zelte und Transparente in einem Park
Pro-Palestinian encampment in the Lenné-Anlage park in Leipzig in July 2024. Photo: Ulf Walther

Do you address current debates about anti-Semitism, the war in Gaza or other political events in your teaching? What are the discussions like in seminars?

Artwinska: I research and teach on Slavonic-Jewish literatures and the cultural history of East Central Europe, so topics related to Polish-Jewish and Polish-Czech relations, the history of Zionism and literary anti-Semitism are always part of my courses. However, I do not directly address the political situation in my classes as I do not have sufficient expertise in this area. 

Having said that, a simple analysis of literary texts from East Central Europe clearly demonstrates the longevity of anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic images and figures of thought – such as the accusation of ritual murder. The language used today to call for a boycott of Israel, for example, is also reminiscent of the language used by anti-Semites in the 1930s who called for a boycott of Jewish businesses or, to take an example from Poland, demanded separate seats in lecture halls for Jewish students.

Few conflicts in world politics are as complex, and few have so many overlapping legitimate interests.

Professor Dirk van Laak

van Laak: Current debates always influence the development of research questions and the choice of teaching materials. After George Floyd’s death, I organised a very intensive seminar on the history of racism. In any case, anti-Semitism in all its overt and subtle forms is a key aspect of contemporary history and the culture of remembrance far beyond Germany.

My impression is that many students are very cautious about the Middle East conflict, which I can fully understand. Few conflicts in world politics are as complex, and few have so many overlapping legitimate interests. Ten years ago, I spent a week travelling in Israel with students, so of course that doesn’t make me an expert on the Middle East. But I am more convinced than ever that we must remain extremely sceptical of all one-dimensional solutions. We should show solidarity with the forces of understanding on both sides, not with the rabble-rousers.

The first German-Israeli International Research Training Group in the humanities is about to start in Leipzig and Jerusalem. How can this kind of academic cooperation contribute to the resolution of conflicts?

van Laak: We should remain in contact and continue to work with Israel, because it is culturally and historically intertwined with European history. Abandoning this would also cut our own roots. As already indicated, it is much more logical to talk to those parts of Israeli society with a critical and humanitarian attitude, to support them and to think together about peaceful solutions. In an era of renationalisation, I believe that such a diverse Research Training Group can only be seen as a great opportunity.

Artwinska: The German-Israeli IRTG will conduct research and work on European Jewish history and culture. That alone is a great help to understanding. The social aspect should not be underestimated either – the German and Israeli doctoral researchers will work together on their dissertation projects and regularly take part in various activities such as workshops and summer schools in Germany and Israel. The doctoral researchers from Israel will learn German and those from Germany Hebrew. Supervision will also be binational, meaning that there will be regular academic exchange at lecturer level. Personally, I think it is very important to set an example by working together with colleagues from the Hebrew University.

The DFG-funded International Research Training Group “Belongings: Jewish Material Culture in Twentieth-Century Europe and Beyond” will centre on research into Jewish material culture in the modern era. It is a joint project between the Simon Dubnow Institute in Leipzig, Leipzig University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

From August 2024, 22 doctoral researchers and two postdocs will work together in two cohorts in Jerusalem and Leipzig in a structured programme under the joint supervision of professors from the universities in Leipzig and Jerusalem.


Learn more