1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Five lessons from Meron Mendel's 'Talking about Israel'

Julia Hitz
May 15, 2023

"Talking about Israel," a new book by Meron Mendel, an Israeli social work professor living in Germany, analyzes how Israel is discussed in German society.

An Israeli flag flies with a glass dome of the German Bundestag in the background
Meron Mendel wants to avoid black-and-white thinking on Israel Image: Christoph Soeder/dpa/picture alliance

Meron Mendel's new book, "Über Israel reden" ("Talking about Israel"), examines how Israel is debated in Germany. 

A descendant of Holocaust survivors, Mendel was born in 1976 and grew up on a kibbutz in Israel. He emigrated to Germany in 2003. Since 2010, he has been the director of the Anne Frank Educational Center in Frankfurt.

Here are five ideas from his book.

1. Aim for factual debates instead of 'psychological tests'

In his new book, Mendel analyzes various debates and controversies about representations of Israel in Germany. 

For example, he revisits the controversy around Cameroonian historian and political scientist Achille Mbembe, who was invited to open the Ruhrtriennale music and arts festival in western Germany in 2020, but whose keynote was canceled when he compared the state of Israel with South Africa's apartheid regime. 

Other debates that are analyzed in the book include the German Bundestag's resolution against the anti-Israel Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) movement in 2019, and the scandal surrounding antisemitic art displayed at the international Documenta art show in 2022.

Mendel describes how he, as an Israeli and a Jew, has been used as a tool for very different purposes. In Germany, he writes, the focus is taking a stance on Israel-related issues as opposed to a nuanced conversation — or even critically questioning one's own stance.

Every German's position on the Israel-Palestine question is "an identity-forming question par excellence." It comes before any other discussion, virtually as a kind of "psychological test," he says.

Murky myths behind antisemitism

Mendel asks how the antisemitic representations at Documenta could be better recognized and discussed rather than just scandalized? He feels there should have been more space for debate and differentiated perspectives in reaction to the controversy. Without this approach, he fears, the same story will repeat itself in a similar setting. 

2. Avoid black-and-white thinking

Mendel portrays his own experiences throughout the book. Having emphasized that antisemitism in Germany is not merely a Muslim issue, he has become the target of pro-Israel groups who accuse him of "relativizing Muslim antisemitism." Some have described Mendel as a "notorious antisemitism denier."

His criticisms of Israeli policies have not been well-received either. 

While Mendel remembers his friendly welcome when arriving in Germany over two decades ago, he recalls that: "When it became clear that I was much more critical about current politics in Israel and discussed that in my view, the Muslim minority is not the main threat to Jews in Germany, I was instantly declared an enemy."

Mendel criticizes this "black-and-white thinking" where you can either be for or against Israel. For him, instead of trying to determine which side is right or wrong, a more central question should be trying to determine how moderate forces from both the Israeli and the Palestinian side can be supported.

3. Reversing the role of 'victim' and 'perpetrator'

Mendel urges self-reflection as a first measure when questions arise in Germany about Israel and the Middle East conflict.

For example, in the current heated discussion about Israel's settlement policy, where comparisons with the Nazi regime are sometimes made, it seems for many Germans "to be a relief to be able to label Jews in an unfamiliar reversed role as 'perpetrators'." This, he says, can allow Germans "to distance themselves from their own responsibility without having to deal with it."

Meron Mendel the Director of the Anne Frank Educational Center in Frankfurt, wears a blue blazer and stares at the camera
Meron Mendel urges 'self-reflection' when speeaking about IsraelImage: Wolfgang Kumm/dpa/picture alliance

He adds that reversing the roles of the victims and the perpetrators can offer some relief from a German perspective: "After all, the Jews are just as bad as our own ancestors!"

"This exoneration strategy, which first emerged among right-wing radicals, is now also found in well-educated circles of people who see themselves as historically conscious and left-wing," Mendel adds. 

4. Be accurate with historical facts when comparing

As a trained historian, Mendel sees comparisons as a natural means of observation and analysis.

But equating the Shoah and the Nakba — meaning "catastrophe" in Arabic, this is remembered on May 15, the start of the Arab-Israel War in 1948 when some 700,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homeland — is not historically tenable, says Mendel.

"Behind the claim is the urge to delegitimize the very existence of the state of Israel," he argues.

Mendel repeatedly emphasizes the importance of recognizing the suffering of different victims of violence (not least that of Palestinians). "The call for more empathy toward the 'other' is in itself to be applauded," he says. "But it is significant that it often goes hand-in-hand with a lack of empathy toward Jews, who are seen as the privileged others."

people carry large sacks through a desolate landscpe
Palestinians fled their homes in 1948 during the Arab-Israeli warImage: Eldan David/Pressebüro der Regierung Israels/picture alliance /dpa

5. Keep in mind the history of Israel's foundation

Critics accuse Israel of treating Palestinians with the approach of an imperial colonial state. This diminishes the significance of the Shoah as the event leading to the founding of the Israeli state, Mendel believes.  

Empathy is not created by comparing the death toll in Auschwitz to the death toll in the Omaheke desert — when German colonizers massacred local Herero and Nama people in Namibia in the early 1900s in what has been called a genocide. 

According to Mendel, such comparisons are based on the "desire to 'normalize' the German discourse on Israel, to condemn Israel harshly without having to take into account its historic origins." In other words, to present Israel as just one colonial state among many.

Other injustices do not have to be understood by way of comparison, he says. "The suffering of other groups or individuals and their commemoration is not affected by the memory of the Holocaust."

Mendel concludes that German accountability for Israel today could involve taking a clear stand against right-wing extremism, "even if it occurs in the Israeli cabinet."

"Talking about Israel" could become a new German virtue, an art of "criticizing without negating one's own responsibility," he suggests.

This article was adapted from German.