It was already four years ago that the Simon Wiesenthal Center included the fairly prominent left-wing German journalist and publisher Jakob Augstein in its annual list [pdf] of people and groups responsible for the “Top 10 Anti-Semitic/Anti-Israel Slurs.” The ensuing controversy was explained in an excellent Tablet article by James Kirchick.
A few days ago, it became clear that this controversy still reverberates: when Augstein reacted to news about the massive crack-down that followed the recent coup attempt in Turkey by declaring nonchalantly on Twitter that “Turkey’s democracy is none of our business; it’s up to the Turkish people,” Many people noted that his attitude to Israel (and the US) was markedly different. There was also astonishment that the staunch leftist would use the term “the Turkish people;” many noted in response that Augstein seems to feel no concern for Turkey’s minorities, particularly the Kurds. Unfazed by all this criticism, Augstein doubled down with another tweet asking: “What if the Turks have different requirements for their democracy than we for ours?” Again, this was an attitude that Augstein apparently reserves for Islamist governments mercilessly cracking down on their real or perceived opponents.
A sarcastic comment by the always brilliant Walter Russell Mead could serve as an excellent rejoinder to Augstein’s eagerness to overlook the alarming developments in Turkey: reacting to the news that the crack-down extended to universities, schools, hospitals, associations, foundations and unions, Mead mocked the argument that these measures were the prerogative of Turkey’s democratically elected government by tweeting “Thank goodness the forces of democracy broke the coup, or terrible news would be coming out of Turkey today.”
Quite obviously, Augstein’s stance doesn’t make sense, because what is going on in Turkey is very consequential for Europe, and it is arguably particularly important for Germany, where Turks form the largest ethnic minority and the largest group of non-citizens. Then there is the little matter of the endless debates and negotiations about Turkey’s accession to the European Union (EU), which has meant that Turkey’s democracy and its policies have long been seen as issues that are very much also the EU’s business. Moreover, given that Turkey is a NATO member, concerns about the current crack-down are all the more warranted.
To be sure, German media are full of critical commentaries about the developments in Turkey. One report, entitled “Alarm in Germany over Turkey” even notes that a prominent German history professor argued that the measures taken by Erdogan “amounted to a ‘total seizure of power’” as described in history textbooks “and exemplified in 1933 when democracy was eliminated in Germany by the National Socialists (Nazis) under Adolf Hitler.”
Since this history professor is known as a strong supporter of Israel, Augstein is likely to disagree with him on principle.
Augstein’s eagerness to shield Turkey’s repressive Islamist government from criticism throws his eagerness to criticize Israel into stark relief. In this context it is worthwhile to revisit and update the controversy that ensued in the wake of the Wiesenthal Center’s attempt to name and shame Augstein. In the already cited article from January 2013, James Kirchick summarized the case against Augstein as follows [emphasis added]:
“To prove its case against Augstein, the Wiesenthal Center highlighted five excerpts from his articles over the past year. In one April column, Augstein alleged that “the president [of the United States] must secure the support of Jewish lobby groups” in order to stay in office. In the same column, he wrote that “the Netanyahu government keeps the world on a leash with an ever-swelling war chant.” In another column from November, Augstein wrote that, “the Jews also have their fundamentalists, the ultra-orthodox Haredim,” who are “cut from the same cloth as their Islamic fundamentalist opponents. They follow the law of revenge.” In that same piece he referred to the Gaza Strip as a “lager,” a German word meaning “prison camp” which is redolent of the Nazi era. And then, in a piece endorsing Grass, he wrote that “Israel’s nuclear power is a danger to the already fragile peace of the world.”
Kirchick rightly notes that Augstein’s views are fairly common “in the world of anti-Israel polemicism.” However, according to him, “arguably the worst of Augstein’s columns was one from September that initially garnered the Center’s attention. The subject was the riots that erupted in response to the crude video lampooning the prophet Muhammed.” Augstein wrote there [emphasis added]:
“The fire is burning in Libya, Sudan, Yemen, in countries that are among the poorest in the world. But the arsonists sit elsewhere. The angry young men, who burn the American—and more recently, German—flags are as much victims as the dead of Benghazi and Sana’a. Who benefits from such violence? Only the madmen and the unscrupulous. And this time also—as an aside—the U.S. Republicans and the Israeli government.”
As Kirchick went on to explain:
“Arguments resorting to “Cui bono?” usually have a conspiratorial odor, and this one was no exception. Once again, the lazy moral equivalence characteristic of Augstein’s writing was apparent in his comparing the murdered American Ambassador Chris Stephens with the rent-a-mobs, who regularly ignite American flags at an imam’s whim, as analogous “victims.” Augstein’s rant also displayed an astonishing unfamiliarity with regional politics, for if he knew the first thing about the Israeli government he so despises, he would be aware that it is hardly made up of people enthusiastic about the changes the so-called Arab Spring has wrought.”
Last December, Augstein again attracted criticism when he noted in a column about far-right groups in France and Germany that “fascism was not just a phenomenon of the past,” while asserting at the same time that it was not surprising that the German far-right “had no problem with Israel” because the Israeli government was equally far-right. And while Augstein was worried about fascist tendencies on the far-right, he saw no reason to worry about antisemitism.
Now Herr Augstein sees no reason to criticize Turkey’s repressive Islamist government. He probably regards Erdogan and his AKP as “moderate” Islamists – very different from Israel’s terrible “ultra-orthodox Haredim,” who, as Herr Augstein sees it, are “cut from the same cloth as their Islamic fundamentalist opponents. They follow the law of revenge.” Incidentally, “Law of Revenge” was the title of the column where Augstein not only asserted that Israel’s ultra-orthodox were the equivalent of Hamas, but where he also insinuated that Israel was fighting against Hamas only because – just like Hamas – Israel was motivated by the “law of revenge.”
Let’s conclude with a few recent headlines:
“Erdogan’s revenge: Turkey’s president is destroying the democracy that Turks risked their lives to defend.” (The Economist)
“Mr. Erdogan’s Reckless Revenge” (NYT editorial)
“The Revenge of Turkey’s Erdogan” (WSJ)
Looks like someone is following “the law of revenge” – if only there was a way to blame Israel for it...
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