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In two of the great liberal democracies, freedom of speech stops at Israel

Germany and America present themselves as open and progressive societies where people can express themselves freely. But not if you want to call out Israel’s abhorrent bombardment of Gaza

If there’s one thing you read this week, make it Masha Gessen’s piece in the New Yorker, In the Shadow of the Holocaust. Gessen, one of the finest journalists working today, is caught up in one of those through-the-looking-glass moments we are experiencing regarding the censorship and shunning of countless academics, public intellectuals, artists and journalists in relation to any kind of critique or even contextual framing of Israel’s policies and bombardment of Gaza.

In an interview in the Washington Post, Gessen said that the Heinrich Böll Foundation – which sponsors the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought – pulled its support for the presentation of the prize to Gessen, who is Jewish. The Post quoted the foundation as saying that Gessen’s piece “implies that Israel aims to liquidate Gaza like a Nazi ghetto… This statement is not an offer for open discussion; it does not help to understand the conflict in the Middle East.”

However, the Hannah Arendt organisation has not rescinded the prize. It’s a slightly absurdist hypothetical to posit, but under the current conditions in Germany, could Arendt herself – famous for her writing on totalitarianism – even be awarded the Hannah Arendt Prize today without opposition? I doubt it.

Germany and America present themselves as open and progressive societies where people can express themselves freely. In the context of any desire to call out Israel’s abhorrent slaughter of innocent people in Gaza, this is a fantasy. Unless real progressives, genuine democrats, those who authentically believe in free societies stop this rot, these two countries in particular – Germany and the US – are going to fold their hypocritical concepts of “freedom” in on themselves. All that will be left is the shadow of an aspiration operating in darkness.


In February 2012, I travelled to multiple Russian cities with the band And So I Watch You From Afar and, late at night, would chat to their young fans about their context. A sort of code emerged that almost felt like jazz, navigating and interpreting the gaps and silences to extract meanings, gently searching for their assessment of the political and social conditions they were living under. A week after I flew home from Moscow, Pussy Riot walked into the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a few hundred metres from the Kremlin, and began a performance that would lead to global fame and their arrest.

You don’t protect democracy by rounding up protesters calling for peace, or censoring or silencing journalists, artists and public intellectuals

I’ve also travelled to countries where being gay is punishable by imprisonment, and where the threat to safety is very obvious should the fact of one’s sexuality become known, and so I have outright lied about my sexuality when asked, in order to preserve my personal safety.

None of this felt as unnerving as what I experienced in New York in October. The consequences of striking up a conversation about the Israeli attacks on Gaza wouldn’t be particularly severe. They might cause anger or a profound social awkwardness. But it was the lie of America’s freedom of speech that felt so grotesque. I was disturbing myself by participating in the sort of social censorship that hung over the city; being careful about who I spoke to about what was going on, talking in low tones when in public, engaging in the game of not mentioning what was on everyone’s mind when it was so obviously being left out of conversation. Police rounded up protesters, many of them Jewish. If there is one good thing to take from America right now, it is the actions of Jewish Voice for Peace, who are putting their bodies on the line in the name of peace.

In this context – which feels so specifically disturbing when one is in it – America is not fighting anti-Semitism. It is performing that fight, but actually behaving in a manner that can only lead to the comparative naming of a single term: McCarthyism.

An Irishwoman, Julie Fogarty, who has lived in Berlin for 15 years, recently co-organised a Gig for Gaza, directly inspired by the Dublin event. “Whatever about raising money,” Fogarty told me, “it came from a sense that we had to show the Palestinian community – and there is a huge Palestinian population in Berlin – that we are with them. I just wanted them to know: people do support you, people are here in solidarity, there are white Europeans who stand with you, people in the Berlin queer community do stand with you.”

Fogarty characterises the current atmosphere of censorship in Germany as “insane” and “a nightmare”. She said she was shocked by the actions of the Berlin police at early protests where she saw young Arab men being pulled out of crowds and beaten. “Over here, a demo could have a hundred people at it,” she said, “and there will be just as many heavily militarised police, guns, constantly filming the protest. This is for a peaceful demonstration. You can’t help now but think of their history in relation to that.”

You don’t protect democracy by rounding up protesters calling for peace, or censoring or silencing journalists, artists and public intellectuals. When freedoms fall apart in democracies, it’s often not only due to attacks on democracy instigated by the fascistic. The collapse includes the assistance and facilitation of impositions on civil liberties and freedom of expression by the forces that characterise themselves as the “centre”. This is what’s happening in America. It’s also what’s happening in Germany.

When the far right triumphs or obtains more power in these countries, it will be important for those who claim to resist such futures, yet replicate their trademarks of oppression, to examine what they did, what they didn’t do, and why. It will also be too late.