Germany performs political and cultural high-wire act on Gaza

Scholz has adopted a more robust tone towards Israel, but his message is lost in vague language

Nearly six months after the October 7th Hamas attacks, the unresolved Israel hostage situation and warnings of famine in Gaza have left Germany – politically and culturally – trapped between a rock and a hard place.

Last Sunday in Jerusalem alongside Israel president Binyamin Netanyahu, chancellor Olaf Scholz adopted a more robust tone, questioning the “terribly high costs” of Israel’s offensive in Gaza. Speaking in English, he added: “We cannot let Palestinians risk starvation.”

It was this phrase, not his more critical tone, that preoccupied Monday’s government press conference, with officials denying the chancellor had shifted on to the Palestinians the responsibility for their own starvation.

Foreign minister Annalena Baerbock went one step further this week, accepting that Germany’s historic responsibility for the Holocaust meant putting up with accusations – particularly in the last months – that Berlin adopts double standards when it comes to Israel.


In the Bundestag, though, she added: “Israel has every right to defend the same time we stand for humanitarian international law; that too is a lesson of our history.”

Amid legal challenges and famine warnings, Baerbock told the Bundestag her strategy on Israel-Gaza was framed by a remark whispered to her by the parent of an Israeli hostage: “My dear child...will not get through this if in Gaza another mother loses their child.”

After six visits to the region since October 7th – and her seventh trip looming on Sunday – Germany has provided €165 million in additional humanitarian aid since October, and last week joined aid air drops. Officials concede this is too little – twice over: a plane can drop only six pallets of aid compared to a truck’s 22; meanwhile only about one fifth of the 500 trucks needed daily are getting into Gaza.

Despite an increasingly outspoken tone Berlin has so far declined to back EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell’s assertion that in Gaza, “starvation is used as a weapon of war. Israel is provoking famine.” Like the chancellor, Baerbock’s Bundestag remarks on this made no direct reference to Israel. Instead she said: “Death and starvation must end.”

While Germany has boosted aid support to Palestinians since October, its reported ten-fold increase in arms exports to Israel may have legal consequences. Nicaragua has filed a case at the International Court of Justice that accuses Germany of “facilitating” genocide in Gaza on the basis of the 1948 convention.

Similarly, lawyers acting for a Gazan family have filed a criminal complaint with Germany’s federal prosecutor arguing that Berlin is not living up to its “clear obligation to prevent genocide” by Israel in Gaza.

After nearly six months of staunch – if increasingly critical – support for Israel, Scholz was shouted down at Leipzig Book Fair on Wednesday evening by protesters chanting pro-Palestinian slogans. After four minutes he snapped back: “Stop shouting, knock it off.”

That public spat highlights how, parallel to Berlin’s political high-wire act, the secondary consequences of October 7th are tying Germany’s cultural scene in knots.

Recent anti-Semitism controversies – at a leading art show and the Berlin film festival – have seen federal and state cultural ministers under pressure – including from the Israeli embassy – to push for a so-called “anti-anti-Semitism clause”.

At a meeting last week ministers agreed to work towards “legally admissible rules with the goal that no projects and initiatives are funded that pursue anti-Semitic, racist or other inhumane goals”. It remains unclear, however, how such a goal can be achieved given the ministers have yet to adopt any official definition of anti-Semitism, with two competing international definitions doing the rounds.

At last week’s meeting the ministers were presented with a legal opinion, commissioned from one of Germany’s leading constitutional lawyers, that such conditions for state arts funding were legally possible but neither practicable nor advisable.

It would sideline the principle of trust between state funders and artists, wrote Prof Christoph Möllers, and require “the establishment of a supervisory structure that in turn is susceptible to abuse and that could restrict the de facto leeway of public art institutions in a problematic way in favour of political influence”.

Similar to the political sphere German culture officials say they feel manoeuvred into an impossible choice: backing so-called “anti-anti-Semitism clauses”, and defending artistic freedom. Talk to state culture officials around the country and the consensus is clear: they don’t want “anti-anti-Semitism” clauses nor do they want to check every book, film, exhibition. It’s impossible on so many levels, officials concede, but no one dares say that in public

Instead, as cultural ministers fiddle Germany’s international reputation burns. Earlier this month Egyptian visual artist Mohamed Abla became the latest creative to hand back in protest a medal awarded to him by the Goethe Institute. “It doesn’t make sense that the German government speaks about equality and justice and at the same time ignores the plights and rights of Palestinians and helps arm Israel.”