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Masha Gessen to receive Hannah Arendt prize despite backers withdrawing

Gessen tells MEE Germany's 'memory culture' has confused the country's ability to relate to and understand atrocities
Masha Gessen speaks onstage at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival - Truth To Power Panel at Filmmaker Lodge on January 25, 2020 in Park City, Utah (AFP)

Masha Gessen, a prominent Russian-American journalist and LGBTQ campaigner, has become the latest person to be caught up in Germany's long-running national tussle over how to reconcile its historical guilt with its attitude to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The controversy began after it was announced that Gessen was set to win the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought, a prize named in honour of the German-Jewish writer and thinker who is most renowned for coining the term "banality of evil" in her work reporting on the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.

On Wednesday, the Heinrich Boll Foundation - which was sponsoring the prize - announced its withdrawal from sponsoring the prize, citing an essay by Gessen called "In The Shadow of the Holocaust" written for the New Yorker magazine. In tandem, the city of Bremen also said it had withdrawn support, denying the prize committee a venue for the award ceremony.

"You've got to be fucking kidding me," was Gessen's first reaction.

Speaking to Middle East Eye from Bremen, the writer said after some wrangling, the organisers had managed to reorganise the giving of the prize for Saturday, albeit in a much more pared-down format, with much of the ceremony stripped out, including a planned reception at the Bremen mayor's house and a talk at Bremen University.

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'It is too absurd. Hanna Arendt wouldn't have gotten the Hannah Arendt prize if you applied those kinds of criteria to it'

- Masha Gessen

"The university concluded they couldn't have the discussion because they would be in violation of something, probably the non-binding BDS resolution," they said, referencing a resolution passed by the German parliament in May 2019 that branded as "antisemitic" the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that aims to pressure Israel to adhere to international law.

"I don't know whether the prize money is still attached to the prize or not," Gessen added.

Their essay for the New Yorker, which makes a comparison between the current situation in the Gaza Strip and the conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto, discusses the notion of the "singularity of the Holocaust" and the concept of the atrocity as "an event that Germans must always remember and mention but don’t have to fear repeating".

There are many layers of irony to the controversy.

Gessen is Jewish and lost numerous family members in the Holocaust, and is also non-binary, having repeatedly had to flee Vladimir Putin's Russia, including over fears that they and their partner's children could be removed from them by the state as a result of the government anti-LGBTQ legislation.

As someone who has had direct experience of the kind of repression that Arendt spoke out against so fervently in her lifetime, the outcry over her article appears bewildering.

Gessen said they had been joking with some German friends in Berlin in November that the prize would be revoked.

"Somehow they thought that would be just too absurd - and of course it is too absurd. Hannah Arendt wouldn't have gotten the Hannah Arendt prize if you applied those kinds of criteria to it," they said.

"She was very insistent on comparing the Israeli policies and Israeli ideologies to the Nazis. And her project was very much what I'm building on, which is you have to compare in order to identify dangerous similarities."

'Memory culture'

Germany has long struggled to come to terms with its 20th-century history, primarily how it relates to the legacy of the Holocaust, which saw six million Jews, as well as millions of others, killed in death camps by the Nazi regime.

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Supporting Israel is a cornerstone of German foreign policy with the former chancellor, Angela Merkel, declaring it to be a staatsrason - reason of state - even backing the state's actions when condemnations were issued by Berlin's European allies.

This has made pro-Palestinian perspectives in the country often very difficult to articulate without being branded antisemitic.

Gessen argues that Germany's "memory culture" is unhealthy for the country, for Jewish people, and for the Palestinians, and fails to actually learn the lessons that needed to be learned from the Holocaust.

They pointed out that Arendt, in her time, faced many of the same criticisms. In her most famous work, Eichmann in Jerusalem, she punctured the idea of the uniquely evil quality that many attributed to Nazi officials, suggesting they were often - as in the case of Eichmann himself - fundamentally mundane people, even jobsworths.

"They saw her - completely misguidedly - as trivialising the Holocaust, when what she was saying was that out of shallow things, out of trivial things, out of things which seem ridiculous, a massive evil can arise," explained Gessen.

'Fascist' comparisons

Much of the criticism Gessen faced has stemmed from the German-Israel Society (DIG), which said handing Gessen the award would "contradict the necessary decisive action against the growing antisemitism" in the country, and said the comparisons made by Gessen were in "clear contrast to Hannah Arendt's thinking."

Arendt, originally an ardent Zionist, made direct comparisons between fascism and Israeli actions.

In 1948, she was a signatory along with a number of other Jewish intellectuals, including Albert Einstein, to a letter that denounced as "fascist" the new political party of Menachem Begin, who would later become prime minister of Israel and whose political successors included the Likud party of current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

'[Arendt] was saying was that out of shallow things, out of trivial things, out of things which seem ridiculous, a massive evil can arise'

- Masha Gessen

They also referred to the actions of Begin's Irgun militia, specifically the 1948 Deir Yassin massacre that saw at least 100 Palestinian villagers killed by the Irgun and their allies.

Gessen said that the current controversy had at times felt like "my birthday" because they found themselves in the company of so many others, particularly Jewish intellectuals, who had faced censure for talking about these issues.

"To have a few hours in which Judith Butler, Naomi Klein and Eyal Weizman and a few dozen others who I respect more than anyone else in the world reaching out to me and saying about being in the same boat or just extending their support - it's quite extraordinary," they explained.

Looking to the future, they worry that right-wing political movements will continue to co-opt genuine fears of Jews over rising antisemitism to secure their support and push for authoritarian legislation.

"The inconvenient part of it is things like what happened to me happening...but there's something else going on, which is that antisemitism is a real thing, and it includes violent incidents and truly dangerous incidents, and when those incidents are lumped together with what Germans call anti-Israeli antisemitism - which isn't antisemitism at all - that dilutes the definition of antisemitism," they said.

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