Masha Gessen received a 'political ideology' award. Then they wrote about Gaza.


Masha Gessen had plans to travel from New York to Bremen, Germany, on Wednesday to accept an award named after political philosopher Hannah Arendt. Arendt was a renowned thinker of the 20th century, known for her writings on totalitarianism. However, two sponsors of the event decided to withdraw their support after reading Gessen's essay titled "In the shadow of the Holocaust," which was published in The New Yorker on December 9th. In the essay, Gessen criticizes Germany's policies towards Israel, explores the country's regulation of Holocaust remembrance, and draws comparisons between the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza and Jews in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. Gessen argues that the term "ghetto" would have been more appropriate to describe the situation of besieged Gazans and to understand what is happening in Gaza currently. This controversial essay led to the withdrawal of the venue for the prize ceremony by Bremen's town hall, as reported by Germany's Die Zeit newspaper. The Hannah Arendt Association for Political Thought, which awards the prize, expressed its disappointment in a statement, stating that boycotting a political thinker who aims to contribute knowledge and critical thinking to the debate on Hamas's attacks on Israel and Israel's actions in Gaza hampers public discourse. Gessen, who is Jewish, is a respected intellectual in their own right. They have authored books on repressive political regimes in the United States and Russia and received Germany's 2019 Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding. They also hold a professorship at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism in New York. Gessen spoke to The Washington Post from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, where they were preparing to fly to Bremen for a rescheduled award ceremony in a different venue on Saturday. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. Q: When did you learn about the news and how? A: I received a message from one of the organizers from the Hannah Arendt Association when I woke up. I never heard anything from the Heinrich Böll Foundation. They never sent me a statement or asked for clarification. I have been learning all the other details, apart from the foundation and the city pulling out, from the media. Q: Does the foundation's decision surprise you? A: Yes and no. While I was in Berlin working on this piece, I joked to some friends that I might have my Hannah Arendt Prize revoked because of it. They assured me that it wouldn't happen, so I trusted their judgment. Even people I know in Germany who have been dealing with this issue for years are still shocked by the suppression of speech and the labeling of Jews as antisemitic for criticizing Israeli policies, among other things.

I believe that the key aspect of Germany's memory culture, which has essentially become memory policy, is the insistence on the uniqueness of the Holocaust. This means that it is not allowed to draw any comparisons between Nazi policies and contemporary events, or between the Holocaust and other current events. I think this approach is misguided and dangerous because we can only learn from history if we compare it to the present. Comparisons are our own tool for understanding. We are not inherently smarter or morally superior to those who lived 100 years ago. The only advantage we have is awareness that the Holocaust was possible and remains possible. It is a lesson that is not particularly complex. As for Germany's unconditional support for Israel's military assault on Gaza and its crackdown on speech and pro-Palestinian protests, it is still too early to determine if the episode with the Hannah Arendt Prize fits into this pattern. The Heinrich Böll Foundation and the city of Bremen have withdrawn, but the Hannah Arendt organization itself has not rescinded the prize. This is why I am standing by them, as they have stood by me. The discrepancy between the namesake of the prize, Hannah Arendt, and the potential violation of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's definition of antisemitism is indeed absurd. When I was in Berlin recently working on this, it felt like a controlled experiment, but I still couldn't believe it would actually happen. Regarding the Russian warrant for my arrest on charges of spreading false information about the Russian Armed Forces, there are certainly parallels between these two state efforts to limit speech. Both situations affect my plans, how I navigate the world, and even potentially impact my income. While some may view these as badges of honor, it is not a pleasant experience. It feels like space is closing in on me, as Russia limits my ability to travel and Germany cancels my participation in cultural events. In terms of the overwhelming military assault on Gaza, I am not convinced that genocide is the appropriate term. I believe ethnic cleansing is more accurate. However, I do think that crimes against humanity are likely being committed there. It's important to note that the concepts of crimes against humanity and genocide emerged from World War II and the Holocaust. When we assess whether a crime against humanity or genocide has occurred, we are inherently comparing it to the Holocaust and current events. This act of comparison is a fundamental part of our understanding.

I can definitely assist you with that. Please provide me with the third part of the article, and I will substitute the words with similar ones without altering the text. This is something I want to mention: This entire concept of atrocities against humanity — like the notion of genocide — these are ideas that emerged from World War II and the Holocaust. When we consider whether a crime against humanity has occurred, or if a genocide has taken place, we are engaging in the act of comparing the Holocaust to current events. That is a fundamental element of our modern international legal system. Therefore, to prohibit such comparisons is an attempt to disrupt the entire structure of international humanitarian law, and I believe Israel does this intentionally. That is why they have invested significant resources and efforts in suppressing critical speech about Israel, so that even the notion that Israel can be held accountable for crimes against humanity is discredited before it is even expressed. Q: In the United States, universities and other cultural groups formally and informally regulate speech related to Israel and Gaza. How do you compare the suppression happening in the United States to that in Germany? A: I am pleased that you asked that question because I think that, legally, the situation in the United States is not dissimilar to that in Germany. The House has recently passed a resolution equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism. New York state has implemented an executive order prohibiting BDS [the boycotting and sanctioning of Israel]. The State Department has adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism. In 2019, Donald Trump signed an executive order that withholds federal funds from programs and universities that "fail" to protect people from antisemitism. I am concerned that a battle over federal funding is something that will now follow the congressional hearings, where university presidents are interrogated in a manner reminiscent of McCarthyism. The primary reason why we have not felt the impact of such legislations and resolutions as strongly in the United States as in Germany is because there is simply much less funding involved in cultural programs in the United States. However, there have been individual instances where people have been unable to secure or have lost their jobs due to the provisions of these anti-BDS laws. I genuinely want people to read my essay because I want them to be aware that we have already laid the groundwork for similar events to occur in the United States.

طلحة عبد الكريم
By : طلحة عبد الكريم
مدير و محرر مدونة الموقع التقني.