Kristallnacht anniversary: Controversial Jewish speaker sparks Jewish ire in Germany

Kristallnacht commemorations in Germany tonight will include a speech in Frankfurt by Alfred Grosser, a prominent Franco-German intellectual who escaped the Nazi regime in 1933 and has become a critic of Israel.

By , Staff Writer

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    A worker cleans shelves that hold folders containing files on Jews killed during the Holocaust, at the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum, in this May 2 file photo, in Jerusalem.
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A controversial Jewish critic of Israel speaks tonight in Frankfurt on the anniversary of the 1938 Nazi Kristallnacht, or “night of broken glass,” sparking outrage in the Jewish community, but symbolizing for many Germans that the past is further behind them.

Alfred Grosser, a prominent Franco-German intellectual who escaped the Nazi regime in 1933, is known for his work on postwar reconciliation -- but has in his eighth decade become a serious critic of Israeli policy toward Palestinians.

He has equated Gaza to a concentration camp, calls for full equality of Arabs and Jews in Israel, has said that Germany should be more critical of Israel, and argues that Israeli policies are most responsible for “promoting anti-Semitism globally.”

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Frankfurt mayor Petra Roth invited Mr. Grosser to speak at the Nov. 9 event at St. Paul’s Church as guest of honor for the anniversary of the Nazi ransacking of Jewish temples that left smashed glass on the street outside many Jewish places of worship. Kristallnacht is often remembered as the most visible start of violent Jewish pogroms that led to the Holocaust, the systematic eradication of Jews in Europe.

Grosser himself has hinted that Frankfurt city officials wanted a speaker who wouldn’t ritualistically speak on a subject Germany is well-acquainted with. But the German Council of Jews protested angrily that Grosser’s invitation be revoked, arguing his credentials and attitude are inappropriate for the occasion.

Jewish leaders say they will attend Grosser’s talk, but walk out if he raises the subject of Israel.

'Could be an interesting evening'

“Trouble is brewing in Frankfurt,” is how Der Spiegel played it last week. Yet in a sense, analysts say, the matter-of-fact press analysis and lengthy interviews with Grosser is evidence of change and more openness about Germany’s most sensitive subject. “It could be an interesting evening,” as Der Spiegel summed up.

Grosser’s invitation in this view is another example of Germany becoming a “normal nation.” More than 65 years after the war, Germans believe they have faced the Holocaust; they built a vast memorial in the center of Berlin. Unification brought a new era. Last week, the first postwar female rabbi was ordained in Germany. In October, the first public Hitler exhibition opened in Berlin that steadily reminds you “that Hitler was a Bad Thing,” as political author Timothy Garton Ash points out.

As with new liberal Jewish groups in the US, such as J-Street, there is pushback here to the notion that criticism of Israel is synonymous with anti-Semitism. If Germans want to criticize the blockade of Gaza or treatment of Palestinians, they should be able to without guilt, many say,. Grosser is a Jewish intellectual speaking of universal human rights and urging that the memory of the Shoah, or Holocaust, applies to Israel’s own behavior.

For the Jewish community, the choice of Grosser is inappropriate, if not shocking. Kristallnacht refers to a specific piece of 20th-century history, in Germany, that should not be politicized or forgotten; the Holocaust or racism are not intellectual abstractions, but tragedies.

There is also concern that anger with Israel will affect Jews living in Germany. A recent Frederich Ebert Foundation study found that 17 percent of Germans believe “Jews have too much influence.” Grosser himself is seen by Jews as an especially harsh anti-Zionist whose embrace of Jewish identity is suspect, and who is being used in a way that will excuse latent anti-Semitism.

“Because he was born Jewish, he flirts with his identity, and is used as a camouflage to mask criticisms others would like to make,” argues Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee office in Berlin. “What does criticism of Israel have to do with the memory of the Holocaust? It is an unfortunate linkage that leads to stereotypes. What does this mean in the German context?”

Jewish leaders acknowledge that Grosser is a formidable critic. He was born in Frankfurt, but his father, a doctor, moved to France early in the Nazi rise, where Grosser was raised. His credentials as a historian and intellectual are lengthy; he’s taught in France, Germany, Japan, and the US, and a chair on German studies is named after him at the elite university Sciences Po in Paris. Both France and Germany have accorded him state honors for work on understanding between the two nations.

Members of Grosser’s family were sent to Auschwitz. Much of the attention paid to Grosser in Jewish circles came after his 2009 book “Auschwitz to Jerusalem.” The book takes a pro-Palestinian position because, Grosser says in a recent interview, "the Palestinians are despised, are occupied and I think that the majority of Israel's citizens despise Palestinians….The central theme of my book [is] that any human being should be respected."

“As a Jewish boy in a Frankfurt school, I was despised, and even beaten. I can't understand how Jews can scorn others,” he said to Deutche Welle last week.

Grosser has said his Kristallnacht talk may touch on non-Jews in Germany who helped Jews escape the Nazis, and his belief that it is time for German Jewish groups to stop adopting “a single line” on Israel.

Grosser’s opinions “regarding the State of Israel are illegitimate and immoral,” said the deputy chief of the Israeli embassy, Emmanuel Nahshon, in a Jerusalem Post interview.

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