'German center ignores Iranian threat'

Elie Wiesel: Center for Research on Anti-Semitism's ignoring Iranian incitement is "deplorable."

elie wiesel color 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
elie wiesel color 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Anti-Semitism experts in Germany, the US and Israel are leading an escalating assault on Berlin's Center for Research on Anti-Semitism, accusing the center and its director, Wolfgang Benz, of equating Islamophobia with anti-Semitism while ignoring Iran's genocidal threats toward Israel and trivializing the Holocaust. What started as a row among scholars triggered by the center's conference on Monday, "Concepts of the Muslim Enemy - Concepts of the Jewish Enemy," has turned into a heated public debate over the center's work. Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel expressed misgivings to The Jerusalem Post: "If indeed the Berlin Center for Anti-Semitism downplays the Iranian anti-Semitic threat, it surely is deplorable." More than 200 people attended the one-day conference, which focused on ways German society marginalizes Muslims through biased media reporting, community anti-mosque initiatives, and anti-Islamic Web sites. According to Benz, "The fury of the new enemies of Islam is similar to the older rage of anti-Semites against Jews." But critics charged that the conference blurred the differences between hatred of Jews and contemporary discrimination faced by Muslims, and that it neglected Iranian, Hamas, and Hizbullah violence directed at Israel and Jews. Critics also complained the center had abandoned one of its core missions: Holocaust education. Jochen Müller wrote in the center's academic yearbook that the Holocaust had no "central meaning for the Arabic-Muslim world" and proposed "the colonial period and its consequences" as an alternative subject, especially for immigrant schoolchildren in Germany. The publicly funded center was founded in 1982 at the Technical University of Berlin, and is an important source of information for German members of parliament and policy makers. Benz, a historian who has served as the first non-Jewish director of the institute since 1990, works with a staff of roughly 30 to study the Nazi period and the Holocaust. Writing in Monday's Wall Street Journal Europe, Matthias Küntzel, a Hamburg-based political scientist who specializes in German and Islamic anti-Semitism, acknowledged that prejudice against Muslims for racist reasons needed to be combated, but maintained, "In taking up the fashionable vocabulary of Islamophobia and equating hostility to Muslims with hostility to Jews, the Berlin center also risks undermining the most important current task in dealing with anti-Semitism: studying and fighting hostility to Jews in the Islamic world, where anti-Semitism has reached an unprecedented level." Benz told the liberal daily Die Taz that Küntzel's accusations were "completely ludicrous" and elsewhere claimed support from Ilan Mor, the chargé d'affaires at the Israeli Embassy, and Lala Süsskind, head of the Berlin Jewish community. However, Süsskind told the Post that she did not support Benz's position and "had not commented in any way" on the controversy. The embassy also refused to confirm Benz's assertion to the Post. Mor told the Die Achse des Guten Web site that Benz was making it up when he said he had secured backing from Mor. The Post sent multiple e-mail requests to Benz seeking a comment. At Monday's conference at the Technical University, he told the Post he had "no time" to talk. When asked why he had granted interviews to a number of German media outlets since the controversy burst to the surface last week but refused to answer the Post's queries, Benz declined to comment. He said the term "Islamophobia" had been accepted by the Central Council of Jews. However, in an e-mail to the Post, council Vice President Dr. Dieter Graumann wrote, "Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia cannot be equated - the differences are enormous and monstrous and dreadful: Both in regard to the racist element and the terrible history, and the explicitly eliminationist hatred - back then emanating from the Nazis, and today from avowed Islamists like the Iranian president. Anyone who simply ignores this and lumps them together is interpreting the world naively, dreamily ignoring reality and living in a fantasy world of wishful thinking." The Berlin center controversy carries enormous political currency in Germany because of Adolf Hitler's alliance with the notorious mufti of Jerusalem, rising anti-Semitism and hostility among Germans toward Israel today, and Germany's strong economic ties to the Iranian regime. "For an anti-Semitism center, particularly one in Germany, a far more urgent and appropriate subject to address is 'Genocidal threats to humanity from minorities in the Muslim world: How similar are they to Nazism and communism?'" Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs told the Post. "There are initial indications that some Holocaust-related centers have the potential to develop into 'Trojan horses.' A first sign of this may be the use of the credit and prestige they have acquired by studying the past genocide of the Jews, to obfuscate the importance of the current genocidal threats specifically to Israel, but also to humanity at large. These menaces come primarily from currents in the Muslim world," Gerstenfeld said. Benz has been criticized in the past for seeming to justify the motives of the 9/11 terrorists with what some perceived as anti-Americanism. Der Spiegel journalist Henryk M. Broder cited a quote from Benz in his 2002 book No War, Anywhere, addressing the outbreak of anti-Americanism in Germany following the September 11, 2001 attacks. At the time, Benz commented that the Twin Towers in Manhattan "are symbols of pride and wealth and arrogance. Building such buildings is extreme arrogance, and so vulnerability is built in. And the attacks on these buildings, with these attacks one could erase feelings of helplessness and one's own humiliations and turn them into the opponent's helplessness and humiliation. And that provokes the drastic and dramatic reactions and the martial reactions, and that's what makes it so dangerous and devastating to attack and destroy these particular symbols." Responding to such criticism, Benz complained to the packed conference that his critics were wrongly asserting that he "does not see the danger of fundamental Islamic fanatics and terrorists." In an e-mail to the Post, however, renowned political scientist and Holocaust expert Daniel J. Goldhagen blasted the center for ignoring Iran's threats to obliterate Israel. "Ferocious anti-Semitism is rampant in the Muslim world, genocidal threats and reveries issue from many of its political leaders, and nuclear peril shadows the Jewish community of Israel with another Holocaust. Yet the Berlin Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism refuses to support a petition to stop the Iranian bomb, which former Iranian president Rafsanjani has contemplated using, saying it would destroy Israel. Instead the center provides cover for the political Islamists by equating telling the truth about these facts about political Islam with the hallucinatory hatred called anti-Semitism." The nonpartisan group Stop the Bomb launched a petition campaign in November to end German political and economic support for the Iranian regime. The Berlin center's lack of support for the petition has remained inexplicable to many critics. In contrast to the Berlin center, Charles Small, director of Yale University's Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism, and Robert S. Wistrich, director of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, were among the first to sign the petition.