Outcry over 'anti-Semite' at German gov't agency

German politician demands dismissal of official who branded Zionism 'arrogant' and 'racist.'

swastika 88 (photo credit: )
swastika 88
(photo credit: )
A German politician is leading calls on Germany's Federal Agency for Civic Education (BpB), which provides educational material to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Israel hatred, to sack an employee for a series of alleged fiercely anti-Israel and anti-Jewish statements. The controversy has raised an outcry in Germany because the employee, Dr. Ludwig Watzal, is more than a simple civil servant; he writes for the Das Parlament, a paper funded by the Federal government that covers domestic and international affairs, and serves as co-editor of Apuz, an academic supplement to the parliamentary paper. He has written widely on issues related to Israel and presents himself as an expert on Middle Eastern affairs. Watzal has openly identified himself as a BpB employee in his widely disseminated writings on the Middle East. He did so, for instance, for a November 2007 article in Lebanon Wire, an on-line news site based in Beirut, to blast the prominent Israeli historian Benny Morris, saying Morris "encapsulates all Zionism's major elements, its inherent implausibility as a practical enterprise, its arrogance, racism and self-righteousness." Elsewhere, Watzal has written, "Now that the US has been Israelized, is the Israelization of the world imminent?" In an e-mail to The Jerusalem Post, the head of the BpB, Thomas Krüger, wrote that the agency "has always made it clear that it does not identify with Watzal's statements as a private person, and has in fact clearly distanced itself from them." However, Gert Weisskirchen, a leading Social Democratic Party deputy, has called Watzal's positions anti-Semitic and demanded his dismissal. German politicians tend to be extremely reluctant to accuse other public officials of anti-Semitism, a charge that carries particular weight in Germany because of its history. Critics charge Krüger with tolerating Watzal's anti-Israeli outlook by hiding behind employee rights arguments. Belinda Cooper, a lawyer and specialist on Germany at the World Policy Institute in New York, said, "By falling back on legal arguments, the BpB is making things too easy for itself; surely, it would find a way to fire a neo-Nazi employee, if the situation came up." When questioned about Watzal's alleged anti-Jewish views, the University of Bonn, which Watzal cites as his current academic teaching post on his CV, said that he was no longer employed by the university's institute for political science and sociology. No reason was given. Watzal's hostile sentiments date back to the 1990s. In a widely heard German radio broadcast in 2005, Watzal said the Israeli media businessman Haim Saban's purchase of the German television pro7 outlet was "evidence of how symbiotic the relationship between power and money is. Saban's political desire is to obtain as much control as possible over the media." Dr. Juliane Wetzel, a historian at the center for the research on anti-Semitism at the Technical University of Berlin, said Watzal "activates the typical clichés of Jewish capital and Jewish power." Cooper said that "instead of engaging in thoughtful examination, the BpB is responding with defensiveness - as though the critics were the problem." At a parliamentary hearing devoted to combating anti-Semitism on January 25, several specialists in the field criticized the BpB for what they said was its failure to realize that Watzal's continued employment undermined their credibility. Asked why the Interior Ministry, which oversees the BpB, had extended Watzal's contract in 2006-2007, Gabriele Hermani, the spokeswoman for the agency, declined to comment on "personnel" matters. Following the parliamentary hearing, Watzal initiated legal action against a critic at the session and the journalist Samuel Laster in Vienna, who is the editor of the on-line Jewish magazine Die Jüdische. "If Watzal can accuse Benny Morris of racism, why can Watzal's critics not accuse him of anti-Semitism?" said the journalist John Rosenthal, who writes for the World Politics Review and has reported on the Watzal affair. "If Benny Morris is worried that anyone might take Watzal's opinion seriously, then it is up to him to be a big boy and defend himself with words, not by running to the courts. In a mature democracy, Ludwig Watzal would be expected to do the same. In Germany, evidently he is not," said Rosenthal. Watzal did not respond to e-mail requests for comment for this article. Reached on his mobile phone, he said that "Mr. Weisskirchen can say what he wants," in response to Weisskirchen's assertion that his positions constitute anti-Semitism. Weisskirchen, the Social Democratic Party deputy, serves as the personal representative of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe for combating anti-Semitism. The controversy surrounding Watzal and the BpB comes ahead of a March 16-17 visit to Israel by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her cabinet. Merkel told the German parliament on January 25 that "mainstream forms of anti-Semitism" must be combated in Germany.