German foundation delays Masha Gessen's Hannah Arendt Prize over Gaza essay

German foundation delays Masha Gessen's Hannah Arendt Prize over Gaza essay
The debate around awarding Masha Gessen the Hannah Arendt Prize comes as wider debates emerge in Germany over the issue of antisemitism and Palestine activism.
3 min read
15 December, 2023
Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

The award ceremony for the Hannah Arendt Prize was delayed after the Heinrich Boll Foundation withdrew its affiliation over an essay written by its recipient, Masha Gessen, on Israel's brutal siege and assault on Gaza.

The essay, titled 'In the Shadow of the Holocaust' and published by The New Yorker on 9 December, angered pro-Israel groups due to Gessen's comparison of Gaza to Eastern European Jewish Ghettos during the Second World War.

The award is in memory of Hannah Arendt, a German-born Jewish writer and philosopher who escaped Nazi-dominated Europe for the US in 1941.

The German Israeli Society in Bremen wrote that "we are particularly alienated by Masha Gessen's statement that Gaza was 'like a Jewish ghetto in an Eastern European country occupied by Nazi Germany'".

It further accused Gessen of holding a "deep seated and fundamental negative prejudice against the Jewish State", adding that Gessen "should not be honored with an award that is intended to commemorate the Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt".

The Holocaust remains a highly sensitive issue in Germany due to the country's role in the genocide, but Palestinian activists say this has veered into a lack of tolerance for criticism of Israel.

Gessen's essay criticises Germany's fixed memorialisation of the Holocaust which has stifled how Jews, citing the case of Candice Breitz and Micharl Rothberg, interpret the Holocaust.

It also criticises the Germany's adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, noting that Arendt's 1948 comparison of the Israeli 'Freedom Party' to the Nazi Party is "an act that today would be a clear violation of the IHRA's definition of antisemitism".

The IHRA definition of antisemitism, which has also seen adoption in the US and by the EU member states, includes certain criticisms of Israel, such as comparisons with Nazi Germany, as being antisemitic.

The criticism over Gessen's award, which is expected to go ahead without the sponsorship of the Heinrich Boll Foundation, comes amid widespread repression of pro-Palestinian sentiment in Germany.

This includes a recent article within Sudeutsche Zeitung that equates the Keffiyeh, the traditional scarf worn by Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa, including Palestinians, with the Nazi brown shirt uniform worn by the SA, the Nazi paramilitary.

Likewise, a recent podcast by German television station Welt saw Israeli-German rapper Ben Solomon say that "Free Palestine is the new Heil Hitler".

Recent restrictions by Berlin on pro-Palestinian activism and protest over the ongoing war in Gaza played a part in the recent downgrading of Germany's civic freedoms from 'open' to 'narrowed' by Civicus in their 2023 report titled 'People Power Under Attack 2023'.