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“Politics of Memory”: Masha Gessen’s Hannah Arendt Prize Postponed for Comparing Gaza to Warsaw Ghetto

Written by on 15/12/2023


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We begin today’s show with the acclaimed Russian American writer Masha Gessen, scheduled to receive the prestigious Hannah Arendt Prize in Germany today, but the ceremony had to be postponed after one of the award’s sponsors, the left-leaning Heinrich Böll Foundation, withdrew its support for the prize after Masha Gessen compared Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto in a recent article for The New Yorker titled “In the Shadow of the Holocaust: How the politics of memory in Europe obscures what we see in Israel and Gaza today.” The German city of Bremen also withdrew the venue where today’s prize ceremony was scheduled to take place.

In the essay, Masha Gessen wrote, quote, “For the last seventeen years, Gaza has been a hyperdensely populated, impoverished, walled-in compound where only a small fraction of the population had the right to leave for even a short amount of time — in other words, a ghetto. Not like the Jewish ghetto in Venice or an inner-city ghetto in America but like a Jewish ghetto in an Eastern European country occupied by Nazi Germany.”

Masha Gessen went on to write about why the term “ghetto” is not commonly used to describe Gaza. They wrote, quote, “Presumably, the more fitting term ‘ghetto’ would have drawn fire for comparing the predicament of besieged Gazans to that of ghettoized Jews. It also would have given us the language to describe what is happening in Gaza now. The ghetto is being liquidated.”

Masha Gessen’s essay sparked some outrage in Germany. In its announcement withdrawing support for Gessen’s prize, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which is tied to the German Green Party, criticizes Gessen’s essay, saying it, quote, “implies that Israel aims to liquidate Gaza like a Nazi ghetto,” unquote. While the foundation pulled out of the Hannah Arendt Prize ceremony, a smaller ceremony will take place Saturday at a different venue.

For Gessen, the controversy in Germany comes just days after being added to Russia’s most wanted list for comments they made about the war in Iraq — in Ukraine.

Masha Gessen joins us now from Bremen, Germany. Masha Gessen is staff writer at The New Yorker, author of numerous books, including, most recently, Surviving Autocracy.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Masha. If you can start off by talking about this controversy, talking about what you wrote in The New Yorker magazine? And the fact that, well, the ceremony hasn’t been completely canceled, but just explain what’s happened.

MASHA GESSEN: Hi, Amy. It’s good to be here.

I don’t know that I can fully explain what happened, because I don’t think I quite understand what happened, because the Heinrich Böll Foundation first withdrew from the prize ceremony, causing the city of Bremen to withdraw from the prize ceremony, causing the prize organizers to tell me that, first of all, they stand by me and by their decision to give me the prize, but also to — oh, and then the university where the discussion the day after the prize was supposed to be held also withdrew. And this is interesting, because the university said that they believed that having the discussion would violate a law. Now, by the law, I think what they actually meant was the nonbinding resolution that bans anything connected with the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, which is nonbinding but has a huge influence in Germany. And that was largely the topic of my article.

So, then the prize organizers decided to have a smaller ceremony at a different location, which I’m not going to mention, not because I’m afraid of Germans, but because I’m concerned about Russians. And then the Heinrich Böll Foundation, after quite an uproar in German social media and conventional media, issued a new statement saying that they stand by the prize, but the venue had canceled, so they couldn’t hold the award ceremony, so it was postponed, which I don’t think was entirely forthcoming on the part of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and their first statement was on record. But that’s where we stand now.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about the heart of what the Heinrich Böll Foundation has found so controversial. Talk about this piece that you wrote for The New Yorker magazine, the comparison you’ve made to Gaza and the Warsaw Ghetto.

MASHA GESSEN: So, the piece is fairly wide-ranging. It’s a piece in which I travel through Germany, Poland and Ukraine and talk about the politics of memory in each country, but a large part of the piece — and how we view the current war in Israel-Palestine through the prism — or, fail to view the war through the prism of the Holocaust. A large part of the article is devoted to, in fact, memory politics in Germany and the vast anti-antisemitism machine, which largely targets people who are critical of Israel and, in fact, are often Jewish. This happens to be a description that fits me, as well. I am Jewish. I come from a family that includes Holocaust survivors. I grew up in the Soviet Union very much in the shadow of the Holocaust. That’s where the phrase in the headline came from, is from the passage in the article itself. And I am critical of Israel.

Now, the part that really offended the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the city of Bremen — and, I would imagine, some German public — is the part that you read out loud, which is where I make the comparison between the besieged Gaza, so Gaza before October 7th, and a Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe. I made that comparison intentionally. It was not what they call here a provocation. It was very much the point of the piece, because I think that the way that memory politics function now in Europe and in the United States, but particularly in Germany, is that their cornerstone is that you can’t compare the Holocaust to anything. It is a singular event that stands outside of history.

My argument is that in order to learn from history, we have to compare. Like, that actually has to be a constant exercise. We are not better people or smarter people or more educated people than the people who lived 90 years ago. The only thing that makes us different from those people is that in their imagination the Holocaust didn’t yet exist and in ours it does. We know that it’s possible. And the way to prevent it is to be vigilant, in the way that Hannah Arendt, in fact, and other Jewish thinkers who survived the Holocaust were vigilant and were — there was an entire conversation, especially in the first two decades after World War II, in which they really talked about how to recognize the signs of sliding into the darkness.

And I think that we need to — oh, and one other thing that I want to say is that our entire framework of international humanitarian law is essentially based — it all comes out of the Holocaust, as does the concept of genocide. And I argue that that framework is based on the assumption that you’re always looking at war, at conflict, at violence through the prism of the Holocaust. You always have to be asking the question of whether crimes against humanity, the definitions of which came out of the Holocaust, are recurring. And Israel has waged an incredibly successful campaign at setting — not only setting the Holocaust outside of history, but setting itself aside from the optics of international humanitarian law, in part by weaponizing the politics of memory and the politics of the Holocaust.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk more about that, that learning about the Holocaust through the idea that it is separate and apart and can be compared to nothing else, versus how we ensure “never again” anywhere for anyone.

MASHA GESSEN: I don’t know that we can ensure “never again” anywhere for anyone. But I think the only way to try to ensure it is to keep knowing that the Holocaust is possible, keep knowing that it is — it can come out of what Arendt called “shallowness.” I mean, this was very much her point in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. And by the way, this was a book that got Arendt really ostracized by both the Israeli political mainstream and much of the North American Jewish political mainstream, for things that she wrote about the Judenrat, but also for this very framing of the banality of evil. It was misinterpreted as trivializing the Holocaust. But what she was saying is that the most horrible things of which humanity has proven capable can grow out of something that seems like nothing, can grow out of thoughtlessness, can grow out of the failure to see the fate of the other or the inability to see it. And I interpret that as a call to constant vigilance for failure to see the fate of the other, for doubting the kind of overwhelming consensus that, certainly in Israel and in the North American Jewish community, appears to back the Israeli onslaught on Gaza. This is the way in which we stumble into our darkest moments.

AMY GOODMAN: For people who don’t know who Hannah Arendt is, the Jewish philosopher, political theorist, the author of The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition, The Banality of Evil, as well, covered the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker magazine, the magazine that Masha Gessen writes for.

Masha, last week, an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City killed the acclaimed Palestinian academic, the activist, the poet Refaat Alareer, along with his brother, his sister and his four nieces. For more than 16 years, Alareer worked as a professor of English literature at the Islamic University of Gaza, where he taught Shakespeare and other subjects, the father of six and mentor to so many young Palestinian writers and journalists. He co-founded the organization We Are Not Numbers. In October, Democracy Now! spoke to Refaat Alareer, who also compared Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto.

REFAAT ALAREER: If you have seen the pictures from Gaza, we speak about complete devastation and destruction to universities, to schools, to mosques, to businesses, to clinics, to roads, infrastructure, to water lines. I googled this morning Warsaw Ghetto pictures, and I got pictures I couldn’t differentiate. Somebody tweeted four pictures and asked to tell which one is from Gaza and which one is from the Warsaw Ghetto. They are remarkably the same, because the perpetrator is almost using the same strategies against a minority, against the oppressed people, the battered people, the besieged people, whether it was in the Warsaw Ghetto, the Jews in Warsaw Ghetto in the past or the Palestinian Muslims and Christians in the Gaza Strip. So, the similarity is uncanny.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the Palestinian poet, writer and professor Refaat Alareer, who was killed in Gaza by an Israeli airstrike that killed his brother, sister and four of her daughters. This is Scottish actor Brian Cox, famous for Succession, just nominated for a number of Emmys, reading Refaat Alareer’s poem “If I Must Die,” in a video that’s gone viral.

BRIAN COX: If I must die,
you must live
to tell my story
to sell my things
to buy a piece of cloth
and some strings,
(make it white with a long tail)
so that a child, somewhere in Gaza
while looking heaven in the eye
awaiting his dad who left in a blaze—
and bid no one farewell
not even to his flesh
not even to himself—
sees the kite, my kite you made, flying up
above
and thinks for a moment an angel is there
bringing back love
If I must die
let it bring hope
let it be a tale.

AMY GOODMAN: Scottish actor Brian Cox reciting Refaat Alareer’s poem “If I Must Die” in a video produced by the Palestine Festival of Literature, PalFest. Masha Gessen, if you can comment on both what Refaat and you are saying about the Warsaw Ghetto, and the significance of him dying in this strike, like so many other Palestinians? I think the number, as we speak, we’re at something like 19,000 Palestinians dead, more than 7,000 children, more than 5,000 women, Masha.

MASHA GESSEN: I wasn’t aware that he had made this comparison, but I’m not particularly surprised, because the comparison lies on the surface. And so, the question I had to ask when writing this, it was, “Why hadn’t this comparison been made before?” The trope that’s been used for at least a dozen years in sort of human rights circles is “open-air prison.” And “open-air prison” is not a good descriptor for what was Gaza before October 7th. There are no prison cells. There are no prison guards. There is no regimented daily schedule. What there was was isolation. What there was was a wall. What there was was the inability of people to leave, with the exception of very, very few. What there was was a local force, enabled in part by the people who built the wall — and I’m talking about Hamas now as the local force — that maintained order, and in this way serviced, in part, the needs of the people who built the wall. That was the bargain that Israel had struck by pulling out of Gaza, was that Hamas would maintain order there. And obviously, there are huge differences. I’m not claiming, by any means, that this is a one-to-one comparison or that even there is such a thing as a one-to-one comparison. That’s not a thing. But what I’m arguing is that the similarities are so substantial that they can actually inform our understanding of what’s happening now.

And what’s happening now — and this is probably the line in the piece that made a lot of people throw their laptops across the room — what’s happening now is that the ghetto is being liquidated. And I think that’s an important thing to say, not just because it’s important to call things — to describe things in the best possible way that we can, but because, again, in the name of “never again,” we have to ask if this is like a ghetto. And if what we’re witnessing now in this indiscriminate killing, in this — in an onslaught that has displaced almost all the people of Gaza, that has made them homeless, if that is substantially similar to what we saw in some places during the Holocaust, then what is the world going to do about it? What is the world going to do in the name of “never again”?

AMY GOODMAN: Masha Gessen, the cancellations of speeches, of festivals that are seen as pro-Palestinian are on the rise. You have taught at Bard for years. You know the kind of pressure that professors and students are being brought under all over the United States. You’re in Germany right now. I’m wondering if you can comment on this. Some are calling it a “new McCarthyism.” And yet, interestingly, like you, so many of the protesters are Jews, are Jewish students, Jewish professors. But when this ceremony was first canceled, then postponed, what kind of response did you get from the press? Was it an avalanche of interest? And especially in Germany now, where people like Greta Thunberg — right? — the young climate activist, spoke up for Gaza and got pilloried in the German press?

MASHA GESSEN: Well, funny you should ask, because I was making my way to Bremen after having woken up to an email telling me that this was all going on, and I started seeing media reports that were wildly inaccurate. They said, for example, that the prize had been rescinded, which it never was. The jury was very firm, and I can’t say enough to express my appreciation for them. I think they’ve shielded me from how much pressure they’ve come under as a result of this controversy. But I’ve felt so well hosted and supported by them. But, yeah, the media were reporting all sorts of things and also making up biographical facts about me.

And in all that time, not a single German reporter contacted me, and only one U.S. reporter contacted me, a reporter from The Washington Post. So I tweeted about it. And it was like I reminded journalists that that’s what we do, is we call people and find out what actually happened. So, I have been talking to the media now nonstop for the last 28 hours. I almost wish I hadn’t tweeted it, but I also think it’s very important to try to have this conversation in a meaningful way. So I’ve been concentrating mostly on German media. Every single German media outlet I’ve ever heard of has reached out to me. So I don’t think it’s that they didn’t want give me a voice. It’s that the habit of aggregating the news has just become so ingrained that people forget that the substance of our profession is to actually call people and ask them.

AMY GOODMAN: Go to where the silence is. Masha Gessen, I also want to ask you about another issue. Russian police recently placed you on a wanted list after opening a criminal case against you on charges of spreading false information about the Russian army. The Kremlin is accusing you of spreading false information over your remarks about the massacre of Ukrainian civilians by Russian forces in the city of Bucha in March of last year. Can you comment?

MASHA GESSEN: Well, it’s been quite a week. I kind of feel like I want to stop making news. But you know what? It’s not crazy to me that I’m both placed on the Russian wanted list and running into trouble with German authorities, because I think that there is a kind of politics — and this is what you referred to in the first part of your earlier question — which is, you know, the thing that some people are referring to as the “new McCarthyism.”

This is, to me, the most worrying part of domestic Western politics, both here and in the United States, that the right wing is riding the horse of anti-antisemitism. In Germany, the AfD, which is the far-right anti-immigrant party, has been using antisemitism as a cudgel to — both as a ticket into the political mainstream and as a cudgel against a lot of anti-Israeli policy voices, many of which belong to Jews. And I think that what we have observed with the university presidents being called into Congress in the United States has definite similarities. It is also Elise Stefanik’s ticket into the political limelight and political mainstream. But it also — and this is the really important part — it is also based on a profoundly antisemitic worldview. Elise Stefanik is using these university presidents to attack liberal institutions, to attack Ivy League universities. And I think, in her imagination — and I think we know enough to know that this is how her imagination is working — she is trying to get donors to withdraw funding to undermine these institutions. And, of course, in her imagination, the Jews control all the money, so the donors are Jews. This is the most sort of basic antisemitic trope.

And the fact that the right is able to hijack the issue of antisemitism so effectively is truly dangerous, because you know what? Antisemitism is real. Antisemitism, when right-wing politicians or stupid politicians mix actual antisemitism with fake antisemitism, with what in Germany they called Israel-related antisemitism, which is basically criticism of Israel, what we end up with is a muddled picture in which Jews are being used and antisemitic worldview is being reaffirmed, and, ultimately, actual real antisemitism becomes a bigger danger.

AMY GOODMAN: And I wanted to end with another victim of the Holocaust, the LGBTQ community. Russia’s Supreme Court recently banned LGBTQ+ activism in a landmark decision Amnesty International blasted as “shameful and absurd.” The ruling, which asserts the international LGBTQ movement is extremist, threatens to further endanger already persecuted communities. Masha, isn’t that part of the reason you left the Soviet Union, you left Russia, to begin with? We just have a minute, but if you could comment?

MASHA GESSEN: Yes. I left — next week is 10 years since I was forced to leave Russia because of the anti-gay campaign that was already underway in Russia, and the Kremlin was threatening to go after my family.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Masha Gessen, we thank you so much for joining us, staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, distinguished writer-in-residence at Bard, award-winning Russian American journalist, author of numerous books, including, most recently, Surviving Autocracy. Masha’s most recent piece for The New Yorker is headlined “In the Shadow of the Holocaust: How the politics of memory in Europe obscures what we see in Israel and Gaza today.” We’ll link to it at democracynow.org. Masha Gessen has been speaking to us from Bremen, Germany, where they will be receiving the Hannah Arendt Award, albeit at a different venue, not sponsored by as many organizations that originally were sponsoring that award.

When we come back, we go to Jenin, to the occupied West Bank, to speak with the artistic director at the Freedom Theatre, jailed this week after Israel rounded up hundreds of Palestinian men and trashed the theater. And we’ll speak to Peter Schumann, the 89-year-old co-founder of Bread and Puppet Theater, about his legendary troupe addressing Israel’s assault on Gaza. The performance is this weekend here in New York. Back in 20 seconds.



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