The German Green Party-affiliated Heinrich Böll Foundation, “in agreement with the Bremen Senate,” is withdrawing from awarding the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought to the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, citing Gessen’s recent New Yorker essay “In the Shadow of the Holocaust” as the reason for the decision.
In the essay, published on December 9, Gessen criticizes Germany’s Israel policy (including the Bundestag’s controversial BDS resolution, which condemns the Israel boycott movement as anti-Semitic) and its politics of remembrance, and compares the plight of today’s besieged Gazans to that of the ghettoized Jews in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe:
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. In the two months since Hamas attacked Israel, all Gazans have suffered from the barely interrupted onslaught of Israeli forces. Thousands have died. On average, a child is killed in Gaza every ten minutes. Israeli bombs have struck hospitals, maternity wards, and ambulances. Eight out of ten Gazans are now homeless, moving from one place to another, never able to get to safety.
According to an article published in Germany’s Die Zeit newspaper earlier today, the Bremen branch of the German-Israeli Society (DIG) heavily criticized Gessen’s statements on the situation in the Gaza Strip and called for the planned award ceremony to be suspended. An open letter from the Bremen DIG stated that honoring Gessen (a Jewish writer whose grandfather was murdered by the Nazis) “would contradict the necessary decisive action against the growing anti-Semitism.”
The irony of calling for the suspension of a prize named after an anti-Totalitarian political theorist in order to appease the authoritarian government of a rogue state currently committing genocide against an already-subjugated people seems to be lost on the Bremen DIG.
The German government has come under intense criticism over the past two months for its unqualified support for Israel’s war on Gaza, as well as for its aggressive crackdown on pro-Palestinian activism and advocacy. This silencing of Palestinian voices has been acutely felt within German’s cultural community, where museum shows, book prizes, and artist commissions have all been canceled in recent weeks.
UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: According to Die Zeit, the presentation of the prize, originally scheduled to take place next Friday in Bremen, will now be presented in a different setting next Saturday, but without the involvement of the Heinrich Böll Foundation (an independent political foundation, affiliated with the German Green Party, which instituted the Hannah Arendt Prize in 1994 and which has sponsored the award every year since).