The distinguished British philosopher Ted Honderich, is threatening to sue the head of the Holocaust museum in Frankfort for calling him an anti-Semite. The director, Micha Brumlik , levelled the charge last week after Honderich’s book "After The Terror" was published in Germany in July.
Suhrkamp, the jelly-kneed publisher, has said it is taking the book off the market, though in practice this appears to mean Surhkamp won’t order a reprinting when the first printing of 3,000 is sold out.
Germany’s most eminent philosopher, Jurgen Habermas, has said he was the one who recommended the book to Suhrkamp, can find nothing anti-Semitic in it, though, in a kindred display of pusillanimity, simultaneously says he regrets having been involved in anything that may have caused offense.
Honderich is a resolute supporter of the Palestinian struggle for nationhood. But, as he emphasizes, he is in no way an anti-Semite, has a Jewish wife and step children and has always refused to lecture in Germany because of the Holocaust.
The book was published in a German translation as Nach dem Terror: Ein Traktat, in July 2003, by Suhrkamp in Frankfurt on Main, as one of their 40th anniversary books. Micha Brumlik is director of a centre for the history and effects of the Holocaust in Frankfurt, and a professor of science-education, at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt on Main.
On August 5, in the liberal paper Frankfurter Rundschau, Brumlik published an open letter to the publisher Suhrkamp denouncing the book and Honderich as anti-Semitic, and demanding that it be taken off the market.
On August 6 the paper carried an embarrassed dispatch from Prof. Dr. Jurgen Habermas, Germany’s best known philosopher. This man of the mind vouchsafed that himself had recommended After the Terror to Suhrkamp for publication. Having been surprised by his friend Brumlik’s letter, he had now read the book again and found in it no evidence of anti-Semitism. But he was sorry to have been involved in something that caused hurt.
Suhrkamp then announced in a press release it was taking the book off the market. Subsequently it became clear that what this comes to is that they are not reprinting a book that has sold out, or more or less sold out its run of 3,000 copies. It remains the case that they have ‘banned’ a book. In a letter to Honderich they remark in passing that they have a Jewish imprint within their house.
On August 8, after it had already appeared on my website, the Frankfurter Rundschau published most of an open letter from Honderich to Johann Wolfgang Goethe University. Honderich denied as absurd the charge of anti-Semitism, saying that it was made only because he assrted the moral right of the Palestinians to their terrorism or resistance, as the Israeli state asserts its moral right to killing. He demanded the removal of Brumlik from his professorship.
The affair has become theprime cultural-political controversy in Germany. eliciting at least 50 articles, some virulent.
Honderich says, " I have come to realize fully, mainly from German journalists, German emotions about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, 60 years after the event, remain very strong indeed, [involving] guilt, resolution, and probably other things.
"My strong line has been the one in my open letter: I am being attacked as anti-Semitic because I assert the moral right of the Palestinians to their terrorism, as the neo-Zionist state in Israel asserts a moral right overtly and covertly to kill Palestinians. (My claim of a moral right to violence is far from unique.)
"That I am anti-Semitic is certainly a falsehood, probably a lie. The neo-Zionist use of the libel and slander of anti-Semitism is very well-known, at any rate outside of Germany, and recorded in the Englishliberal press. It is dirty politics and dirty morals. In Germany, it isoperating in a circumstance that does honour to the Germans: their guilt etc. 60 years after the Holocaust. The banning of this book is sad for Germany.
Honderich emphasizes that the charge of anti-Semitism has strong personal overtones for him:
"I have had a Jewish wife, now have a Jewish step son-in-law and, so to speak, Jewish grandchildren. I refused to lecture in Germany because of the Holocaust. Even if philosophically advanced, as you might say, I am a British Lefty, a member of the Labour Party still, My autobiography Philosopher: A Kind of Life, provides evidence on the Holocaust point and also strong evidence of a general kind as to my attitudes to Jews.
"I am taking advice on the possibility of sueing Brumlik for libel. There is the personal consideration of course. (‘Honderich monster’ finds you some files on Google.) There is also the moral and political aspect of the case, including that of the Palestinians, to which I am committed."
In the forthcoming The Politics of Anti-Semitism, edited by Jeffrey St Clair and myself, there is a very interesting essay by Norman Finkelstein, recounting similar charges of anti-Semitism levelled at him when he visited Germqany. In it Finkelstein writes:
In fact, the Holocaust has proven to be a valuable commodity for politically correct Germans. By "defending" Holocaust memory and Jewish elites against any and all criticism, they get to play-act at moral courage. What price do they actually pay, what sacrifice do they actually make, for this "defense"? Given Germany’s prevailing cultural ambience and the overarching power of American Jewry, such courage in fact reaps rich rewards. Pillorying a Jewish dissident costs nothing–and provides a "legitimate" outlet for latent prejudice.
It happens that I agree with Daniel Goldhagen’s claim in Hitler’s Willing Executioners that philo-Semites are typically anti-Semites in "sheep’s clothing." The philo-Semite both assumes that Jews are somehow "different" and almost always secretly harbors a mixture of envy of and loathing for this alleged difference. Philo-Semitism thus presupposes, but also engenders a frustrated version of, its opposite. A public, preferably defenseless, scapegoat is then needed to let all this pent-up ugliness ooze out.
To account for Germany’s obsession with the Nazi holocaust, a German friend explained that Germans "like to carry a load." To which I would add: especially if it’s light as a feather. No doubt some Germans of the post-war generation genuinely accepted the burden of guilt together with its paralyzing taboos on independent, critical thought. But today German "political correctness" is all a charade of pretending to accept the burden of being German while actually rejecting it. For, what is the point of these interminable public breast-beatings except to keep reminding the world: "We are not like them."