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The Böckler Foundation Case

This is part three of Matthias Küntzel’s article “Confronting Anti-Semitism — But How?” which appears in Telos 136 (Fall 2006). Parts one and two appeared on Thursday and Friday. Click here to purchase the full issue. The German version is available on Matthias Küntzel’s website,

Openness instead of Concealment

What would have happened if the anti-Semitism of the member of the Bundestag Hohmann had been articulated through e-mails internal to the CDU, instead of in a public speech? Would the public have ever found out about it? Or would those responsible have outwardly kept quiet on the basis of party loyalty?

The conservative party’s own Hans-Böckler Foundation decided against openness in a comparable situation. Until May of this year, the anti-Semitism argument internal to the foundation, which flared up in February 2003 on the Böckler Foundation Fellows mailing list, remained concealed. The reason for the controversy was a paper containing anti-Semitic stereotypes, which had been composed and distributed by a doctoral candidate of Arab descent, who was supported by the foundation. Several other scholarship recipients arranged things so that the debate could be reflected in a self-critical way, in the context of a graduate conference in November 2003. And, fortunately, a general political seminar about anti-Semitism on the Left was sponsored by the Böckler Foundation and organized in Berlin as well.

Yet the Böckler fellows group failed in its attempt to publish the debate and the dossier, which they had commissioned me to prepare, as a regular publication of the Hans-Böckler Foundation. In March 2005, the Foundation decided to maintain silence about the incident, which took place under its own roof. It was evidently an “affair internal to the foundation,” as a coworker from the public relations department explained. “We don’t want this to be generally accessible to the public.” This decision is noteworthy. First of all, the Böckler Foundation, with 250 financially supported graduates per year, belongs to the most important cadre (Kaderschmieden) of the German academic elite, and is subsidized with tax money. In this sense, it is certainly a concern of the public if positions internal to the foundation arise that lend legitimation to the desire to eliminate Israel.

From this the question arises: What do those responsible for the Böckler Foundation actually fear from the publication of the documentation of this controversy? Is it the fear of being forced into a pro-Israel corner through a scandal of anti-Semitism, and being viewed suspiciously by Muslim groups, as well as others, in the future? Or is the option of voice replaced by silence because the anti-Semitic stereotype has already become tolerable?

The Böckler Foundation case does not by any means seem to be an isolated instance. After I had made the situation at the Böckler Foundation known in an external publication, fellows from other large foundations reported to me serious internal episodes of anti-Semitism and subsequent debates in their institutions as well, from which however not one peep was leaked to the public. [1] Naturally there is no requirement for the public exposure of this kind of discussion. And yet “showing face” has something to do with the overcoming of fear, and the willingness at the end to stand at the national or institutional level as a kind of whistle-blower.

I was pleased that a few months ago, the director of a school in Berlin made public the scandalous plan of a religiously fervid Muslim student to murder an emancipated woman of Turkish heritage, instead of covering up the scandal under one’s own roof so as not to been seen as a “nest-soiler” (Nestbeschmutzer), as is so often the case. A nest-soiler is, according to the dictionary, a person “who speaks badly about his/her own family, group, or country.” This word has an understandably bad ring to it in a country, in the political culture of which the protest of the individual has a perhaps even worse reputation than elsewhere. Thus, the example of the school director demonstrates that it all depends on the protest against a closed-minded mentality, if one wants to purge, or better yet, free an institution from misanthropic ideologies. The cover up, on the other hand, leaves such misanthropic thinking active and in place. One behaves toward the outer world according to the requirement of the eleventh commandment: thou shalt not get caught.

It seems to me that this circle-the-wagons mentality is especially widespread, precisely when it has to do with anti-Semitism. The cause of this might be that in Germany, anti-Semitism is irrevocably connected with the worst, with Auschwitz. The result of this is a taboo, the effect of which is contradictory. One the one hand, there is a noticeable social consensus that says that whoever expresses oneself as unequivocally anti-Semitic is finished and gets the boot. On the other hand, it is also true that however more effectively rigid this taboo is, the more equivocally things are covered up and whispered about. The louder the anti-Semitic resentment seethes and sizzles via “detour-communication,” the more stubbornly one seems to ensure that nothing really suspicious rises to the surface.

Consequently, whenever this surface is tarnished, one reaches quickly for the cleaning set and pursues a complete elimination of the blemish. An example: When the CDU/CSU parliamentary party expelled their member Martin Hohmann (a decision that was granted proper reflection and thoroughly deserved), the public was briefly shocked by a secondary scandal. General Günzel stood up for Representative Hohmann in a letter, and was for that reason suspended from his position within a few hours. No room was made for a discussion about Günzel’s misconduct or about the approval he received in his own ranks. Instead, the “cleaners” came and by the next day there was nothing left to be seen. In this way, however, the subterranean hotbed of anti-Semitic resentment remains intact, instead of being discussed publicly.

I endorse what a discussion participant, in the context of the Böckler anti-Semitism argument, wrote: “Can I refer without exception to anyone who lets anti-Semitic stereotypes slip into their discussion or who holds onto an anti-Semitic idea (perhaps without reflecting on it) as an anti-Semite? To point out to someone, no matter how sharply, that he or she harbors anti-Semitic prejudices, is something different than to immediately (and sometimes also triumphantly) cry out, ‘You anti-Semite!'” Indeed. The accusation “anti-Semite” can sometimes be not only necessary but also liberating. But one cannot stop there. Every piece of research in an area that pertains to the afterlife of fascist anti-Semitism must, according to Adorno, be accompanied by the recognition of the necessity to understand such phenomena and manifestations and not just to become irate. Only when one can understand the most extreme attitudes—not by participating in them but through schematic analysis—does it become possible to work sensibly and truthfully against them.

The break with anti-Semitism in its ever new forms of appearance can therefore only take place through continuous engagement, as part of a process. It has to revolve around training in the ability to analyze and recognize various forms of anti-Semitism in everyday life. “Showing Face,” then, for me means bringing confrontation out into the public, whenever it needs to be conducted self-critically rather than in a self-satisfied manner, as in the case of the Böckler Foundation.

I began this lecture, not without reason, with the Iranian president’s polemic against Israel. We live in a time when there are more anti-Semites and there is more anti-Semitism in the world than ever before, a time in which even the possibility of new epochal crimes against the Jews cannot be brushed aside.

It is disconcerting that, in light of this background and the results of the Heitermeyer survey, the American Jewish Committee feels compelled to regret “the gaping hole [regarding the response to] anti-Semitism in the German political landscape,” and to state that “one searches almost in vain within the German-speaking world for developed concepts that do justice to the particularity of anti-Semitism and its current manifestations.” How quickly and how radically changes are tackled here is a measure for the answer to the question of whether or not Germany has learned from its history.

Translated by Kate McQueen.


1. Matthias Küntzel, “Unschuld und Abwehr: Über einen Antisemitismusstreit in der Hans-Böckler-Stiftung,” in Jungle World, May 11, 2005,

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