Views on Zionism and Israel in East Germany

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Views on Zionism and Israel in East Germany

The approach of the East German political elite to Zionism had its ideological background in the communist approach to the "Jewish question," antisemitism, and nationalism, while the most important criterion in shaping attitudes towards Israel was the incorporation of the GDR Middle East policy into the foreign policy of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Like other communist parties, the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) characterized Zionism as bourgeois nationalism and chauvinism. In addition, the East German political elite followed its own political interests. It would be a simplification to identify anti-Zionism with antisemitism, but one cannot ignore that anti-Zionism promoted antisemitic stereotypes and prejudices and kept old antisemitic views alive; antisemites could veil their anti-Jewish attitudes behind an anti-Zionist cover. Some Jewish and non-Jewish communists, leaders of Jewish communities, and representatives of the churches did not accept the official propaganda and policy, but their voices were not heard in public.

On 12 April 1990 the first freely elected parliamentarians in the history of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) declared unanimously, "We ask the Jews all over the world for their forgiveness. We ask the people in Israel to forgive the hypocrisy and hostility shown in official GDR policy towards the state of Israel, and to forgive the persecution and degradation of Jewish compatriots in our country also after 1945."(1) This statement was warmly welcomed by Jewish organizations all over the world and by Israeli politicians. It was also understood by many East Germans as an obvious break with former official positions.

Communist Attitudes toward the Jewish Question, Zionism, and the State of Israel

The attitude of the ruling East European Communist parties -- including the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) -- towards antisemitism, Zionism, and the State of Israel was based on the Marxist-Leninist approach to the so-called "Jewish question." According to this ideological doctrine, communists regarded antisemitism and the persecution of Jews as an economic and political problem of feudal and capitalist societies that would be resolved, more or less automatically, in the socialist society. The path to social liberation was open to all the oppressed; therefore, the participation of citizens of Jewish faith in the creation of a socialist society was regarded as quite normal. It was expected that the assimilation process which had started after the French revolution in Europe and which was stopped by the Holocaust would continue. Ignoring Jewish history and tradition, Jews were characterized only as a religious group. This elimination of many cultural aspects of Judaism implied condemnation of racist Nazi ideology as well as the rejection of Zionist aspirations.

Zionism was not accepted as a reaction to antisemitic persecution or as an attempt to stop the assimilation process, to fight symptoms of decline in Jewish community life, and to realize national self-determination in Palestine. While ignoring the relevance of Jewish history and tradition for Jewish life in Europe, the communists characterized Zionism as bourgeois nationalism and chauvinism, as an attempt to distract the working masses from class struggle and to split the worker's movement. Zionism and Marxism, struggling for the soul of European Jewry at the end of the nineteenth and during the first decades of the twentieth century, remained opponents even after European Jewry was annihilated during the Holocaust. In the East European countries, Zionism became, after World War II, a code word for imperialism and racism.(2) The multifaceted political scene in the Zionist movement was overlooked.

Besides ideology, after the war some political, strategic-military, and economic issues played an important role. The Middle East became of critical importance in the context of Moscow's East-West competition or global role. …