Masha Gessen

Masha Gessen speaks at a May 8, 2019 event in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: New America/flickr/cc)

German Group Won't Present Arendt Prize to Masha Gessen Over Gaza Essay

"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," said one critic.

A left-wing German political foundation said Wednesday that it will no longer give a prestigious award to Masha Gessen over an essay the Russian American journalist wrote drawing parallels between the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany and Palestinians today under what many critics say is a genocidal assault by Israel.

The Heinrich Böll Foundation—which is affiliated with Alliance90/The Greens, a leftist political party in Germany—and the Senate of Bremen agreed to withdraw from awarding the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought to Gessen, Literary Hubreported, citing a German-language article in Die Ziet.

Instead, the prize will be presented to Gessen without the participation of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

The Hannah Arendt Prize, named after the eponymous 20th-century German American historian and philosopher, "was created to honor individuals who identify critical and unseen aspects of current political events and who are not afraid to enter the public realm by presenting their opinion in controversial political discussions," the Heinrich Böll Foundation explained on its website.

According to Die Zeit, the move came in response to an essay Gessen published earlier this week in The New Yorker in which they highlighted similarities between Palestinians living in Gaza—often described as the world's largest open-air prison and, sometimes, it's biggest concentration camp—and Jews in Eastern European ghettos during the Third Reich.

Gessen wrote:

For the last 17 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 10 minutes. Israeli bombs have struck hospitals, maternity wards, and ambulances. Eight out of 10 Gazans are now homeless, moving from one place to another, never able to get to safety.

The Bremen chapter of the German-Israeli Society (DIG) reportedly took exception with Gessen's essay and argued that honoring them "would contradict the necessary decisive action against the growing antisemitism."

As Literary Hub noted, Gessen is Jewish; their grandfather survived the Holocaust.

"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," Dan Sheehan wrote at Literary Hub.

Saddled with guilt over perpetrating arguably the most notorious genocide in human history, Germany has made defending Israel a critical component of its national mission. In doing so, it has often conflated criticism of Israeli policies and practices or advocacy for Palestine with antisemitism. Ironically, that often means silencing Jewish voices that speak out against Israeli apartheid, occupation, colonization, and now, what many critics around the world say is a genocide in Gaza. A disproportionate number of the silenced are artists and other creators like Gessen.

"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," Sheehan added. "This silencing of Palestinian voices has been acutely felt within Germany's cultural community, where museum shows, book prizes, and artist commissions have all been canceled in recent weeks."

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