Award ceremony suspended after writer compares Gaza to Nazi-era Jewish ghettos

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US-Russian journalist Masha Gessen won Germany’s Hannah Arendt prize for political thought

A German foundation has said it will no longer be awarding a prize for political thinking to a leading Russian-American journalist after criticising as “unacceptable” a recent essay by the writer in which they made a comparison between Gaza and a Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Masha Gessen was due to be presented with the Hannah Arendt prize for political thought on Friday. But the award ceremony will now not take place as planned after the Green party-affiliated Heinrich Böll Foundation (HBS) said it was withdrawing its support. The HBS said it had reached its decision in agreement with the senate in Bremen, the northern port city where the ceremony was scheduled to take place.

According to the German newspaper Die Zeit, which broke the story, the prize will still be presented to Gessen, though “in a different setting”, and on Saturday instead of Friday. It remains unclear who will present it, what they will be presenting and whether Gessen and other invited guests still plan to attend.

The HBS said it objected to and rejected a comparison made by Gessen in a 9 December essay in the New Yorker between Gaza and the Jewish ghettos in Europe.

In the essay, Gessen, who uses they, criticised Germany’s unequivocal support of Israel, drawing attention to the Bundestag’s 2019 resolution condemning the Israel boycott movement BDS as antisemitic and quoting a Jewish critic of Germany’s politics of Holocaust remembrance as saying memory culture had “gone haywire”.

In the paragraph the HBS draws attention to, Gessen wrote that “ghetto” would be “the more appropriate term” to describe Gaza, but the word “would have drawn fire for comparing the predicament of besieged Gazans to that of ghettoized Jews. It also would have given us the language to describe what is happening in Gaza now. The ghetto is being liquidated.”

The foundation said Gessen was implying that Israel aimed to “liquidate Gaza like a Nazi ghetto”, adding that “this statement is unacceptable to us and we reject it”.

Gessen was contacted by the Guardian for comment.

On X/Twitter, they wrote that no German media representative had tried to contact them, despite the story being widely reported in German media on Thursday.

The Heinrich Böll Foundation announced Gessen as the prize winner in August, based on a decision made by an independent jury. At the time it stated that “as an analyst of decline and hope, Gessen reports on power games and totalitarian tendencies as well as civil disobedience and the love of freedom”.

Supporters of Gessen, who is Jewish, and whose grandfather and great-grandfather were among family members murdered by the Nazis, have been quick to point out the irony of suspending a prize awarded in memory of Arendt, the German-born Jewish-American historian, philosopher and antitotalitarian political theorist who coined the phrase “the banality of evil”, in connection with the trial of leading Nazi Adolf Eichmann, which she covered as a journalist for the New Yorker.

Samantha Rose Hill, author of the profile Hannah Arendt and editor of Arendt’s collected poems, called it “an affront to Hannah Arendt’s memory. By their own logic, the Heinrich Böll Foundation needs to cancel the Hannah Arendt prize altogether.”

Another academic said that according to the reasons given for the decision, “Hannah Arendt wouldn’t get the Hannah Arendt award in Germany today.”

In an interview with Die Zeit published on Tuesday, Gessen spoke of the backlash Arendt had faced as one of Israel’s initial critics, warning against establishing a purely Jewish state in Palestine and in so doing excluding the Arab population.

In an open letter written with Albert Einstein and other Jewish intellectuals in 1948, Arendt had, Gessen pointed out, even compared the Israeli Freedom party to the Nazis after they used racially motivated violence against civilians.

“I am aware that this type of comparison, especially in Germany, is quickly seen as relativising the Holocaust. That’s why it’s so important to me that such a differentiated and intelligent thinker like Arendt didn’t shy away from this comparison,” Gessen told the newspaper.

Referring to people in Germany being wary of challenging “the logic of German memory policy” for fear of being accused of antisemitism, they added: “The problem is that criticism of Israel is often seen as antisemitic, which I think is the real antisemitic scandal. This overlooks the actual antisemitism.”

In an open letter published on Wednesday the Bremen branch of the German-Israeli Society said Gessen’s statements had “made it clear that the award would be honouring a person whose thinking is in clear contrast to Hannah Arendt’s”.

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