Thursday, October 14, 2004

"Corrections": The NYTimes on the Frankfurt Book Fair: Of "Jewish Rights" and German Censorship

(For an explanation of the "Corrections" feature on Trans-Int, see here.)

The NYTimes writing on Germany is always a source of amusement or at least bemusement for anyone familiar with German society and history. This is, after all, the paper that in a recent article on Germany referred to "the old song 'Deutschland Uber Alles'" ("Beeskow Journal", April 18, 2003). "The old song" in question was in fact the German national anthem and indeed is so today, though since it's reinstatement as such in the FRG after WWII the verse containing the infamous phrase "Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles" has as a rule not been sung. Incidentally, the melody of "the old song", regrettably sullied by its connection to the phrase, is by Haydn.

Edward Wyatt's October 9 piece in the Times on the controversy surrounding the Frankfurt Book Fair ("Anti-Zionist Arab Books Criticized at Fair") does not disappoint. The piece reflects the Times's typical, and typically illogical, wishy-washiness on the issue of anti-Semitism in the Arab world. Thus, for instance, it refuses to designate the publications at the source of the controversy as anti-Semitic - note the title - even while citing the following extracts from one of them: "As for Jews, they are the most spiteful and cunning towards Islam and Muslims," "their plots against the Islamic system throughout history were too many to closely investigate." Well, that seems pretty clear: it's about Jews - and "throughout history" no less! - not about the Zionist movement (which only exists since the late 19th Century) or Israel.

But, anyway, the main topic of the article is not what interests me here. The Times may well succeed in sowing more confusion through the ancillary remarks supposed to provide background information in its reports than through its treatment of the actual events being reported. In this connection, the piece on the Frankfurt Book Fair contains two notable howlers.

First, the piece identifies the Simon Wiesenthal Center as an "international Jewish Rights organization". Huh? The Wiesenthal Center is, according to its own description, an "international Jewish human rights organization" - this being admittedly a rather difficult expression to parse, but nonetheless clearly implying something rather different than a "Jewish Rights" organization. It is the organization that is qualified as being both "international" and "Jewish" and its activity concerns "human rights". If "Jewish" was supposed to qualify the rights in question, then in combination with the qualifier "human" this would obviously imply a contradiction, since "human rights" by definition pertain to or are attributed to individuals simply as humans, and not per their real or ascribed membership in any particular (religious, "racial", national, "ethnic", etc.) group.

The Wiesenthal Center is named for the famous (and in some quarters in Europe, if truth be told, infamous) "Nazi Hunter" Simon Wiesenthal, who made it his business after the Second World War to track down Nazi war criminals. The Center has dedicated its activity essentially to educational work on the Holocaust and exposing and combating contemporary expressions of anti-Semitism. The only specifically "Jewish right" upon which such an activity might be construed as having some bearing is the right of Jews not to be persecuted for being Jews - but this is not in fact a specifically "Jewish right", but rather, per the classical UN version of "human rights", just the right of every individual, not be discriminated against, much less persecuted or killed, on account of real or supposed race, religion, "national origin", etc.

This might seem like splitting hairs. But it is not. The academically fashionable notion of "group rights" - which in Europe, unfortunately, is not limited to the academy, but is gaining ground in actual law - is fundamentally illiberal. It is dangerous in itself and, as I have tried to show in my article "Anti-Semitism and Ethnicity in Europe" in the magazine Policy Review, it comports particular dangers for Jews living in Europe.

Second - and on, I guess, a somewhat lighter note - the Times piece on the Frankfurt Book Fair, alluding to the fact that German laws prohibit Holocaust denial and the incitation of racial hatred (or so-called "Volksverhetzung"), also mentions that they "prohibit books that are pornographic". Huh-uh? I am not sure what Edward Wyatt understands specifically by "pornographic books" : if he thinks, for instance, that Fanny Hill or perhaps Joyce's Ulysses are banned in Germany. Entirely respectable German papers regularly run ads for books that feature volumes that from their titles and covers I would have to venture to guess are of the pornographic variety, even if the category under which they figure is something called "Erotik". But in any case, if Edward Wyatt's colleagues in the Berlin bureau (who might have helped him out here) are ever looking for videos and magazines of this same genre, I would suggest they take a walk around Bahnhof Zoo. Those little stores with the black curtains in front of the entrance and the curiously shaped gadgets in the window - and the flashing neon signs that say "SEX SHOP" (which is German for "sex shop") - should be able to help. Germany does, of course, have laws prohibiting child pornography and the distribution of pornographic materials to minors. Perhaps this is the source of the confusion....