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Masha Gessen will receive Hannah Arendt Prize after all, following controversy over Gaza essay

(JTA) – The writer Masha Gessen will still receive a prestigious award named for Hannah Arendt, after the German foundation that administers the prize had initially said it would pull its support due to Gessen’s recent writing on Gaza.

Gessen, a Jewish writer for The New Yorker magazine, published an essay last week comparing the Gaza Strip to Nazi-era Jewish ghettos, sparking backlash from Jewish and pro-Israel activists in Germany. That led the Heinrich Böll Foundation to say that it would no longer support a ceremony for Gessen receiving the award named for Arendt, a 20th-century German Jewish thinker and author. 

But on Friday, the foundation told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that Gessen will still get the award, including 10,000 euros in prize money, and that the author should still be honored. 

“We want to make it very clear that we do not want to strip Masha Gessen of the award, or deny them the prize, and that we honor the relevance of their work,” the foundation said in a statement. “Gessen deserves great merit for their unconditional commitment to democracy and to debating uncomfortable issues. We greatly appreciate Gessen’s critical work, their demonstrated passion for freedom and commitment to defy any autocratic tendencies.”

The award is given annually to political theorists who continue the philosophical tradition of Arendt. Gessen is a refugee from the former Soviet Union and the descendant of Holocaust survivors. They have been widely acclaimed for their writing on the Russia-Ukraine war and LGBTQ issues.

The foundation’s initial objections, and those of the German city of Bremen that co-administers the prize, stemmed from a Dec. 9 New Yorker essay by Gessen entitled “In The Shadow Of The Holocaust.” In the piece, Gessen critiqued modern German, Polish and Ukrainian approaches to Holocaust memory, and also castigated Israeli policy toward Gaza.

“For the last seventeen 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,” Gessen wrote. “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.” 

They added: “The ghetto is being liquidated.”

Following the essay’s publication, the German-Israeli Society’s Bremen chapter criticized Gessen’s comparison of Gaza to Jewish ghettos, which society chair Hermann Kuhn wrote could have “only one explanation: a deep-seated and fundamental negative prejudice against the Jewish state.” Kuhn also took issue with Gessen’s stance on Germany’s approach to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel, which the German government has defined as antisemitic. 

In an open letter calling on the prize’s administrators to refrain from honoring Gessen, the society wrote that giving them the award “would honor a person whose thinking is in clear contrast to Hannah Arendt’s.” Founding members of the prize also campaigned against Gessen receiving it due to their “statements about the Middle East conflict,” in a letter quoted by the German newspaper Die Zeit. 

Subsequently, Bremen’s Senate announced it would be pulling out of a planned ceremony for the award, and the foundation said it would no longer sponsor it. But then it backtracked and attributed its decision to a lack of a venue for the ceremony. Later, on Friday, it said that it objected to Gessen’s characterization of Gaza but that they should not be stripped of the award. 

“We disagree with this statement, and fully reject it,” the foundation said regarding Gessen’s comparison of Gaza to a Nazi-era ghetto. “The award ceremony would not have been an appropriate place for an earnest dialogue on the culture of remembrance, which is why we are trying to find another format with Masha Gessen in which a more substantive discussion can be had.”

The awards ceremony, originally scheduled for Friday, has been postponed to Saturday in light of the foundation’s departure, but will reportedly still be presented on a smaller scale. According to Gessen, it will also lack many of the trappings usually associated with the award, including a promised lecture at Bremen University. 

Gessen did not respond to multiple JTA requests for comment, including about the foundation’s statement on Friday. They told Middle East Eye in an article published earlier Friday that the New Yorker essay, which quoted Arendt, accorded with Arendt’s writing and thought. 

“Hannah Arendt wouldn’t have gotten the Hannah Arendt prize if you applied those kinds of criteria to it,” Gessen said. “She was very insistent on comparing the Israeli policies and Israeli ideologies to the Nazis. And her project was very much what I’m building on, which is you have to compare in order to identify dangerous similarities.”

In an interview prior to the prize controversy, Gessen told the same German paper that Arendt was a major inspiration for them. Gessen was also recently placed on a wanted list in Russia and accused by the Kremlin of spreading false information about the Russian Army, accusations which American journalism institutions have said are meritless. 

The Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, where Gessen teaches, said in a statement Monday, “We categorically reject the criminal investigation of Professor Gessen,” adding that Russia’s “persecution is part of the broader effort to stifle independent journalism.”

Controversy over responses to the Israel-Gaza war has caused turmoil across the world of arts and letters. Last month, a Jewish sponsor pulled out of the National Book Awards after learning that nominees planned to issue a statement criticizing Israel and calling for a ceasefire during the ceremony. The incident followed a controversy at the New York City Jewish cultural center 92NY in which it canceled a planned talk by an author who had signed a letter critical of Israel’s actions in Gaza, leading to resignations at the center; a similar sequence of events unfolded at the magazine Artforum.

Gessen’s Holocaust essay also criticizes Germany’s formal policy of considering the BDS movement antisemitic. They report that German officials have frequently gone after intellectuals and activists who invoke the campaign. Gessen also criticizes Israel’s own alliances with far-right factions in Germany and Poland and its refusal to overtly align with Ukraine in that country’s war against Russia. 

At one point, the essay quotes Arendt’s own 1940s-era writings that compared future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s political party to the Nazis. Germany’s policies combating antisemitism have been criticized by some left-leaning intellectuals for being overly harsh toward critics of Israel.

The Heinrich Böll Foundation is allied with Germany’s Green Party and has offices in Tel Aviv, Ramallah, Washington, D.C., and other locations. On its Israel website, the foundation backs a two-state solution, condemns the Hamas attacks and notes “the disastrous humanitarian situation in Gaza” and “the suffering and pain of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.”

The post Masha Gessen will receive Hannah Arendt Prize after all, following controversy over Gaza essay appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Top Swiss Diplomat Appointed to Mediate Tensions Between Jewish Tourists, Businesses in Davos Ski Resort

A Hebrew sign at the Pischa Restaurant in the Swiss resort of Davos informing Jewish guests that they are banned from renting ski equipment. Photo: Screenshot

The tourism authority in the exclusive Swiss mountain resort of Davos has appointed a top diplomat to mediate the growing tensions between local businesses and Orthodox Jewish visitors as complaints of antisemitism increase.

Michael Ambühl — the former State Secretary of Switzerland previously in charge of the country’s relationship with the European Union (EU)  — will head a task force to tackle the problem, Swiss media outlets reported on Friday.

The announcement of Ambühl’s appointment comes just days after the resort was roiled by the refusal of a restaurant that operates a ski equipment rental store to provide services to Jewish guests.

A sign in Hebrew at the Pischa Restaurant in Davos stated that “due to various very annoying incidents, including the theft of a sledge, we no longer rent sports equipment to our Jewish brothers. This affects all sports equipment such as sledges, airboards, skis and snowshoes. Thank you for your understanding.”

Swiss police are currently investigating the incident as a possible case of discrimination. One Israeli tourist reported that he had visited the Pischa Restaurant where he “pretended not to understand Hebrew and asked if we could rent the equipment. After the woman consulted with the manager, she rejected our request.”

The tourism authority’s decision has irritated the country’s main Jewish representative body, the Swiss Israelite Association (SIG), which had been engaged in a separate dialog with the authority about accommodating Jewish guests that was abruptly closed down last year.

“The latest case shows that something is obviously wrong in Davos,” SIG General Secretary Jonathan Kreutner said in remarks quoted by the Blick news outlet.

Kreutner said that “comparable problems are not known from other holiday destinations, especially in those where our dialogue program is still active.” Kreutner acknowledged that the tourism authority “wants to take a new path, but we don’t yet know what it looks like and where it will lead.”

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‘Israel Outright Rejects International Dictates’: Biden Creating Plan For Palestinian State, Netanyahu Pushes Back: Report

US President Joe Biden holds a bilateral meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the 78th UN General Assembly in New York City, US, Sept. 20, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

US President Joe Biden, along with a number of Arab states, are quickly working to form a plan to end the Israel-Hamas war and create a Palestinian state, the Washington Post reported on Wednesday, sparking pushback from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The first step of such a plan would be for Israel and Hamas to agree to a six-week ceasefire in exchange for the Israeli hostages. Then, during that pause in fighting, the U.S. and its Arab partners would announce the plan and start to form an interim Palestinian government.

The US, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates are all reportedly are part of the talks, which have an ultimate goal of creating a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. The Washington Post also suggests that Israel may be expected to expel many of its own citizens from West Bank settlements and help rebuild Gaza.

The development of these plans is part of the reason Biden has cautioned Israel against moving on to fighting Hamas in Rafah — the terrorist group’s last stronghold. He believes such a ground offensive could jeopardize the prospect of peace. 

In a statement on Thursday, the White House said Biden “raised the situation in Rafah [during a call with Netanyahu], and reiterated his view that a military operation should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for the civilians in Rafah.”

In response to these reports and the conversation he had with Biden, Netanyahu wrote that “Israel outright rejects international dictates regarding a permanent settlement with the Palestinians. Such an arrangement will be reached only through direct negotiations between the parties, without preconditions.”

He added, “Israel will continue to oppose the unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state. Such recognition in the wake of the October 7 massacre would give a huge reward to unprecedented terrorism and prevent any future peace settlement.”

The tension represents the latest hiccup in Biden and Netanyahu’s relationship, which has grown increasingly sour since October 7 as Biden put pressure on Israel to wind down its fight against Hamas.

Netanyahu, jpwever, was not the only one to question the prudence of the proposed American-led plan. Left-leaning group Democratic Majority for Israel said in a post on Twitter/X: “We have always favored a two state solution. But right now, how do we ensure the lesson does not become ‘sheer evil,’ pays? That must be a central part of any plan.”

Richard Goldberg, a Senior Advisor at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies contended that the plan “is doomed to fail for several reasons. Two big ones: It’s premised on Hamas surviving and involves Qatar.” 

“Israel will be in a much stronger position after it takes Rafah,” he argued.

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Harvard University Issued Subpoenaed for Antisemitism Documents

Pro-Hamas students rallying at Harvard University. Photo: Reuters/Brian Snyder

Following weeks of warnings and ultimatums, the US House Committee on Education and the Workforce subpoenaed Harvard University on Friday to hand over documents related to its handling of allegations of antisemitic intimidation and harassment.

The order represents an escalation of tactics by the House Committee, which began investigating Harvard University last semester to determine whether it ignores complaints of discrimination when the victims who lodge them are Jewish. Since then, Harvard has been asked twice to submit a trove of materials requested by the committee.

Last week, Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC) wrote Harvard a censorious letter accusing school officials of obstructing the committee’s investigation with “grossly insufficient” responses to its inquires and submitting content of a “limited and dilatory nature.”

In a statement to Reuters, Harvard maintained that it has cooperated with the committee in “good faith,” providing “10 submissions totaling more than 3,500 pages that directly address key areas of inquiry put forward by the committee.” Chairwoman Foxx told the outlet, however that the problem is one of “quality, not quantity,” suggesting that Harvard is frenetically pantomiming compliance without providing anything of substance.

Foxx has requested “all reports of antisemitic acts or incidents and “related communications” going back to 2021 that were sent to Harvard’s offices of the president, general counsel, dean of students, police department, human resources, and diversity, equity, and inclusion, among others. She also requested documentation on Harvard Kennedy School professor Marshall Ganz, who, the school determined, had “denigrated” several students for being “Israeli Jews.” Originally, Foxx gave Harvard a deadline of Jan. 23 by which to comply.

“While a subpoena was unwarranted, Harvard remains committed to cooperating with the committee and will continue to provide additional materials, while protecting the legitimate privacy, safety, and security concerns of our community,” Harvard told Reuters.

“We will use our full congressional authority to hold these schools accountable for their failure on the global stage,” said committee member and Harvard Alumnus Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) in a statement announcing the action.

The past four months have been described by critics of Harvard as a low-point in the history of the school, America’s oldest and, arguably, most prestigious institution of higher education. Since the October 7 massacre by Hamas, Harvard has been accused of fostering a culture of racial grievance and antisemitism, while important donors have suspended funding for programs, and its first Black president, Claudine Gay, resigned in disgrace last month after being outed as a serial plagiarizer. Her tenure was the shortest in the school’s history.

As scenes of Hamas terrorists abducting children and desecrating dead bodies circulated worldwide, 31 student groups at Harvard, led by the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) issued a statement blaming Israel for the attack and accusing the Jewish state of operating an “open air prison” in Gaza, despite that the Israeli military withdrew from the territory in 2005. In the weeks that followed, anti-Zionists stormed the campus screaming “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and “globalize the intifada,” terrorizing Jewish students and preventing some from attending class.

In Novevmber, a mob of anti-Zionists — including Ibrahim Bharmal, editor of the prestigious Harvard Law Review — followed, surrounded, and intimidated a Jewish student. “Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame!” the crush of people screamed in a call-and-response chant into the ears of the student who —as seen in the footage — was forced to duck and dash the crowd to free himself from the cluster of bodies that encircled him.

By Dec., Claudine Gay —  along with Elizabeth Magill of University of Pennsylvania (Penn) and Sally Kornbluth of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) — was hauled before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce to account for her administration’s handling of the problem. For weeks, Gay was reluctant to punish students who chanted genocidal slogans and unequivocally condemn antisemitism. During questioning, she told the committee that determining whether calling for a genocide of Jews constitutes a violation of school rules depends “on the context.”

Two days later, the committee launched investigations of Harvard, Penn, and MIT.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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