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Jonathan Garfinkel is the author of the novel In a Land Without Dogs the Cats Learn to Bark and the memoir Ambivalence: Crossing the Israel/Palestine Divide.

Last week, I woke up to a text from a friend.

“Do your neighbours know you’re Jewish?”

“I don’t think so,” I wrote back. I’m a sometimes-practising Jew; I don’t have a mezuzah on the entrance of my door, nor do I wear a yarmulke. “Why?”

“Someone has marked four homes of Jews with stars of David.”

“Right here in Berlin?”


Berlin has always felt like freedom to me. It’s not without complications: History confronts you at every corner. Stolpersteine, small brass stones embedded into the sidewalk, mark the names and homes of Jews deported and murdered by the Nazis. The Reichstag – whose destruction by fire in 1933 was used by the Nazis as a pretext to suspend civil liberties and thus secure power – is only a few kilometres from my house. And I live a stone’s throw from Bornholmer Strasse, where the first parts of the Berlin Wall were knocked down in 1989. Parts of the Wall still exist, graffitied and broken, to remind us: The past isn’t far away.

Post-’89 Berlin has been a gathering place for alternatives, hedonists and artists. As the cliché goes, people come to Berlin to “be whoever they want.” There is a history of anti-authoritarianism, anarchism and art here, as well as cheap rent (until the past five years), making it an ideal place to be a writer – or an all-night techno dancer. In part it’s an awareness of the past, not a denial of it, that helps to invigorate such feelings: a tension that inspires creativity and decadence.

But the events of Oct. 7 changed everything. Maybe it’s always been lurking beneath the surface. On the Saturday morning after the Hamas attacks, on Sonnenallee in Neukoln district, members of the Samidoun NGO gleefully handed out baklava to passersby, posting on social media, “Long live the resistance of the Palestinian people.” On Oct. 18, two Molotov cocktails were thrown at a synagogue in Mitte. Violence on the now-infamous Sonnenallee, where pro-Palestinian supporters repeatedly clash with police, has made it a hot spot. Antisemitic incidents have more than tripled compared with this time last year. A friend of mine, a Jewish, Berlin-born author, cancelled her public readings at the Frankfurt Book Fair because of security concerns. I have never felt, in my 13 years walking the streets of Wedding, a predominantly Turkish and Arab neighbourhood, in any kind of danger. This is no longer the case.

The feeling of unease continued at the Frankfurt Book Fair last week, where I went to present the German edition of my new novel. I also attended various panel discussions, many of which were about the current war. PEN Berlin was a big part of the dialogue, leading discussions by Jewish authors living in Germany. There were thoughtful conversations as well as mourning the Israeli and Palestinian dead, something that’s been sorely missing on social media and many of the streets of the world (several of the writers were Israeli-born and had families and friends implicated in the Hamas attacks). They mourned the roughly 200 hostages taken by Hamas, the now more than 1,400 Israelis dead, as well as the Israeli bombardment of Gaza since Oct. 7 that had, by the time of this writing, resulted in more than 6,000 deaths, according to the Gazan health ministry, and approximately a million displaced from their homes.

Striking was the absence of Arab and Palestinian authors. This was because of the controversial decision made to postpone the ceremony for the 2023 LiBeraturpreis, awarded to Palestinian author and Berlin resident Adania Shibli for her acclaimed novel, A Minor Detail. “Due to the war started by Hamas, under which millions of Israelis and Palestinians are suffering,” a statement read, the organizers had decided to wait “for a suitable format and setting at a later point.”

Many Arab publishers boycotted the fair, as did Palestinian writers. For some, Ms. Shibli’s absence reflected a general approach in Germany toward the war and post-Oct. 7 antisemitism: to equate any Palestinian voices with Hamas terrorism and to silence them.

Was Ms. Shibli one of the silenced voices? The prize organizers argue they were being sensitive to a delicate moment. Many disagreed. Ms. Shibli became a symbol for whatever politics you believed. Her political views, past and present, were thrown into the spotlight. Was she a supporter of the German-prohibited BDS movement? Was her book, first published in 2017, antisemitic? (In the novel, a young Bedouin woman is raped in 1949 by nameless and faceless Israeli soldiers.) Everyone was deciding, everyone a judge. As so often happens in these times, people projected whatever political view they had onto the author. Ms. Shibli remained silent. To speak would only make things worse.

At the fair, people were divided. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek made a controversial speech on opening night, clearly condemning the Hamas attacks, as well as the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. He also argued that the postponement of the prize to Ms. Shibli closed the door on dialogue and honest analysis of the unique historical context of Israel and Palestine. Suppressing such voices not only was an erosion of core democratic values, but would lead to more terror and violence. Several German politicians stood up and left in protest.

The next day, I met the Jewish writer Tomer Dotan-Dreyfus, Israeli-born and raised, now based in Berlin (there are about 10,000 Israelis living in Berlin). He spoke about the importance of books like Ms. Shibli’s.

“It’s uncomfortable to read. As an Israeli, as a Jew, imagining soldiers doing this is not something I want to hear. But these things happened.” In his opinion, it is not an antisemitic book, but a criticism of male dominance and power. He added, “What concerns me is that the discourse is becoming so shallow in Germany. We have reached a point that everything that’s uncomfortable is antisemitic. It’s dangerous because if we stretch the definition of antisemitism, we lose its meaning.”

Adania Shibli’s novel is clear, taut, searing. The writer in me sees that. This is her story, her perspective masterfully crafted: the power of great literature. But the Jew in me asks: Is the post-Oct. 7 world – one that opened the floodgates to so much antisemitism even before the bombardment of Gaza – the right time to award such a book, even if written six years ago?

When I wrote my book Ambivalence in 2007, I tried to see both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Now I struggle with this. We all do. Perhaps the moderate point of view is impossible. Maybe no one can see both sides. But giving Ms. Shibli the award at Frankfurt would’ve opened us up to this discomfort. It would have let people talk about the history of Israel and Palestine, built upon two conflicting narratives, past and present. Maybe we need these conversations. Maybe we need literature. Can we do that? Can we read and celebrate a book, discuss and argue about it, while mourning the deaths and those abducted in the Hamas attacks? While mourning the dead and displaced in Gaza? Are our hearts and minds that big?

The German response to the Hamas attacks and subsequent rise in antisemitism has been to shut down all pro-Palestinian rallies. There are 25,000 Palestinians living in Berlin; high schools have banned the kefiyah, Palestinian flag and “free Palestine” stickers. But the demonstrations cancelled aren’t only those expressing Palestinian solidarity. Some were being led by Israelis and Jews, including Jewish Berliners against Violence in the Middle East. An action where Palestinians and Israelis intended to hold a vigil for lives lost on both sides was also shut down. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, in issuing a “zero tolerance” for antisemitism policy, has closed down all avenues of conversation. And on Sonnenallee, dark-skinned immigrants are now randomly asked by police for their papers. Indeed, history is not far behind in Berlin. We should also remember that an estimated 84 per cent of antisemitic attacks in Germany are carried out by far-right supporters; we do not yet know who threw the Molotov cocktails nor who painted the stars of David. The recent AfD gains in popularity in the Bavaria and Hesse elections, along with their anti-migrant stance, should not be lost amidst the clamour of the moment. Perhaps Germany needs to remember that antisemitism doesn’t only come from people born outside its borders.

Some people are working toward broader conversations. Jewish intellectual and poet Max Czollek talked to me about establishing “points of contact” between Muslims and Jews that focus on their commonalities rather than differences. He cited places such as the Kreuzberg antisemitism centre that already work in tandem with Muslims and Jews, emphasizing empathy, tolerance and communication. He believes in the power of conversation; given the highly tense and polarized climate, an overwhelming number of people feel alienated as they are unable to speak freely and openly. German Muslims such as political scientist Saba-Nur Cheema, who writes a column with her Jewish partner Meron Mendel called “Muslim-Jewish Supper,” made a plea for open discourse in Der Spiegel, reminding us that not everyone on Sonnenallee is Hamas and not every Muslim migrant is antisemitic. She argued that the collective punishment of Palestinians and Muslims through Germany’s policy of silence feeds the flames of both Islamophobia and antisemitism.

Of course, none of this takes away the dangerous realities of life for Jews in Berlin and elsewhere in Europe. It does not negate the Hamas apologists and agitators. And while Sonnenallee is not Gaza, and Mitte is not Tel Aviv, the question remains: what to do? And what is the place of literature?

On the Saturday at the fair, Tomer Dotan-Dreyfus, along with four other Jewish writers from PEN Berlin, led a reading from Adania Shibli’s book. The book fair had sanctioned the event at the request of PEN Berlin; the main tent was packed, the atmosphere electric. Writers read and people listened. Toward the end of the reading, someone dressed as a Mandalorian from the Star Wars universe entered the tent, carrying a fake gun. There was a cosplay event at the book fair, but what was the Mandalorian thinking?

Fortunately, the Mandalorian quickly got bored and left before security could do anything. Maybe literature isn’t really that exciting. But when the reading was done, the audience left, and the conversations and debates continued in the festival halls. Far away, the war continued to rage. And the hostages, still living – we hoped – beneath the rubble and devastation of Gaza, waited to be saved.

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