Protesters in Berlin on December 10, 2023. (Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / AFP)

The Things I Never Thought Possible—Until October 7

Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner on the many illusions shattered by Hamas’s pogrom and the orgy of antisemitism it inspired.

I witnessed antisemitism for the very first time at school in Germany, when classmates taunted a Jewish girl I was friends with just for being Jewish. I saw pictures from Auschwitz for the very first time when the television series Holocaust showed images of the mass murder and the dead bodies piled up there.

On my first trip to Israel, I wept while talking to German Holocaust survivors who, despite their concentration camp tattoos, still felt homesick when speaking of the country they were born in. Then I went to Auschwitz for the first time because I wanted to gain a better understanding of how people could do such inhumane things to their fellow humans, and because I wanted to see the ruins of the gas chambers, a place that symbolizes the collapse of civilization. 

From then on, I felt certain—or wanted to feel certain—of one thing: that antisemitism would be fought against successfully in Germany if it ever again raised its ugly head beyond the criminally fanatical right-wing extreme. 

I also thought Israel’s right to exist in the democratic world was nonnegotiable and nobody—except for the extremist mortal enemies of Israel—would ever think otherwise. And that if worst came to worst, we could always rely on America, with its love of freedom, to stand at Israel’s side.

The last few weeks have shown every one of my assumptions to have been sadly mistaken. Since October 7, anything is possible.

I didn’t want to believe it was possible that, immediately following the terror attacks on Israel—after a pogrom, a genocidal offensive in which more than a thousand Israelis, among them women, elderly men, children, and babies, were shot, stabbed, raped, burned, and beheaded by Palestinian terrorists, and recordings of these horrors were disseminated with triumphant words—that Salafists would be handing out candy on the streets of Berlin and celebrating this successful antisemitic attack without anyone stepping in to stop them from doing so.

I didn’t want to believe it was possible that the reaction to this war in Europe and in the U.S. would be so ambiguous, and that there would be no unequivocal gesture of solidarity with the victims. Seldom has the reason for a war—namely, to prevent the threat of peace in the region—been so clear. Seldom was the question of who began it all—namely, Hamas—been so easy to answer. Seldom was it more obvious who the perpetrators were and who the victims were—namely, Hamas as the attacker and Israel as the defender.

Seldom has the cynical propaganda of a warring party been as easy to see through as Hamas’s. The organization uses its own population as human shields, hides its cache of arms below hospitals, and misuses its own children to kill Jews or to be hit by Israeli bombs at strategic points to generate images for use in the propaganda battle on social media.

I didn’t want to believe it was possible that so-called quality media outlets like CNN, The New York Times, Reuters, and AP would use photos from “journalists” who were most likely informed of Hamas’s murderous plans beforehand and who “just happened” to be standing at the exact right spot on the border to Israel on October 7, meaning the photographers were not there to shed light on the situation, but as accessories to terror. 

The gates of Auschwitz. (Photo by Votava/Imagno/Getty Images)

I would never have thought it possible that so many artists and intellectuals would use empty rhetoric like “yes, but,” as in “yes, it’s terrible what Hamas have done, but. . .” and by doing so would turn perpetrators into victims and victims into perpetrators. 

I didn’t want to believe it was possible that not one single relevant Muslim nation has stepped up and distanced itself clearly, publicly, and unambiguously from the terror attacks and credibly stood side by side with the victims. And that all the Pope could manage was a weak “Enough! Enough, brothers, enough!” as well as a few instructions to the Israeli president over the telephone—fitting in very well with the spineless statements issued by most of the Christian clergy.

I didn’t want to believe it was possible that most feminist organizations and female activists in the world would so obviously apply double standards and show more indignation at sexual assaults in corporate America than at the systematic, barbaric, and lethal rapes of Israeli women and girls by Islamic terrorists, thus demonstrating that sympathy and solidarity with the victims of sexual violence are obviously a question of ideology.

I didn’t want to believe it was possible that a German government would abstain in the UN when the matter up for vote was a “cease-fire” so obviously tactical, because it paralyzes Israel’s self-defenses. I still do not understand how anyone can even consider wanting to remain neutral, despite at the same time recognizing Israel’s right to exist as a nonnegotiable principle of Germany’s raison d’état.

I didn’t want to believe it was possible to hear UN Secretary-General António Guterres publicly declare that the terror attacks by Hamas did not “happen in a vacuum.” And to hear Christoph Heusgen, former ministerial director in the department for foreign policy at the chancellor’s office under Angela Merkel, and most recently head of the Munich Security Conference, agree with him publicly. Guterres’s words, in clearer terms, mean nothing more than that the Jews shouldn’t be surprised when they are butchered. Or, even more clearly, that they have only themselves to blame.

I didn’t want to believe it was possible that Emmanuel Macron first of all squirmed, and then refused to take part in a cross-party demonstration against antisemitism because he is afraid of upsetting the Islamist minority in the Paris suburbs—seeing him do exactly what Michel Houellebecq prophetically referred to in his epochal novel as “submission.”

I didn’t want to believe it was possible that a representative survey at Harvard University would show that 51 percent of Americans between ages 18 and 24 found that the attacks by Hamas can be justified by the grievance of Palestinians. And it must be emphasized here that those questioned did not express their understanding or sympathy for Palestinians, but rather their understanding for the racist mass murder of Jews by the Hamas terrorists.

I didn’t want to believe it was possible that the war is being fought, and so clearly decided, on the internet. Or to be more precise—on social media and in media outlets that are sometimes instruments of, and owned by, totalitarian states. One such outlet is Al Jazeera, which is funded by Qatar and now reaches 430 million households.

On the Chinese platform TikTok, which has more than a billion users and is the most important source of information and entertainment, mainly for young people, there were, as of today, four million posts under the hashtag #FreePalestine and only 53,000 posts with the hashtag #StandWithIsrael. Facebook had 13 million posts for #FreePalestine and only 378,000 posts under the hashtag #StandWithIsrael. On Instagram, it was 7 million posts for #FreePalestine and 267,000 for #StandWithIsrael. The war is being decided digitally. It is no longer possible to catch up with the dominance that Hamas and its supporters have gained in terms of propaganda.

I didn’t want to believe it was possible that antisemitism would become a top international export in the year 2023, a kind of global zeitgeist. 

And, more than anything else, I didn’t want to believe it was possible that some of the most renowned and influential elite universities in the world would capitulate to the cultural struggle carried out in the name of a woke agenda pushed by students that are increasingly demonstrating a blatantly antisemitic mindset, and that, of all groups, it is America’s intellectuals who are making Austrian-German-Islamist antisemitism socially acceptable again.

The sad climax of this development was the hearing in the U.S. Congress last week, at which the presidents of three of the most important universities—Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and MIT—were questioned. Against a backdrop of numerous antisemitic clashes at these universities, they were asked a very simple yes or no question: “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate [your university’s] code of conduct or rules against bullying and harassment?”

The answers given repeatedly dodged clear statements and were scandalously heartless. And—it must be said in the clearest of terms—they were antisemitic. It depends on the “context,” those questioned waffled, one after the other. Or, they said with icy smiles, the call to genocide would violate the universities’ rules only if and when it was followed by actions. Which means that calling for genocide is okay, and all that is forbidden is to actually carry out genocidal acts.

The three-and-a-half-minute video of the hearing in Congress is a historical document of shame. That it did not trigger a global outcry, as well as a cross-party wave of political outrage, can only be interpreted as: sorry, we have better things to do than bother ourselves with than downplaying calls to the genocide of Jews at the world’s most influential universities.

The cultural struggle has become a cultural war. The infiltration and dismantling of democracy and an open society is steaming ahead in the academic world. Have we really not learned anything from history?

Claudine Gay (Harvard University) and Sally Kornbluth (MIT) should follow Liz Magill’s (University of Pennsylvania) example and immediately resign from their offices as president of their respective universities, or they should be discharged. If this does not happen by January 1, all supporters and donors to these institutions should freeze or withdraw their funding. 

And all parents in the world who want to see their children grow up in a free society marked by tolerance and humanity should recommend their children not study at these places of shame.

Meanwhile, perhaps the presidents should take their own study trip to Auschwitz.

Mathias Döpfner is chairman and CEO of the media and technology company Axel Springer, based in Berlin.

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