A renowned visiting researcher expresses his anger on social media about the Gaza war and its victims. The Max Planck Society throws him out the door and makes accusations of anti-Semitism that, upon closer inspection, are unfounded.
The Lebanese-Australian scientist Ghassan Hage, born in Beirut in 1957, is considered a luminary in his field; His 1998 book “White Nation – Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society” is one of the standard works in anthropology and ethnology. His latest book, “The Diasporic Condition,” published in 2021, is a milestone in the anthropology of migration. The German, publicly funded Max Planck Society was proud when it appointed Hage as a visiting scientist at its institute of the same name in Halle in 2023. As an intellectual, Hage regularly speaks out in interviews about the Middle East conflict and has long propagated the idea of a one-state solution for Palestinians and Jews.
Since October 7, 2023 and the subsequent outbreak of war in Gaza, he has been writing a lot on social media or on his blog on the Internet. Some of it is characterized by anger and lacks scientific sophistication. On the day of the Hamas attack on Israel - at a time when very few people had a clear picture of the true extent and brutality of the attack - he published a poem entitled "The endless Dead-End that will not end". It's about the cyclical violence in Gaza. In the end, it says that despite all the military superiority, the "resistance of the Palestinians" is endless - they can even "fly over walls." Critics saw this as a glorification of Hamas.
Hage likes to advocate provocative viewpoints that are not popular in either the West or the Arab world. On December 30, he wrote on X (formerly Twitter): “I have no doubt that Israel will cease to exist as a Jewish state. It will cease to exist by dissolving back into what it was as Palestine: a multi-religious space [...] with all its ups and downs.’’ With this sentence he speaks against Islamists and Arab nationalists as well as against Israel's Western supporters. According to a report in Welt am Sonntag published on February 5, 2024, the proof was provided: Hage was preaching hatred of Israel, anti-Semitism and trivializing the Holocaust because, for example, he called methods of Israeli warfare in Gaza "similar" to those of the National Socialists: for example, the systematic humiliation of the Palestinians in Gaza. It would be bad if a member of the Max Planck Society had spread hatred of Jews. But is it even true?
As someone who has been researching the Arab world for decades, I know the Arab version of anti-Semitism well. It is shaped by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but also uses thought patterns, themes and slogans from European and National Socialist Jew-hatred, disguised with religiously based resentment. In short: I know more about it than I would like.
Anyone who examines the Hage case and leaves the final word to expert analysis cannot confirm the accusation that Hage is an anti-Semitic and spreads anti-Semitic propaganda. His writings are not anti-Semitic. They do not denigrate Jews or Israelis as people or as a religious or ethnic community; neither are his statements. They are polarizing and polemical. They are directed primarily against Israeli politics and the idea of ethnic nationalism, which he sees as embodied in Israel's political project. Only those who equate criticism of Israel and the occupation with hatred of Jews can see anti-Semitism in this.
There is a lot of discussion and writing about this tendency in the media and politics. However, there was no anti-Semitism scandal at the Max Planck Institute. The “termination of the collaboration”, i.e. the dismissal of Hage by the Max Planck Society in response to criticism of his statements, is the actual scandal as it affects the freedom of science and expression of opinion.
In its short press release on February 7th about the Hage case, the Max Planck Society accused Hage of having “damaged science” with his statements. Loyalty to the employer is just as important as the legally guaranteed right to freedom of expression. The Society’s president ended the message with the memorable sentence: "Racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, discrimination, hatred and agitation have no place in the Max Planck Society." The Max Planck Society did not explain what exactly Hage had committed. On February 23, Hage announced that he would take legal action against his dismissal. So this question is still being discussed in court.
For anyone who wants to make their own judgment, I recommend his English essay “Gaza and the Coming Age of the Warrior” from November 2023, published online on Allegra Lab. There, Hage calls the terror against Israeli civilians by its name. He also discusses why many people outside Europe did not want to share the grief for the Israeli victims: this is perceived as exclusive and does not apply equally to the Palestinians who were killed in Gaza by Israel's "punitive expedition" (Hage) - with Europe's blessing and the western world. Of course, the same can be said about many Arab voices who ignored the suffering of Israelis. But wrong twice stays wrong. Hage is someone who feels horror and sadness for the suffering of friends and opponents. That's why we should listen to him when he demands the same from others.
Not only sadness, but also anger is permissible and understandable: about the cold-blooded killing of almost 1,200 Jewish Israelis as well as foreign tourists and guest workers. About the no less cold-blooded killing of over 29,000 Palestinians in Gaza by Israel's army. Which of these should scare us more? In war we are partial; we are more affected by the suffering of some people than that of others. That is difficult to change. But a minimum of decency requires that we do not forbid others to express their sadness and anger over the killing of so many people. Especially if we know Ghassan Hage's work: In it he doesn't just stop at anger - he thinks more often about the events and speaks into our conscience.
It is arguably legitimate to criticize or be angry with Hage's point of view, just as he criticizes and is angry with others. All of this is clearly within the scope of freedom of expression within the meaning of the Basic Law. And the media and science have to endure it accordingly. Hage supports the idea of the controversial movement “Boycott, Divest, Sanction” (BDS), which wants to force a policy change through a boycott against Israeli institutions. That's why he doesn't travel to Israel himself, but, as he himself explained, he works with Israeli colleagues. A group of Israeli scientists recently confirmed this in a public statement in support of him.
Hage has since commented on the allegations on his blog: "If some right-wing journalists who don't like my politics pick out my criticism of Israel from everything I've written and accuse me of anti-Semitism, I expect my "My employer knows about it or at least examined my file and defended me against such accusations." He still stands by his statements: He represents a political ideal "that I have always fought for with regard to Israel and Palestine. It is the ideal of a multi-religious society in which Christians, Muslims and Jews live together in this country.
The path towards a plural society also requires pluralistic discussions that give space to viewpoints that are initially irreconcilable. The Max Planck Society's decision is a sad statement about the future of Germany as a science location. For many colleagues at home and abroad, the debate within Germany, in which any discussion about the Middle East conflict can be cut off with accusations of anti-Semitism, is difficult to understand.
And why should they come to Germany if they also have to fear becoming the target of a politically motivated campaign? Especially when they are biographically linked to a region that is far removed from German sensitivities and culture of remembrance, but is directly affected by an armed conflict in which Israel plays a central role.
I, myself, emigrated to Germany because, in addition to good working conditions, I also found a more critical spirit and diversity here than in my Finnish homeland - a culture that I found to be free, but also small-minded and nationalistic. Today I wonder if I would make the same decision again. The Max Planck Society was given the choice: to continue the tradition of critical discourse and cosmopolitanism - or to wall itself in under pressure from some activists and the media and de facto censor one of its most renowned scientists. They chose the latter.