The Gatekeeper of Freiburg University

Six weeks ago, the University of Freiburg was defeated by Cafe Palestine (Press Release) when five judges at the Administrative Court of Freiburg rejected the university’s arguments for denying Cafe Palestine a venue for one of its speakers. Surely it is now time to delve a little more deeply into this unprecedented case which deserves close attention.

At the centre of it all we find one Dr.  Heinrich Schwendemann, Freiburg University historian and a founder of one of many German Holocaust memorial sites 

A year ago, Cafe Palestine invited Dr.  Schwendemann, together with Prof. Norton Mezvinsky the renowned American Jewish historian to participate in a panel at Freiburg University. Also participating was Gilad Atzmon, the Jazz artist and author of “The Wandering Who – A Study of Jewish Identity Politics”.  This much discussed book has been endorsed by some of the most important scholars and intellectuals of our time with a German edition published in June 2012.

Dr. Schwendemann enthusiastically accepted the invitation but, three  days before the event, he changed his mind insisting that reading Atzmon’s book made it impossible for him to share a platform with somebody who is “relativising the Holocaust”.  The event took place without Dr. Schwendemann (Speech Gilad Atzmon), (Speech Prof. Mezvinsky)

In July 2012, Cafe Palestine planned to host another talk at Freiburg University featuring French professor Christophe Oberlin from Paris. The talk was titled “Plastic Surgery in Gaza” and was set to attract the attention of the local medical community as well as Palestine supporters and humanists. But Cafe Palestine soon learned that the university had decided to withdraw use of the venue. Smelling a rat, Cafe Palestine looked closely into this cancellation and after having received the letter from the University outlining the reasons for the cancellation, decided to issue a complaint at the Administrative Court.

It became clear that the University has been foolish enough to allow itself to be guided by Dr. Schwendemann, even going so far as to make Schwendemann part of its legal team. Schwendemann duly appeared at the Administrative Court at the defendant´s desk together with the University’s lawyer and a University representative. 

When it was time for the University to present its defence, it was to Schwendemann to whom it turned as its expert witness. Unfortunately, the arguments presented by Schwendemann were so off-topic as to be simply embarrassing. According to Schwendemann, Cafe Palestine Freiburg´s crime was in bringing Gilad Atzmon as a speaker and in translating his talks without comment which, according to  Schwendemann, meant that Cafe Palestine must be in complete accord with absolutely everything Atzmon says and must fully support all his political views.

In fact, Cafe Palestine Freiburg doesn’t actually agree with everything Gilad Atzmon or for that matter, any other participant of the talks, says but does believe that Atzmon’s, as well as all the other speakers´ ideas deserve public attention, discussion and critical thought. It further believed that Freiburg University was a most appropriate platform for this discussion as was proved by the vivid debate that was provoked by the Mezvinsky-Atzmon panel.

Although the arguments against Atzmon delivered by Schwendemann and the University were so ridiculous and out of order that the Court dismissed them completely and rejected the University´s defence altogether, it is still well worth examining their arguments because they provide us with a glimpse into those powerful but destructive mechanisms that interfere with our most precious rights and liberties.

The University’s lawyer wrote that “According to Dr. Schwendemann”,  Atzmon’s book “contains the entire anti-Semitic arsenal including Holocaust Relativism” but failed to explain exactly what it was that makes Atzmon into a ‘relativist’. 

Then, “According to (Atzmon’s book)  the Jews were made responsible for all evil,” at which point it became embarrassingly obvious that Schwendemann, as well as the University attorney had either not read the book or even more worryingly, had failed to understand it. Atzmon’s book  is, as its title suggests, ‘a study of Jewish Identity politics’. It refers to ideology (Jewish identity politics) not to people (Jews) – a point Atzmon makes clear numerous times in the text.   

Atzmon may be right and he may be wrong, but his ideas deserve attention and discussion and the University of Freiburg is surely the place for this. 

Schwendemann did state that “Atzmon declares that he is conducting his own personal war against Zionism and Jewish identity politics.” Yet, neither the historian nor the University explained what exactly is wrong with criticism of a political standpoint –  or is it just that political criticism to be outlawed in Freiburg University?

It took the Court under an hour to grasp that Freiburg University was wrong and ruled the University’s conduct unlawful. Cafe Palestine Freiburg and justice itself had won a landmark victory. Since then, the University has assured Cafe Palestine that future applications for space will be treated impartially.  A talk with Professor Oberlin from Paris is planned for October.

So here are two question we might ask ourselves:

1. Why did this German historian not take the opportunity to challenge Atzmon in the open debate organised by Cafe Palestine Freiburg in July 2012 rather than  act clandestinely, denying ‘the accused’ the possibility to defend himself.

2. Do we need a German from Freiburg University to tell an Israeli-born intellectual, who has served in the Israeli Military during the first Lebanon war, how to deal with his own society and its ideologies, his own past, his own culture and the future? Is it not enough that the “Schwendemanns” of our time tell the Germans what to think?

And one more…. How is it possible that a prominent German university with the words “The Truth Will Set You Free” engraved in gold over one of its entrances follows the orders of someone like Dr. Heinrich Schwendemann – a man who by his conduct has managed to set new standards of a lack of intellectual integrity and clumsy scholarship.

Dr. Gabi Weber regularly writes for The Other Site. Read other articles by Gabi.