Jewish author who compared Israel to Nazi Germany receives German literary prize

Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought presented to Masha Gessen in delayed and subdued ceremony after her article comparing Gaza to Nazi ghettos met with outrage

Russian American writer Masha Gessen  after receiving the Hannah Arendt Prize, in event room F61 in Bremen, Germany, Saturday, December 16, 2023. (Focke Strangmann/dpa via AP)
Russian American writer Masha Gessen after receiving the Hannah Arendt Prize, in event room F61 in Bremen, Germany, Saturday, December 16, 2023. (Focke Strangmann/dpa via AP)

The Russian-American writer Masha Gessen received a German literary prize Saturday in a ceremony that was delayed and scaled down in reaction to an article she penned comparing Gaza to Nazi German ghettos.

The comparison in a recent New Yorker article was viewed as controversial in Germany, where government authorities strongly support Israel, in part as a form of compensation for the Holocaust and the murder of 6 million Jews.

Gessen, who was born Jewish in the Soviet Union, is critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

In Gessen’s article, titled “In the Shadow of the Holocaust,” the author explores German Holocaust memory, arguing that Germany today stifles free and open debate on Israel.

Gessen also is critical of Israel’s relationship with Palestinians, writing that Gaza is “like a Jewish ghetto in an Eastern European country occupied by Nazi Germany.”

“The ghetto is being liquidated,” the article added.

The ghettos in German-occupied countries during World War II were open-air prisons where Jews were killed, starved and died from diseases. Those who didn’t perish there were rounded up and transported to death camps where they were murdered, a process called “liquidation.”

The war in Gaza was triggered by Hamas’s terror onslaught in southern Israel on October 7, in which thousands of Hamas-led terrorists poured into southern Israel, slaughtered more than 1,200 people, mostly civilians killed amid brutal atrocities, and seized some 240 hostages.

In response, Israel launched an aerial campaign and subsequent ground invasion, vowing to eliminate Hamas from the Gaza Strip and end its 16-year rule.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry has said that since the start of the war, some 18,800 people have been killed, most of them civilians. These numbers cannot be independently verified, however, and are believed to include some 7,000 Hamas or Hamas-affiliated operatives, as well as civilians killed by misfired Palestinian rockets.

Russian American writer Masha Gessen sits during the presentation of the Hannah Arendt Prize, in event room F61, in Bremen, Germany, Saturday, December 16, 2023 (Focke Strangmann/dpa via AP)

Reaction to the article comes as German society grapples with the fallout from the Israel-Hamas war, with both pro-Palestinian protests and pro-Israel demonstrations taking place in past weeks. German leaders have repeatedly stressed their support for the country’s Jewish communities and for Israel as they have denounced antisemitic incidents.

The Böll Foundation, affiliated with Germany’s Green party, called the comparison made by the author between Israel and Nazi Germany “unacceptable.” A jury decided in the summer to award Gessen, an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the foundation said it wasn’t canceling the award itself.

Gessen was originally due to receive the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought on Friday in the city hall of Bremen, in northwest Germany, but the sponsoring organization, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and the Senate of the city of Bremen withdrew from the ceremony.

It took place instead in a different location Saturday with about 50 guests crowded into a small event room and with police security, the German news agency dpa reported.

Gessen was not available for comment, a New Yorker spokesperson said, but the writer defended the article in an interview with Politico.

“I think it is possible to be very upset about that comparison,” Gessen told Politico. “I also think that in this circumstance, it is morally necessary and politically necessary to make this very, very upsetting comparison.”

The award is to honor people who contribute to public political thought in the tradition of Hannah Arendt, the German-born American political theorist who explored totalitarianism.

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