Masha Gessen, a Russian-American Jewish professor, won a prize in the name of Hannah Arendt, but when German sponsors of the prize heard his voice, so reminiscent of Arendt’s, they dissociated themselves from the prize and so too did the German town officials where the prize was to be awarded. Gessen’s comparison of human rights abuses by Nazi Germany and Israel deserves to be heard. Germany’s attempt to silence it only contributes to the injustices that Arendt spoke so eloquently about. The original report in the Washington Post can be found here.

Masha Gessen won a ‘political thought’ prize. Then they wrote on Gaza.

A Q&A with the journalist, after two sponsors of the Hannah Arendt Prize withdrew their support

Russian American journalist Masha Gessen in 2019 at the Leipzig Book Fair. (Jens Schlueter/Getty Images)

Masha Gessen was set to travel Wednesday from New York to Bremen, Germany, to accept an award Friday named for political philosopher Hannah Arendt, whose writing on totalitarianism made her a celebrated thinker of the 20th century.

Then came news that two sponsors of the event had pulled out, citing Gessen’s Dec. 9 New Yorker essay titled “In the shadow of the Holocaust,” a reflection from Berlin on what’s happened since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. Gessen criticizes Germany’s policies relating to Israel, examines the country’s regulation of Holocaust remembrance, and compares the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza to that of Jews in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe.

“Presumably, the more fitting term ‘ghetto’ would have drawn fire for comparing the predicament of besieged Gazans to that of ghettoized Jews,” Gessen wrote. “It also would have given us the language to describe what is happening in Gaza now. The ghetto is being liquidated.”

This excerpt “implies that Israel aims to liquidate Gaza like a Nazi ghetto,” the left-leaning Heinrich Böll Foundation wrote in its withdrawal from co-sponsoring the award. “This statement is not an offer for open discussion; it does not help to understand the conflict in the Middle East.”

The news was first reported by Germany’s Die Zeit newspaper. Administrators of Bremen’s town hall withdrew the venue for the prize ceremony, according to the Hannah Arendt Association for Political Thought, which confers the prize.

Gessen, who is Jewish, is a celebrated thinker in their own right, and the author of books about repressive political regimes in the United States and Russia, the winner of Germany’s 2019 Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding, and a professor at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism in New York.

The Hannah Arendt Association wrote in a statement: “We find it remarkable that the public debate about understanding and condemning Hamas’s terrorist attacks on Israel and Israel’s bombing of Gaza is being blocked by boycotting a political thinker who is trying to bring knowledge, insight and sharp thinking to this debate.”

Gessen spoke to The Washington Post Wednesday evening from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, as they were preparing to fly to Bremen, where a smaller award ceremony in a different venue was rescheduled for Saturday. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q: When and how did you hear the news?

A: I woke up to a message from one of the organizers from the Hannah Arendt Association. I never heard from the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Nobody ever sent me a statement, nobody ever asked me for clarification, nothing. All the other details — aside from the foundation and the city pulling out — I have been learning from the media.

Q: Are you surprised by the foundation’s decision?

A: Well, yes and no. I was in Berlin reporting this piece, and I mentioned — as a joke that’s not really a joke — to some friends that I might get my Hannah Arendt Prize revoked over this. They assured me that that wasn’t possible, so I trusted their intuition. Even people I know in Germany who have been dealing with this on a continuous basis for the past several years continue to be shocked by the craziness of this — people’s speech being shut down, Jews being denounced as antisemitic for criticizing Israeli policies, et cetera.

Q: Can you describe how Germany’s regulation of Holocaust remembrance and discussion limits how people talk about what is happening in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel?

A: I think the most important part of this memory culture — that has effectively become memory policy — is the insistence on the singularity of the Holocaust. Singularity to such an extent that it is not permissible to draw any comparisons between Nazi policies and any contemporary policies, the Holocaust and any other contemporary events. The reason that I think this is misguided and dangerous is because the only way we can learn from history is if we compare it to the present. That’s actually our own tool. We’re not any smarter or better or more moral than the people who lived 100 years ago. The only thing that we have that they didn’t have is an awareness that the Holocaust was possible and remains possible. It’s a lesson, not a particularly complicated one.

Q: Germany has been criticized for its unconditional support for Israel’s military assault on Gaza, and for its crackdown on speech and pro-Palestinian protests. Museum shows, book talks and other art events have been canceled recently. Does this episode over the Hannah Arendt Prize fit into this pattern?

A: It’s a little bit early to say. This just happened today. The Heinrich Böll Foundation and the city of Bremen have pulled out, but the Hannah Arendt organization itself has not rescinded the prize. So, that’s why I’m going there. I feel like if these people are standing by me, then I should certainly stand by them.

Q: In your essay, you quote Arendt. In 1948, Arendt compared a Jewish-Israeli political party to the Nazi party. You suggest that such a statement today would be a “clear violation” of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism. Is there some absurdity here, given the namesake of the prize? How are you thinking about this discrepancy?

A: Absurdity I think is a pretty good way of putting it. As I said, I was in Berlin just a month ago working on this. In a sense it was like a controlled experiment, but I still couldn’t quite believe this would happen.

Q: On Friday, Russia issued a warrant for your arrest on the charge of “spreading false information about the Russian Armed Forces,” for your criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the atrocities the Russian military committed in Ukraine. Do you see any parallels between these two state efforts to limit speech?

A: I can’t not see parallels because they’re both things that affect me and my plans, how I move through the world, even possibly the money I was counting on coming in at the end of the year.

Someone I very much like and respect texted me, “So many badges of honor, you’re going to need a bigger shirt to pin them on.” That’s a funny way of looking at it, and I think in a sense these are badges of honor, but it’s not pleasant. They both kind of make me feel like space is closing in — with Russia because it limits my ability to travel not just to Russia but to various places in the world, and with Germany because … generally speaking, once you’re canceled in Germany, you’re really canceled. So [not being] able to participate in the same way in cultural events is saddening.

Q: How does this pattern of suppressing what can be said about Israel and Gaza play into the overwhelming military assault on Gaza, which has sparked a debate about whether Israel is committing genocide?

A: I’m not convinced that genocide is the right term. I think ethnic cleansing is the right term. But in any case, I think it’s likely that crimes against humanity are being committed there.

This is something I want to mention: This whole idea of crimes against humanity — like the idea of genocide — these are concepts that came out of World War II and the Holocaust. When we’re thinking about whether a crime against humanity has been committed, or if a genocide has been committed, we’re performing the act of comparing the Holocaust to current events. That’s a foundational stone of our contemporary international legal system.

So to ban that kind of comparison is to try to [throw] a wrench in the entire works of international humanitarian law, and I think Israel does that quite advisedly. That’s why they’ve invested so much money and time and energy in silencing speech critical of Israel, so even the idea that Israel can be held responsible for crimes against humanity is discredited before it’s ever articulated.

Q: In the United States, universities and other cultural groups formally and informally police speech related to Israel and Gaza. How do you compare the suppression happening in the United States to that of Germany?

A: I’m really glad you asked that question because I think that, legally, the situation in the United States is not that different from the situation in Germany. The House has just passed a resolution equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism. New York state has an executive order banning BDS [the boycotting and sanctioning of Israel]. The State Department has adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism. In 2019, Donald Trump signed an executive order that withholds federal funds from programs and universities that “fail” to protect people from antisemitism.

I’m afraid that a fight over federal funding is something that’s going to come now on the heels of the congressional hearings, in which university presidents are grilled McCarthy-style. The biggest reason that we haven’t felt the impact of such legislations and resolutions as strongly in the United States as they have in Germany is because there’s just much less funding involved in cultural programs in the United States. But there have, of course, been individual cases of people not being able to take jobs — and losing their jobs — under the provisions of these anti-BDS laws. I really want people to read my essay because I want people to be aware that we have already laid the foundations for quite similar things to happen in the United States.