Editor’s Note:
The letter reproduced below was written and sent to PEN Berlin at the end of January this year by Yassin al-Haj Saleh, as a member of the writer’s organization. While some changes have been made to the text to ensure the avoidance of misunderstanding, the central meaning and arguments have been left unaltered.

The viewpoint I express in this letter is not of a personal nature. I joined PEN Berlin in good faith, and Deniz Yücel was a friend, and was fairly helpful towards me. Rather, it is written out of concern for values and principles, the same values and principles I struggled for in my country, Syria – the values that are being actively and repeatedly betrayed by the privileged in Germany and across the world.

I write also to express how sad I am for the great intellectual and human potential Berlin used to have, and how it is being squandered so thoughtlessly, and with PEN Berlin’s involvement.


Dear friends at PEN Berlin,

I read the two statements issued on December 15th by your general assembly, and the talk by Deniz Yücel on the 16th. As a member of PEN Berlin, I am writing to say that I find these documents extremely biased, siding as they all ultimately do with a settler colonial and apartheid state that had killed some 20,000 Palestinians in Gaza and close to 300 in the West Bank by the time the statements were issued.

The urge to express “Solidarity with Jews in Germany, Israel and everywhere” while Palestinians have been reduced to a population of homo sacer – a type of person whose murder does not constitute a crime, as expounded upon by Giorgio Agamben – is peculiar, and perhaps indicative of a basic lack of moral lucidity. Justifying this untimely solidarity with the powerful aggressor by the fact that Israel is “the state of the survivors of the Shoah” forgets two important things: that these were survivors of a genocide perpetrated by Germans, not by Palestinians; and that Palestine, when Israel was established, was an already populated land whose people had not been asked to host anybody in their homeland. It truly is a cheap kind of solidarity with the victims of Nazism to support such a state against “the victims of the victims” (as per Edward Said) who were in no way responsible for the Jews’ plight.

The Palestinians are now blamed, as they have been for decades, for being unwilling to pay with their land, blood, and statehood – but Germany itself has never paid its debts in such currency. If, as many are now saying following Angela Merkel, Israel is Germany’s raison d’état, then Germany should have paid that debt with existence, not with money, diplomatic support, or arms. Germany should have compensated Jews from its very being as a polity, not from the existence of Palestinians, as has been the case now for 76 years. If the goal was to extirpate antisemitism, then it is Germany (or some large part of it) which should have become a Jewish state, not Palestine.

But since Israel is established in Palestine and at the expense of Palestinians’ very existence (deprived as they are of opportunities to survive as a nation, or even as free individuals), then to be a true expression of radical “anti-antisemitism” your statement should rather have been titled: “Solidarity with Palestinians in Germany, Israel and everywhere.” Germany will show itself to be emancipated from vile antisemitism only when German intellectuals can condemn the crimes of Israelis like any other crimes. Displacing antisemitism onto Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims is deeply symptomatic of a quite indigenous structural antisemitism that this country has never healthily confronted. Would it not be more just and fitting to add every new Palestinian victim to the six million of the Holocaust – rather than subtracting them from that number, as it seems German and Western moral mathematics would have it?

It was reactionary and inhuman, not to mention colonial, to dispossess the Palestinians and to continually treat them as second-, third-, and fourth-class citizens in their own homeland for so long (second in “Israel Proper,” third in the West Bank, and fourth in Gaza). The ethical method to deal with this problem would be to prioritize making Palestinian political and legal rights equal to those of Israeli Jews in one democratic and secular state (a solution which, incidentally, the PLO talked about some 50 years ago.) The two-state solution died long ago, killed by the Israelis and their Western supporters, and decent people should not spend one extra minute regurgitating it. The Nakba should be recognized and apologized for, and Palestinian refugees should have the right to return to their homes or receive just reparations. This solution may seem to bear a great – psychologically, politically, and economically. But it will be far more costly – aside from it being criminal and poisonous to the entire world – to keep on crushing the Palestinians, time and time again, and expecting them to surrender. They will not. Germany and the West have a special responsibility to push things in this direction. They were able, albeit belatedly, to help dismantle the apartheid regime in South Africa in the early 1990s, setting a good precedent for the dismantling of another atrocious system of discrimination. As things stand now however, Germany is siding with Israel and against South Africa in the International Justice Court in the Hague, in denial that Israel has been perpetrating genocide. By doing this, Germany is running away from facing (never mind confronting) its past and refusing to consider the perspective of the victims.

The aforementioned statement of solidarity also deceives its readers by claiming that the Jews who were killed on October 7 by Hamas were killed principally because they were Jews (i.e. as if the “criteria” for murder were the same as during the Holocaust). This is simply false: these people were killed as a consequence of the Israeli occupation. And not only were some of those killed on October 7 non-Jews, but some of them were originally from Palestinian Arab communities. Regardless, Israel had been blockading Gaza from the land, sea, and sky for 17 years prior to October 7: this constitutes an occupation according to international law, and Israel cannot invoke a right to self-defense against the resistance of an occupied people. Nevertheless, targeting Israeli civilians is condemnable, regardless, and can never be condoned as a legitimate act of resistance.

Are you dismayed, dear friends, that I am raising these points? I do this for two reasons. Firstly, I cannot pay tribute to ossified self-regard and consequent self-deception, however much these have been normalized as consistent morality and self-respect by “Kulturarbeit”. Secondly, the present situation is already very critical and requires people to engage in serious self-questioning – yourselves among them. Instead, your statements and Deniz’s talk express a profound structural failure to come to terms with how unjust the situation is in Palestine, and how you are implicated in nurturing the injustice that you have failed to face by projecting Germany’s history of antisemitism abroad in a manner that is morally exculpatory and, as such, contributes nothing helpful toward resolving the horrors of the present.

PEN Berlin has come out against the International PEN statement about the ongoing Israeli war in Gaza, released on October 10, 2023. I hope I am not being too subjective in suspecting that there are two main reasons for this: that statement’s contextualization and historicization of Hamas’ October 7 attack, and its call for an immediate ceasefire. In PEN Berlin’s second statement, “Against social polarization and illiberal tendencies in the cultural sector”, the general assembly states that it opposes both “relativization” and “legitimization” – terms strongly associated with the German state’s “identity,” manifested in a barely secularized theology of the Holocaust (its uniqueness and incomparability to anything else essentialized and canonized, like God). In this instance, however, the terms have been deployed in order to erase any possible discussion of context and history before October 7, evidently without any awareness of how contradictory this stance is. If there has been enough context and history behind the genocidal Israeli war on Gaza to justify a refusal to “relativize” or “legitimize” Hamas’s attack as the context and the reason of the war (and possibly as the reason for refusing a ceasefire), then why couldn’t there be sufficient context and history, and a very long one indeed, behind October 7? That is, the 75 years of ethnic cleansing, dispossession, settler colonialism, and apartheid since the Nakba – a word which seems not to exist in PEN Berlin’s lexicon?

As a final observation of this section, I wonder if it is possible that PEN Berlin members are unaware that their statement of solidarity serves to propagate exactly the “social polarization” and nurturing of “illiberal tendencies in the cultural sector” which they oppose in their second statement. Are there two hearts in PEN Berlin’s chest, like in Gothe’s Faust’s?


I am genuinely disturbed, even shocked, by the jubilant and self-congratulatory tone of Deniz Yücel’s talk on the extreme human tragedy in Gaza which continues to unfold before his eyes and ours. One expects at least a touch of melancholy, not to say mourning, but finds instead just contented self-satisfaction, full focus on Gaza and Palestine with hardly any empathy, and a disrespectfully dismissive attitude toward those who resigned from PEN Berlin due to the ongoing war. This is bizarre, to say the least.

For Palestinians and many Arabs, Christians and Muslims alike, the Nakba is ongoing and is the source of a permanent state of melancholy, something that produces diverse responses – some of which are quite pathetic, such as the “Problem Baklava” event that Deniz makes a point of mentioning. The entirety of contemporary Arab culture revolves around different registers of mourning and melancholia, some related to colonialism, some to defeated struggles for democracy… as some very serious researchers have pointed out. Creativity and great works can indeed be found there. “Problem Baklava” is only one small instance. I draw the attention of Muslims and Christians alike, as well as secularists and leftists, to the offensiveness of both the letter and the Geist of the statement of solidarity – which represents matters as somehow only a Jewish-Muslim matter. This is not only orientalist but also whole-heartedly amenable solely to right wing politics, like the German AfD.

Deniz’s long talk – close to 4300 words – starts and ends with rejecting BDS. What sort of resistance, peaceful or not, does Deniz then recognize for the dispossessed Palestinian people? Do they even have the right to resist? Or to defend themselves, as a huge chorus of people bleated about Israel after October 7? Or simply to exist?

The PEN Berlin board member playfully blames Palestinian and Arab intellectuals “who do not leave the leadership to the religious or secular radicals on the street” for not admitting that they have a problem, with the implication that this problem is that they do not think in the way preferable to Deniz, and possibly lack the courage to do so. However, given this charge, it must be pointed out that his own judgment is itself considerably lacking: in respect, in nuanced knowledge (or even unnuanced, for that matter!), and, above all, in courage. Is there anything at all courageous in consuming the German catechism in Germany itself, reiterating the national pathological consensus, and blaming the traumatized – who are far less protected, whose internationally recognized symbols are banned, whose candles are stomped on by the German police, whose children are slapped in the face by their teachers – for not facing their supposed internal problems?

Palestinian and Arab intellectuals are not uniform, and we do indeed have many problems. But Deniz does not really know anything about them. Among many things, he does not know if we talk about the Holocaust (not to the Germans, of course – why should we? To gain the dubious favor of the power’s acceptance?) He does not know whether or not we face “problems”, even ostracization, with more tribal Palestinians and Arabs for our dissident thought. His own sort of uncritical tribalism, that of the most protected, privileged, and powerful, seems to insulate him from this knowledge, and the most basic curiosity needed to obtain it.

Furthermore, he seems to think that we are cleanly divided between those who “leave the leadership to the religious or secular radicals on the street” and those who identify with his own stance. I do not see any merit in upholding either one of these two right-wing currents of thought and politics, though I find the insertion of “secular radicals” very interesting. It strongly implies that you are wrong, unless you think like Deniz.

Behind this Germansplaining (that familiar explaining to the subalterns how to think about their own struggles) lies a naked power relation – not brotherhood, not equality, not knowledge, and not respect. This power relation has deprived many of us writers of the ability to openly voice our opinion in Germany of the present situation in Gaza, in Palestine, in Israel, and in Germany itself. When it comes to Palestine, it is the monologue which reigns supreme, not the dialogue. One finds oneself wondering whether Germany has moved much closer to its totalitarian past over the course of the last 110 days, rather than further away.

It is to be expected that the sovereignty of the monologue bestows increasing power to censorship. How many Palestinian and Arab voices have been given an opportunity to express themselves in the German media? Very few. This is the problem, and it is within Deniz’s duty as a journalist, as well as within PEN Berlin’s mandate, to address and challenge this problem as a priority.

Unfortunately, it seems that it has never occurred to PEN Berlin and to Deniz to defend equal freedoms, equal rights, equal human dignity for Palestinians and Jews in Israel proper and “improper” (Gaza, the West Bank, and the Syrian Golan Heights, all of which are under occupation according to the international law), and the equal solidarity with both groups which this entails. Is there any word to name this expansionist impropriety, other than ‘colonialism’ – more specifically, settler colonialism?

Deniz mentions twice in passing the word “peace” in a rather self-referential way. Does he know of a single Israeli peace initiative in compliance with international law? By contrast, there are many from Arabs and Palestinians, if to no avail. Facts are checkable. More importantly, is peace possible without justice? Is justice possible without recognizing the Nakba as a fundamental injustice, and repairing this injustice fully?

Shocking in the extent of its unfeeling, this whole exultant talk by Deniz seems to me to emanate from an outdated, archaic, old-fashioned form of optimistic liberalism, whose upholders typically tend to think that we live in the “best of all possible worlds”: no tragedies, no colossal sufferings, no unbearable pains, no genocides. But under the very eyes of this now archaic ideal, lives are hierarchized and become treated as not equally grievable, something that seems today rather compatible with racist hierarchism, selective solidarity, and selective contextualization. This, at a time during which genocides are being normalized as war tactics, racism and discrimination are rampant, and our reserves of hope and visions of alternatives seems to be completely depleted.

It is not that I do not understand German memory politics. I do. But I think that understanding is contractual, and never one-sided. The contract of understanding, so to speak, takes the form of ensuring spaces for non-typical views to be expressed, protected and respected, as a condition for the typical ones to have the right to be understood and respected. Understandability has been militarized and monologized in Germany, and everyone is expected to conform. Else: antisemitism! Weaponizing antisemitism this way is only good for those who want to trivialize it. It is already being trivialized by the alleged “anti-antisemites”.

For the sake of debate, one may comprehend this non-contractual unilateral German standing with Israel as it slaughters Palestinians and portrays them in genocidal terms. But how can one comprehend the inability of those who do not subscribe to this dogma to express his difference? Is the German narrative so weak that it cannot bear to be exposed to another? In which case, what is the role of the people of PEN and paper? Reiterating the dominant narrative and suppressing the dissident ones? Policing opinions? If this is possible, will we see burning books sometime soon? Or is it still enough to disinvite authors, withdraw awards, and sheepishly congratulate ourselves for not being like the most extremist among us?

I would like to conclude my wistful comments by saying simply this: it goes against the very idea of ‘people of words’ not to call for a ceasefire in Gaza (and the West Bank). I cannot find words to say how shameful and disgraceful this state of affairs is, and how terribly it will haunt our memories – at least mine. One would think that the many Western politicians and elected parliamentarians voting against a ceasefire in Gaza were members of the Israeli army’s general staff. Are writers also members of the same atrocious murder machine, one of the most nihilist and annihilationist in the world?