Masha Gessen will receive Hannah Arendt Prize after all, following controversy over Gaza essay


((JEWISH REVIEW)) – The writer Masha Gessen will still receive a prestigious award named for Hannah Arendt, after the German foundation that administers the prize had initially said it would pull its support due to Gessen’s recent writing on Gaza.

Gessen, a Jewish writer for The New Yorker magazine, published an essay last week comparing the Gaza Strip to Nazi-era Jewish ghettos, sparking backlash from Jewish and pro-Israel activists in Germany. That led the Heinrich Böll Foundation to say that it would no longer support a ceremony for Gessen receiving the award named for Arendt, a 20th-century German Jewish thinker and author. 

But on Friday, the foundation told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that Gessen will still get the award, including 10,000 euros in prize money, and that the author should still be honored. 

“We want to make it very clear that we do not want to strip Masha Gessen of the award, or deny them the prize, and that we honor the relevance of their work,” the foundation said in a statement. “Gessen deserves great merit for their unconditional commitment to democracy and to debating uncomfortable issues. We greatly appreciate Gessen’s critical work, their demonstrated passion for freedom and commitment to defy any autocratic tendencies.”

The award is given annually to political theorists who continue the philosophical tradition of Arendt. Gessen is a refugee from the former Soviet Union and the descendant of Holocaust survivors. They have been widely acclaimed for their writing on the Russia-Ukraine war and LGBTQ issues.

The foundation’s initial objections, and those of the German city of Bremen that co-administers the prize, stemmed from a Dec. 9 New Yorker essay by Gessen entitled “In The Shadow Of The Holocaust.” In the piece, Gessen critiqued modern German, Polish and Ukrainian approaches to Holocaust memory, and also castigated Israeli policy toward Gaza.

“For the last seventeen years, Gaza has been a hyperdensely populated, impoverished, walled-in compound where only a small fraction of the population had the right to leave for even a short amount of time—in other words, a ghetto,” Gessen wrote. “Not like the Jewish ghetto in Venice or an inner-city ghetto in America but like a Jewish ghetto in an Eastern European country occupied by Nazi Germany.” 

They added: “The ghetto is being liquidated.”

Following the essay’s publication, the German-Israeli Society’s Bremen chapter criticized Gessen’s comparison of Gaza to Jewish ghettos, which society chair Hermann Kuhn wrote could have “only one explanation: a deep-seated and fundamental negative prejudice against the Jewish state.” Kuhn also took issue with Gessen’s stance on Germany’s approach to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel, which the German government has defined as antisemitic. 

In an open letter calling on the prize’s administrators to refrain from honoring Gessen, the society wrote that giving them the award “would honor a person whose thinking is in clear contrast to Hannah Arendt’s.” Founding members of the prize also campaigned against Gessen receiving it due to their “statements about the Middle East conflict,” in a letter quoted by the German newspaper Die Zeit. 

Subsequently, Bremen’s Senate announced it would be pulling out of a planned ceremony for the award, and the foundation said it would no longer sponsor it. But then it backtracked and attributed its decision to a lack of a venue for the ceremony. Later, on Friday, it said that it objected to Gessen’s characterization of Gaza but that they should not be stripped of the award. 

“We disagree with this statement, and fully reject it,” the foundation said regarding Gessen’s comparison of Gaza to a Nazi-era ghetto. “The award ceremony would not have been an appropriate place for an earnest dialogue on the culture of remembrance, which is why we are trying to find another format with Masha Gessen in which a more substantive discussion can be had.”

The awards ceremony, originally scheduled for Friday, has been postponed to Saturday in light of the foundation’s departure, but will reportedly still be presented on a smaller scale. According to Gessen, it will also lack many of the trappings usually associated with the award, including a promised lecture at Bremen University. 

Gessen did not respond to multiple (JEWISH REVIEW) requests for comment, including about the foundation’s statement on Friday. They told Middle East Eye in an article published earlier Friday that the New Yorker essay, which quoted Arendt, accorded with Arendt’s writing and thought. 

“Hannah Arendt wouldn’t have gotten the Hannah Arendt prize if you applied those kinds of criteria to it,” Gessen said. “She was very insistent on comparing the Israeli policies and Israeli ideologies to the Nazis. And her project was very much what I’m building on, which is you have to compare in order to identify dangerous similarities.”

In an interview prior to the prize controversy, Gessen told the same German paper that Arendt was a major inspiration for them. Gessen was also recently placed on a wanted list in Russia and accused by the Kremlin of spreading false information about the Russian Army, accusations which American journalism institutions have said are meritless. 

The Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, where Gessen teaches, said in a statement Monday, “We categorically reject the criminal investigation of Professor Gessen,” adding that Russia’s “persecution is part of the broader effort to stifle independent journalism.”

Controversy over responses to the Israel-Gaza war has caused turmoil across the world of arts and letters. Last month, a Jewish sponsor pulled out of the National Book Awards after learning that nominees planned to issue a statement criticizing Israel and calling for a ceasefire during the ceremony. The incident followed a controversy at the New York City Jewish cultural center 92NY in which it canceled a planned talk by an author who had signed a letter critical of Israel’s actions in Gaza, leading to resignations at the center; a similar sequence of events unfolded at the magazine Artforum.

Gessen’s Holocaust essay also criticizes Germany’s formal policy of considering the BDS movement antisemitic. They report that German officials have frequently gone after intellectuals and activists who invoke the campaign. Gessen also criticizes Israel’s own alliances with far-right factions in Germany and Poland and its refusal to overtly align with Ukraine in that country’s war against Russia. 

At one point, the essay quotes Arendt’s own 1940s-era writings that compared future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s political party to the Nazis. Germany’s policies combating antisemitism have been criticized by some left-leaning intellectuals for being overly harsh toward critics of Israel.

The Heinrich Böll Foundation is allied with Germany’s Green Party and has offices in Tel Aviv, Ramallah, Washington, D.C., and other locations. On its Israel website, the foundation backs a two-state solution, condemns the Hamas attacks and notes “the disastrous humanitarian situation in Gaza” and “the suffering and pain of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.”