Germany’s relentless campaign to silence pro-Palestinian voices

The German political establishment has come after BDS just as viciously as Israel has.

Anti-BDS trial
The Humboldt3 - Majed Abusalama, Stavit Sinai and Ronnie Barkan in front of the Moabit Criminal Court in Berlin [Courtesy of: Jamy Jamal]

Against the backdrop of Israeli efforts to falsely equate Zionism with Judaism and dismiss any criticism of the Israeli state as anti-Semitic, Germany is also leading a relentless campaign to ostracise pro-Palestinian activists and delegitimise their protest campaigns.

The German state has traditionally viewed protection of and unconditional ideological support for Israel as part of its raison d’etre – a way to atone for the Holocaust.

Historically, this pillar of German politics has justified the country’s unconditional support for Israel and silence on Israeli abuses of Palestinian rights. More recently, it has also made the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Movement, which Israel sees as an existential threat, the primary target of smear campaigns and relentless persecution in the country.

The German authorities have categorised the peaceful movement as anti-Semitic and have taken action to prevent it from having any meaningful influence in the country.

In a January 2018 resolution on fighting anti-Semitism, for example, the German parliament equated calls for a boycott of Israel with insults towards Jews, and urged the German government to take decisive action against BDS. Previously, in December 2016, Germany’s leading party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) condemned BDS as anti-Israeli and “coarse anti-Semitism,” comparing it to the Nazis’ economic strangulation of Jews.

Outside the central government, representatives of many major German cities also openly attacked the movement, and similarly equated BDS to “Nazi policies”.

In August 2017, Frankfurt’s mayor Uwe Becker passed legislation to ban municipal and city-owned funding for BDS individuals, activities, or groups. He told Israeli media that he believes BDS “is a deeply anti-Semitic movement” seeking “to deeply delegitimise Israel” using “the same language that the Nazis used in the darkest chapter of German history”.

A month later, Berlin’s mayor, Michael Mueller said he would personally work to ensure that representatives of the BDS movement would not get funding from the city or be allowed to use its public spaces, claiming the movement employed “unbearable methods from the Nazi era.” The intelligence agencies of several German states have designated the BDS movement as an “anti-Semitic danger”.

The German authorities have also taken steps to prosecute pro-BDS activists in an attempt to make an example out of them and deter others from speaking up in favour of the movement. 

Three Berlin-based BDS activists, for example, are currently facing criminal charges raised by the state of Berlin. Known as the “Humboldt 3”, Jewish Israelis Stavit Sinai and Ronnie Barkan and Gaza Palestinian Majed Abusalama are accused of trespassing and assault after they peacefully protested during a public anti-BDS speech by Knesset member Aliza Lavie at Berlin’s Humboldt University in June 2017. Lavie was part of Israel’s ruling coalition during the 2014 war on Gaza

In February 2019, the trio received an award from Copenhagen’s co-mayor, Ninna Hedeager Olsen, for their activism. The mayor stressed that they “have worked tirelessly to reveal the Apartheid-like nature of the Israeli regime and its systematic violation of international law.”

Yet, in Germany, they are prosecuted. 

Abusalama told me that he views the charges brought against them as a clear sign that there is “an expansion of Israeli apartheid in Germany.” He asserts that due to restrictions on free speech, many Palestinians feel threatened and unsafe in Germany.

The criminal case has affected Abusalama’s status in Germany, with the permanent residency he was supposed to receive being withheld pending the end of the trial. 

While the BDS movement and its supporters appear to be the main target of the anti-Palestinian campaign in Germany, other groups and movements have also been targeted by the German state and politicians for supporting the Palestinian struggle. 

For example, a smear campaign was recently launched against the Berlin-based association Jewish Voice for Just Peace in Near East (JVP), which campaigns for equal treatment of Israelis and Palestinians.

The attacks against the group intensified after it was announced as this year’s recipient of the Goettingen Peace Prize.

Among the opponents of the decision to award JVP was lawyer Felicitas Oldenburg, leader of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) in the Goettingen city council. Oldenburg urged the prize selection committee and the institutions sponsoring the prize – the city of Goettingen, Goettingen University, and the Sparkasse Bank – to revoke their decision. In a letter, she dismissed BDS as anti-Semitic and called JVP an “extreme” faction that represents unjust, “absolute minority positions.” She even put the adjective Jewish in the group’s name in quotation marks and accused the association of “sailing under a false flag”.

In response to the attacks by Oldenburg and others, all three involved institutions rescinded their support for the peace prize. However, the selection committee did not back down from its decision and still presented the prize to the in March.

In an official statement, JVP said its members felt “shocked and alienated” as a result of the slander campaign launched against them and asked, “With what authority this lawyer and leader of the FDP parliamentary faction dares to question our Jewish identity?” The association said Oldenburg’s claim that they are sailing under a “false flag” was in itself anti-Semitic, and compared it to the common anti-Semitic trope “that Jews pretended outwardly to be peaceful and law-abiding citizens, but beneath their beards and yarmulkas hid their alleged conspiracies and claims for power.” 

JVP’s director Iris Hefets told me that she believes the smear campaign they faced in relation to the Goettingen Peace Prize was a symptom of recent widespread majoritarian efforts to suppress the freedom of expression and silence minority point of views regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Germany.

That we, as Jews, are defamed as anti-Semites by German Christians, comes with a denial of history,” Hefets explained. “The majority incites against a minority and engages in political persecution. This is dangerous because it aggravates totalitarian tendencies.”

The alarming nature, and the possible overarching implications, of the smear campaign against the JVP was also underlined in an open letter written in support of the group by over 90 Jewish scholars, including Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler.

The letter said it is worrying sign that “representatives from the German state, finance sector and academia have come together to make a judgement about whether or not a group of Jews and Israelis, many of them descendants of Holocaust survivors, are anti-Semitic.”

As German officials, politicians, bureaucrats, and academics target BDS activists and other supporters of the Palestinian struggle, they perpetuate anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews and Orientalist depictions of Palestinians. In this way, they help Israel cover up its crimes and silence Palestinians. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.