Germany’s anti-Palestinianism is escalating

It is high time Germany stops conflating Palestinian activism with anti-Semitism in a flawed attempt to atone for its past.

Police officers stand guard as people attend a demonstration to mark the Nakba and in support of Palestinians, in Berlin, Germany, May 15, 2022. REUTERS/Christian Mang
The police in Berlin banned a demonstration marking the Nakba on May 15, 2022 [File: Reuters/Christian Mang]

On June 6, the European Legal Support Center (ELSC) released a report on the suppression of Palestinian activism in the European Union and the United Kingdom. Focusing on the use of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism, the document found that there had been “widespread restrictions of the right of assembly and freedom of expression” related to criticism of Israel.

In one of the three countries the report focuses on – Germany – it found violations that ranged from dismissal of employees on false charges of anti-Semitism to denials of public spaces for pro-Palestinian events to defunding of organisations. None of ELSC’s findings surprised me.

As a Palestinian resident of Germany, I have seen it all. I came to the country in 2015, having survived almost three decades of constant Israeli aggression on Gaza.

I carried the trauma of war, of the brutal Israeli siege, of the constant ethnic cleansing and dispossession of my people at the hands of the Israeli occupiers. And when I tried to speak up about it, about the suffering of my people, I was immediately shut down.

I was constantly warned to be careful what I was saying because it did not reflect “German values”. I was told that I am an anti-Semite, that I am a terrorist.

I tried to make my voice heard on German mainstream media, but to no avail. If I had tried to write for an Israeli newspaper, I would have had greater freedom to express myself than I ever did on German media outlets.

I even got taken to court for my Palestinian activism. In 2017, two Israeli activists and I protested against Knesset member Aliza Lavie speaking at a hasbara event called “Life in Israel – Terror, Bias and the Chances for Peace” at Humboldt University in Berlin. The German media smeared and falsely accused us of anti-Semitism, while the university made a criminal complaint against us for “trespassing”. We were immediately criminalised for our peaceful protest. But after three years of legal battles, we were vindicated – we won!

I have been to several other countries in Europe and I have never faced such hostility from the state for my Palestinian activism as I have in Germany. And I feel that the German state’s violent anti-Palestinianism is reaching new peaks with every passing year.

As ELSC’s report pointed out, the justification for Germany’s crackdown on anything that is critical of Israel is often alleged anti-Semitism. It equates Zionism with Judaism despite the fact that this false equivalence has been rejected by countless Jewish scholars and groups across the world.

This accusation has been actively used by both public and private institutions to suppress not only the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement but anyone who speaks up to pressure the Israeli regime to comply with international and human rights law and grant Palestinians their rights.

In 2019, the German parliament passed a resolution describing the BDS movement as anti-Semitic. This motion has been used to shut down, silence and censor pro-Palestinian activism, despite the fact that German courts have already ruled against anti-BDS actions by state authorities on several occasions, finding that they violate freedom of expression.

The false charges of anti-Semitism have also been used to target specific individuals and especially people of migrants backgrounds who stand ridiculously accused of “bringing anti-Semitism to Germany”.

In February 2022, German state-owned broadcaster Deutsche Welle fired seven Palestinian and Arab journalists for alleged anti-Semitic statements. Two of the journalists, Maram Salem and Farah Maraqa, challenged their defamation campaign and dismissal in court and won.

But the German authorities’ anti-Palestinianism goes beyond trying to suppress anti-Israel criticism. Their ferocious response to attempts by the Palestinian community to mark the Nakba – the word Palestinians use for their ethnic cleansing from their homeland – demonstrates that they aim to literally deny Palestinian existence in public space.

Last year, I physically experienced the full extent of what this means. After the Berlin police banned a rally to mark the Nakba and two courts upheld its decision, hundreds of Palestinians and their allies decided to take to the streets in small groups anyway. We wore kufiyahs to show our solidarity.

Despite our small numbers, police presence was overwhelming, with armoured vehicles deployed that reminded me of home under Israel occupation and colonisation.

Wearing a kufiyah and looking Palestinian, I was stopped by a dozen police officers. They asked for my ID, and one asked why I am wearing a kufiyah, saying that I was protesting and violating the ban. While objecting to being stopped, I was suddenly grabbed, attacked brutally, and detained. They almost dislocated my shoulder and I had to be hospitalised for it.

However, the psychological pain of what I experienced was much worse than the physical one. I was not only denied the opportunity to publicly mourn my people’s dispossession, but two days earlier, I – and other Palestinians and our allies – had also been banned from mourning Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who had been killed by the Israeli army.

This year, we tried again to commemorate the Nakba. We tried to mobilise the left, encouraging environmental, feminist and migrant groups to join us and ran the preparations on the slogan “Free Palestine from German guilt”.

But yet again we were banned.

Some groups defied the ban, carrying Palestinian flags and a banner saying “Existence is resistance” through the streets. A heavy police presence made sure that not even a small flash mob event could take place. And yet again they accused us of anti-Semitism to justify our erasure from public space.

Not only is this an unfounded allegation, but it also raises the question of why the German police – so worried about public display of anti-Semitism – is not banning racist and neo-Nazi groups, who actually hold anti-Semitic beliefs, from marching all across the country. For example, last year, just two months after we were banned from marking the Nakba, neo-Nazis were allowed to march through the city of Mainz; and it was not the police that dispersed them but a large crowd of anti-fascists.

The Palestinian community in Germany is one of the largest in Europe, but they are made invisible, regularly intimidated by the German police and institutions, put under surveillance, and dehumanised in the media as anti-Semites and potential terrorists.

These tactics aimed at depoliticising Palestinians can affect their residency status, job search, or even accommodation.

One has to wonder what these “German values” are if in their name, Palestinians are systematically mistreated in this brutal way. One has to wonder if they are not simply a reflection of white supremacy, enabling the German state to extend Israeli apartheid against Palestinians onto its own territory.

This has taken a toll on Palestinian Germans. Many of them are fearful to speak up; others are exhausted by the constant struggle they have had to lead to claim the right of free expression that everyone else enjoys in Germany. Palestinian intellectuals have been attacked publicly and stigmatised, which has often affected their careers.

And yet, Palestinians in Germany continue to resist state repression and silencing. There is a young generation of Palestinians who no do not want to comply with German state diktats just so they feel they fit in. They do not stay silent in the face of humiliation and pressure. Organisations like Palästina Spricht (Palestine Speaks) are not letting any act of repression go by without a public reaction and challenge.

Criminalising Palestinians for speaking up for Palestinian rights, while neo-Nazis are allowed to raise their fascist slogans in public, is Germany’s moral failure. It is time Palestine is freed from German guilt. It is time Germany stops demanding that Palestinians pay for its historical sins and embraces the Palestinian struggle for justice and liberation.

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