The Holocaust was the first historic event that touched my inner core as a human being. Perhaps this explains my early fascination with everything Jewish.
In the 1990s, I lived for two years in Israel, where I volunteered in a center for adults with special needs. This was part of my German Zivildienst — a civilian substitute for conscientious objectors to then compulsory military service. I was what I now consider a naive, well-intentioned, liberal Zionist.
Germany provides Israel with top-notch submarines ready to be equipped with Israel’s not-so-secret nuclear warheads. Recently, documents have surfaced strongly suggesting that Germany also financed Israel’s nuclear program from the start.
Konrad Adenauer, Germany’s first chancellor after the Second World War, reportedly channeled huge amounts of Deutschmarks into Israel’s nuclear weapons program.
In Germany, activism for Palestinian rights has been largely ignored for decades. Demonstrations, talks, pamphlets, books highlighting the Palestinian plight — all were pushed under the carpet.
The Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions — or BDS — has been a total game changer in this respect.
Last year, in my current home town of Oldenburg, I participated in a demonstration in favor of refugees and an open society. The crowd of thousands was followed by 120 or so would-be anarchists waving Israeli flags — self-styled “anti-Germans.”
When they noticed me photographing them, they started shouting my name and abusing me. I stood my ground and yelled back — in Hebrew.
Three of them started pushing me. Then I was dragged away by someone from behind — as it turned out by a police officer, who checked my ID card while the “anti-Germans” marched on unmolested.
These “anti-Germans” (actually “ultra-Germans” because they are ultra-nationalists imitating leftist discourse) put my picture online and conveyed the impression that it was I who had attacked them.
These supposed anti-fascists waving the symbol of a quasi-fascist occupying state were protected by the police from the one person standing up to them.
While the ultra-Germans are an extreme phenomenon, mainstream politicians are little better. Die Linke, (the “left party”), is in a double bind in this context. While many of the party’s basic principles should place it in the pro-Palestinian camp, the higher echelons of the party are hungry for power. They are well aware a party is only considered fit for government if it supports Israel’s crimes almost unconditionally.
In November 2015, I was invited by the Jüdisch-Palästinensische Dialoggruppe München (Jewish-Palestinian dialogue group) to give a talk in Munich. I was to speak on the basic principles and demands of the BDS movement.
The talk was attacked even before it took place. Benjamin Weinthal, a Jerusalem Post journalist and research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, advanced the campaign with an article slandering Palestine solidarity activists in Germany.
He and his interviewee, Charlotte Knobloch, a veteran pro-Israel lobbyist, likened BDS to the Nazi-period slogan “Don’t buy from Jews!” There was an unregistered demonstration — something rare in orderly Germany — in front of the venue by 30 to 40 Zionists waving Israeli flags.
Within the first few minutes of my talk I counted 49 interruptions from the audience, particularly a group of Zionists sitting in the front rows. Later someone repeatedly shouted “Goebbels!” at me.
At one point they brought the event to a halt; 90 percent of the audience had risen from their seats, many were shouting insults, others calling for the talk to continue. Finally, the Zionists took out Israeli flags and shoved them aggressively in the faces of pro-Palestinian activists.
I managed, however, to articulate the Palestinian cause and get some basic messages across.
The center did not cite any evidence for such claims. It did not quote any anti-Semitic statements from me — which would be difficult because I have never said anything anti-Semitic in my life. Quite to the contrary, I have a well-documented anti-racist record which naturally includes fighting anti-Semitism. Such slander plays an important role as “evidence,” facilitating further slander and aiming to silence activists.
On 8 June this year, I was scheduled to speak on BDS at a small venue of the ESG, a Protestant student group closely linked to the University of Oldenburg. The ESG was immediately engulfed in a storm of controversy: dozens of people, including lecturers and student representatives, urged it to cancel the talk which they referred to as ”Hamas propaganda.”
Sara Rihl, a local Social Democrat politician and a student member of the university senate, went so far as to call me a ”known anti-Semite” working for an “anti-Semitic organization” — quoting the unsubstantiated Wiesenthal Center claim as her source.
The ESG fell for this propaganda and canceled the talk, without even giving me the chance to respond to the accusations. I know from insiders that the ESG received threats claiming that its small community might “suffer consequences” if the talk went ahead.
The ESG ignored supportive messages, including from Rolf Verleger, a former member of the Central Council of German Jews who is now involved with the organization Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East.
I immediately moved to invite Ronnie Barkan from the Israeli group Boycott from Within to give a talk about the BDS movement in Oldenburg on 18 May — three weeks before my canceled speech was to have been given. I booked a room for the talk in a municipally owned cultural center.
Only five days before the talk the municipality withdrew from the contract I had signed when booking the room because of “security issues.”
We sought a restraining order to force the municipality to reverse its decision. But this was dismissed by the court owing to a minor procedural error on our part.
Ronnie and I then went to the police to announce a public demonstration. We were met by an impressive number of officials: besides representatives of the police and the municipal administration, one person introduced himself as from the Staatsschutz — a “state security” force dealing with politically motivated crimes.
Apparently, anti-Germans had threatened to disturb the event violently. The police told us that “of course“ our demonstration would not be banned but that we would have to live with the consequences: a confrontation with a violent mob of 100 to 150 anti-Germans.
We argued in vain that the original event could simply have been protected by the police; it was we who were now accused of inciting violence when in reality we were threatened by potential attackers whose identities were known. Presented with these options and told that the police were likely to cancel the demonstration once it started, I withdrew our application. In hindsight, I feel this was a mistake, and I take full blame for it.
Subsequently, we were told by an insider that the head of the local German-Israel Friendship Society had approached the mayor of Oldenburg and demanded the talk’s cancellation.
It was only when the mayor refused, citing the valid contract, that the anti-Germans issued their threats and the police advised the municipality to cancel the talk. Placing the fault with our group was a classic case of “blaming the victim.” Ironically, the self-proclaimed fighters against anti-Semitism managed to silence a Jewish Israeli activist by preventing Ronnie Barkan’s speech.
On 14 June, the Oldenburg District Court ordered Rihl not to repeat her defamatory statements about me. Riya Hassan, European coordinator of the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC), described the ruling as “a serious blow to Israel’s war of repression against the BDS movement.”
Nevertheless, Rihl claimed that the court sentence was unfair because the court did not agree to postpone the date of the hearing due to her (alleged) illness. The reality, however, is that she was not even called upon to appear in court; it was her lawyer who did not come to the court hearing and failed to offer an explanation for why she (the lawyer) was absent.
Rihl announced on social media that she was going to appeal the court’s decision and did so on the last day before the deadline expired. The appeal issued by her lawyer is solely based on technicalities and aims at prolonging the given deadline.
In fact, the tactic employed is rather confusing as there is no hint whatsoever regarding any fresh evidence her lawyer could bring to bear — and there is none as our group staunchly favors equal rights for all.
The same day Rihl handed in her appeal, her lawyer received a letter from my lawyer demanding Rihl sign a statement of submission (in German “Unterwerfungserklärung”). This is essentially a public announcement that one fully acknowledges the (aforementioned) ruling and its consequences.
The deadline for the statement of submission runs out on 15 August. If she refuses to sign the statement, we will bring the case to the appellate court. Going to the appellate court will enable us to challenge Rihl’s false charges even more efficiently. There will be no further loopholes for her to turn to and it will be all the more clear that the court regards her as in the wrong substantively — rather than on technicalities.
As our public and legal actions indicate, it is no longer possible to push solidarity for Palestinian rights under the carpet in Germany. Dozens of friends, colleagues and strangers contacted me to denounce these attacks on free speech, express interest in the Palestinian cause and ask to learn more. A new local network with strong international ties is in the making.
And while Israel’s supporters are doing their very best to thwart our activism, it is my impression that their efforts are futile in the long run. While the Israeli state has tanks and guns and many of the world’s most powerful governments on its side, the Palestinians have history on theirs. As Victor Hugo phrased it: “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” BDS is such an idea. And its time has indeed come — even in Germany.
I believe that this is part and parcel of what we as solidarity activists can and must do to support the Palestinian cause from outside: use our privilege for the greater good and expose the infrastructure and mechanisms of Zionist spin doctors in order to be able to tackle them more efficiently.
It is an honor to stand in solidarity with my Palestinian sisters and brothers in their struggle for justice.
This article is based on an exchange of emails between Christoph Glanz and Raymond Deane.
Christoph Glanz is an activist and teacher also known as Christopher Ben Kushka. He lives in Oldenburg, Germany.