Supporters of the BDS – boycott, divestment and sanctions – movement in Germany have won a two-year court battle against a local authority that could set a legal precedent for BDS activism in the country.
On 27 September, the administrative court of the northwestern German city of Oldenburg ruled that the municipality’s decision to cancel a 2016 BDS event had been unlawful.
It determined that the city council had “undermined the fundamental right of the applicant’s freedom of assembly” as well as freedom of expression, which, it added, “was (and is) severely interfered with.”
“The fundamental right to freedom of expression is, as the most direct expression of the human personality in society, one of the most distinguished human rights of all.”
The ruling, the first of its kind in Germany, could have broader political implications for BDS activism, said Ahmed Abed, the lawyer who represented event organizers in court. “This ruling could have a great impact because it is the first time an administrative court has said it is unlawful to disallow a BDS event.”
In April 2016, the Oldenburg city council agreed to host a meeting titled “BDS – the Palestinian human rights campaign introduces itself” at PFL, a municipal cultural center. On 13 May, five days before the meeting was scheduled to take place, the municipality withdrew the permit, citing fear of violence.
Unconvinced, event organizer Christoph Glanz filed a lawsuit, triggering a long and protracted legal process.
The city claimed that at the time it had been warned to anticipate a protest of around 80-100 individuals if the meeting went ahead and so resolved to annul its written agreement in order to prevent public disorder.
Oldenburg, Glanz told The Electronic Intifada, is “dominated by anti-Germans,” a part of the German left which equates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism and which had reportedly begun mobilizing.
“Instead of protecting the event, they [the city] withdrew space from us,” Glanz said.
The real reason for the cancelation, however, became clearer over time. The court found that the decision to withdraw support had more to do with outside pressure than any fear of violence.
Court proceedings unearthed an email sent by Frank Hinrichs, a state official, on 17 May to staff at the Lord Mayor’s office:
“I’ve just spoken with the Lord Mayor again. The line of argument should not change. We’re pulling out for security reasons. If a court maintains otherwise, then so be it. We shall not buckle without a judgment.”
The city had suggested a local high school as an alternative venue for the meeting, only to withdraw its offer a second time. The court retrieved another email, also sent by Hinrichs on 18 May, the day of the scheduled event, which read: “The Lord Mayor wishes the event to remain canceled.”
The court discovered that the German-Israeli Society had contacted the offices of Lord Mayor Jürgen Krogmann, a member of the Social Democratic Party, urging him to cancel the event.
“This is about basic democratic rights and these rights were undermined by the pressures of the Zionist lobby,” Glanz told The Electronic Intifada.
“Before the court hearing the city council always denied that this was a political decision. In the court they changed their position and said that BDS was anti-Semitic. We rejected this and pointed out that it is about Palestinian human rights,” Abed said.
The municipality had, he added, simply “decided at one point that they would cancel [the event] because of outside pressure.”
Political response to BDS in Germany
Politicians have responded to growing grassroots support for BDS in Germany in a number of ways, often hoping to legislate the movement out of existence. Last year, for instance, Frankfurt and Munich resolved to prevent BDS activists from using public venues for political purposes.
In May, Berlin’s legislative council officially deemed BDS anti-Semitic, while parties across the political spectrum in the German parliament passed a resolution directing the judiciary to examine whether BDS could be classed as a criminal activity.
In June, Uwe Becher, Frankfurt’s deputy mayor, was quoted as saying artists who support BDS were “not welcome” in the city and said that events with BDS supporters on their schedule risked losing city funding.
The Oldenburg case is therefore an important win for BDS activists in Germany, but a challenge could still be filed in a higher court.
Abed, however, thinks this is unlikely.
“In this case, the violations to freedom of speech and freedom of association were so grave I don’t think they [the city] have a chance.”
Riri Hylton is a freelance journalist/editor working in both print and broadcast journalism. They are based between London and Berlin.