Haunted by ghosts, Germany blames Palestinians for anti-Semitism

A sign at a protest reads free Palestine

Germany has clamped down on pro-Palestine activism. 

Alexander Pohl SIPA USA

Since a mass Palestinian uprising against Israeli attempts to ethnically cleanse the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah erupted in May 2021, Mohammed El-Kurd has become an increasingly public figure.

El-Kurd has given incisive interviews that powerfully refute the dehumanization of Palestinian victims of Zionist settler-colonialism. Such dehumanization is routinely perpetuated by US corporate media.

Last year, El-Kurd, now 24, published Rifqa, his debut collection of poems.

The Palestinian poet Summer Farah writes in her review of Rifqa that El-Kurd’s collection “beautifully explores the ways colonialism alters our navigation of time and space.”

And on 21 September, 2021, The Nation brought El-Kurd on as its official Palestine correspondent.

All of these are remarkable achievements in and of themselves. For someone to have realized them all at 24 is all the more remarkable.

But despite his impressive credentials, on 17 June, the Goethe-Institut, a German state cultural organization, disinvited El-Kurd from participating in a three-day conference titled “Selling Fascism? Remembering the Unsold.”

“After some consideration, the Goethe-Institut decided that Mohammed El-Kurd was not an appropriate speaker for this forum,” the organization tweeted.

The organization did not substantiate its reservations, adding only that El-Kurd had tweeted about Israel “in a way the Goethe-Institut does not find acceptable.”

Germany’s “racist politics”

The essayist Sinthujan Varatharajah and artist Moshtari Hilal had invited El-Kurd to take part in their panel at the conference, titled “Beyond the Lone Offender – Dynamics of the Global Right.” Following the Goethe-Institut’s unilateral ban on El-Kurd’s participation, Varatharajah and Hilal canceled their forum in solidarity.

“Our cancellation is in response to Goethe-Institut’s attempts to intervene in our curatorial decisions and by way of it, enforce a climate of anti-Palestinian censorship,” their statement reads.

The involvement of El-Kurd, they said, was transparent from the beginning and the cancellation was purely political.

The decision, they wrote, implies that “the institution considers one of the most renowned writers, human rights activists and poets of our times unable to undertake a comprehensive analysis of the right-wing violence that he is threatened by as a Palestinian.”

Moreover, “El-Kurd’s difficulties to receive the legal right to visit Germany must be understood in light of Germany’s racist politics of stifling Palestinian dissent in the country.”

Other participants followed suit. The British Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif refused to take part in the conference.

The US writer Ijeoma Oluo also canceled, writing that, “There is no discussion on global white supremacy and right-wing violence without the inclusion of Palestinian voices.”

The Freedom Theater and Palestinian Performing Arts Network, based in Jenin refugee camp, issued a statement denouncing the silencing of Palestinian cultural voices.

Ironically, the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said was inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s ideas of Weltliteratur (world literature) in thinking through an authentically sensitive and ethical humanist cultural criticism that would be the antidote to “Orientalism,” the political and cultural discourse that relied upon racist and reductive misrepresentations of colonized peoples, including Palestinians, to further justify extractive colonial and imperial ventures.

Unfortunately, the Goethe-Institut seems intent on weaponizing Goethe’s name and legacy as a symbolic cudgel to enact a form of racist silencing that keeps imperial and settler-colonial systems and structures intact and unnamed, while allowing the cowardly collective behind El-Kurd’s disinvitation to retain the outward appearance of objective, “enlightened” arbiters of culture.

Anti-Palestinian racism

While particularly egregious, this is far from Germany’s only undemocratic suppression of pro-Palestine sentiment. In 2017, the German government endorsed the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism.

The IHRA definition stipulates that claims that the foundation of the state of Israel is a racist endeavor are a form of anti-Semitism. This effectively stigmatizes foundational criticisms of unequal Israeli state policy and Zionism, Israel’s state ideology, by falsely branding these critiques as racism.

In March 2019, German officials banned the Palestinian liberation icon Rasmea Odeh from appearing at a Palestine solidarity event in person.

In August 2019, the Palestinian writer and activist Khaled Barakat was deported and banned from Germany for his political beliefs.

And more recently, on 30 April 2022, the German police banned all Palestinian protests, with a representative of Berlin’s state government automatically conflating the occurrence of such protests with anti-Semitism.

The German police also banned Nakba Day demonstrations in May this year.

Why so much censorship of Palestine and Palestinians?

Simply put, Germany is using anti-Palestinian racism to compensate for anti-Semitism.

Abir Kopty explains it well: “Being haunted by their past, Germans are trying to export their feelings of guilt onto the shoulders of Palestinians. Anti-Semitism is not their problem anymore – it is the Palestinians’.”

Authoritarian by default

But racism will not cancel out racism.

Germany’s state-sanctioned enforcement of anti-Palestinian policy and its abrogation of Palestinian expression does not mitigate its Nazi past, or that past’s very real and ongoing present legacy.

It simply means that the German state is yet again relying on its governmental and police agencies to repress, silence and ban liberation-focused activism, organizing and cultural expression.

German state institutions are actively displacing their own structural complicity with anti-Semitism by materially backing Israel – a genocidal state – abroad and racially criminalizing and silencing Palestinians at home.

This sick, cynical form of anti-Palestinianism treats Palestinians as anti-Semites by their very identity and renders the German state a grotesque “expert” on anti-Semitism, where the racist political hierarchies of acceptable expression must be automatically accepted.

But institutional authoritarianism seems a strange default mechanism for a state allegedly grappling with how it previously mobilized state institutions to better facilitate genocide and any and all forms of dissent to it.

Put more crudely, but no less urgently, Germany has no right to make Palestinians the scapegoats for its own Nazi war crimes.

By cancelling Mohammed El-Kurd, the Goethe-Institut has revealed its proud and shameless complicity in state-sanctioned anti-Palestinian racism.

Contrary to the letter of the Goethe-Institut’s conference title, the fascist global right has much to admire in this move.

Omar Zahzah is the education and advocacy coordinator for Eyewitness Palestine, as well as a member of the Palestinian Youth Movement and the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.