For a number of years, Palestine solidarity groups in Germany have encountered serious obstacles when organizing events that draw attention to Israel’s human rights abuses. That is despite the fact the right to free speech is enshrined in the German constitution.
When attempts are made to prevent discussions from taking place, the allegation most often used is that organizers or participants are anti-Semites. This allegation is even applied to Jews who defend Palestinian rights. According to pro-Israel advocates, such Jews are “self-hating.”
The obstacles have been especially steep in Munich.
Ilan Pappe, an Israeli historian best known for his research into the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine, was refused permission to speak at a Munich teaching center during 2009. The episode can be viewed as the first in a series of attempts made during the past decade to prevent people who criticize the official Israeli narrative from reaching a Bavarian audience.
Abraham Melzer, a well-known German-Jewish author and journalist, was the target of one such attempt.
In September 2016, Melzer was invited to speak at the One World House, a cultural center. A few days before the event was scheduled to take place, Munich’s city council intervened to forbid it.
The reason cited for the ban was that material promoting the event questioned Israel’s legitimacy. According to the council, the material crossed the line from criticism of Israel into anti-Semitism.
Charlotte Knobloch, former chair of the Central Council of Jews in Germany and a vocal pro-Israel advocate, smeared Melzer around that time, claiming he was “notorious for his anti-Semitic statements.”
Melzer sued Knobloch over the slur. He was initially successful.
In November 2016, a Bavarian court ordered Knobloch not to repeat her accusation. Yet Knobloch appealed against that ruling. She won her appeal in January this year, leaving her free to smear Melzer once again.
The efforts to muzzle Palestine solidarity activists received a boost in December last year, when Munich’s city council decided to ban events in publicly owned buildings if they promoted the Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) call. Made in 2005, that call demands respect for international law and equality between Israeli Jews and Palestinians.
The council’s motion also asserted Munich’s “solidarity with Israel” and that Israel had an “unrestricted right to existence and self-defense.”
A similar decision has been taken by the municipal authority in Frankfurt.
Repression of refugees
The assault on free speech about Palestine has also been occurring at the federal level.
In January this year, Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, approved measures with the stated goal of combating anti-Semitism “resolutely.” Yet a closer look at the measures indicates that a key target is the BDS movement.
The Bundestag motion recommended, for example, that the judiciary should examine to what extent a boycott of Israel is a “criminal offense.” It even suggested that such calls may amount to “sedition.”
The motion was adopted at a time when talks on establishing a new German government – following a general election in September last – were still underway. All bar one of the main political parties supported the motion. The exception was the left-wing Die Linke, which abstained.
The motion was drawn up following protests against the announcement by President Donald Trump that the US was recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Although only one homemade flag was burned, newspapers and broadcasters gave the impression that there had been a large-scale destruction of Israeli symbols and the chanting of anti-Semitic slogans. Some Berlin newspapers printed corrections when it emerged that their reporting was inaccurate.
The Bundestag motion relies on a dubious definition of anti-Semitism, approved by a 31-country grouping called the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. That definition and an accompanying memorandum suggest that decrying Israel’s racism is tantamount to a hatred of Jews.
The effects of such conflation could be far-reaching. The Bundestag motion urges Germany’s 16 states to take action – including deportations – against foreign residents if they “propagate anti-Semitic hatred.”
Given that the motion treats BDS activities as criminal, it may pave the way for repression against refugees who express support for Palestinian rights.
Crackdown on dissent
The Bundestag’s motion could have chilling consequences for free speech. It forms part of a wider crackdown on dissent within Germany.
One worrying trend is that courts have been assessing charges of “psychological support” against people arrested at the time of the G-20 summit in Hamburg last July. An Italian who took part in protests against that grouping of world leaders was held in jail for a number of months, even though it was clear that he had not rioted. Yet because he was present at a riot scene, he was accused of “psychological support” for violence.
“Psychological support” is not yet a recognized crime. But some politicians are pushing for it to become one.
Most German politicians are reluctant to speak out against the Israeli government’s policies and human rights violations, lest they be accused of anti-Semitism. That explains why the political parties are generally acquiescing in a huge attack on civil liberties.
Die Linke has made a major mistake by not loudly criticizing the close military cooperation between Germany and Israel. The peace movement and other progressive associations such as trade unions have also failed to protest adequately against this cooperation.
It is particularly disturbing that some of Die Linke’s elected representatives have not contested strongly the military cooperation with Israel. Die Linke is against Germany’s planned purchase of Israeli drones, but has been soft-spoken in its opposition.
Bombs have been dropped from military drones during Israel’s three major offensives against Gaza since December 2008. Over the past few weeks, Israel has sprayed tear gas – a toxic weapon – from drones as it massacred Palestinians taking part in the Great March of Return.
This action has highlighted how drones are one of Israel’s weapons against unarmed demonstrators. If the current crackdown on dissent continues in Germany, it is not inconceivable that drones bought from Israel will be turned against German demonstrators.
Annette Groth was a member of the German Parliament and spokesperson on human rights for Die Linke, a left-wing party, from 2009 to 2017.