Since the Hamas’ 7 October terrorist attacks and the subsequent Israeli assault on Gaza, German authorities are using increasingly illiberal measures to curtail pro-Palestine activism. Under the guise of combatting Israel-related antisemitism, civic space for freedom of expression and assembly is shrinking.
The seemingly isolated incidents highlighted in this article are piling up and the curtailing of civic space is starting to be noticed internationally: Civicus, which ranks countries by freedom of expression rights, recently downgraded Germany in a review from “open” to “restricted” due to repression of pro-Palestinian voices, as well as of climate activists.
Stigmatisation of pro-Palestine activism
In her speech celebrating the 60th anniversary of the foundation of Israel in 2008, former chancellor Angela Merkel referred to the historical responsibility of Germany for the Shoah, including the security of Israel, as part of Germany’s “Staatsräson” (reason for existence). As Hamas has never credibly renounced its goal of destroying Israel, many German policymakers instinctively lean towards near unconditional support for Israel in the face of such adversaries. For them, the 7 October attacks only served to highlight that Germany cannot give an inch to critics of Israel.
There are long-standing disagreements around where to draw the line between legitimate criticism of Israel and attacks on Israel that single it out because it is a Jewish state, are expressed in antisemitic ways or are motivated by antisemitic views. For example, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism acknowledges that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic” but identifies seven examples of when attacks on Israel may be antisemitic (taking into account the overall context). For example, it could be antisemitic to reference classic antisemitic tropes such as the blood libel conspiracy myth to describe Israel, deny the Jewish people’s right to self-determination or blame Jews collectively for the actions of Israel, according to IHRA.
While Germany has adopted IHRA, much looser standards seem to be applied by authorities and commentators committed to tackling Israel-related antisemitism. Calls for a binational state, advocacy for the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, support for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) or accusations that Israel is committing Apartheid are regularly identified as antisemitic. There is a strong sense that given its historical responsibility, it is not Germany’s place to judge, or let anyone else judge, Israel even as its offensive in Gaza has resulted in one of the highest rates of death in armed conflict since the beginning of the 21st century, and disproportionately affects civilians.
Against this background, advocacy for Palestinian political self-determination and human rights is cast as suspicious. In the liberal Die Zeit newspaper, journalist Petra Pinzler criticised the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg as she “sympathises more and more openly with the Palestinians and thus divides the climate movement.” Apparently sympathy with the Palestinians has become a cause for concern.
The debates since 7 October have created an atmosphere in which pro-Palestinian voices are more and more stigmatised. Pro-Palestinian protests have repeatedly been banned by local authorities. Their dystopian rationale for these bans revolves around the idea that, based on assessments of previous marches, crimes are likely to be committed by protesters. The practice is not new: in the past, German police have even banned protests commemorating the ”Nakba” (Arabic for “catastrophe”), the collective mass expulsion and displacement of around 700,000 Palestinians from their homes during the 1947-49 wars following the adoption of the Partition Plan for Palestine by the United Nations. In reaction to pro-Palestine protests since 7 October, the antisemitism commissioner of North Rhine Westphalia and former federal justice minister even suggested the police should pay closer attention to the nationality of pro-Palestine protest organisers as protests organised by non-Germans could be banned more easily.
Furthermore, pro-Palestinian political symbols are being falsely associated with Hamas or other pro-terrorist organisations. In early November, the Federal Interior Ministry banned the chant “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free” as a symbol of both Hamas and Samidoun, a support network for the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine which has been designated as a terrorist organisation by the European Union.
While one plausible interpretation of the “From the River to the Sea” slogan is that it is a call for the destruction of Israel, it is equally plausible to understand it as a call for a binational state with full equality of all citizens. Without context, the slogan cannot automatically be identified as antisemitic, though it is of course entirely legitimate to criticise this ambivalence. As has been extensively documented, the slogan does not originate with nor is exclusively used by Hamas.
Apart from being based on misinformation, banning “From the River to the Sea” has also created the ludicrous situation that the German police force is asked to make assessments on whether holding a “From the River we do see nothing like equality” placard is an expression of support for terrorism. A former advisor to Angela Merkel even called for the German citizenship of a previously stateless Palestinian woman to be revoked who posted a similar slogan (“From the River to the Sea #FreePalestine”) on her Instagram.
In some cases, these dynamics venture into the absurd. On 14 October, the activist Iris Hefets was temporarily detained in Berlin for holding a placard that read: “As a Jew & an Israeli Stop the Genocide in Gaza.”
These illiberal and ill-conceived measures are not limited to protests. In response to the 7 October attacks, authorities in Berlin allowed schools to ban students from wearing keffiyeh scarves to not “endanger school peace”.
Curtailing civic spaces
While these trends have been accelerated since 7 October, they predate it. In 2019, the German Bundestag passed a resolution that condemned the BDS movement as antisemitic. It referenced the aforementioned IHRA definition of antisemitism (which does not comment on boycotts), compared the BDS campaign to the Nazi boycotts of Jewish business and called on authorities to no longer fund groups or individuals that support BDS.
BDS calls for the boycott of Israeli goods, divestment from companies involved in the occupation of Arab territories and sanctions to force the Israeli government to comply with international law and respect the rights of Palestinians, including the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Inspired by the boycott campaign against Apartheid South Africa, BDS has attracted many supporters, but critics have claimed that BDS singles out Israel and delegitimises its existence. Accusations of antisemitism within the movement should of course be taken seriously: BDS supporters have previously been accused of employing antisemitic rhetoric about malign Jewish influence and intimidating Jewish students on campus. However, many of BDS’ core demands are clearly not antisemitic. Since the BDS lacks a central leadership that would issue official stances, it is difficult to make blanket statements about the movement in its entirety.
The 2019 resolution is now being cited to shut down cultural events. A planned exhibition in Essen on Afrofuturism was cancelled over social media posts that, according to the museum, “do not acknowledge the terroristic attack of the Hamas and consider the Israeli military operation in Gaza a genocide” and expressed support for BDS. The Frankfurt book fair “indefinitely postponed” a literary prize for the Palestinian author Adania Shibli, after one member of the jury resigned due to supposed anti-Israel and antisemitic themes in her book. Shibli has since been accused by the left-wing Taz newspaper of being an “engaged BDS supporter” for having signed one BDS letter in 2007 and a 2019 letter that criticised the city of Dortmund for revoking another literary price for an author that supports BDS. A presentation by the award-winning Forensic Architecture research group at Goldsmiths (University of London), which has analysed human rights abuses in Syria, Venezuela and Palestine as well as Neo-Nazi murders in Germany, was likewise cancelled by the University of Aachen which cited the group’s founder Eyal Weizman’s support for BDS.
The curtailing of civic space increasingly affects voices that have stood up for human rights at great personal risk. The Syrian opposition activist Wafa Ali Mustafa was detained by Berlin police near a pro-Palestine protest, reportedly for wearing a keffiyeh scarf. Similarly, the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, which is associated with the centre-left Green Party, pulled out of the Hannah Arendt prize ceremony, which was due to be awarded to the renowned Russian dissident, philosopher and human rights advocate Masha Gessen. Despite acknowledging differences between the two, Gessen had compared Gaza to the Jewish ghettoes in Nazi-occupied Europe in an article about the politics of memory in Germany, the Soviet Union, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Hungary and Israel.
Alarm bells should ring as one of Europe’s major liberal democracies has taken an authoritarian turn in the aftermath of 7 October. Germany’s noble commitment to its historical responsibility in the face of rising antisemitism is morphing into a suppression of voices advocating for Palestinian political self-determination and human rights.
In this distorted reality, civic spaces are eroded, cultural symbols banned, political symbols falsely conflated with support for terrorism and events are shut down. So far, there has been little pushback or critical debate about these worrying developments. To the contrary: politicians, foundations, cultural institutions and media outlets seem to be closing ranks under the shadow of the 2019 BDS resolution and a skewed interpretation of the IHRA definition.
Following the appalling violence committed by Hamas on 7 October, and the scale of civilian suffering in Gaza due to the subsequent Israeli military offensive, polarisation and tension between communities have been on the rise. In this context, it is crucial to be able to have passionate, empathetic, controversial and nuanced discussions about the conflict, its history, the present impasse, potential ways forward and its impact on Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities abroad. With the voices of activists, authors and even internationally renowned human rights advocates being increasingly isolated, these vital exchanges are prevented from taking place.