Beyond guilt: How pro-Palestine Jews are resisting Germany's 'McCarthyist' crackdown

10 min read
04 December, 2023

On 14 October, Iris Hefets, a 56-year-old psychoanalyst, stood alone in a public square in Berlin and held up a sign. On it, she had written: “As an Israeli and Jew, stop the genocide in Gaza” – on one side in English, and on the other in German.

Very quickly, police officers stationed nearby arrived. They told Hefets that she was not allowed to do this and that she must take the sign down. A crowd formed and started filming. Hefets, who’s lived in Germany for the past 20 years, politely argued with authorities, saying that she just wants to stand alone with her sign, that she’s not causing any trouble.

This was happening on Hermannplatz, in Neukölln, a neighbourhood in the south of Berlin with a big Middle Eastern and Arab community, Palestinians in particular. It was one week after the 7 October attack by Hamas that subsequently launched Israel’s war on Gaza. In Germany, like in the past two years, authorities reacted by banning all public gatherings that might be considered pro-Palestinian.

The reason that Hefets had insisted on standing alone on Hermannplatz was because law professionals told her that the German constitution states that being alone does not constitute a gathering – it only becomes potentially illegal if several people gather.

"Over 850 arrests were made by Berlin police in the first three weeks following 7 October, mostly of people with presumed pro-Palestinian sympathies"

The Berlin police’s justification for banning pro-Palestinian demonstrations was that such gatherings would bring “an imminent danger” of “seditious, anti-Semitic exclamations” and “violent activities”.

Over 850 arrests were made by Berlin police in the first three weeks following 7 October, mostly of people with presumed pro-Palestinian sympathies. This does not include people who were detained at protests, which is estimated to be in the hundreds, according to legal experts.

In response, Jewish artists, writers, and scholars warned that Germany’s “disturbing crackdown on civic life”, including the ban on public gatherings, has been used to scapegoat its large Arab and Muslim community and restrict freedom of speech, including legitimately criticising Israel or expressing solidarity with Palestinians.

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“Muslim people and others feel this oppression and Islamophobia and pure racism the [German] state is doing, so I decided I'm going to stand in Neukölln, in this place, where the people, the press, and everyone's saying that it's dangerous for Jews and Israelis,” Hefets told The New Arab about her solo protest.

In Germany, Jewish groups like Jüdische Stimme, which Hefets is a chairwoman of, are becoming increasingly important in calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and justice for Palestinians.

In countries like Germany, the US, the UK, and France - Israel’s key allies - Jewish alliances like Jüdische Stimme, the Jewish Voice for Peace, Na'amod, and Tsedek! are uniting to combat state racism both at home and in Israel-Palestine. They are challenging the conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism that is being used to silence Palestinian solidarity and saying loud and clear: “Not in our name”.

German riot police stand by as a demonstrator displays a Palestinian flag during a rally in Frankfurt on 14 October 2023. [Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP]

Israel's security as Germany's raison d'être

Due to the genocide of European Jews and other groups during Nazi rule, the German state has been determined to shape the country’s post-war identity around a culture of remembrance (Erinnerungskultur in German).

The memory of the Holocaust, and the atrocities committed on Jewish people, is ever-present in Germany, to try and ensure racist state crimes never happen again. However, many critical Jewish voices have witnessed a dangerous conflation: fighting antisemitism has been misinterpreted by the German establishment as defending Israel and Zionism by all means.

In 2008, Angela Merkel declared before the Knesset that Israel's security was, for Germany, its “Staatsräson”, its raison d'être. Fifteen years later, her successor as Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, repeated the phrase on 12 October in the Bundestag. “At the moment there is only one place for Germany: on Israel’s side. This is what we mean when we say, ‘Israel’s security is Germany's Staatsräson.’”

Since 7 October, this has been backed up by action. The German government has increased its arms sales to Israel by almost tenfold compared to 2022, from about €32 million to nearly €303 million ($323 million), according to government sources. This makes Germany the second biggest arms supplier to Israel after the US. On 17 October, Olaf Scholz became the first foreign head of state to visit Israel following the Hamas attack.

"Many critical Jewish voices have witnessed a dangerous conflation: fighting antisemitism has been misinterpreted by the German establishment as defending Israel and Zionism by all means"

Domestically, Germany’s strong pro-Israel policies have resulted in what many activists consider anti-Palestinian racism. Apart from banning pro-Palestinian gatherings, in 2019 the German parliament deemed the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel “anti-Semitic” and said that it recalled Nazi-era propaganda.

Things have escalated since 7 October. On the 13th, Berlin police made the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” forbidden and indictable, and Berlin’s education senator, Katharina Günther-Wünsch, sent a letter to Berlin school principals, giving them the option to ban students from displaying pro-Palestinian symbols, such as the keffiyeh, the Palestinian flag, or stickers that say “Free Palestine”. This ever more repressive atmosphere has left many in Berlin too fearful to criticise Germany’s pro-Israel stance.

“Detentions, police violence, surveillance, suspensions in schools, and workplace intimidations or sackings that we have been witnessing are unequivocally comparable to practices of authoritarian regimes,” according to Alice Garcia from the European Legal Support Centre, which provides legal support for pro-Palestinian voices across Europe. “This is extremely fear-inducing and fearsome, akin to the days of fascism.”

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Fired for mentioning 'apartheid'

As a result of this crackdown, several Jewish people, including Israelis, have been detained, fired, or slandered by major German media outlets for calling out Israel’s well-documented human rights violations. Udi Raz, a Jewish Israeli academic who grew up in Haifa and moved to Berlin over 10 years ago, said she was “surprised that Germans would often call me an anti-Semite” when she criticised Israel.

An expert in Jewish history in the Middle East, Raz started working as a freelance tour guide at Berlin’s famous Jewish Museum in March this year, doing up to ten tours a week. Raz was never shy about politics, when discussing Israel with museum visitors she cited the position of many major human rights organisations.

“According to Amnesty International, not only the West Bank should be understood as an apartheid state, but really the entire area between the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea should be understood as characteristics of an apartheid state, according to international law,” Raz told The New Arab.

People, including supporters of Juedische Stimme (Jewish Voice), a Jewish organisation, gather for a 'Global South United' protest to demand freedom for Palestine on 28 October 2023 in Berlin, Germany. [Getty]

After 7 October, Raz said the museum “delivered the message [to staff] that we are more free to express our feelings and thoughts”. She thus continued calling Israel an “apartheid” state on her tours to contextualise current events. But then, the unthinkable happened. On 25 October Raz was told by the Jewish Museum that her contract would be terminated. According to her, it was the mention of the term “apartheid” that was the issue.

“The only person who actually addressed this injustice within the Jewish Museum was me… Everybody is afraid. Why? Because they know what can happen to them after they saw what happened to me.”

A spokesperson for the Jewish Museum told The New Arab that Raz was let go because she “overwhelmed groups with a personal political stance”, which went against the museum’s “educational standards”.

But Raz, who was financially dependent on this job and still hopes to work there again someday, said that it was “questionable” of the museum to suggest that stating “certain facts” backed by international law would be considered a “stance”.

“Educational institutions really have not only the possibility, but also the responsibility to educate the people who live now in Germany, about how Germany also supports the systemic injustice against Palestinians in the name of protecting Jewish people. This is something that people deserve to know.”

"As a result of this crackdown, several Jewish people, including Israelis, have been detained, fired, or slandered by major German media outlets for calling out Israel's well-documented human rights violations"

Beyond 'German guilt'

In recent weeks, Raz has been very active with Jüdische Stimme in organising pro-Palestine protests, especially since Berlin courts started allowing such gatherings in late October. For organisers from the Jewish group, the rise of racist hate crimes in Germany – both antisemitism and Islamophobia – are very real and both equally felt, but their frustration is that German politicians do not listen to their concerns and are instead fixated with a “responsibility” to protect Israel – which has resulted in Germans lecturing Jews about what antisemitism looks like.

Many have suggested that Germany’s strong pro-Israel stance is due to “historical guilt” arising from the horrors of World War II. But for Israeli Jewish psychoanalyst Iris Hefets, this guilt is “a cover story”.

“Germany is acting according to the primitive art of having guilt… They will tell us what antisemitism is. They will build new synagogues, but there are no Jews in there,” she told The New Arab, suggesting that Germany separates Jews into “good ones” and “bad ones” depending on their opinions of Israel.

“In German, we call it 'ungeschehen machen' – to undo. This is the primitive way of dealing with guilt – to undo something, and to say ‘okay, these are the Muslims, these are the Palestinians, they are the bad guys. We already know that we are clean… We worked through it and now we can also teach the others.’ I don't buy this guilt issue as something mature.”

These are sentiments echoed by Adam Broomberg, a Berlin-based Jewish South African artist who said that 90% of his family was killed during the Holocaust. Broomberg has now built a large following online for his pro-Palestine views, and repeated what several critical Jewish voices have said: that conservative European politicians may blame immigrants, Muslims, or Arabs for rising antisemitism, but that it is antisemitic in itself of them to weaponise Jewishness for political means and to put all Jews in one basket – especially as many Jews oppose Zionism.

“I truly believe that the de-Nazification process did not happen,” Broomberg told The New Arab. “And we know that the Nazis and the Zionists collaborated in the 1930s because they had the same agenda, which was to get the Jews out of Germany, out of Europe.”

“I think there's a German desire as opposed to guilt, that's in operation here. And the desire is to have a white, Christian, nationalist country.”

"It's McCarthyism times here, it really is. A number of my friends in the art community, their works are being removed from galleries, they're losing representation. It feels very very scary, and it's very tribal and polarised"

'McCarthyism' in Berlin

On the same day Broomberg spoke, he had received a letter from German authorities charging him for resisting arrest and attacking police officers – accusations he claims are “false”.

Last May, he had been arrested by Berlin police for taking part in a peaceful protest organised by Jüdische Stimme that commemorated the Nakba, or “catastrophe”, referring to the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homeland. It was the only pro-Palestinian rally allowed by authorities, but riot police still arbitrarily and violently arrested attendees like Broomberg.

The artist said that he receives many death threats for his pro-Palestine posts, but that Berlin police have yet to react when he has reported them.

A woman holds a sign that reads: 'Free Palestine from German guilt' in reference to Germany's unequivocal support for Israel, on 28 October 2023 in Berlin. [Getty]

“It's McCarthyism times here, it really is,” he said. “A number of my friends in the art community, their works are being removed from galleries, they’re losing representation. It feels very very scary, and it’s very tribal and polarised.”

For Broomberg, and many other anti-Zionist Jews in Berlin, the climate often feels hopeless and distressing, but solidarity with oppressed people both in Germany and Palestine has never been more important.

“The police are saying I’ve been charged with resisting arrest. My ancestors were killed for not resisting German police,” Broomberg said. “So I will resist German authorities until I go to my grave.”

Alexander Durie is a Multimedia Journalist for The New Arab, working across video, photography, and feature writing. He has freelanced for The Guardian, Al Jazeera English, The Economist, The Financial Times, Reuters, The Independent, and more, contributing dispatches from Paris, Berlin, Beirut, and Warsaw.

Follow him on Twitter: @alexander_durie