As Germany labels them 'extremists', BDS activists fear more state crackdown

6 min read
10 July, 2024

Germany’s crackdown on Palestine solidarity activism reached a new level last month when the government announced that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is now under suspicion of being an “extremist group.”

The Verfassungsschutzbericht 2023 (Constitutional Protection Report) from the Federal Ministry of Interior and Home Affairs, which was made public in late June, claims that BDS is a movement characterised by anti-Israel positions and statements, “and the structures and followers and supporters that can be attributed to it are related to secular Palestinian extremism.”

The legal consequences of this push the country deeper into what many are increasingly viewing as a surveillance state.

According to Nadija Samour, a criminal defence lawyer who frequently challenges the silencing of Palestinian voices in Germany, the new move doesn't mean BDS is illegal but it will now face surveillance by the Secret Service.

“The fact that the Secret Service watches BDS means for the activists that they have to be more cautious with regards to communication, and their groups can be infiltrated by secret service agents,” she says. “They are creating an ever-expanding legal grey zone, McCarthy style," she adds.

Conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism 

Groups that are already illegal in Germany include Samidoun, the Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

BDS is a Palestinian-led movement with chapters around the world, inspired by the ultimately successful South African anti-apartheid movement.

Globally, BDS has seen many recent successes, such as Sodastream closing one of their factories in an illegal Israeli settlement, Israel-bound arms shipments being blocked from docking at harbours by the public, dockworkers, governments, and educational institutions, banks, and churches heeding the call to divest from illegal settlements and other occupation-enabling entities.

The German report typically conflates anti-Zionism and BDS with antisemitism and says that “a defining factor for secular Palestinian extremists is the territorial conflict with Israel. The state of Israel is often equated with ‘the Jews’.” 

Germany considers itself unconditionally on the side of Israel, regardless of the latter’s actions, and even stepped in to defend Israel during its trial at the International Court of Justice. In 2008, then-Chancellor Angela Merkel even declared that Israel's security and existence are integral to Germany's "Staatsräson," its core national interest.

This is not the first time that BDS has been officially categorised as problematic in Germany.

While BDS in Germany was founded in 2009 and has yet to build a strong movement outside of the capital Berlin, in 2017, the Munich City Council passed a resolution to outlaw BDS events when a resident requested that a public museum room be used for a debate on the topic.

Five years later, the German Federal Court ruled that this decision was “unconstitutional.”

In 2019, the German parliament voted in favour of labelling BDS as “antisemitic.”

'Threat to democracy'

According to Berlin-based attorney Ahmed Abed, while the government has been focusing on BDS for years, the significant change now is its official classification as a threat to democracy.

But the designation "stands in contradiction to the many rulings of the last years that could not find antisemitism in the BDS," he added.

"The European Human Rights Court and the Federal Administration Court already ruled that BDS is not forbidden and in line with the freedom of speech of the constitution.”

The report also covers “mobilisation” and accuses protestors at pro-Palestine demonstrations of antisemitism by protesting in solidarity with Palestine.

“Thousands of people nationwide [marched] over several weeks to show solidarity with the Palestinian people, but also to express their hatred of Israel and to relativize the terror of Hamas, among others," it alleges/

“There are always statements or representations with antisemitic or anti-Israeli content as well as an often aggressive mood among the participants, repeatedly culminating in physical confrontations and attacks on journalists or the police," the report adds.

Anti-Palestine crackdown

But it is the German police that have been violent against peaceful pro-Palestine demonstrations in Germany, especially in Berlin.

Videos of German police arresting, punching, kicking, and beating demonstrators, including children and the elderly, have circulated on social media and messaging apps for the last few months, and they have become increasingly brutal.

Germany’s crackdown on Palestine solidarity actions has, at times, bordered on the ridiculous.

When the Palestine Congress, organised by several groups, was supposed to be held in Berlin in April, one speaker was forbidden entry at the airport and 2,500 police were deployed at the venue.

Thirty police entered the venue before the event began, allowed one speech, and subsequently stopped a video recording of Palestinian historian Salman Abu Sitta after two minutes due to what they considered a risk of it being “antisemitic.”

They then proceeded to cut the electricity, stop the livestream, and leave people in darkness.

At a sit-in against German company Siemens in a shopping mall in Berlin, police confiscated a cardboard washing machine, and pictures showing the washing machine “in detention” were shared.

The report claims that links to “Palestinian extremism” go beyond groups to individuals, and “calls for violence against Jews are repeatedly disseminated on social media.”

“There are people in Germany with links to Palestinian extremism who express or engage in antisemitic or anti-Israeli statements or activities without being members of the PFLP or other extremist Palestinian organisations.”

BDS boogeyman

BDS has always been demonised in Germany, which is strange given it is not a very active national group, says Ramsis Kilani of the Palestine Campaign in Berlin. And this step is just adding new vocabulary to the German government’s already unashamed oppression of pro-Palestine activism, he says.

“The German state is very interested in orchestrating a cut with the [former] Nazi regime to be respected as a dominating world power, that’s why it uses this ideological framework of so-called ‘Staatsräson’. At a national level, it is othering certain people like Muslims, Arabs, and especially Palestinians, but also anti-Zionist Jews that don’t fit into this framework.”

He believes that this step, which is more about interest in oil and gas than about morals and shame, goes straight to the heart of Germany’s claims to being a democracy.

“The fact that they have to use this form of state repression and crackdown on fundamental rights of freedom of speech, right to assembly, and so on, is already a sign that they are having problems and is a sign of growth and increasing strength of the Palestine solidarity movement.”

Diana Nazzal, an activist with the German group Palestine Speaks, adds, “This move will make our work in Germany even more difficult, but in the past months we have observed that every new form of repression against Palestine solidarity activism has given rise to even stronger actions.”

“Therefore, I am not concerned about a possible diminishing of the activist movement, in fact, the opposite. The more repressive measures are taken by the German state, the more Germany reveals the lie of democracy we were told. More people fighting for justice everywhere in the world, not just for Palestine, will rise to stand together against oppressions in their own countries and abroad.”

Ilham Rawoot is a freelance writer based in Cape Town and Berlin. She has previously written for the New Internationalist, Al Jazeera and Africa is a Country, and focuses on climate justice and the extractive industry, Palestine and decolonial struggles

Follow her on X: @ilhamsta