Germany's climate of fear is alienating its Palestinian community

Germany's climate of fear is alienating its Palestinian community
Germany's support for Israel and fierce anti-Palestinianism have scared many into silence. But Gaza is slowly turning the tide, writes Dima Hamdan.
6 min read
03 Apr, 2024
Amid Germany's support for Israel's war on Gaza, Palestinians find their social circles shrinking as many Germans are too scared to speak up, writes Dima Hamdan. [Getty]

On 17th October last year, I shared a photo on Instagram of graffiti written in Hebrew outside a kindergarten attended by mostly children from ethnic minorities here in Berlin.

“Kahane is alive” it said, likely in reference to the Jewish extremist terrorist movement Kahane Chai and its founder Rabbi Meir Kahane. This was just 10 days into Israel’s assault on Gaza.

A German friend replied to my post with a bizarre message. He said that since Germany welcomed many Palestinian refugees over the decades, then Palestinians should show more sensitivity towards Germany’s history with the Jews.

I should’ve known better than to waste a few more messages trying to understand the link between Germans’ Holocaust guilt and a racist graffiti outside a kindergarten, because he doubled down and said I should accept this if I want to continue living in Berlin.

Having lived in Berlin for nearly eight years, I rarely met any Germans with whom I could openly talk about Palestine without having to go back to the basics of why anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism.

"Institutional racism against Palestinians and their supporters has been on the rise long before 7th October... But in the last six months, the crackdown on the pro-Palestine movement has become ludicrous"

In contrast to this one particularly obnoxious example, the majority would listen politely, draw a sad face, then sigh out that “it’s complicated”.

Others take it upon themselves to remind Palestinians that “in Germany, it is different”. Having atoned for their sins in World War Two, they feel they have the moral authority to define hate speech, anti-Semitism, and lecture us accordingly.

Institutional racism against Palestinians and their supporters has been on the rise long before 7th October. From the 2019 resolution by all political parties in the Bundestag describing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel (BDS) as anti-Semitic to the 2022 ban on public events commemorating the 1948 Nakba.

But in the last six months, the crackdown on the pro-Palestine movement has become ludicrous.

Not only did the state impose severe restrictions on demonstrations in support of Palestine - which continue to take place every weekend with thousands of people across Germany - but they even went after dissenting voices from within the Jewish community itself. 

The Jewish group Jüdische Stimme has been described by many German politicians as anti-Semitic for taking a firm stand against Israel’s war crimes in Gaza.

On 26th March, the group said their bank account with Sparkasse had been frozen without explanation. They are now requested to submit multiple documents, including the names of all of their members with their full names and addresses.

In other words, Germany is even policing Jews and ‘saving them from themselves’, suppressing any voices that call for self-reflection or re-evaluation of the connection between Jewishness and Zionism.

None of this makes for a joyful discussion with German friends over dinner, and for many of us in the Palestinian community, the only social activity we’ve had in the last six months has been the weekly demonstrations.

Our social circles are shrinking, and we often talk of relocating to other countries. Our German friends who’ve been outspoken about Palestine ask, half-jokingly, if they could come too, as they have also lost friends and fallen out with relatives over this issue.

Some friends admitted that they cannot post about Palestine on social media because they might lose friends or be sidelined at work. One friend recalled that someone accused her of unwittingly inciting people to blow up synagogues in Germany, only because she posted about the Kurd family fighting to save their home in East Jerusalem in 2021.

A German friend who works in the cultural sector - and one of the very few who’ve been outspoken about Palestine - said many of her colleagues wish they could be as outspoken as her. The only difference between them and her is that they seem to be afraid of some uncertain consequences.

“This fear is not necessarily based on facts,” she says “I ask them, what can actually happen to you? Can you be fired? That wouldn’t be legal. But there is a climate of fear and each person is waiting to see if others stand up and speak because they don’t want to be the first to do so.”

But every once in a while, a story appears on social media as a cautionary tale. Earlier this month, the Democracy in Europe Movement (Diem25) reported that the German police raided the home of a woman in Berlin because she posted the slogan “From the River to the Sea” on social media, confiscating her mobile phone, computer and hard drive.

"For many of us in the Palestinian community, the only social activity we’ve had in the last six months has been the weekly demonstrations"

But with more than 32,000 Palestinians now killed by Israel in Gaza, and with more than one and a half million people on the brink of forced famine, public opinion in Germany is shifting, albeit slowly.

A recent poll showed that 69% of respondents believe the Israeli campaign in Gaza is unjustified, whereas only 50% held that view in November last year. A friend who works as an art designer on film sets says there is no one in his immediate circle of friends who isn’t outraged by Israel’s crimes.

He also proposed an alternative method to gauging the public’s mood. “There is a risk if you show up for Palestine, which is why people don’t do it. But there isn’t a risk if you don’t show up for Israel.”

Indeed, public demonstrations in support of Israel have been very few compared to the weekly demonstrations in support of Palestine, some of which had a turnout of up to 10,000. Israeli flags are not a prominent sight in Berlin, especially when compared with the Ukrainian flag adorning many public, academic and cultural buildings.

Even the German media, which has written so callously about the pro-Palestine movement over the last six months, has surprised us recently with some rare moments of awakening.

Der Spiegel recently described German-Israeli policy as “cheap, self-assuring or simply clueless”, reminding its readers that Germany is effectively participating in the war, with its arms exports to Israel increasing tenfold in 2023.

Back from a recent trip to Africa, co-Leader of the Social Democratic Party, Lars Klingbeil, said the concerns of the “Global South'' regarding Israel’s breach of international law must be taken seriously.

The headline in Tagesspiegel used the word “Zeitenwende” which, according to a native speaker, is a strong word signalling the need for a ‘turning point’ or ‘re-think’ of Germany’s relationship with Israel.

This is by no means a dramatic shift. But others who’ve been waiting on the sidelines, afraid of the consequence of speaking up, might now be encouraged to make a move.

Dima Hamdan is a Palestinian journalist and filmmaker based in Berlin. She is the manager of the Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.