How Germany is using anti-BDS laws to ostracise critics of Israel

How Germany is using anti-BDS laws to ostracise critics of Israel
Comment: In Germany, support for BDS and criticism of Israel is comfortable justification for exclusion from the public sphere, writes Denijal Jegic.
6 min read
20 Sep, 2019
'Germany has invested significant efforts in ostracising the BDS movement' - Getty
The German city of Dortmund last week withdrew its decision to award Pakistani British author Kamila Shamsie a literature prize, after finding out that the writer has supported the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Movement. 

For Shamsie, it is "a matter of outrage" that BDS, which "campaigns against the government of Israel for its acts of discrimination and brutality against Palestinians should be held up as something shameful and unjust."

Yet, the non-violent protest against Israel's systemic human rights violations has been categorically delegitimised in Germany.

Its supporters, Palestinians and non-Palestinians alike, have been increasingly ostracised, and Shamsie's case is just the latest in a chain of state-sponsored exclusions of individuals and organisations from public spaces in Germany.

As the attacks against Palestinian human rights and free speech have intensified, Palestinian life in Germany is becoming increasingly marginalised, through cultural and social practices of racism.

German support for Israel 

In Germany, staunch support for Israel stretches throughout the political spectrum - from the left to the far-right.

Responses to the relatively small BDS movement in Germany have revealed just how aggressively 
German authorities, politicians and bureaucrats oppose critical discussions about Israel.

Initiated by Palestinian in 2005, the BDS movement seeks to peacefully pressure Israel into complying with international law and human rights. It demands an end to the brutal military occupation of Palestinian territories and a just solution for Palestinian refugees. 

An individual's and an organisation's position on BDS has become a litmus test for cultural and social inclusion

Since an implementation of universal human rights would effectively dismantle Israel as it currently exists in its discriminatory forms, Germany has invested significant efforts in ostracising the BDS movement. After all, protecting Israel is a top priority for German foreign policy.

Silencing pro-Palestinian voices

Following efforts to brand pro-Palestinian voices as anti-Semites, which also entailed harsh attacks against Jewish and Israeli pro-Palestinian activists, the German parliament passed a resolution in May 2019 which categorically dismisses BDS as "anti-Semitic". 

In response, 
240 Jewish and Israeli scholars signed a statement, rejecting this motion. "Shocked that demands for equality and compliance with international law are considered anti-Semitic," the signatories urged the German government to protect freedom of speech.

Previously, several major German cities had implemented official bans on BDS, already significantly infringing free speech.

Albeit non-binding, the resolution from May 2019 has been cited as a comfortable justification for excluding critics of Israel from the public sphere. By now, an individual's and an organisation's position on BDS has become a litmus test for cultural and social inclusion.

For example, in June, Palestinian-Canadian journalist Khaled Barakat was scheduled to speak about Donald Trump's so-called Deal of the Century at a Palestine solidarity event in Berlin.

Barakat was prevented from approaching the venue by police, who told him "
you cannot speak." Authorities canceled the event and issued an order forbidding Barakat from any political activity and not allowing him to attend any gathering with more than 10 people present. Otherwise, he could face a one-year prison sentence.

German authorities 
reiterated the ban in August, citing the May resolution and reiterating that, in Germany, criticism of Israel is only permissible if Israel's right to exist is acknowledged.

Barakat's case is reminiscent of the deportation of Rasmea Odeh, a 72-year old prominent Palestinian activist. In March, Odeh was banned from speaking at a public event in Berlin. Following pressure by Israeli authorities and an orchestrated smear campaign in German media, Germany revoked Odeh's Schengen visa and deported the activist. Odeh allegedly posed a danger to the public order.

Over the course of this summer, several cultural festivals and music concerts have required performing artists to publicly distance themselves from BDS in order to be able to participate.

The Open Source Festival, held in Düsseldorf in July, disinvited US rapper Talib Kweli, after pressure from pro-Israeli voices. Seizing on the May resolution as a casual backing, the event's organiser Philipp Maiburg told Kweli in that "all administrations of regions and cities as well as representatives of public institutions are asked not to give BDS any room or platform," as the movement was considered "anti-Semitic." In response, Palestinian civil society organisations called for a boycott of the festival, which was supported by several artists.

Similarly, the Scottish band Young Fathers was disinvited from the festival Ruhrtriennale. Organisers asked the artists to distance themselves publicly from BDS, which they refused to do. The band stated publicly: "We feel it is a wrong and deeply unfair decision by the festival to take this stance and to also ask us to distance ourselves from our human rights principles in order for the appearance to go ahead."

It is thus unsurprising that the upcoming festival of diversity in West Germany's former capital, Bonn, banned Palestinian institutions, citing the incompatibility of these organisations' support for BDS and Bonn's official ban on BDS.

Consequences of exclusion

The vilification of BDS has been used as a method to contain criticism of Israel's disastrous human rights record and has provided anti-Palestinian racists with cultural and social legitimacy. While Palestinian protests are policed, Israel is extending its de facto one-state solution by expanding colonial facts on the ground.

As Ronnie Barkan, a Berlin-based Jewish Israeli dissident who has been viciously attacked for his support of BDS, told me, "anti-Semitism allegations against BDS activists have increased and are now backed by the parliamentary resolution."

However, Barkan stresses that, in regards to Palestinian rights, freedom of expression has been non-existent in Germany. He was 
physically assaulted and arrested, when he protested at a pro-Israel event in Berlin.

Palestinian-German scholar Anna-Esther Younes criticizes that freedom of speech - which minorities in particular had to struggle for historically - is now being depicted as an opinion.

The vilification of BDS has been used as a method to contain criticism of Israel's disastrous human rights record

She explains that the hegemonic usage of "anti-Semitism" distracts from the discourse and prevents actual structural critique. Defamation campaigns, Younes says, oftentimes target institutions and people who have no prior experience in discussing the Middle East or racism.

This causes insecurities that lead to cancellations of events. Social media campaigns and lobbying by politicians and journalists accelerate the public pressure. 

Given that most Palestinians might agree with the ultimate goals of BDS, these attacks are also marginalising Palestinian culture and identity per se. Palestinians committed to their own liberation are cast as anti-Semites, or, as is often heard in German media, "Palestinian terrorists," who are deserving of suspicion and scrutiny unless they accept their own subjugation in order to comfort German racism.

Read more: Germany's anti-BDS ruling demonises Palestinians for resisting peacefully

Following the May resolution, anyone, Palestinian or not, can now be punished with social exclusion and smeared as anti-Semitic if they support the non-violent boycott of Israel.

Not only does this latest development obscure the meaning of anti-Semitism, it has also underlined the widespread passivity and lack of resistance. The anti-BDS resolution - and the severe attack on free speech it entails - is uncritically accepted by bureaucrats.

The fear of even being associated with critics of Israel overshadows any possible empathy for Palestinian lives. Anti-Palestinianism is becoming a social and cultural norm, as the public denunciation of Palestinian rights is a bureaucratic requirement in order not to be ostracised from society.

Denijal Jegic is a Beirut-based German researcher and writer.

Follow him on Twitter: @denijeg

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