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Palestine and the limits of free speech in Germany

  • Nadine Sayegh
  • 19 May 2022

Germany’s crackdown on protesters mourning the death of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh at the hands of Israeli forces is the latest step in its stifling of pro-Palestine voices.

FILE: People stage a demonstration in support of Palestinians and to protest against Israeli attacks on Gaza Strip in Berlin, Germany on May 19, 2021. ( AA )

Media reported that 20 individuals were arrested in Berlin this past weekend. Activists allege that the number was over 170. The reason? Showing public displays of support for Palestine during a ‘pre-emptive’ ban on all commemorations of the Nakba, or Catastrophe.

These expressions included being in possession of the Palestinian flag, wearing a keffiyeh, the black and white Palestinian scarf, or chanting slogans related to the liberation of Palestine. Palestinian rights groups have reported that two prominent members of Palestinian civil society in Germany were hospitalised because of police violence.

May 15 is the annual remembrance of the Nakba, which marks the start of the displacement and depopulation of Palestinians from their land upon the formation of the state of Israel.

The day centres specifically on the forced, mass exodus of approximately 800,000 Palestinians by Jewish militia groups in 1948. Commemorations and protests are held across the world on this day, but this was not the case for supporters in Germany this year. 

In Germany, any public gatherings for Nakba Day, and effectively the entire weekend, were banned under the pretence that anti-Semitic and/or violent sentiment would arise. 

Despite this draconian ruling on free speech and the right to organise, activists and organisers sought to forgo Nakba Day commemorations and planned to hold an impromptu vigil for journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed while reporting on an Israeli raid in Jenin.

The main organisers of the vigil, a Jewish group, Jüdische Stimme, were also banned under the same paradoxical argument of anti-Semitism under the restrictions around holding Palestine-related events throughout the weekend. 

The chairman of the group, Wieland Hoban, explained: “The Berlin Senate wants to prevent Palestine solidarity as much as it can. They’ll take a handful of teenagers saying anti-Semitic things and use that to discredit thousands of people who want to demonstrate peacefully.” 

Despite formal appeals as well as condemnations from different institutions, the capital city, in particular, was keen to enforce this ban. 

Those gathered on May 15 came together essentially only hoping to raise flags and take pictures in a display of international solidarity. Minutes after a small crowd — around 150 to 250 people — gathered in Berlin, police arrived on the scene en masse, in a visibly disproportionate number, outfitted in different gear. 

Some reports indicate that in anticipation, the authorities deployed approximately 1,000 police officers from the capital and neighbouring municipalities. Activists report that they immediately began arresting anyone with visible Palestinian symbols and ID’ing passersby, in some cases, using unnecessary force. 

They say authorities exhibited disproportionate force both through the number of police dispersed vis-a-vis the number of attendees and the subsequent use of unnecessary physical violence towards the attendees. 

Majed Abu Salameh, a prominent activist and co-founder of the collective Palestine Speaks, was seriously injured. On Sunday, he tweeted: “I just left the hospital an hour ago with an arm sling to hold my shoulder after the German racist police almost dislocated my shoulder with their violent reactions to us wearing Palestine [keffiyehs].” 

Wider ramifications

Three years ago, on May 17, 2019, in a very formal and public conflagration of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, the German federal parliament passed a resolution declaring the Boycott Divest Sanctions Movement (BDS) as anti-Semitic. 

It dictated that all government institutions were not permitted to support any BDS activities and were not to engage or endorse any boycott activities of Israeli goods and services. The magnitude of this bill is more apparent when one considers that Germany is home to the largest Palestinian diaspora in Europe.

In a recent essay, Ilan Pappé, an Israeli academic and supporter of Palestine and the BDS movement, argues that on this trajectory of discrimination against Palestinians, Germany may find itself on the wrong side of history yet again. 

He argues that the ‘distorted logic,’ is based on equating anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel and Zionism. He explains, “Since [the anti-BDS resolution] was passed, it led to the cancellation of academic and cultural events associated with Palestine or – which is more draconian – it applied to any event organized by people known to be pro-Palestinian.” 

This broad policy — the vagueness of which allows for the targeting of individuals — single-handedly bred a culture of oppression and silencing so rapidly and with so much force that merely associating yourself with Palestinians implies that you are anti-Israel or an anti-Semite.

The recent mass ‘purge’ of Palestinian and pro-Palestinian journalists and partners from German media outlet Deutsche Welle, for instance, has come under heavy scrutiny. 

The heavy-handed application of the anti-BDS bill and the way in which the German government banned a public demonstration with nonchalance are extreme and illiberal acts. 

While it appears the general German public is indifferent to the plight of the Palestinians, it is iterated and reiterated that it is due to a fear of being associated with anti-Semitism or the nation’s dark history with the persecution of Jews. 

Nonetheless, the ease with which the government banned a peaceful demonstration should give the whole nation cause for concern. It not only bypasses many international enshrined human rights, but it is also, as some argue, literally unconstitutional in Germany. 

This assault on the freedoms of one group of people can, without a doubt, set precedence for future modalities of disproportionate government action against other social groups. 

However, even if this does not pose a general risk to freedom of speech, is it not frightening and rightly reminiscent of old, racist, and exclusionary politics?

Palestine is not an anti-Semitic word, and the accusation is antithetical and contradictory. To hear these false claims spoken and repeated in countless ways becomes another burden on the shoulders of the Palestinians and those who support them.

The BDS and the Palestinian community at large are both human rights and liberation movements. As such, it is imperative to think of the ramifications of the actions of German authorities on national morality and the implications that it has on the character of the state.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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