By Denijal Jegic
Earlier this month, representatives of several German public cultural and academic institutions criticised the consequences of the Federal parliament’s anti-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement resolution.
They issued an open letter, expressing their commitment to Germany’s Basic Law which guarantees the freedom of arts and sciences.
The fragility of these norms has been in full display since the German parliament passed a resolution in May 2019, condemning the BDS movement as “antisemitic” and even relating the boycott of Israel to German Nazi fascism.
Anti-Palestinian sentiment has long become entrenched in German nationalism.
Germany remains among Israel’s most reliable supporters. In fact, German politicians throughout the political spectrum define Israel’s so-called “security” as Germany’s own “raison d’etre.” This is oftentimes presented as a consequence of Germany’s persecution of Jews that resulted in the horror of the Holocaust and the extermination of Jewish life in Germany.
Since Israel’s existence in its current, racist form necessitates the ongoing oppression of Palestinians. The stubborn support for Israel’s subjugation of Palestinians has translated into a situation where Israel’s military occupation, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians are rarely publicly confronted in Germany.
In fact, in can be better described as an anti-Palestinian climate. The dispossession of Palestinians becomes a necessity under the guise of fighting antisemitism and/or protecting Israel’s security. All Orientalist, colonialist, and Islamophobic rhetoric can easily be uttered against Palestinians.
As a consequence, the global BDS movement poses a significant threat to mainstream German discourse on Palestine/Israel.
The BDS movement emerged from within Palestinian civil society in 2005. BDS merely calls for the implementation of human rights and international law in all of Israel/Palestine.
As a non-violent strategy of boycott by an indigenous population against a heavily-armed, oppressive settler-colonial regime, BDS seeks to politically and economically pressure Israel into ending its military occupation and dispossession of Palestinians.
Historically, boycotts have been a powerful tool to pressure oppressive systems. A successful case was Apartheid South Africa, which, similarly like Israel – and itself once a major ally of Israel – had only been able to uphold its racist segregation due to Western support, including assistance from Germany.
Although BDS remains marginal in Germany, it has early on been identified as a threat by the political establishment.
The 2019 resolution did not come as a surprise, given that politicians of all major parties had previously openly expressed anti-Palestinian rhetoric. In May 2019, the German parliament passed a resolution that smeared BDS as antisemitic and reminiscent of Germany’s Nazi past. While this can be seen as an appropriation of history, there was no considerable backlash.
The vague wording of the non-binding bill does not essentially differentiate between Israel’s racist system and the Jewish people, and thus views contestations of Israel’s “right to exist” as antisemitic. It gained support from the government and most of the opposition, including the far-right and liberals.
The party called “The Left” voted against it, but only because it itself had proposed another anti-BDS bill. The extreme-right “AfD” had previously introduced a similar bill and continued to argue for a complete ban.
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.
Free speech on Palestine/Israel was, of course, widely scrutinised before the resolution. Public events in support of Palestine had been canceled and occasionally authorities prevented activists from speaking, apparently seeking to silence them.
The marginalisation of Palestinians and pro-Palestinian voices intensified after the resolution. Although non-binding, the document was cited as a reason for the cancelation of events, withdrawal of venues, and disinvitation of individuals from cultural or academic events.
Palestine increasingly became a litmus test, as cultural organisers would police people’s opinions on Israel. An example is the withdrawal of an award for Pakistani-British author Kamila Shamsie in 2019.
The one instance that caught significant mainstream attention in Germany were the public attacks against the prominent intellectual Achille Mbembe. Himself from Cameroon, a country formerly colonised by Germany, Mbembe became the victim of a smear campaign simply because he pointed out the similarities between aprtheid in Israel and Apartheid South Africa in a publication.
Whether it is the fear of being associated with anti-Semitism, a lack of understanding of what antisemitism constitutes, or mere racism towards Palestinians, anti-Palestinianism has become established within Germany’s bureaucratic violence. In fact, Zionism is being enforced as a political and cultural default.
The new open letter is unprecedented, as it stems not from activists, but was penned by people from within the middle of society.
Importantly, the statement demanded that “Germany’s historical responsibility should not lead to a general delegitimization of other historical experiences of violence and oppression, neither morally nor politically.”
It also outlined the responsibilities of conveying “particularities of the German past – which is characterized by the singular genocide of European Jews, on the one hand, and, by a late and relatively hesitant confrontation with Germany’s colonial history, on the other[.]”
A broader engagement would be necessary to confront the actual structural connection between the Holocaust, Germany’s long, violent history of anti-Semitism long before Nazi fascism, Germany’s genocides in Africa and the country’s shameful colonial history – which remains marginally known within Germany until today.
However, the resolution’s wording shows just how colonised the discourse on Palestine in Germany still is. While the signatories condemn the anti-BDS measures, they also reject BDS, since they “consider cultural and scientific exchange to be essential.” Similar rhetoric had been used during colonialism and South African apartheid.
But, Israeli cultural and scientific institutions are deeply complicit in the continuous dispossession of Palestinians.
Yet, the statement’s aim is not to proclaim solidarity with Palestinians.
The text is about German democracy. The anti-BDS resolution has shown not only that democratic freedom can easily be restricted but also how quickly it can happen without considerable resistance.
The latest statement might be a marginal intervention into the stubborn Zionist dynamics in today’s Germany. It might be a first step, but remains far from a significant shift in the discourse. After all, the debate around BDS in Germany is less about Palestinian human rights and rather focused on Germany’s self-image as well as Berlin’s difficulties to comprehensively confront its past.
But Germany’s crimes have never been in the past. They continue today, in and beyond Palestine.
The discourse currently focuses on the limits of free speech in Germany. It should, however, eventually be about how the German state is actively encouraging the ongoing ethnic cleansing in Palestine.