Germany’s crackdown on criticism of Israel betrays European values

There is nothing to be gained, but much to be lost, from the silencing of pro-Palestinian voices.

Participants carry a banner reading 'Stop the genocide in Gaza' as they walk in front of the Berlin Cathedral (left) and the TV Tower (right) during a rally in reaction to the ban of the Palestine Congress in Berlin, Germany, April 13, 2024 [Clemens Bilan/EPA-EFE]

A few months ago, I found myself in a forum with German colleagues discussing European media. The conversation was lively and quickly moved from industry issues to broader topics such as German memory culture and the 2008 financial crisis.

Surprisingly, my German colleagues found it inappropriate to criticise the Greek political stance at the time of the crisis, and they also found it inappropriate for me to talk about issues relating to German history, such as the Holocaust. They explained that “you cannot enter into the subjective experience and history of the other, so it is better to avoid it”. I couldn’t disagree more.

If we don’t engage in critical discussion, we can’t align ourselves with what we think is morally right or hold power to account – we end up simply affirming our ethnic, religious, ideological or national alliances. To paraphrase Edward Said’s famous quote, we can’t show true solidarity if we don’t criticise. And we cannot afford not to criticise a power when it is blatantly attacking the very values and principles it is supposed to uphold and protect.

I thought of this discussion I had with German colleagues as I read about the police raid on the Palestine Congress in Berlin on April 12.

The violent interruption and eventual cancellation of the pro-Palestine conference was a worrying escalation in the repression of the Palestinian solidarity movement that has been under way in Germany and across the West for the past six months. German police invaded the venue of the Palestine Congress, organised by Jewish Voice for Peace together with DiEM25 and civil rights groups, and shut it down by cutting off electricity, confiscating microphones, and detaining some of the participants.

Then, in an unprecedented move, it issued a “Betätigungsverbot” (ban on activities) against Yanis Varoufakis, Ghassan Abu-Sitta, and Salman Abu-Sitta – three of the keynote speakers. As a result, former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, a vocal figure in the global progressive movement, will not be allowed to speak about Palestine in Germany, not even via a Zoom call, and it is unclear whether he will be able to stand with the German party DiEM25 in the run-up to the European elections in June.

The intervention made it crystal clear that these days in Germany any and all criticism of the State of Israel and its conduct in Gaza is considered anti-Semitism and treated as such. Juxtaposed with the newfound acceptance of far-right figures with documented histories of anti-Semitism due to their defence of Israeli policies against Palestinians, it paints a depressing picture for freedom of speech in one of Europe’s most powerful democracies.

The contrast here is stark. Pro-Israel politicians from the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), including those who are under trial for using literal Nazi slogans, can freely speak on the Israeli war on Palestine under the guise of “fighting anti-Semitism”, but Ghassan Abu-Sittah, the Palestinian surgeon and rector of Glasgow University who worked in Gaza hospitals and documented war crimes during this latest Israeli assault on the Palestinian enclave cannot give his testimony to the German public.

As Udi Raz, the Jewish activist arrested at the Palestine Congress, said after his arrest, it seems that these days in Germany you can fight anti-Semitism only if you support genocide.

The raid on the Palestine Congress was just the latest in a series of escalating incidents. Under the pretext of security and with vague accusations of anti-Semitism, the German authorities have been suppressing the freedom of expression of everyone showing solidarity with the Palestinians and demanding a ceasefire in Gaza since October 7. Here are a few examples:

In November, poet Ranjit Hoskote was forced to resign from the Selection Committee of Documenta 16, one of the most contemporary art exhibitions in the world, after it was revealed that he signed a letter comparing Zionism to Hindu nationalism in 2019. Just a few days after Hoskote’s resignation, the remaining members of the committee also resigned, citing the lack of free speech about Israel-Palestine in Germany as the reason.

“In the current circumstances we do not believe that there is a space in Germany for an open exchange of ideas and the development of complex and nuanced artistic approaches that Documenta artists and curators deserve,” they said in an open letter announcing their resignation.

In December, In a symbolically revealing move, Germany’s Green Party-affiliated Heinrich Boll Foundation withdrew the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought from Masha Gessen, citing Gessen’s New Yorker essay titled “In the Shadow of the Holocaust” as the reason for the decision. In the essay, Gessen criticised Germany’s Israel policy and politics of remembrance, comparing the situation in besieged Gaza to the plight of Jews in Nazi-occupied ghettos in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust.

Then in February, the Berlin Film Festival, one of the biggest and most respected in Europe, faced backlash for awarding a prize to a film by Palestinian filmmaker Basel Adra and Israeli journalist Yuval Abraham which charted Israel’s destruction of Palestinian villages in the occupied West Bank. German Culture Minister Claudia Roth faced calls for her resignation after being filmed clapping at the end of Adra and Abraham’s speech. Rather shockingly, she later claimed that she was applauding only the Israeli filmmaker and not his Palestinian partner. After this incident, politicians threatened to cut funding to cultural institutions for perceived anti-Israel bias, sparking fears of censorship.

Within the same month, Ghassan Hage, a renowned anthropologist, was fired from the Max Planck Institute after a right-wing newspaper accused him of making “increasingly drastic statements” critical of Israel following the Hamas attack and the Israeli assault on Gaza in October. A few weeks later, political theorist Nancy Fraser was stripped of her professorship at the University of Cologne due to her support for the Palestinian cause.

As the world’s second-largest arms exporter, Germany has consistently supported Israel, both politically and militarily. In 2023, some 30 percent of Israel’s military equipment purchases came from Germany.

After South Africa took Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) accusing it of committing genocide in Gaza, Germany offered to intervene in the case on behalf of Israel. In response, Namibia – where Germany committed the 20th century’s first genocide as the colonial ruler between 1904 and 1908 – publicly urged Berlin to “reconsider” its “untimely” decision.

Then-Namibian President Hage Geingob said Germany could not “morally express commitment to the United Nations Convention against genocide, including atonement for the genocide in Namibia” and at the same time support Israel.

In the meantime, Nicaragua brought a separate case against Germany at the same court, accusing it of breaching the UN genocide convention by sending military hardware to Israel.

With these moves, these two countries from the so-called Global South exposed the hypocrisy of Germany’s claims that it is standing with Jewish people and fighting anti-Semitism by supporting – politically and militarily – Israel’s war on Gaza. Furthermore, they showed how Germany is threatening to bankrupt the values and principles at the very core of the European project – human rights, human dignity, freedom, equality and the rule of law, among others – by continuing to arm, fund and diplomatically support Israel as it commits genocide against a people living under its occupation.

This hypocritical stance has domestic as well as international consequences.

Indeed, while German authorities claim to be fighting anti-Semitism by censoring pro-Palestinian speech, civil liberties groups warn that the German state’s conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Jewish bigotry is enabling a xenophobic crackdown within Germany, with migrants and refugees from Muslim-majority countries being accused of bringing “imported anti-Semitism” to the country for their support for the Palestinian cause and being unjustly targeted for deportation. Meanwhile, the German far right, which is gaining support ahead of the European Parliament elections in June, is using the state’s conflation of anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel as cover for its Islamophobia and is doubling down on its intimidation and targeting of Muslims and Arabs in the country.

This hypocritical stance on anti-Semitism and Israel is of course not unique to Germany. Across the Western world, Palestinians, Jews and progressives of all backgrounds who are opposing the Israeli government’s crimes in Gaza are being branded as anti-Semites. Strikingly, Joe Biden and the Democratic Party in the United States, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally in France and the AfD in Germany appear to be on the same page when it comes to conflating anti-Zionist views and criticism of the State of Israel with anti-Semitism.

The students of Columbia University in New York and other US colleges are being arrested and branded as hateful for protesting Israeli crimes against Palestinians. Earlier, Harvard President Claudine Gay and Penn President Liz McGill were forced to resign after being attacked as anti-Semites for not shutting down pro-Palestinian protests in their respective institutions under the same equation: Critique of Israel equals anti-Semitism.

In the most telling example of the current state of affairs in the West, earlier this month, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, in Geneva, New York, removed tenured professor Jodi Dean from the classroom because of an article in which, echoing Edward Said, she argued that “Palestine speaks for everyone”.

Dean was censured merely for stating the obvious. Said had taught us decades ago that imperialist wars in the Middle East are aimed not only at erasing the Palestinian nation but also at legitimising the formation of imperialist antagonisms against all suppressed people worldwide and within societies. The Palestinian cause, therefore, is the touchstone for human rights worldwide.

Said has also explained in his scholarship, many decades before this latest escalation in Gaza, the grave consequences the Zionist misuse of Jewish suffering to further imperial interests would have for Jews and Palestinians alike.

“I do … understand as profoundly as I can, the fear felt by most Jews that Israel’s security is a genuine protection against future genocidal attempts on the Jewish people,” Said wrote in his 1979 book The Question of Palestine. “But … there can be no way of satisfactorily conducting a life whose main concern is to prevent the past from recurring. For Zionism, the Palestinians have now become the equivalent of a past experience reincarnated in the form of a present threat. The result is that the Palestinians’ future as a people is mortgaged to that fear, which is a disaster for them and for Jews.”

We owe great respect to all those who resist power in the name of humanism, peace, democracy, and universal values at a time when the clouds of war cast shadows over our world. Just as we must never forget the Holocaust, we should do everything to stop the genocide against the Palestinians today. Just as we supported the Iranian revolutionaries who took to the streets for human rights in 2020, today we must support the Jews and Israelis who oppose the genocide being perpetrated by the Israeli government. And we must criticise and resist all efforts to silence Palestinian speech and shield Israel from accountability in the name of fighting anti-Semitism and protecting Jews, in Germany and across the West.

We cannot afford, as my German colleagues suggested during our discussion, to criticise power only when its abuses and excesses fall within the perimeters of our own history and identity.

Only by resisting power and demanding the right to disagree, in every context, we keep the doors open to accountability, democracy, and peace where power is working to close down these prospects. As we are more and more interconnected and engaged in global discussions we need to do the exact opposite of protecting our subjective position, shaped through experience and trauma. As Edward Said once said, “never solidarity before criticism”. Speaking truth to power is the best way to show solidarity with the oppressed, and the only way to build a better world for everyone.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.