By Riad Othman
For years we have been observing a shrinking of spaces in which critical speech about Israel and Palestine is possible. Now a new aggravation is on the horizon: In Berlin, demonstrations related to the commemoration of the Nakba have been banned – and not for the first time. Already in May 2022, the Berlin police preventively banned several planned rallies on the occasion of the annual day of commemoration of the expulsion and flight of a large part of the Palestinian population in connection with the founding of the state of Israel. This also affected a vigil by Jewish activists for the Palestinian journalist Shirin Abu Akleh, who was killed shortly before by the Israeli army in Jenin. 11 May marks the anniversary of her deliberate killing by an Israeli soldier. At the time, the Berlin Administrative Court had upheld the assembly bans that had been challenged in summary proceedings.
In the face of cases of anti-Jewish incitement to hatred, which have sometimes occurred at pro-Palestinian demonstrations, firm action against antisemitism has rightly been called for. As necessary as this is, it is also in the nature of things that those who register demonstrations do not have complete control over those who respond to calls for public gatherings. This makes it all the more important that they make it clear that standing up for Palestinian rights can only be emancipatory if it is understood as part of the struggle for universal human rights. This must of course include the Jewish population of Israel. This attitude does not first require a settlement of the conflict. As a principle, it alone should be the starting point.
If someone abuses their right to freedom of assembly to chant anti-Jewish or other racist tirades, and thus moves into the realm of incitement, instead of legitimately standing up for Palestinian or universal human rights, there are laws against such hate speech that allow the police to enforce applicable law. Wouldn't such a strategy be in line with police duties on the one hand and the democratic nature of our society with a constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of assembly and expression on the other? But instead of approaching the matter in this way, the fundamental right of freedom of assembly of the many is once again being preventively suspended in Berlin because of the (expected) misconduct of individuals.
Why is this acceptable in the case of people who stand up for the right of Palestinians to their own country and to human rights? Is the main reason for these bans really to combat antisemitism? Is it the concern that misdemeanours or even criminal offences could be committed? And if this is why the concern is so great, why did the Berlin courts not worry to the same extent in the case of the demonstrations against the anti-Corona measures of the federal government? It was known that the protests at that time would violate conditions such as the obligation to wear a mask or the minimum distance on a massive scale. That was precisely the point of the protests. It was also known that on such occasions the Holocaust would be trivialised by protesters wearing yellow stars with the inscription "unvaccinated". No matter which of the definitions of antisemitism one goes by: The trivialisation of the Shoa is classified as a pretty clear-cut case. The fundamental rights of that political spectrum mattered so much to the courts that at least in some cases they ruled in favour of freedom of assembly – in this case also of people who are very critical of democracy and the parliamentary system, to say the least, and some of whom – following the example staged in the US – then also tried to enter the Reichstag.
But events that want to commemorate the expulsion of the majority of the Palestinian population from the territory that became Israel in 1948 are supposed to pose such a great danger that they must be banned? A risk for whom? In reaction to the recent bans, a group of Jews recently commented on the measures taken to supposedly combat antisemitism: "Such anti-democratic measures are tantamount to collective punishment and offer us as Jewish Berliners no effective protection."
This nurtures an impression that above all the German image of Israel is not to be disturbed. The elements that are central to this image can be seen not only in statements of the German Bundestag, but also in Ursula von der Leyen's recent congratulations to the Israeli government on the occasion of Independence Day. In her speech, she reproduced the state-sanctioned Israeli founding myth that it was the immigrant Jewish population that "made the desert bloom", a popular trope of the Zionist narrative that primarily serves to justify why the large-scale land theft from the Arab population could not have been so bad. Allegedly, they have never taken care of it anyway. The uncritical image of Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East, which is officially cultivated in Germany, shall not be tarnished by the memory of the expulsion of the Arab population. The prevention of protests here in Germany, which are also directed against the current policy of land grabbing and settlement construction, is consistent with German toleration of the illegal actions of the Israeli state and with the attempted defence against legal steps against Israel. The German government, for example, positioned itself against the investigations of the International Criminal Court and recently, in the UN General Assembly, voted against entrusting the International Court of Justice with the elaboration of an advisory opinion on the question of the illegality of the occupation.
The bans on rallies are part of a general trend. In the name of combating antisemitism, political declarations of intent have been passed for years by parliaments at the federal, state and local level, which, according to their own statements, are directed "against any form of antisemitism", but in fact mostly have an impact on Palestine solidarity groups and individual speakers who are accused of being antisemitic because of their affiliation or alleged proximity to the boycott movement BDS. There are now around 35 such resolutions in Germany, from the Bundestag to the state parliaments of Thuringia, North Rhine-Westphalia, Baden-Württemberg and the Berlin House of Representatives to cities such as Dortmund, Frankfurt, Leipzig and Munich.
The resulting repressive administrative practices, for example in the denied provision of public premises, the forced cancellation of events or the allocation of public funds, have been repeatedly ruled unlawful in parts by the courts. However, this does not prevent political actors from considering ways to continue and expand such practices. In its final report to the Conference of Ministers of the Interior (IMK), a federal-regional state working group that was to deal with the "need for action due to increasing antisemitic and anti-Israel agitation against the background of the Middle East conflict" recommended far-reaching, also repressive measures, for example, to punish – if necessary also through new laws – statements, symbols, motives that have so far been exempt from punishment because they do not violate applicable laws. It is to be feared that, if implemented, fundamental rights such as freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of science and freedom of art could be violated when it comes to Israel and Palestine. In this far-reaching form, the recommendations for action were not explicitly included in the resolutions of the IMK. Nevertheless, in December 2022, the Federal Government and the Länder [German regional states] were asked to "consider the recommendations for action mentioned in the report".
On the occasion of isolated antisemitic slogans at protests against the Gaza war in May 2021, Felix Klein, the Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism, called for "communities in the Muslim spectrum" to "participate in the political discourse, in the democratic discourse. If there is discontent, then they must express it through registered demonstrations, through events, but not through violence, and this is where I see my task." Unfortunately, neither with regard to the 2022 bans nor the current ones was anything to be heard from Felix Klein on the fundamental right of freedom of assembly for these segments of the population. How they, as a part of society in Germany, are supposed to participate in political discourse in the future, when the interior ministers of the federal and state governments are thinking about how they can prevent precisely this participation "in conformity with the constitution", remains a mystery.
The danger in this context is that the debate about Israel and antisemitism will serve as a welcome gateway for politicians with a focus on interior affairs and security institutions to establish repressive practices and packages of measures that will no longer be reserved for Palestine solidarity groups, but will be applied more generally. In view of the actions of civil disobedience of the Last Generation, some politicians are already escalating their rhetoric: There is talk of climate terrorism, and preventive detention is already being enforced. In 2019, the Holocaust scholar Amos Goldberg warned in the Frankfurter Rundschau that Germany could "turn into another illiberal bulwark in five or ten years. Its policies could then resemble those of Israel, Hungary and Poland." If Goldberg is not to be proved right, the work of the interior ministries in this area must be very critically examined and the repressive policy towards the exercise of fundamental rights must be resisted. In the present case, this is happening at different levels: An international appeal speaks out against the bans under the motto "Freedom of speech is a human right". In Berlin, the action "they ban, we dabke" calls for spontaneous gatherings to defy the bans with a positive and cheerful display of Palestinian identity and presence in public places in Berlin. Groups of five or more people meet to dance.
medico international supports a lawsuit against the bans on the rallies of Jewish Voice for Just Peace in the Middle East and the Palestine Speaks alliance in connection with the Nakba commemoration in May 2022 in Berlin.