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In Germany, the anti-BDS zeitgeist has taken over

The growing attacks on the BDS movement in Germany, which led to the resignation of the director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum last week, are a dangerous sign that critics of Israeli policy should be afraid for their futures.

Activists from the 'International Block', hold a BDS sign, during the annual May Day demonstration, Berlin, Germany, May 1, 2017. (Activestills.org)

Activists from the ‘International Block’, hold a BDS sign, during the annual May Day demonstration, Berlin, Germany, May 1, 2017. (Activestills.org)

It has been a month since the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, passed a symbolic, non-binding resolution designating the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) anti-Semitic. The decision is already having a detrimental impact on people’s careers and lives.

Last Friday, director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin Peter Schäfer, a highly-respected scholar of Jewish studies who took the position in 2014, announced his resignation after coming under severe pressure by Jewish community leaders in Germany and the Israeli government, who have accused the museum of engaging in what they deem to be anti-Israel and anti-Jewish activities.

Schäfer’s forced resignation came following a tweet by the museum on June 6 endorsing an article in the progressive German daily Die Tageszeitung, which reported on a letter signed by 240 Jewish and Israeli scholars of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust who reject the notion that BDS is equivalent to anti-Semitism. The letter was submitted to the government after the resolution, urging it not to formally implement it; the scholars argued that drawing that equivalence is not effective and even undermines the fight against anti-Semitism:

The equation of BDS with anti-Semitism has been promoted by Israel’s most right-wing government in history. It is part of persistent efforts to delegitimize any discourse about Palestinian rights and any international solidarity with the Palestinians suffering from military occupation and severe discrimination. We urge you to fight anti-Semitism and all forms of racism without aiding these malign efforts. We ask you to safeguard free expression and protect democratic spaces in Germany, rather than to isolate and silence those who non-violently express their political beliefs.

Neither the museum nor Schäfer have ever endorsed BDS; doing so in Germany is akin to committing career suicide. But staunch anti-BDS advocates in Germany, Israel and the U.S. have managed to portray it as such, creating a feedback loop that presents misinformation as fact. Following the museum’s tweet, The Werte Initiative, a Jewish lobby in Germany that staunchly championed the anti-BDS motion, tweeted its condemnation of the “anti-Jewish” museum — a term first coined by NGO Monitor’s Gerald Steinberg — after the Jewish Museum hosted a talk by philosopher and BDS supporter Judith Butler in 2012 (before Schäfer was director).

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Benjamin Weinthal, a fellow with the hawkish neoconservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and the European Affairs Correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, published an article earlier this month deceptively titled, “’Anti-Jewish’ Museum in Berlin under fire for supporting BDS.” The American Jewish Committee’s office in Germany also tweeted its condemnation while Israeli Ambassador to Germany Jeremy Issacharoff tweeted his two cents, making it appear as if the museum endorsed BDS.

There have been several efforts to push back since Schäfer’s resignation. But unlike in the U.S. where the anti-BDS efforts that have been gaining momentum are simultaneously facing challenges by Democratic politicians, in Germany there is hardly any space for criticizing Israel. Trying to defend BDS as a legitimate nonviolent tactic is practically impossible.

Visitors at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany, one of the largest Jewish Museums in Europe, October 26, 2012. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Visitors at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany, one of the largest Jewish Museums in Europe, October 26, 2012. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Yossi Bartal, an Israeli anti-occupation activist with the German-Jewish group Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East, and who has been living in Germany since 2006, worked as a guide with the Jewish Museum up until this week, when he submitted his resignation in protest. “After the forced resignation of Peter Schäfer and the clear interference of politicians in the work of the museum as a result of the pressure of a far-right foreign government and their supporters in this country, I feel no longer able to work as a guide in the museum,” Bartal wrote in his letter of resignation submitted to the museum, which he shared with +972.

“Opposition to anti-BDS efforts in Germany is rarely made public, and when it does it comes mainly from Jewish individuals,” Bartal said. “We as leftist Jews do not have the privilege not to concern ourselves with Israeli politics. We cannot be silent like the majority of the Germany left.”

Amos Goldberg, an Israeli associate professor in Jewish Studies at Hebrew University who specializes in Holocaust studies, and is one of the organizers of the original letter signed by 240 academics, told +972 that the organizations representing Jews in Germany claim to have a monopoly on what is considered anti-Semitism. “For many of their leaders, any critique, certainly harsh critique, on Israel is anti-Semitism. Once they accuse someone of anti-Semitism, it can destroy one’s career and reputation,” he told +972. This appears to be precisely what happened to Peter Schäfer, and the fact that he is not Jewish makes it all the more difficult to defend him.

Another letter initiated by Jewish Studies scholars around the world is now being circulated in support of Peter Schäfer and currently has 300 signatories. Penned by Professor Susanna Heschel, chair of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth, it reads: “False accusations have been spread about Prof. Schäfer, and we are appalled that truth is no longer being upheld and that the reputation of a scholar devoted to Judaism would be smeared in public. This is outrageous, and we protest in the strongest terms.”

Demonstrators hold signs outside a Berlin courthouse on the opening day of the trial of three BDS activists charged with assault for interrupting an Israeli MK during a lecture in 2017, March 4 2019. (Magda Stefanenco)

Demonstrators hold signs outside a Berlin courthouse on the opening day of the trial of three BDS activists charged with assault for interrupting an Israeli MK during a lecture in 2017, March 4 2019. (Magda Stefanenco)

The number of BDS activists in Germany is notably small, and several sources I have spoken to estimate that there are no more than a few hundred people in the entire country who openly advocate for a boycott of Israel. Like in the U.S., where the movement has more activists and greater legitimacy, the German government spends a disproportionate amount of resources to combat BDS compared to the number of people who actually advocate for it. Moreover, in both Germany and the U.S., where there are reports of rising anti-Semitic incidents and hate crimes, the vast majority of perpetrators of those types of crimes are identified with the far-right.

“Focusing the attention on a marginal phenomenon like BDS deflects the debate in Germany from actual and more pressing issues: racism in general and Islamophobia and antisemitism in particular. It also creates a division among victim groups of various brands of racist crime. Putting BDS centre stage directs the debate towards Israel and Palestine instead of focusing on homegrown antisemitism and racism, including that among communities of migrant origin in Germany, which should be the focus if this was genuinely about antisemitism,” says Riad Othman, who works with the humanitarian relief and human rights organization Medico International.”

The Jewish Museum in Berlin has been a target of staunchly pro-Israel groups since it is one of the only entities in Germany willing to engage on Israel critically. The attacks on the museum have increased since it launched an exhibit last year called “Jerusalem,” which was condemned by the Israeli government for presenting a “Muslim-Palestinian narrative of the city.” Last December, Prime Minister Netanyahu asked German Chancellor Angela Merkel to “fundamentally rethink” its support for dozens of human rights organizations in Israel, including this magazine.

Meanwhile, Jewish Voice for A Just Peace in the Middle East, which is comprised primarily of Israeli expats, could have its bank account shut down this week by the Bank für Sozialwirtschaft (Bank for Social Economy). Jewish Voice member Iris Hefets told +972 that the bank is threatening to shut down the group’s account due to its affiliation with BDS.

The Jewish Museum refused to comment, as did Felix Klein, Germany’s commissioner for the fight against anti-Semitism, who recently recommended Jews in Germany not wear skullcaps in public. Bank für Sozialwirtschaft also declined to comment.

Reporting for this article was extremely challenging, as many people fear to speak on record and are extremely careful with their words. I have spoken to several sources on the ground who told me they know German journalists and members of parliament who are very critical of Israeli policies, but would never say so out loud for fear of losing their jobs. There is a real climate of self-censorship.

Amos Goldberg captured the current political moment, saying that the use of BDS to make false accusations of anti-Semitism has diverted attention from the core of the problem: the entrenching Israeli occupation, with all the severe violations of human rights and international law that accompany it. “These accusations are changing the whole public discourse,” Goldberg says. “Israel becomes the accuser, not the accused… setting the stage for a climate in which if it goes ahead and annexes the West Bank, no one will be able to say anything for fear of being labeled an anti-Semite.”

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    COMMENTS

    1. Ben

      That this fear-of-being-tarred-an-anti-Semite dynamic of political persecution and silencing of free speech should play out in Germany is comprehensible in light of the way Germans remain tortured and emotionally arm-twistable due to their unique history, but in America? That this same right wing tactic should have allowed state governments in the United States of America to pass clearly First Amendment violating laws regarding boycotts is a sign that something is deeply wrong. And yet the same people who support this First Amendment violating decry supposed “foreign interference” in Israel’s “internal affairs”!

      Reply to Comment
      • Rivka Koen

        It’s not simply about abusing the guilt of the Germans; it’s also about offering them an easy way out. Actually addressing the root problems of antisemitism, the power relations that it is meant to perpetuate, is difficult and requires that people make individual sacrifices. Voting to censor all criticism of Israel is easy.

        This is also why such bills are popular in the U.S.. The Meghan McCains and Liz Cheneys of the world would much rather have an easy way to say, “I oppose antisemitism” than dismantle the power structure that their families benefit from so much and that depends on antisemitism to keep it going during times when it is threatened.

        Reply to Comment
    2. Bruce Gould

      I’m guessing we’re about to have a debate about whether BDS aims to “destroy Israel”: If you go to a Jewish Voice For Peace meeting – I recommend trying it – you’ll meet Jews of all ages who support BDS and see it as a way to exert pressure on Israel and bring human rights issues to the public eye, but if the truth be told the exact mechanism of how BDS is supposed to work isn’t very well thought out, it’s all sort of vague in the minds of BDS supporters.

      I have yet to meet a JVP-er who wants to “destroy Israel”.

      Reply to Comment
      • Lewis from Afula

        JVP ?
        What’s that ?
        Over 99% of Israelis don’t know what your talking about.

        What a bunch of spoiled and assimilated, Hebrew-illiterate JINOs discuss in their spare time in New York or LA has no relevance to anything.

        Reply to Comment
          • Rivka Koen

            It takes a real mentsh to stand up for oppressed people; to shoot them in cold blood, a coward suffices.

            Reply to Comment
        • Ray

          By your logic, the majority of the world’s Jews are “spoiled and assimilated, Hebrew-illiterate JINOs.”

          I guess most people prefer to live in modern, liberal society, rather than an embattled, obscurantist ethno-state Israel’s leadership is trying to complete its transformation into. The same reason Jews were happy to be allowed to move to European urban centers and assimilate, rather than stay in their shtetls.

          Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Ray:
            You seem to have a very 1980s view of Israel.
            This country has a GDP/head that now exceeds that of France, UK or Japan.
            Israel has $120 Billion in forex reserves.
            Male military service is now 2 years, 8 months and is gradually falling, shifting towards a professional army model within a decade or so.
            Incoming tourism is booming, recording the highest levels ever. New hotels are being built.
            In various recent surveys of “happiness” and “psychological wellness” Israel scores much higher than the US or UK.
            Life expectancy in Israel is much higher than the US or UK.

            Maybe a closed “ethnostate” is better than a globalist “open borders” entity where the entire 3rd World can come in and take your job?

            Reply to Comment
          • Rivka Koen

            Globalism is good, actually. Your ethnostate is a mere blip in world history and will never be more than that, because it is not sustainable. Monocultural societies don’t and never will exist. Israelis live off the backs of Palestinian labor while denying them all of its fruits, and you can’t do that forever.

            The best part about globalists is we don’t treat other people like shit and play the victim whenever we’re called out about it.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Globalism is good for very rich peoplw who enjoy cheap labor in terms of inexpensive gardeners, plumbers, nannies, chauffeurs, cleaners, builders, salesmen etc etc.
            Not so good for the 99% who have to compete with the 3rd World migrants to get a reasonable job.

            I guees this argument is too “rational” for a Leftist Cuckoo to grasp.

            Reply to Comment
          • Rivka Koen

            Actually it’s the nationalists, the anti-globalists, who benefit from the labor of undocumented immigrants (e.g. Donald Trump, David Nunes, and countless others). It’s leftists, internationalists, pro-open-border types who want to eliminate their source of cheap labor by abolishing the system that makes this source of labor exploitable. And that’s why elites rail so hard against “globalism.”

            Reply to Comment
        • Rivka Koen

          > “assimilated”

          You’re the ones trying to be as European as possible, not us. You’re the ones who eliminated all your individual cultures in favor of some alien, militaristic disgrace to Jewish history and culture and values, not us. You’re the ones who are allies with literal white supremacists, not us.

          > “spoiled”

          And you’re the ones who think the tiniest bit of criticism is an existential threat to the Jewish people, not us. Try really experiencing antisemitism some time instead of labeling the people you have under your boots “antisemites” for trying to get out. At no point in history have victims of real antisemitism ever had a monopoly on the legitimate use of force in any territory.

          Reply to Comment
        • Rivka Koen

          > Over 99% of Israelis don’t know what your talking about.

          Nu, and that’s supposed to mean something? Madinat Yisrael is less than a hundred years old; the Diaspora is older than the Second Temple. Our communities outside your escapist fantasy resort have stood the test of time in a way that no Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael has ever come close. When your state is gone, the Diaspora will still be here. There is no Judaism without the Diaspora; we are the only reason Jews still exist.

          Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            Rivka:
            The Jewish diaspora is in terminal demographic collapse.
            Israeli Jews have the highest birth rate in the Developed World.
            Already, three quarters of the World’s Jewish Kids live in Israel.
            Essentially, the future is already here.

            Reply to Comment
          • Rivka Koen

            Which is it: are you “the future” that is “already here”, or are you at imminent threat of total destruction by hostile enemies unless all other countries of the world pass laws against criticizing you?

            Fascism depends on the idea that you simultaneously view yourself as about to be overwhelmed by a superior enemy, and vastly superior to your enemy, and use one justification or the other to get what you want in any given moment.

            I’m going to wager a bet that if you were really “the future,” your ego wouldn’t be so delicate and fragile as to need laws against criticizing you. That sounds more like something you tell yourself as a further way of protecting your ego.

            If you all were really so great, you wouldn’t be demanding our support constantly. Rather you’re just like the pre-Zionist Jews of Palestine, as dependent on the Diaspora as ever.

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            The diaspora is shrinking and assimilating away.
            Israel is independent of it.
            In another decade, most of the World’s Jews will be in Israel.

            Reply to Comment
          • Rivka Koen

            You wouldn’t know it with the way Israel hysterically acts like it is in imminent danger of total annihilation because some people got together and decided not to purchase Ahava Cosmetics. You can’t have it both ways. Pick one. If you’re doing fine, why do your international relations depend on you acting like you aren’t?

            Reply to Comment
          • Lewis from Afula

            The only person being hysterical is you.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Rivka, you’ve done a nice job of demolishing Lewis’ perseverative propaganda lines and other offensive nonsense.

            Reply to Comment
          • Herschel Ben Avraham

            Rivka Koen. Please get a life! Find a man(or woman) who will keep you happy.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Rivka has so flummoxed you that you’re now reduced to insecure, misogynistic taunts. Keep revealing your true nature, we are taking note.

            Reply to Comment
    3. M.Stein

      Wow! Warum jetzt Juden auch gegen Juden gegen Israel sind? Boykott ist die Antwort auf besetztes Land? Alle diese Leute wollen vergessen,das alle Kriege von Araber angefangen wurden und genau wie Deutschland nach Kriegsende Land abgeben mußte an die “Siegerstaaten”! Wo sind hier die Demonstrationen? Warum demonstriert keiner, dass Deutschland das ganze Raubgut zurück geben soll,Sämtliche Immobilien,Goldbarren in Milliardenhöhe usw.? Viele radikale Palestinenser rufen seit Jahren,dass man alle Juden ins Meer werfen will! Was sind das für Juden,die sich vorstellen,dass man ausgerechnet sie am Leben lassen will/wird und Ihnen das Paradies der 73 Jungfrauen verspricht? Warum geht Ihr nicht für den Jemen,Iran,Syrien,egal überall wo Frauen & Kinder sterben müssen? Gegen Erdogan,Rohani,die grundlos Menschen von allen Nationen in den Kerker werfen? Warum nicht gegen Polen demonstrieren,die jüdisches Raubgut nicht mehr zuück geben wollen? Judäea war immer schon das Land der Juden und ist verankert sogar im Koran! Israel ist der fast einzigste Tagespunkt bei der VN oder der Nato,weil auch genau da die wirklichen Juden/Israel Feinde inne halten! Judenfeindlichkeit ist kein neuses Phänomen in Deutschland,England,Frankreich,

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        @Stein: Quatsch. Haben Sie versucht, hier jedes abgedroschene, rechtsextreme Klischee einzupacken? Wen machst du Witze?

        Reply to Comment
      • A von Basel

        @Stein – Ist ja interessant, wie oft solcher Unfug erzählt wird. Wer nicht erkennen mag, wie ignorant er selber ist, der wird wie ein Papagei immerzu jeden Blödsinn von sich geben, und dabei nicht erkennen, wie dumm das alles ist. Muss sich um ein zwanghaftes Verhalten handeln, ich kann es mir nicht anders erklären.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Dave

      Far right babble. Boycotting Israel is not necessarily antisemitic. BDS is an antisemitic, Holocaust-denying neo-Nazi organisation.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Fred

      nice to read good news for a change!

      Reply to Comment
    6. FrankN

      First time reader…
      Is this a Palestinian/Arab anti-Israeli magazine of sorts? I read a few articles and that seems to be the case.

      Reply to Comment
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