The Berlin Congress – The One That Got Away....   Deutsch hier



Friday 12th April should have seen the “Palestine Congress” take place in Berlin, a meeting of people generally sympathetic to the suffering of the Palestinians and a chance to protest against the very tight restrictions placed by the state and media in Germany on criticising the response of Israel to the attacks of Oct 7th 2023. The organizers reported great difficulties placed in the way of the Congress by various government agencies, including freezing the accounts of Jüdische Stimme, the organisation financing it, but in spite of these challenges the Congress went ahead, under huge police presence and tight conditions. It went ahead, that is, only to be interrupted and permanently banned by police less than two hours after it had begun, apparently because of a speech transmitted online by a speaker not permitted political activity in Germany, a status spontaneously decreed a few hours earlier. The Palestine Congress had featured heavily in the media in the days before, mainly in the form of politicians and others demanding it be forbidden, warning that it would lead to hate mongering and antisemitism. To anyone familiar with the situation of pro Palestinian sympathisers in Germany it was a surprise that such an event got as far as it did, but the eventual police interruption still came with a jolt, a reminder that with all its faith in democracy and the rule of law Germany is willing to take inspiration from the Stasi notebook when it comes to unlimited loyalty to the Israeli government.

To fully appreciate how much Germany is willing to sacrifice to this end it is enough to know that the Dean of Glasgow University was stopped and refused entry at Berlin airport rather than let him speak at the Congress. That the mayor of Berlin had publicly stated days before that he found it “unbearable” that the Congress be allowed to go ahead. That the Jewish organisation funding the Congress had its assets frozen by a German bank. That a perusal of the headlines concerning the Congress is full of words like “Israel Haters”, “Hate Tirades”, “Islamist Terror” etc, all of which was as absent from the gathering as it was from any street in the capital.

The challenge now for Germany is to reflect on what is being achieved by this approach. The reason generally given for Germany's particular loyalty to Israel is the phrase used by Angela Merkel: Israel is “Staatsraison” for Germany, i.e. a key factor determining its perspective. The guilt of Germany's crimes against Jews in the 1930s and 1940s means it is obliged to put all its weight behind protecting the interests of Jews today. An understandable aim, even if it leaves open what exactly are the interests of Jews today and how far Germany is willing to go to achieve this. Whether protecting the interests of Jews today means unconditionally backing a clearly authoritarian and corrupt Israeli prime minister voted by 23% of the Israeli electorate in a campaign that has killed tens of thousands of civilians is open to question. More importantly from a German point of view, whether blatantly abusing government power to suppress widespread dissent is in the interest of Germany democracy, in a time where authoritarianism is on the rise and trust in democracy is waning - that is an even more urgent question. How can the German government defend the challenges from its far right AfD opposition if it can be seen to be manipulating the rule of law itself, banning free speech, intimidating those with whom it disagrees. This is not a problem unique to Germany by any means, but the current strict attitude to the Gaza crisis makes it more powerful there than elsewhere.

Dominating the discourse over the Gaza crisis is the spectre of antisemitism, especially in Germany. Attacks against Israeli policy are generally deflected in many contexts by tarnishing them as antisemitic, and the controversies about what exactly constitutes antisemitism are as heated in Germany as elsewhere. The absurd consequences of politicised definitions appear regularly there as in the UK, when some Jews are better than others, or, as was the case in Berlin, Jews are teargassed on the streets for being antisemitic. Clearly the problem in the eyes of the government is not antagonism to Jews, or it would accept the large array of political views present in Jewish life. It is more antagonism to the actions of the State of Israel, whatever they may be. It might therefore be clearer to speak only of anti-zionism, or even anti-Israelism, but not of antisemitism. The danger seems to be that one is confused with the other, leading to incidents of genuine antisemitism being misidentified and possibly trivialised as mere political disagreement. Many Jews in Germany are paying the price of being associated with the actions of a corrupt government, an association deepened by the general assumption that if you are against one you must be against the other. It is inconceivable that the German government is not consciously conspiring to abuse the threat of antisemitism against anti-zionism, but it is possible that they are unaware how dangerous this tactic is, not just to common sense and freedom of speech but to those threatened by antisemitism. The only party whose interests are being protected by the current German strategy is Likud and its prime minister, whereas the Jews of Germany are being sacrificed on the altar of Staatsraison.

There have been issues in German public discourse over the years where dissent has not been an option. For a long time European integration was one such an issue. Criticism of Israel is another, and the price is being paid in many ways – self censorship in academic or public life, loss of international standing in the many artists or workers who stay away, fear and unease in parts of the population directly affected by the crisis such as Arabs or Palestinians more specifically, and a wider erosion of trust in the state. This is a high price to pay at a time German society like many others needs to feel more involved in government and the state, where people need to feel they and their views are taken seriously and can make a difference. If you tell people that they must see it your way or else face the sack this is not the message you are sending, however much police you send to drown out the noise. And when the AfD comes knocking what are you going to hold against them?





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