Germany’s anti-Palestinian censorship turns on Jews

Anti-Zionist Jews in Germany are increasingly being targeted with accusations of antisemitism, a charge usually directed at Palestinians.

Hundreds of Palestinians and supporters protest in front of the U.S. embassy against President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Berlin, Germany, December 8, 2017. (Anne Paq/Activestills)
Hundreds of Palestinians and supporters protest in front of the U.S. embassy against President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Berlin, Germany, December 8, 2017. (Anne Paq/Activestills)

Over the last few years, the space for Palestine advocacy in Germany has shrunk. Pro-Palestinian speech is reflexively labeled as antisemitic and, following the passage of the anti-BDS resolution in the German parliament in 2019, federal institutions have begun declaring all actions that support the boycott movement as antisemitic. This has allowed universities, state governments, and public institutions to deny Palestinians the right to free speech and assembly.

Moreover, the 2019 resolution also dramatically expanded the scope of what is deemed antisemitic — and, while it is not legally binding, many officials use it as the standard by which they determine what is and is not antisemitism. And while this policy was previously deployed almost exclusively against Palestinian Germans, Germany’s attempt to preserve its allegiance to the State of Israel has moved it to target a new and unexpected group: Jews in Germany who are critical of the apartheid state. 

Wieland Hoban, a composer and academic translator who is also the chairman of Jüdische Stimme, an anti-Zionist Jewish organization, told +972 that he has seen a surge in the targeting of Jews who do not agree with Germany’s adamantly pro-Israel stance. “While Germans and state institutions are comfortable defaming and slandering Palestinians, we are getting to a point where even non-Jewish people will just flatly call Jews antisemites,” he said. “That’s a new level reached in the last couple of years.” 

Anti-Zionist Jews are facing a torrent of attacks and various levels of censorship due to their solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Differences of political opinion on Israel-Palestine are discouraged, even threatened. The consequence is a twisted situation in which the state decides what is antisemitic and offensive to Jews — and Jews themselves are often the target. 

‘If you don’t fall in line on Israel, you don’t belong’

In January of this year, Adam Broomberg, a Jewish South African artist who is now based in Berlin, faced a series of accusations and attacks by Hamburg’s commissioner on antisemitism, Stefan Hensel, due to Broomberg’s support for Palestine. Speaking with the right-wing German media outlet Jüdische Allgemeine, Hensel described Broomberg as someone who “repeatedly defames Israel as an apartheid state and advocates a boycott against Israel,” “seems to hate Israel,” and “does not shy away from legitimizing terror against Jews.”

An activist holds a sign reading "Jews against Zionism, Feee Palestine" during a demonstration marking Nakba Day, Berlin, Germany, May 15, 2016. (Anne Paq/Activestills)
An activist holds a sign reading “Jews against Zionism, Free Palestine” during a demonstration marking Nakba Day, Berlin, Germany, May 15, 2016. (Anne Paq/Activestills)

Hensel attacked Broomberg in conjunction with members of the Indonesian art collective ruangrupa, Reza Afisina and Iswanto Hartono, who are now guest professors at the Hamburg University of Fine Arts, where Broomberg has also taught. The group had previously been denounced over its role in a prestigious German art festival that hosted Palestinian artists.

Broomberg told +972 that, having grown up as a Jew in apartheid South Africa, he has understood the impact of apartheid since he was a teenager. “In school I was told every day that if apartheid ended in South Africa, it would lead to the end of the existence of white people in South Africa,” he said. “Similarly, while attending a religious-Zionist school, I was told that Zionism would ensure the survival of the Jewish people. They both used the same strategies to justify their existence, and both of these myths started to fall apart for me at the same time. So my support for Palestine isn’t something that just occurred to me. I am 52, and this happened at the age of 15.

“I don’t feel safe [here],” Broomberg continued. “I really need to stress this. It’s a very strange, surreal experience to feel that level of insecurity in Germany as a Jew, given I just buried my mother who had such first-hand experience of the Holocaust.”

In addition to state pushback, Broomberg is facing cultural consequences for his political stance as well. Broomberg spoke with Berliner Zeitung, the major German publication, about the attacks by Hensel, but the story ended up not running, without any explanation. Broomberg explained to +972 that he felt that he was not even allowed to defend himself in the court of public opinion. “I found myself almost in a boxing ring alone, fighting my shadow — this is what it means to be gaslit,” he said.

Broomberg’s experience is not unique. Last summer, Jüdische Stimme, the Jewish anti-Zionist group, helped organize a vigil in Berlin for Shireen Abu Akleh, the Palestinian-American journalist shot dead by Israeli forces; however, the event was prevented from going ahead due to the blanket ban on pro-Palestinian demonstrations during the Nakba anniversary. Despite the ban, however, Jewish protestors found a way to join brief Palestinian flash mobs. Some were detained and fined.

“[This ban] was the most extreme position that the state has taken by far,” Hoban, the chair of Jüdische Stimme, said. “Even if it is against Jews themselves, the state and the right-wing press imply that if you don’t fall in line regarding the position on Israel, then you don’t belong in this country.” 

Silencing tactics

The Jewish community in Germany is unusual: most are not originally German. The vast majority of ethnically German Jews escaped or were killed during the Holocaust, and a majority of Jews living in Germany today are displaced refugees from Eastern European countries and the former Soviet Union. 

Many, however, are also coming from Israel and settling mostly in Berlin. Yossi Bartal, an Israeli journalist and activist now living in the German capital, told +972 that many of these Israeli immigrants are secular leftists who are not considered part of the Jewish community. 

“There is a clash over who is ‘inside the Jewish community,’” Bartal explained. “Foreign Jews like myself, who are German citizens but migrated from Israel, are not official members of the Jewish community here, which is [largely] organized through religious bodies like synagogues. So there’s a very different concept of what constitutes ‘community’ here.” The particular definition of the Jewish “community” has a strange effect: according to Bartal, “there are more Israelis in Berlin than there are members of the ‘Jewish community.’” 

While the institutional Jewish community is consulted on matters of antisemitism by state bodies, these left-wing secular Jews are not. Moreover, Israeli Jews who consider themselves anti-Zionist can even be branded as antisemitic if their politics do not align with the German state’s staunch pro-Israel stance. 

The story of Shir Hever, an Israeli-born political economist now based in Germany, exemplifies this process and the censorship it inevitably leads to. Last December, Hever was invited to give a talk on child labor in Palestine at a local chapter of the Education and Science Workers’ Union (GEW).

Shir Hever. (Courtesy)
Shir Hever. (Courtesy)

A week before the event, however, the GEW chapter canceled Hever’s talk after the office of the state’s antisemitism commissioner, Michael Blume, sent a discreet letter to the chair of the nation-wide GEW, Monika Stein. GEW refused to show the letter to Hever, but it was later leaked; it noted that Hever “actively supports the BDS movement, which is represented in various lectures and statements,” and added that Blume, who “has been asked to look into BDS activities and raise public awareness of anti-Israel acts and to clarify antisemitic positions,” wanted to “discuss the mentioned lecture with the [GEW chair].” 

Later, Stein removed a discussion of the decision to cancel Hever’s talk from a GEW staff meeting agenda, under the pretext that there was a “legal dispute.” In a statement to +972, a GEW spokesperson, Matthew Schneider, confirmed that although the local GEW chapter was ultimately responsible for canceling the event, the decision was nonetheless supported by Stein, the chair of the union as a whole. GEW has refused to give Hever his promised compensation. 

“Dr. Blume [the state antisemitism commissioner] sends letters about German citizens whose opinions he does not like, and he wants to prevent them from being allowed to speak publicly on a lecture that has nothing to do with his responsibilities,” Hever told +972. “If a government official disagrees with our opinion, he can send secret letters to our business partners, to our employers, behind our back. I’m not the first, and probably won’t be the last, to be silenced by this tactic. Germany is generally a democratic country — but when it comes to Israel and when it comes to Palestine, this becomes increasingly unclear.” 

Responding to +972’s request for comment, Blume justified his actions with recent anti-BDS legislation. “Our State Parliament — the Landtag of Baden-Württemberg — voted against the antisemitic BDS Movement and tasked me with preventing the spread of its messages,” he said. 

Blume went on to make claims about the harmful effect of BDS on global politics. “As a democrat, a scholar and a Christian married to a Muslim, I think it is insane for Muslims, Christians, Jews, adherents of other and no religions in the Eurasian region [to support BDS]. In order to survive in times of global warming and water shortage, they should cooperate, as with the Abraham Accords, for their shared fate and survival. BDS is only strengthening extremists on all sides.” 

As antisemitism commissioner, Blume has a long history of shutting down activities that might be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, including targeting other pro-Palestinian speakers, and even canceling a Nakba exhibit under the premise that it promotes “hatred of Jews.”

Blume, who is not Jewish, is authorized as commissioner to determine what is and what is not antisemitic. The result of his appointment, and that of many other antisemitism commissioners in Germany, is that a German Christian is regularly accusing Israeli Jews of antisemitism for expressing their political beliefs.

Conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism

Bartal, the Israeli-born journalist and activist, believes this phenomenon is a necessary part of the German policy of unequivocal support for the Jewish state. “If you want to continue to support Israel, you have to take positions of the extreme right, because there is no other position,” he said. “The two-state solution is dead, and Israel is in clear violation of international law, but it doesn’t matter — any of us Jews who disagree and take a stand are sidelined.

Posters and murals supporting the Palestinian struggle in the neighborhood of Neukölln in Berlin, Germany, July 21, 2022. (Oren Ziv)
Posters and murals supporting the Palestinian struggle in the neighborhood of Neukölln in Berlin, Germany, July 21, 2022. (Oren Ziv)

“The beauty of Jewish culture, discourse, and politics is the fact that we don’t all have the same opinion,” Bartal said. “The fact that all of these things are offensive to Germans is inherently anti-Jewish. Jewish life is not necessarily going to be what you want it to be, and accepting that is a very important part of fighting antisemitism.” 

The accusations made against Jews are rooted in Germany’s insistence on conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism. The Baden-Württemberg Public Prosecutor’s Office, for example, charged a man with hate speech and fined him 2,700 euros for chanting “Israel kills children!” at a demonstration in May 2022. In official court documents made available to +972, the public prosecutor justified the reasoning behind the decision by specifically conflating Jews with the State of Israel: “Your listeners are people who are ‘on the side of Palestine’ who incite hatred against Jews living in Germany.” 

The document continues: “You were also aware that this slogan was particularly relevant in the prevailing heated mood and was likely to agitate the mental climate. The choice of words ‘kill children’ suggests that Jews would deliberately and purposefully kill children in a real conflict. In this context, ‘Israel’ was used as a targeted hate speech not only in Israel, but also, as a synonym, to mean the Jews living in Germany.” 

Many of the Israeli Jews now facing legal and cultural repercussions for their criticism of Israel feel that Jewish identity is twisted so as to be weaponized against them. “The real Jews don’t matter,” Hoban said. “We’re just a signifier in their theoretical narrative, and they don’t believe that Jews hold different opinions and are autonomous actors who are not interested in appearing in this German film, where they have to play a part for the sake of the Germans. It’s narcissistic and ultimately all about the Germans.”

The self-serving nature of these accusations was on display in August of last year, when Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas made an insensitive comment about the Holocaust on his visit to Germany. The federal antisemitism commissioner, Felix Klein, condemned Abbas’s remarks — but not because it was offensive to Jews. “By relativizing the Holocaust, President Abbas lacked any sensitivity towards us German hosts,” Klein said

“When [Klein] said ‘us,’ he meant Christian Germans,” Hever, the political economist, explained. “Their whole idea is capitalizing on their guilt and feelings, as if that Holocaust belongs only to Germans and nobody else.” 

When Jewish identity isn’t ignored, it is flattened into support for the State of Israel — a stance that is rejected by a large number of Germany’s Jews. “I am a proud Jew and I am proud of the complexity of what a Jewish identity, or Yiddishkeit, is,” Broomberg, the artist, said. “I feel resentful that my identity has been narrowed down to the idea that if I’m a Jew, I need to pledge allegiance to the nation-state of Israel.”