Germany puts BDS activists on trial for disrupting Israeli MK

Two Israelis and a Palestinian activist are standing trial for interrupting a talk by Israeli member of Knesset Aliza Lavie at a Berlin university in 2017. 

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)

Three BDS activists, two Israelis and a Palestinian, are on trial in Germany after being charged with assault and trespassing during a lecture by an Israeli member of Knesset in June 2017. The activists, Stavit Sinai and Ronnie Barkan from Israel, and Majd Abusalama from Gaza, interrupted MK Aliza Lavie of the centrist Yesh Atid party as she spoke at Humboldt University in Berlin. The activists accused Lavie of having “the blood of Gaza” on her hands, and accused her of representing an “apartheid regime.”

Sinai, Barkan, and Abusalama succeeded in halting the lecture for several minutes, until both members of the audience and university security guards forcefully removed them from the room. Lavie’s lecture was titled “Life in Israel: Terror, Prejudice, and the Chance of Peace,” and delivered alongside Holocaust survivor Deborah Weinstein. The event was organized by the German-Israel Society branch in Berlin as part of a delegation of Yesh Atid’s youth chapter to promote Israeli hasbara on campuses across Germany. At the time of the presentation, Lavie was the chairperson of the Lobby for the Struggle Against the Delegitimization of the State of Israel.

Shortly after the talk began, the activists stood up and shouted, “While you take pride in LGBTQ rights in Tel Aviv, Israel is forcing Palestinians out of the closet,” and demanded Lavie speak about the “crimes you committed in Gaza.” Following the event, which was covered by both the Israeli and German press, the German-Israel Society filed a criminal complaint with the German authorities, who launched an investigation and charged the activists with assault and trespassing. Their trial opened on March 4 in Berlin, where over 100 supporters from various left-wing organizations, including Jewish ones, were in attendance.

Charges of anti-Semitism were quick to follow. After the talk, Lavie published a statement in which she claimed her lecture quickly “turned into a violent and anti-Semitic demonstration of hatred by BDS activists, including Israelis who did not let me speak.” German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel published an article on the incident under the headline “Anti-Semitism in Berlin,” while Israeli pro-settler news site Arutz 7 emphasized that this was the same university where Jewish books were burned in 1933. Even German intelligence mentioned the incident in a report published last year, in which it established that the BDS movement is part of an outburst of anti-Semitism in Berlin.

While the prosecution claimed the activists attacked those in the room and shouted anti-Semitic slogans, video of the incident shows a different story, showing no signs of violence.

In late February, in the run up to the trial, Academia for Equality, an Israeli organization made up of 500 academics dedicated to advancing equality and the democratization of Israeli academia and society, wrote a letter to the Humboldt-University Berlin President Sabine Kunst, urging her to express concern regarding the university’s part in the “prosecution of the activists.” According to the group, the fact that the university does not openly reject the accusations of anti-Semitism only “contributes to the growing delegitimization and silencing of civil society organizations and critical voices – many of whom are Jewish – that oppose the ongoing military occupation of the Palestinian people and territories.”

“The struggle against anti-Semitism is, without question, very important,” the letter continued. “However, it is also important to keep that struggle morally, intellectually and politically right, and refrain from redirecting it in the service of questionable political interests.” Blurring the differences between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians is “manipulative use of the worthy struggle against anti-Semitism for purposes that have nothing to do with protecting Jews against racial hatred, and everything to do with shielding the Israeli government from criticism regarding its continued occupation of Palestinian territory and the consequent violation of human rights of millions of people.”

Activists from the Berlin Against Pinkwashing (BAP) group and supporters, hold a banner that reads: “No Pride in Israeli Apartheid”, in front of the Israeli embassy’s stand during the Christopher Street Day (CSD) Pride Parade in Berlin, July 28, 2018. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)
Activists from the Berlin Against Pinkwashing (BAP) group and supporters, hold a banner that reads: “No Pride in Israeli Apartheid”, in front of the Israeli embassy’s stand during the Christopher Street Day (CSD) Pride Parade in Berlin, July 28, 2018. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

“This is how they try to brand Israel,” said Majed Abusalama by telephone. “They want to talk about democracy and how beautiful Israel is, especially for the LGBTQ community and vegans. As a Palestinian from Gaza, it is difficult for me to hear this. As long as there is no equality, they have no right to talk.”

Abusalama, one of the three activists on trial, is a political activist who moved to Berlin after being shot by an Israeli sniper while planting olive trees next to the Israel-Gaza border fence in 2014. Abusalama was one of the founders of the Intifada Youth Coalition, which protested alongside the wall in 2013-2014.

“We came to hold nonviolent civil action, just like in South Africa, against a person who represents Israeli apartheid,” said Abusalama, who is currently writing a dissertation on conflict resolution at the University of Tromsø in Norway. “Lavie is part of the coalition that decided on the Gaza war in 2014.”

The trial has exacted a heavy price on Abusalama and could bring about his eventual deportation from Germany. “In Gaza, we couldn’t see our oppressors face to face, because we are behind bars and fences. It hurts me to listen to Israeli officials. I told her she belongs in The Hague, not in the university.”

Abusalama sees a direct link between his case and the growing tendency in Germany to restrict freedom of speech when it comes to criticism of Israel, as in the case of a German bank that is planning to conduct a “scientific review” of a Jewish peace group after the latter was accused anti-Semitism for its pro-BDS stance. “They are going after me in order to deter others, Palestinians and non-Palestinians, from speaking out against Israel because of the ‘complex’ relationship between the German people and Israel. This is a direct continuation of the fear Israel is trying to sow against all forms of criticism.”

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.