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How one German political party is fighting Israel’s BDS crackdown

July 17, 2019 at 5:03 pm

BDS protesters [Heri Rakotomalala/Flickr]

“The idea of agitating against BDS played a big role here: to defame any kind of criticism of [Israel’s] reactionary, imperialist government as anti-Semitic and any kind of solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle as ‘terror support’,” Peter Weispfenning told MEMO.

Weispfenning is a member of the Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany (MLPD), a political party in the western European country. A lawyer by training and one of MLPD’s candidates in the European Parliament’s recent elections, he acts as spokesperson for the party’s central committee. As with many left-leaning parties, MLPD is a vocal supporter of the Palestinian cause and an advocate of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

As a result of this position, MLPD has, however, found itself targeted by German banks, Israeli newspapers and activists in a protracted campaign to see its activities hampered. In yet another example of how the battle over BDS is being fought on European soil, MLPD’s ordeal could hold implications beyond Germany.

BDS in the Bundestag

Though BDS has long-standing roots in Europe, of late attention has focused on Germany.

In May, the German parliament – known as the Bundestag – became the first European parliament to define BDS as “anti-Semitic”. The motion was sponsored by the Bundestag’s two largest parties – German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian-Democratic Union and the Social Democrat party – as well as the Green Party and the Free Democratic Party.

The motion claimed that “the arguments, patterns and methods of the BDS movement are anti-Semitic”. As evidence, it argued that BDS’ “don’t buy” stickers – which aim to identify products of Israeli origin so consumers can refrain from purchasing them – “arouse associations [with] the Nazi slogan ‘Don’t buy from Jews’” and are “reminiscent of the most horrific phase in German history”.

The parliament’s move was widely condemned, with Israeli and Palestinian NGOs, Israeli academics and the director of the Jewish Museum in German capital Berlin all criticising the decision.

MLPD also slammed the Bundestag resolution, labelling it “an attack on freedom of expression and any democratic discourse [in Germany]”. “Criminalisation of and slander against critics of the Israeli government are not arguments,” it added.

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A new climax

Yet as MLPD knows all too well, the Bundestag resolution was just the latest incident in a long battle against BDS by pro-Israel organisations and individuals.

Just last week, German magazine Der Spiegel revealed that pro-Israel groups were heavily involved in securing the Bundestag motion. Two local NGOs – Middle East Peace Forum (Naffo) and WerteInitiative (Values Initiative) – allegedly worked closely with Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs to promote the resolution, an enterprise that included “donations to politicians”.

The revelation likely came as little surprise, given that the ministry boasts openly of its anti-BDS campaigns and works closely with Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, to this end.

MLPD has found itself on the receiving end of this anti-BDS activity. Last week, Israeli daily the Jerusalem Post published an exposé claiming that its “ongoing investigative series into financial institutions that provide accounts to Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) groups, extremist anti-Israel organizations, and terrorism entities prompted at least 15 banks in Germany to reject accounts” belonging to MLPD.

Palestinians in Gaza protest against German Parliament decision on BDS, in Gaza on 23 May 2019 [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]

Palestinians in Gaza protest against the German Parliament decision on BDS on 23 May 2019 [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]

MLPD confirmed to MEMO that it did indeed have 15 bank accounts terminated, with a further 20 banks refusing to open new accounts for the party. As Weispfenning explained, this presents a serious challenge since “a political party without bank accounts […] can no longer accept party donations”.

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Among the banks targeting MLPD were Deutsche Bank and its subsidiary, Postbank. In justifying its termination of the party’s account, Postbank said that “terrorist financing cannot be ruled out” given MLPD’s membership in the International Coordination of Revolutionary Parties and Organisations (ICOR), an international group of over 40 communist parties.

ICOR often undertakes charitable initiatives, contributing to the reconstruction of Kobane – a largely-Kurdish city which came under fierce siege by Daesh in 2015 as part of the ongoing Syrian civil war – donating money and volunteers to build a health centre.

Postbank cited this initiative in its decision, claiming that “against this background, a connection of the plaintiff [MLPD] with the People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), classified as a terrorist organisation, cannot be excluded.” The fact that the PFLP is not a member of the ICOR, and that the EU’s 2002 designation of the group as a terrorist organisation has been widely contested, did not seem to concern Postbank.

Deutsche Bank cited similar accusations, claiming that one of MLPD’s candidates in the European elections was affiliated with the PFLP. It also cited claims made in the Jerusalem Post that MLPD collected funds for the Palestinian faction.

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Lawsuits and libel

What the Jerusalem Post’s exposé last week failed to mention was that its claims have resulted in a lawsuit being filed in the German city of Hamburg. MLPD told MEMO that the Hamburg District Court served an injunction against the Jerusalem Post in 2017, after some months also securing the order in Jerusalem.

The ruling forced the publication to delete comments claiming that MLPD collected donations for the PFLP. The newspaper and the article’s author, Benjamin Weinthal, could now face a €250,000 ($280,000) fine and six months’ imprisonment if they further disseminate any such defamatory claims.

Given that “Postbank had appropriated slanderous statements from the Jerusalem Post” and “repeated the accusations” made in the newspaper, MLPD continues its legal battle to reverse the banks’ closure of its accounts.

In the first half of 2019, the party won two separate legal cases in which the courts ruled that the banks in question – the state-owned Landesbank Baden-Wurttemberg and public savings bank Sparkasse Witten – could not use an organisation’s political orientation as justification for refusing to open an account. These precedents have given the party hope that Deutsche Bank and Postbank’s decisions will be overturned in due course.

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For his part, Weinthal – the Jerusalem Post journalist – has a long history of attacking BDS advocates. Writing for Israeli and German publications alike, he is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies (FDD), a Washington-based institute known to have received funding from pro-Israel advocates such as Sheldon Adelson, the US casino magnate and close friend of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Last year, the Electronic Intifada published comments in which Weinthal revealed how he uses claims of anti-Semitism to crack down on critics of Israel. “You have to exaggerate to get these ideas across, because they don’t understand what contemporary anti-Semitism is, many of them,” Weinthal explained.

In 2014 this exaggeration resulted in two journalists, Max Blumenthal and David Sheen, being banned from Germany’s Bundestag, after Weinthal sent “material” to German Green Party politician, Volker Beck, to smear the pair.

Weinthal and Beck were also at the forefront of pressuring Deutsche Bank and others to boycott MLPD. “Weinthal is particularly perfidious,” the party explained, adding that “he himself stages such boycotts, only to report on them as an alleged journalist.”

Beyond Germany

Although in light of May’s Bundestag resolution Germany currently dominates headlines, as the MLPD’s affair demonstrates, the motion did not spring from obscurity.

The same trends are taking place in France – where Weinthal has pressured online payment platform PayPal to close the account of online publication Agence Media Palestine – in Spain, where NGO ACOM has pressured numerous municipalities to revoke their endorsement of BDS – and the UK, where legal advocacy group UK Lawyers for Israel has tried to shutter a Palestinian cultural exhibition by invoking the Bundestag’s resolution.

MLPD’s fight against German banks and the Jerusalem Post is therefore symptomatic of the broader struggle faced by many European organisations in their efforts to support BDS. As the space for criticism of Israel continues to shrink, such cases will be repeated, bringing the battle for BDS to Europe time and again.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.