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Why is the BDS movement under fire in Germany?

August 3, 2019 at 1:33 pm

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

It is two months since the German Bundestag (parliament) passed a symbolic, non-binding resolution designating the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as “anti-Semitic”. The controversial motion has triggered a noisy debate in Germany and beyond which reads that the campaign to boycott Israeli goods, artists and athletes is “reminiscent of the most terrible chapter in German history” and triggers memories of the Nazi slogan “Don’t buy from Jews”. The resolution also imposed a ban on government support for organisations which back BDS.

The Bundestag completely ignored the loud critiques of the resolution, including those by many German and European intellectuals as well as Jewish and Israeli academics, among which are some prominent researchers into anti-Semitism. So, is the BDS movement anti-Semitic, and why has the German federal parliament adopted this resolution?

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) has produced a working definition of anti-Semitism and given a list of examples. The definition has been adopted for internal use by a number of governmental and political institutions as well as some states, including Germany. According to the IHRA definition, “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” While manifestations of anti-Semitism, according to this definition, might also include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity, the IHRA states explicitly that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”

The German parliament justifies its decision in the sixth paragraph of the resolution, which claims that “the patterns of argumentation and methods of the BDS movement are anti-Semitic.” Thus, according to the Bundestag, BDS constitutes a threat to the German political system.

Read: It’s time for progressives to get off the fence over BDS

According to Shir Hever, a board member of Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East, and an economic researcher at the Alternative Information Centre, a Palestinian-Israeli organisation in Jerusalem, despite attempts to adopt anti-BDS legislation in various countries, the Bundestag is unique in the sense that it stressed the concept of the German “reason of state” to promote Israeli security. Furthermore, is was also the first to make a direct comparison between the BDS movement and the Nazi persecution of the Jews.

The case represents a dangerous precedent and may lead to over-simplified interpretations of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, where solidarity with Palestinians and criticism of Israel and its policies can be labelled as anti-Semitic. After all, accusing someone of anti-Semitism in post-Second World War Germany is one of the worst ways to discredit someone politically and personally.

Similar observations have been shared by many German and European academics, including Dr Martin Beck, Professor of History at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense, and one of the signatories of a petition against the Bundestag decision. The petition was published at the beginning of June in the German newspaper Die Zeit.

In his analysis — The German way of securitising the BDS movement published by E-International relations portal — Beck explains that the Bundestag is committing a categorical error: “Critique of Israeli policy, even in the radical form of anti-Zionism, is the expression of a political opinion that targets a state and its policy, which is fundamentally distinct from anti-Semitism as the expression of racism.”

Activists attend a pro BDS march [Stephen Melkisethian/Flickr]

Activists attend a pro BDS march [Stephen Melkisethian/Flickr]

However, Beck points out that the parliament did not criminalise BDS; it “only” condemned BDS as anti-Semitic and demanded that government institutions in Germany are called upon not to support any activities of the movement. Moreover, Beck told MEMO, “I consider the resolution of the German Bundestag insofar as it stands to be an attack against freedom of expression.”

The Bundestag decision to pass the resolution is complex. According to many, the equation of BDS with anti-Semitism was initiated by Israel’s right-wing government in its attempts to block any debate over discrimination against the Palestinians, as well as to prevent any solidarity with the oppressed people of Palestine.

German magazine Der Spiegel reported that pro-Israel groups and lobbyist were involved in promoting the resolution, citing the Middle East Peace Forum and WerteInitiative (Values Initiative) in collaboration with the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs, as examples. Sher Hever explained that the lobbying in Germany by Israeli and pro-Israel groups was no secret, but many newspapers are afraid to write about it.

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

“I personally heard from politicians in Belgium, Netherlands, Italy and Switzerland, that Israeli lobby groups are pressuring them to adopt pro-Israel policies,” he told MEMO. However, with a budget of less than $200 million per year at its disposal, the Israeli ministry can hardly expect to change the political course of any country. Even in Germany, where pro-Israel sentiment was very strong to begin with, it is becoming more open on this issue, as you can see in Der Spiegel’s coverage.

Moreover, the Israeli military is one of the biggest customers for German arms companies, such as ThyssenKrupp. Hever believes that German politicians know that ThyssenKrupp is on the verge of bankruptcy, and believe that adopting pro-Israel positions may help secure deals for the company and keep it afloat. He also thinks that the Bundestag took this decision out of ignorance. “The proposal was kept a secret until 48 hours before the vote, to prevent the Bundestag members from studying it and learning about other opinions.”

Finally, many believe that the current focus on the BDS movement deflects attention from more acute issues in Germany, such as the rise of racism manifested in Islamophobia as well as anti-Semitism. Despite its proven human rights record and declared principles, the resolution also reflects Germany’s heavy responsibility and sense of guilt for the Holocaust.

Similar resolutions have been seen in France and Britain, and with pro-Israel forces gaining momentum thanks to the most Israel-friendly US administration in history there are fears that other European countries may follow the German example. While Hever does not expect this to happen, he does not exclude the possibility of such resolutions being adopted in countries with extreme right-wing and pro-Israel governments such as Poland and Hungary, where racist anti-Semitic incidents are common. We could also add Croatia to this list, as it has a record of pro-fascist incidents over the past 28 years. If they do adopt similar anti-BDS resolutions, these governments may do so simply in order to whitewash their war crimes during the Holocaust, especially in the case of Croatia and Hungary.

Overall, the German anti-BDS resolution represents a serious failure of the German state, and reflects the high degree of hypocrisy in a country which claims to pursue a value-based foreign policy but instead actually advocates almost unconditional support for Israel despite its violent and highly repressive occupation of Palestinian territory.

Read: Why is the rise of BDS worldwide worrying Israel?

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