How Palestine solidarity became a political litmus test in Germany

Germany’s attempt to muzzle thinker and philosopher Achille Mbembe on the grounds of anti-semitism amounts to an extension of Israeli apartheid, writes Majed Abusalama. When it comes to Israeli injustices, the German government is not only “turning a blind eye”, but is also acting as its European modern day saviour. Over the past few years, […]


Germany’s attempt to muzzle thinker and philosopher Achille Mbembe on the grounds of anti-semitism amounts to an extension of Israeli apartheid, writes Majed Abusalama.

When it comes to Israeli injustices, the German government is not only “turning a blind eye”, but is also acting as its European modern day saviour.

Over the past few years, Germany has reached a new level of oppressing Palestinian voices while militarising the Israeli army. This instead of reflecting upon its own broader history and responsibilities toward the massive and ongoing injustice in Palestine.

Germany’s most recent target for the accusation of anti-semitism, is Achille Mbembe. This is a well-known Cameroonian historian, thinker and philosopher who has dedicated his life to decolonising white Eurocentric discourses, and proposing radical visions for the Global South.

Earlier this month, German conservative FDP politician, Lorenz Deutsch, accused Mbembe of anti-semitism and Holocaust “relativisation”. Deutsch demanded that Mbembe be disinvited from speaking at the Ruhrtriennale festival, for comparing South African apartheid to the oppression of Palestinians. Felix Klein, Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life and Against Anti-Semitism, heard the demand and echoed it.

The accusation has shocked academics around the world and raised questions about Germany’s academic freedom in general, and for a pro-Palestinian dialogue, specifically.
In reality, the accusations are another attempt by German policy makers to manipulate the discourse of anti-semitism in order to distract from their own failures, and scapegoat and attack the Palestinian struggle.

In fact, Mbembe’s scholarship invites everyone to learn from other histories that emerge beyond borders and identities. It interrogates real life lessons from colonialism, enslavement, capitalism, imperialism, South African apartheid, and the segregation of Black and People of Colour by Europeans and their descendants.

The German criminalisation of pro-Palestinian voices is a violation of freedom of expression, as well as an outright denial of the Palestinian right to resistance and self-determination. The misplaced accusation of “anti-semitism” is used to persecute those who speak for the Palestinian right of return, or the call for a one-state solution, and distracts from finding a just peace.

Wielding the “anti-semitism” accusation as a slur, not only silences critique of Israeli policies and crimes against humanity in Palestine/Israel. It also manufactures persecution and censorship of the more than 200,000 Palestinians in Germany, as well as solidarity groups inside and outside of Germany.

These practices are an extension of Israeli apartheid, imposing limits and regulating speech about Israel. Germany’s staunch defense of Israel both domestically and at the European Union puts any intellectual dialogue and critique related to Israeli apartheid and Palestinian rights under siege.

This discrimination is part of a collective punishment that reaches everyone whether they are Palestinian, or Jewish, or from another group. I am one of them. Israeli Zionist influence in Germany is instrumentalised to censor, ban and forbid Palestinians and pro-Palestine organisations from operating in the public sphere.

They twist and fabricate false narratives which portray the ‘Boycott Divestment and Sanctions’ (BDS) movement as illegitimate. They smear its supporters as being motivated by anti-Jewish hatred. They obscure the truth, that BDS is motivated by an opposition to Israel’s polices of military occupation, land theft for settler-colonialism, regular massacres of civilians and a total system of apartheid over Palestinians.

This German based movement was instrumental in backing Israel’s hostility regarding the prospect of an ICC investigation into possible war crimes. They forced a German bank to close the account for ‘Jewish Voices for a Just Peace in the Middle Eas’t, a renowned Jewish organisation that advocates for Palestinian rights in Germany.

In another example, Peter Schafer, the former director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum, was forced to quit over a pro-BDS re-tweet, after a huge Israeli campaign to delegitimise him branded him as “anti-Israel”. The tweet was a simple article on the 240 Jewish and Israeli scholars, who had signed a petition opposing the German parliament’s recent motion condemning the BDS movement for Palestinian rights.

These actions are not without precedence. Last year, the US American rapper Talib Kweli had his German tour cancelled because of his support for BDS. Scottish band Young Fathers was disinvited from the Ruhrtriennale festival. The German city of Aachen tried to block US American-Lebabese artist Walid Raad from receiving an award. Finally the renowned British-Pakistani Novelist Kamila Shamsie was stripped of an award because of her support of the BDS Movement.

On 17 May 2019, the German government’s attempts to limit the pro-Palestine cause reached a new level. A non-binding resolution was declared against the BDS movement, and it has been used since then as a cover to justify excluding critics of Israel in the public sphere. This manufactures a new layer of oppression that strips people of their freedom of conscience. It has become clear that the primary focus of German foreign policy is to protect Israel, both within Germany and beyond.

According to many Jewish groups and academics worldwide, the BDS movement has demonstrated an ongoing commitment to fighting anti-semitism and all forms of racism and bigotry. Talib Kweli emphasised on Facebook that “by lying and saying that BDS is an anti-semitic movement, the German movement is engaging in Fascism and doing a disservice to the German people.”

Accusing Achille Mbembe of anti-semitism united academics worldwide in their outrage. In total 377 scholars and artists from more than 30 countries signed a pledge opposing political litmus tests in Germany.

They collectively agreed to decline future invitations to serve on juries, prize committees, or in academic hiring consultations in Germany, if there were “convincing indicators that their decisions may be subject to ideological or political interference or litmus tests.”

Can we consider this a winning moment for the Palestinian cause? Will this contribute to decolonising Germany past and present? Will we Palestinians feel safe to speak up in Germany?

Germany must now seize the opportunity to learn from Mbembe and the Palestinians who try to struggle for an equal future for all, through supporting human rights, and an intersectional, anti-racist movement such as BDS.

Majed Abusalama is an independent award-winning journalist, human rights defender and policy analyst who focuses on conflict transformation programmes, decolonising Palestine, and building grassroots movements in the Global South. He grew up resisting Israeli colonialism in Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza and is now based in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter: @majedabusalama

This article first appeared on The New Arab Website. Reproduced with the authors’ permission.