Israeli scholar cancelled by German teaching union – this cannot continue

Protest letter to chairs of the GEW education union

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

My name is Fanny-Michaela Reisin.

I am addressing you who hold prominent positions in the “Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft” (GEW – trade Union for Learning and Science“, the school and university teachers’ union in Germany), an association with whom I, as professor emeritus and as former president of the International League for Human Rights, have collaborated on a number of events and other cooperations over several decades, and with whom I have enjoyed a positive working relationship which remains to the present day.

The reason for my letter is a press release on the website of the Jüdische Stimme für gerechten Frieden in Nahost e. V. – European Jews for a Just Peace Germany” (JS), which, I only read yesterday and which I found shocking and deeply troubling. I am a practicing Jew and a committed JS-member.

It concerns the cancellation of a lecture by our association member, Dr. Shir Hever by the GEW-Kreisverband-Rhein-Neckar-Heidelberg. As I have come to understand, Dr. Hever was invited by the GEW to participate in an online event on October 27th this year, where he was supposed to give a lecture on the topic of “Child Labor in Palestine”, then discuss it with the participants.

The event was cancelled by the GEW district association at short notice. There was no discussion with Dr. Hever explaining the reasoning behind the decision.

The fact that a regional chapter of the GEW, the “education union in the DGB” [German Trade Union Federation], which prides itself on being a “militant agent for law and democracy” – would cancel such an informative event with an invited guest speaker is in and of itself “odd”, to say the least. The justification given – without any evidence – that Dr. Hever is an anti-Semite is utterly preposterous and would fail to stand up to any form of scrutiny. This action is slanderous and – I know Dr. Hever personally (!) – is tantamount to character assassination.

As a scientist and author, Dr. Hever is widely acclaimed not only in his home country, Israel, but also internationally – and in particular in German and English-speaking countries. A frequently-invited speaker for lectures worldwide, Dr. Hever is highly regarded for his unassailable integrity and his personal warmth. Last but not least, he is also held in high esteem as a resourceful political activist.

It is still difficult for me to comprehend how the GEW could be involved in this third party ban on a planned informational event concerning Palestine, and subject the event to blanket censorship without questioning its content. This has applied a “GEW muzzle” to our member Shir Hever.

How can it be possible that the right to freedom of expression, which is enshrined in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany could be superceded by a political practice which the GEW itself has been known to stand up to and effectively protest against? What on earth has happened? Do the Constitution and the rights to freedom of expression and of assembly not matter at all any more for the teachers union’? These are also in the interest of its own members and must be vigorously fought for.

In addition to all of this, having to read that Dr. Hever was offered the agreed payment for his lecture provided that he remained silent – in my eyes a malicious and deeply dishonest attempt at extortion – is at once both frightening and horrifying. All the more so, as the discrepancies described above come at the expense of children and minors, whose miserable situation in the territories of Palestine, which have been under military occupation now for 55 years. They desperately need the attention of people abroad. At the same time, for school children of Palestinian descent living here in Germany, increased interest in and knowledge of the history of their place of origin and the situation for family members both in Palestine and here, would be most beneficial.

I could glean from the press release published by the “Jewish Voice” that the initiative to cancel this lecture came from Dr. Blume, the anti-Semitism commissioner for the state government in Baden-Württemberg. This office was institutionalized by the Interior Ministers of all federal states under the leadership of the former Federal Minister of the interior, Horst Seehofer in 2018, after the official working definition of anti-Semitism EU-wide had been extended to be also understood as “anti-Semitism related to Israel”. This nationwide institutionalized anti-Semitism commissioners network de facto provides the Israeli government a say in decisions regarding what criticism can be allowed in Germany, for example concerning prevailing conditions and practices which are allowed in Israel. Such criticism can be prevented and simply branded “anti-Semitic”.

Along with other colleagues, Dr. Blume has been making a name for himself nationwide as an unwavering motor for bans on events, lectures and even professions. He has particularly focussed on those representing solidarity with Palestine, as they are naturally critical of the constitutional predispositions and the policies of Israeli governments. On this basis alone, these appointed commissioners suspect individuals – and, yes, even organizations – as being anti-Semitic. Those, which have accused Israel of being an apartheid state have been systematically discredited. Organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Israeli NGO B’Tselem and others have been treated in this manner.

Lecturers, scientists and artists have been “hunted”  as soon as they pledge their support to the international BDS movement – particularly if they are employed or receive some finance from state institutions. 

“BDS” (“Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions”) stands for the political orientation of the non-violent movement – which, by the way, has long been legitimized at the EU level – that mobilizes a civil society counterweight worldwide to Israel’s ongoing military occupation and settlement of Palestinian territories in violation of international law. Our JS member Shir ever is feeling the effects of this attack on BDS through the muzzle placed on him by GEW.

It is, however, comforting in this depressing socio-political situation that Dr. Blume and his colleagues have continually had to answer for their ambition to silence Palestine solidarity in Germany before the German courts. In most cases, Dr. Blume in particular has been advised that his accusations and attacks have no legal basis.

The aggressive attacks, which Dr. Blume and his colleagues are engaged in under the auspices of their offices is bad enough. The fact that they have succeeded in banning this publicly announced event in the name of the GEW disturbs and outrages me even more.

On what basis could this have happened?

The anti-Semitism commissioner, Dr. Blume, likes to use the BDS Resolution of the German Bundestag (No. 19/10191) which was passed by a majority (a nonetheless unfortunate decision) to justify his activities. This resolution is not legally binding but rather an expression of the opinion of the representatives in the Bundestag who voted for it.

It should have been the position of the GEW, which prides itself in pursuing the goal of “emancipation” in its education policy and in supporting argumentative democracy, not to simply submit to the enactment of such encroachments upon constitutionally guaranteed civil rights and freedoms but rather to loudly and clearly denounce and counteract them, if only in the interest and protection of its own members.

The following excerpt from the report of the Scientific Service of the German Bundestag suggests that the responsible persons in the Heidelberg GEW District Association Rhine-Neckar, neither knew what “BDS” was about nor were really familiar with the Bundestag resolution against it:

“In the opinion of the Munich Administrative Court, the finding that a person or group violates the free democratic basic order by making anti-Semitic statements is not in itself sufficient to prohibit corresponding expressions of opinion from the outset on the part of the authorities, even in the context of political information or events featuring discussion, or to base an exclusion of use. A violation of legal interests or a situation of danger through expressions of opinion is only to be assumed if they “endanger public peace as the peacefulness of public debate and thus mark the transition to aggression or breach of law”. (cf. VGH Munich, judgment of 17.11.2020, 4 B 19.1358, para. 58 f.) 

Moreover, in the cases decided by case law to date, the municipalities have not been able to demonstrate a violation of the free democratic basic order of persons and groups close to BDS, especially since the BDS movement has neither its own legal personality nor a solidified, legal organizational structure (cf. VerfGH NRW, decision of 22.09.2020, 49/19.VB-2, para. 19; VGH München (fn. 18), para. 55; VG Köln, decision of 12.09.2019, 14 L 1765/19, para. 15. ), from which a sufficient threat to public order could emanate.”

With reference to what is quoted above as well as further excerpts from this opinion, but above all because the cancellation of the aforementioned lecture event and the resulting prohibition of speech and last but not least the slander cast upon our member, Shir Hever, and by association the slander of our entire organisation indirectly through the regional GEW Rhein-Neckar-Heidelberg is utterly unacceptable, I will be recommending to the Executive Board of the JS to review:

1) Whether this matter should not be legally prosecuted by the JS – if necessary through the person of Shir Hever -, since the slander, claiming that the contents were anti-Semitic without Dr. Blume first examining them. This means that the lecture event was prevented in ignorance of the existing legal grounds.

2) Whether trade unions in other European countries, which are known to us as being in solidarity with Palestine and in part as supporters of the BDS movement, should not be informed of the ban on the event, which was carried out in the name of the German teachers’ union, and called upon to show solidarity with Shir Hever and the JS.

3) Whether the associations and NGOs in Europe, Israel, Palestine, USA and South Africa, which are friendly towards us, should not be informed about this scandalous practice of the teachers’ union in the Federal Republic of Germany.

4) Whether it would not be appropriate to inform the children’s organizations of the UNO about this matter. In support of this I would like to add two links to children’s organizations of the UN, which on my search query “Children in occupied Palestine” belong to the first of 47.5 Mill.(!) entries, which popped up within 0.5 seconds:

Ultimately, the GEW regional association’s handling of the planned online event, “Child Labor in Palestine,” makes it obvious how arbitrary the interest can be concerning the virulent state of emergency confronting children in militarily occupied Palestine. Especially since the attempt to rectify these issues through education has been rejected in such a shabby manner.

All things considered you will understand that it is impossible for me to exercise leniency with those in the GEW Rhein-Neckar-Heidelberg district association who were successfully able to obtain a ban on this event and thus create the scandal of a “GEW muzzle”.

I fully expect – particularly in light of my decades long relationship with the GEW – an official apology to Dr. Hever and a credible corrective to the handling of the planned and announced lecture.

With best regards

Sincerely Yours

Prof. em. Dr. Fanny-Michaela Reisin, Berlin, 9th November 2022

English translation by Sidney Corbett. Reproduced with permission