Palestine: a defiant cry for liberation - Interview with Leandros Fischer and Nadja Samour
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
Comrades from Serbian revolutionary socialist organisation Marks21 were present at Marx is' Muss 2019 conference in Berlin, where they conducted interviews with socialist activists and scholars on pressing political issues. Anja Ilić did an interview with Leandros Fischer and Nadija Samour on the question of Palestinian liberation struggle, anti-BDS motion passed in the German parliament, wider wave of conflating any critique of the Israeli regime with anti-Semitism, and possibilities of the left and the workers' movement in Germany and elsewhere to support Palestinian struggles and contribute to dismantling of the Israeli apartheid.
Anja Ilić (AI): We're speaking with Leandros Fischer and Nadija Samour.
As an introduction, can you both give us a short overview of your own work regarding Palestine?
Nadija Samour (NS): Currently I'm working as a lawyer and most of my cases relate to human rights violations against Palestinians living in Germany, but also those who are in solidarity with Palestine. So, all kinds of discrimination at the work place, or police violence at demonstrations related to Palestine – this is my field at the moment. And beyond that, I'm active in the Palestinian community in Berlin.
Leandros Fischer (LF): My basic connection to the subject is that I wrote a book, which was my PhD thesis, on the position of Die Linke, the Left Party in Germany, to Israel and Palestine. I spent some months in Palestine, but that was many years ago, and I'm trying in any way, through my academic work, to be a resource to those struggling for justice in some way.
AI: You're both based in Germany, which has this sort of special relation to Israel, because of its specific position regarding the Jews and the Jewish question. This “special relation” transposes into uncritical support for the Israeli regime and, at the same time, demonisation of Palestinian solidarity and the BDS movement. What would you say are the main obstacles that Palestinian people in Germany and pro-Palestinian activists are facing when they are trying to organise the protest movement and solidarity networks here?
NS: I would say the biggest problem that we face is the general lack of information, but also the intentional misinformation and misrepresentation. We shouldn't forget that, when we speak about Palestine, we have a very strong opponent, and this opponent has a ministry for strategic affairs. So we basically have a ministry in Israel whose only job is to fight solidarity for Palestine. We feel it here with censorship and defamation. Generally speaking, the press in Germany is not that independent and open to speak about Palestine, to write about Palestine in a way that is not defaming or misrepresenting.
The other opponent, the other problem that we're facing is a general shift to the right, which is something that not only Palestinians suffer from, of course. It's something that all movements for justice and liberation suffer from. It’s an attack on all minorities, on all activists and organisers. So, when we speak about a backlash against Palestinian voices, we also have to name where this comes from, and this is, of course, a right-wing attack.
LF: I think my subjective position is a bit different from Nadija's, because I'm not Palestinian, so I have never encountered a situation where I would have to apologise or justify who I am. Nonetheless, I notice, as somebody who didn't grow up in Germany but in Cyprus, where you have a different debate on the subject, that there are certain no-goes, especially among the German left – [things] that you cannot talk about. I'm talking about the German left because that's where I was politically socialised.
But what I've realised over time was that the justification for those no-goes has shifted. So, whereas maybe 15 years ago people on the left would be afraid to talk about Palestine because they didn't want to be associated with a certain strand of criticism to Israel which is very anti-Semitic, not talking about Palestine now is a thing that you do because this is how you have to integrate into this society. There is a sort of convergence between traditional right-wing discourses and some discourses that claim to be more left-wing. So I would say that, coupled with the lack of information and knowledge, that's probably one of the biggest obstacles – that there is a kind of censorship.
AI: Nadija mentioned this right-wing shift, which isn't only happening in Germany, but we can say it's happening all over Europe and also all over the world. Basically, on the back of this wider wave of conflating the critique of Israel with anti-Semitism, there was this motion passed in the German parliament, sponsored by the CDU and SPD, the two biggest parties, and also supported by the Greens and the Liberals, which condemned the BDS movement as anti-Semitic. What do you think would be the effects of this motion, especially regarding the public image and building solidarity on the ground?
NS: The motion, first of all, is non-binding, but that doesn't matter because we're speaking about symbolism all the time. When we organise for justice in Palestine, it's also symbolic, because we don't really have leverage. Exception is when you really have a successful boycott campaign, like the one that BDS is – then you may, here and there, also have an actual effect. But other than that, I believe it's very symbolic, and it's a possibility for people to meet and to organise under one roof, which is the call of the Palestinian civil society to BDS.
Other than that, I believe that, even though it's not legally binding, it will make it much easier for pro-Zionist positions to defame us, because now they have the Parliament behind them. And it's awful because, at the same time, you have other parliaments, you have other states in the European Union – for instance, Spain or Ireland – and the European Union itself that defends BDS, that defends at least the right to BDS, the right to freedom of speech and assembly. That also covers the right to do and mobilise for BDS.
So you have the German parliament that is doing the exact opposite. It's an attempt to criminalise BDS, and the effects will be that things that we are already confronted with, like, for instance, certain spaces that are publicly funded, will not be available for us anymore. Certain organisations that would show solidarity with us would be too afraid to lose their funding – public funding, of course. So you have a tool to silence people, which is money – which is the funding that people or organisations would lose.
And, of course, you have the social death that you will suffer once you are smeared as an anti-Semite. This is a complete no-go, also perhaps elsewhere, but especially in Germany. Of course no one wants that and no one wants to be called an anti-Semite. On the other hand, I want to mention that, if you are a racist, and if you are an anti-Muslim racist, you make a lot of money in Germany. You sell your books; you are invited to all the TV talk shows – those trash talk shows... It's really an interesting contradiction – seemingly a contradiction.
But the anti-BDS motion in the Parliament is something that cements the policy that we have been already confronted with.
LF: Totally agree with everything that Nadija said. I think, though, there might be some unintended consequences from this resolution, because it's just so blatantly over the top. I mean, Nadija pointed out correctly it's not a prohibition. And it's actually very difficult to criminalise BDS, because under the Codex of criminalisation of extremism in Germany, BDS cannot be classified as a terrorist organisation. It doesn't engage in any armed struggle. BDS is really harmless campaign – it's oriented towards international law, basic international law.
It's a very inclusive campaign and it's, above all, something that everybody can do. So it's very difficult, I think, in this regard, to criminalise it.
On the other hand, there are simply going to be a lot of more difficulties in securing speakers, rooms, spaces for debate. But you have to bear in mind that the people in Germany – or elsewhere, for that matter – that concern themselves with Israel and Palestine, whether on one or the other side, are pretty small minorities. You have, like, an active minority which is very pro-Israeli, an active minority which is pro-Palestinian, and you have a lot of positions in the middle which are sort of contradictory – but this is not really a matter that affects daily life in Germany as such.
So I think an unintended consequence of this really exaggerated resolution would be that it will get people talking, and this could actually be a chance for people in the Palestine solidarity movement to use in order to open up the debate. This is maybe my secret hope – that it has this sort of collateral effect of making more people talk.
Just to mention an experience of mine in 2014, during the war on Gaza – back then, I think it was Protective Edge, the Israeli operation. We in Die Linke.SDS, which is a group of students close to Die Linke, co-organised with the Palestinian community a demonstration in front of the cathedral [in Cologne], which was very big. We had a lot of campaigning against us in the two weeks before. But a good side effect of it was that, despite the smears, more people were talking about Palestine. More people were actually trying to find out more stuff, about German complicity and so on.
NS: In addition, I want to confirm what Leandros said, that more people are talking about movement that most of people haven't heard of yet in Germany. And so, indeed, there are now a lot of news, articles, reports, all of that. I would like them to be about BDS, but it's more about the reactions to BDS. And there are interviews by members of Parliament who have voted for or against the resolution, and who would say: “Well, we're not really happy with this, but we had to do it.” And that's really poor. There is an interview by Jürgen Trittin, a very well-known member of Parliament and a former minister for environment of the Green Party, and he said it is an act of intimidation. And I thought that's really interesting – he has some really clear words against that motion, and I'm actually happy to read that on the news.
I want to add one more thing, which is: all the human rights organisations, or the charity organisations, or German so-called development organisations that work in Palestine with Palestinian partners on the ground – they have a problem, because they will have to justify where their money goes, where possible tax money goes in Palestine. Because, as we know, there are almost 200 organisations in Palestine that support BDS, and these are very big players in Palestine. So I'm really interested to see how that goes down, because that is a severe blow to the development and aid politics – which absolutely has to be criticised from a leftist and anti-colonialist perspective, because it cements the status quo of the colonisation of Palestine. But at the same time, I think this contradiction will haunt the German parliament, and I'm curious to see how they will deal with it.
AI: A question specifically for Leo, because you're a member of both Marx21 and Die Linke, and you spoke about this protest organised by Die Linke.SDS – now, the reaction of Die Linke and Marx21 to this proposal in the Bundestag was pretty weak, to put it mildly. Die Linke proposed, and I'm quoting, that “only these parts of the BDS movement that are anti-Semitic should be condemned”, while Marx21, for all these years it exists, doesn't support the BDS movement. So, speaking about the current moment, what do you think are the prospects of Die Linke, and especially its revolutionary wing which includes Marx21, to build resistance on the ground with the Palestinians, with pro-Palestinian Jewish organisations and so on, and to offer a bold alternative to this dominant position in Germany regarding BDS?
LF: I want to start by pointing out to the situation in countries like the US and the UK, because I think it's very instructive. The leading contender for the American presidency on the left is Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders does not support BDS. Actually, Bernie Sanders has made some really bad comments on the attacks on Gaza in the past. But still, Bernie Sanders has come out against efforts to criminalise BDS in the US. I don't think it happened because Bernie Sanders has a very good position on Palestine – in fact, he doesn't. But the fact that he did it [owes to] a very big movement manifested through BDS in a lot of US campuses, and also within the American Jewish community. So the existence of a movement is a prerequisite, as Nadija said before, to have better positions on the parliamentary level – without excusing in any sense inaction on that front.
The UK is also a good example. Jeremy Corbyn has been in the PSC, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, forever. [That's] also one of the reasons why he's being defamed as an anti-Semite – before he became the leader of the Labour Party, there was nothing on Jeremy Corbyn and anti-Semitism.
So, I think the problem in Germany is, first of all, there is no wide movement. If we had the sort of grassroots debates that you have in the UK or in Ireland [here] in Germany, I think that this fear factor – there is this threshold of fear – would tip to our balance. But because there isn't [any such movement], you have a situation where the bureaucracy, the ones that push for anti-BDS positions, really work with very authoritarian methods, undemocratic methods, intransparency. And the problem of those forces within the Parliament that do not see things like they do is that the other ones have a whole media landscape on their back, and an inaction on the civil society level.
I think recently even ATTAC, which used to be the main network of anti-globalisation activism in Germany – you know, when anti-globalisation activism was a thing, because now it's not – but back then, ATTAC was a very crucial field for the struggle on Palestine, because it was parallel to the Second Intifada. There were a lot of very good positions coming out of ATTAC, who did these connections between what's happening in Palestine and what's happening in the World Social Forums, and global apartheid, and all this discussion. Now even ATTAC has backed down.
It’s not just symbolic of the decline of Palestine solidarity. It's basically symbolic of the decline of a mass-movement left, in an era where the far right is on the ascendancy. So it kind of fuses into this whole strategic debate over [where] the left should be going.
AI: For the end, to put this question in the wider context: we know that the BDS movement was based on the anti-apartheid movement of the 20th century. However, the nature of the Israeli apartheid is in some important respects different than the nature of apartheids in the 20th century – probably most importantly in this respect that, for example, in South Africa the economy was dependent on black workers, while, on the other hand, if we talk about Israeli apartheid, we don't have a workers' movement that can endanger the Israeli economy.
So, two questions: what do you think are the means of fighting for the liberation of Palestine today and winning in this fight, and how can the workers and activists from other countries help this fight?
NS: Whatever you might think about the BDS movement – you know, there are positions that say it's been too liberal, it's too much rights-based and rights-oriented, and so on – but it is a roof under which you can organise together internationally. And it needs international pressure. The liberation of Palestine, just as the colonisation of Palestine, is an international project. I'm saying this because everyone around the world benefits from the colonisation, but would also benefit from the liberation of Palestine – depending on which side you are; which side of the barricade of the class war you are.
So I do think that the mobilisation that BDS movement has achieved is one that people and organisations should attach to and contribute to. And then the next question would be the specifics: what could, for instance, Palestinians do? What could left[-wing] Israelis, or anti-Zionist Israelis do?
From a Palestinian point of view, there is no other way than to dissolve the Palestinian authority and the Oslo agreements, because this whole construct has developed into the sub-contraction of the occupation power. So there is no [other] way than to overthrow our very own political elite that is complicit in the colonisation of Palestine. There is no debate there, and I really want to emphasise that.
When it comes to anti-Zionist Israelis or anti-Zionist Jews, I don't want to speak for them. I know that they have their own debates, and also their own methods to join the struggle. As for the international solidarity and the international workers' movement: Israel is dependent on economic support by the West, and in the past there have been very beautiful actions in solidarity – by dockworkers, for instance, who refused to load goods that were supposed to go to Israel, especially in the arms industry. There were also occupations in the UK. People have been organising to mobilise workers there as well.
I think this is generally a good step to increase the pressure. Wherever you are, you will find a way to show solidarity – whether in the union, or at the university. The colonisation of Palestine is such a meta-conflict that wherever you are, whatever means you have, there is a way to contribute to it.
LF: Speaking from the perspective of the left, I think what should be clear in the last years is that the issue of Palestine has become a nexus – like this nod where different phenomena just become over-determinant. It's imperialism – the role of the US in the region. It's colonialism and colonialist structures and mentalities, which are alive also in European countries like Germany, France and the UK. It's obviously anti-Muslim racism which is being increasingly used as an ideological justification for Israeli apartheid. And last but not least, the massive, dramatic shift to the far right that's happening in Israel, which is seen as a sort of a role model by far-right forces both in the US and in Europe. You have Richard Spencer, alt-right neo-Nazi in the US, saying that he's actually a white Zionist, because he wants a state for white people the way that Jews have their own state.
So any left that fails to position itself clearly on this question of Palestine... If it fails that test, everything else sort of unravels. Because, when you do this exceptionalism saying that you're progressive in everything except Palestine, you're basically not progressive. You're not progressive in practical means.
We have, for example, the youth wing of one of the main trade unions in Germany, ver.di Jugend, having issued a declaration saying that they oppose the “anti-Semitic” BDS campaign. This is insane, because this is the youth wing of a labour, of a trade union, supporting a state which is the enforcer of neoliberalism – militarised neoliberalism and securitised neoliberalism – in the region, and even worldwide.
I think pointing out to those contradictions is very essential. That's why I think the issue of Palestine – not just in Germany, but also in the UK – is becoming an increasingly difficult, taboo-like thing. But if you manage to break that, then you have a very large breakthrough for the left in general, in all of its fields of struggle. But in order to have the breakthrough, you have to be persistent and you have to be consistent, and you have to be able to withstand a lot of attacks – because there is no chance in hell that German civil society, or any other civil society in Europe or in the West, will come forward for Palestinian rights without a massive campaign of intimidation, of false anti-Semitism smears... This is what is to be expected. But you need to have a leadership – I mean leadership in the broadest sense, not in the party or a movement, but a way forward, to withstand all that. Because, you make some concessions – everything falls apart.
NS: I want to add one more thing: one more important player are the neighbours of Palestine in the region. I just want to underline that whatever happens in Palestine, affects them as well. I believe that the solidarity movement for Palestine has for too long focused on solidarity from the West – and I understand why, because, of course, that is where the power is. But I want to really emphasise that it's important to keep in mind that it's about the liberation of the entire region, and that the borders that Palestine is suffering from are colonialist borders – that our Kurdish comrades suffer from as well. What I want to say is that, as long as there is the Zionist project in the region, it will support the other military dictatorships; it will support surveillance and crushing and the murdering of each and every movement that cries for liberation. This is something that I want to emphasise: that we have also on the ground our neighbours, and that we don't want to forget.
This Interview first appeared in Serbo-Croat on the Marks21 website. Reproduced with permission.