“The rally that was scheduled for today has not been allowed to take place. Please continue on your way home or to other activities.” With these words, the police dispersed the students and parents of the Ernst Abbe High School in the Berlin district of Neukölln. The rally had been called under the slogan “Against violence at school, against racism,” following a physical assault by a teacher at the school against a student carrying a Palestinian flag. A police spokesman justified the ban to Berlin and Brandenburg public radio as follows:
“We could have expected in advance that possibly Hamas sympathizers would instrumentalize this rally for their purposes.”
These alleged sympathizers were supposedly from groups that had called for another demonstration to take place nearby, which had itself been banned the day before.
The limitation of the freedom of expression and the right of assembly is therefore justified on the grounds that if the participants of another banned demonstration might join the institute’s demonstration, the latter is also banned. To better understand the context of this reasoning, it is necessary to address the question of why the first demonstration was banned: there was a chance of anti-Semitic expressions or hate crimes among the demonstrators.
Paradoxically, if this chain of bans had been a mere anecdote, the event would have been scandalous and would have echoed in German public opinion. However, the truth is that bans on demonstrations in defence of Palestinian self-determination, against the Israeli occupation and, in general, of anyone who strongly criticizes the State of Israel have been taking place for years. The bans are preventive, i.e. even if the calls for these demonstrations do not contain any anti-Semitic allusions or any advocacy of violence, the competent authorities consider that, given the possibility that during the celebration of the protest such cases of incitement may occur, they should be banned. In this regard, the authorities are presuming a particular minority group guilty before the fact.
Especially in Berlin, a systematic ban on demonstrations organized by the Palestinian diaspora has been imposed in recent years. The cases of May 2022 and 2023 around the anniversary of the Nakba (“the catastrophe”, the expulsion of Palestinians from their land in 1948), or in April 2023 are examples in addition to the demonstrations called these days because of the escalation of violence in the Middle East. The rights to freedom of expression and assembly are fundamental rights. International Human Rights standards provide for a restriction only on very specific occasions, where there is a concrete danger to public safety.
The authorities in Berlin base the existence of a specific danger on precedents from similar demonstrations in the past. In its statement of September 12, 2023, Amnesty International warns the authorities of what it considers systematic bans on protests by the Palestinian people in Germany:
“On such grounds, the rights of the Palestinian people and their supporters to organize and demonstrate peacefully are restricted in general (…) and for an indeterminate period of time”.
In addition, Amnesty International’s statement points to the racist bias of these bans. In May 2023, after the Nakba anniversary demonstration was banned, a second demonstration called under the slogan “for freedom of expression and assembly” was banned on the grounds, among others, of the Arab origin of potential attendees. In these circumstances, the site of the planned demonstrations become a zone of racial profiling, with police exercising unchecked authority to abuse, assault, and arrest people. Neukölln, an area characterised by a large concentration of people with Arab origin, increasingly feels like a city governed by a police state.
There have also been cases of limitations on the rights of expression in the cultural sphere when there is a clear criticism of the State of Israel. Examples are the banning of concerts by Roger Waters (Pink Floyd) this year or the banning of the Madrid band Ska-P from playing their song ‘Intifada’. The justification in all these cases is always the same: “anti-Semitism”. The concept of anti-Semitism has been enlarged in such a way that any criticism of Israel fits under the same label. The government website explains how the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism has been supplemented in Germany with an appendix: “In addition, the State of Israel, considered as a Jewish collective, can be the target of these [anti-Semitic] attacks”.
This institutionally anchored German broadening of the concept of anti-Semitism puts pressure on positions critical of Israel. In this context, anyone’s professional or political career hangs in the balance when a possible accusation of “anti-Semitism” threatens. This refers to Germany’s alignment with the Hebrew state: “Israel’s security is Germany’s reason for statehood,” the German parliament ratified in a declaration adopted on Thursday, October 12, which also states that “Germany must make available to [Israel] everything necessary and desired for its defense” (Bundestag motion for resolution 20/8735, registered on October 10).
On the same Wednesday 11, a few hours after the rally in front of the Ernst Abbe high school was broken up, around 5 p.m. around 70 activists gathered at Hermannplatz square, North of the same Neukölln district, to show their solidarity with Palestine despite the bans. The rally was proscribed. The police surrounded the demonstrators, preventing them from leaving, and proceeded to identify and fine them. The police presence in the vicinity is typical of a mass demonstration. Among the astonished passers-by, a few voices can be heard: “Free Palestine!” All the neighbors seem to be under suspicion by the police, who warn through the megaphone: “Anyone who shows solidarity with this unauthorized gathering will be considered part of it”. Fundamental rights in Germany are in force, but not for everyone.