Why the German Teachers’ Union prevented me from speaking about Child Labour in Palestine

Briefing by Israeli anti-Zionist activist and academic, Shir Hever


This article is the publication of an update sent out by Shir Hever to an email list.

Dear friends,

It has been a while since you heard from me. First of all, I apologize for sending you a long letter. It is possible this might even be the last letter related to the GEW scandal. Throughout this process, I have learned a great deal about German politics, legal structures, and how McCarthyism, censorship, and racism are handled.

Overview of the facts:

Last year, the GEW invited me to give an online lecture on child labor in Palestine. However, a week before the scheduled lecture, it was canceled without any explanation by Frank Orthen, the chairman of GEW Rhein-Neckar District.

The resulting scandal forced the GEW to provide an explanation. They referred to a secret letter from Dr. Michael Blume, the anti-Semitism commissioner of the state of Baden-Württemberg, as the reason for canceling the event. The GEW stated that while the topic of child labor in Palestine was important, they had concerns about the speaker (me) and did not believe I could say anything that the GEW could endorse.

Ricarda Kaiser, the deputy chairwoman of GEW Baden-Württemberg (GEW-BW), refused to show me the letter from Blume. Although she affirmed that I would still receive my lecture fee, the GEW did not pay it. Instead, they offered me hush money, hoping that I would not speak about the issue or publish anything. Naturally, I declined this offer.

The GEW doggedly refused to explain their reasons, meet with me, or discuss the situation. Hundreds of protest letters were sent to the GEW by individuals, including GEW members and the GEW group in Kassel, as well as various German organizations.

In response, I filed a lawsuit against the GEW to claim my fee. Monika Stein, the chairwoman of GEW-BW, refused to discuss the cancellation of the lecture at the GEW-BW assembly in Stuttgart with other GEW members, on the basis that the legal proceedings were ongoing.

For a comparison to my situation, the Volkshochschule in Offenburg also received a secret letter from Dr. Blume against their speaker, Peter Michael-Kuhn. However, unlike the GEW, the Volkshochschule decided to share the letter with Peter Michael-Kuhn and did not cancel the lecture. A simple act of responsibility and solidarity. Peter Michael-Kuhn also showed solidarity with me by allowing me to publish the letter about him, for which I am grateful.

Likewise, deeply outraged members of GEW-BW leaked Dr. Blume’s letter to me. As expected, Dr. Blume continues to insist that the BDS movement is anti-Semitic, despite the European Court of Human Rights establishing otherwise. Dr. Blume attacked me based on my opinion and not the subject matter of the lecture, which had no relation to the BDS movement.

This issue quickly spread beyond Baden-Württemberg. Claus Walischewski wrote an excellent article about the Nakba for the Bremen GEW newsletter. Sadly, at the end of the issue, the article was marked with a red stamp distancing the GEW from its content, although this stamp was not used for other articles. It seems that the Bremen GEW believes that the rights of the Palestinians are a subject they cannot support.

In response to this, a group of GEW members in Hesse wanted to organize a lecture with me on child labor in Palestine as a protest against the censorship in Baden-Württemberg. When Dr. Simone Claar, the deputy chairwoman of GEW-Hesse, learned about this, she announced that she would not allow an event with me to take place.

Dr. Simone Claar is a researcher who specializes in trade union issues in Africa, particularly in South Africa. She knows that the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) supports the BDS movement. It is questionable whether the GEW invites trade union members from South Africa as speakers, only to later disallow them due to their support for the BDS movement. Or does this censorship only apply to me?

I contacted Dr. Simone Claar to find out if her decision was racially motivated. I asked her if she imposed a professional ban on Jews or anyone who supports BDS. Unfortunately, I cannot quote what she said to me on the phone, but GEW-Hesse sent me a statement in response. It did not address the issue of racism or the reasons for banning an event with me; it merely emphasized the organizational structure of GEW-Hesse, stating that decisions about events are made by the GEW Hesse board and not activists.

The legal process for my fee lasted about half a year. The GEW’s response to my lawsuit was that the event was organized by GEW volunteers who did not have the authority to decide on event scheduling or fee payment. Agnes Bennhold, the organiser, has been volunteering for the GEW for many decades. She organized the event and officially requested the lecture to take place on October 27, 2022, with a fee of 250 euros. However, the GEW stated in court that they did not receive such authorization and did not explain why they sent an invitation and a link to the online event if it was not approved.

The court ruled in favor of the GEW, and I lost the case.

Political remarks:

Undoubtedly, there is a deep-rooted racism problem within the GEW. While the organization emphasizes democratic and progressive values in its statutes and declarations, its practical actions lean towards promoting McCarthyism, censorship, and discrimination. It is regrettable that they punished a Jewish speaker based on a secret letter from a white Christian. Additionally, Palestinian children are discriminated against in German schools, and the GEW, as a teachers’ union, seems to be part of the problem rather than the solution.

The GEW could have chosen a different path, but instead, they opted to silence critical voices rather than engage in open discussions with those who hold different opinions. The issues of racism and censorship were consistently ignored, and their responses were always the same — obedience to authority.

The GEW in Rhein-Neckar-Kreis had the opportunity to proceed with the original event as planned, but they regretfully chose to follow the “recommendation” from GEW-BW and canceled it. This recommendation was made based on a letter from Dr. Blume — a white Christian — without any discussion with me — a Jew. Why? Because Dr. Blume represents the government, and GEW-BW aligned themselves with the powerful against the weak.

Dr. Simone Claar did not explain her decision to ban the lecture, and her response to the accusation of racism merely referred to the hierarchical structure within the GEW, placing even greater responsibility for any misconduct on her shoulders. I will pass this response on to my contacts in COSATU to ensure they do not collaborate with the GEW and Dr. Claar.

Similarly, GEW-BW abused the trust of their volunteers, such as Agnes Bennhold (and many others), to win the court case. The most significant evidence presented by the GEW in court was the organization’s hierarchical structure, demonstrating that Agnes Bennhold could not decide on the event alone.

By doing so, the GEW saved 250 euros that should have been paid as a fee, but at the same time, they lost the trust of their volunteers. Who will now be willing to organize an event for the GEW without a written contract? Who will still be motivated to volunteer and promote initiatives within the GEW? The GEW was willing to go so far as to commit perjury and lie to the court just to win the legal proceedings.

A union’s duty is to protect its employees and represent them against powerful employers. Yet, the GEW consistently does not act like a union but rather more as a tool of suppression, aligning themselves with the strong against the weak — be it for Israel against Palestine, for Dr. Blume against me, or for Frank Orthen against Agnes Bennhold.

There are two possible explanations for this policy within the GEW in Baden-Württemberg, Hesse, and Bremen — a policy which has caused discontent among members and harmed the reputation of the GEW as well as the individuals in leadership positions: Frank Orthen, Ricarda Kaiser, Dr. Simone Claar, and Monika Stein. One explanation would be that the GEW acts uninformed and thoughtlessly regarding the situation in Palestine, leading to poor strategic decisions. The other explanation would be that the GEW is more willing to make sacrifices than to confront the structural racism within the organization itself, which leads to bowing blindly to authorities, even when they act unjustly. Both explanations have weighty arguments, which convince me that the GEW, under its current leadership, cannot be considered a serious trade union.

If the government decides to save money in the future by cutting teachers’ salaries, can we trust the GEW to stand up for teachers’ rights against the government? Maybe, but only if the teachers are white Christians.

I find it extremely difficult to understand how ethically minded people can continue to be members of the GEW and, more importantly, how they can continue to support the organization under its current leadership. Following the GEW abusing the trust of its own volunteers to win the court case, Frank Orthen, Ricarda Kaiser, Dr. Simone Claar, and Monika Stein all have no choice but to resign.

Personal remarks:

At the beginning, I mentioned that this might be the last letter I send regarding the GEW scandal. Yet here I am again because I believe I have done everything in my power to respond to the shameful submission of the GEW to racist pressure.

Initially, I was strongly tempted to leave the whole matter uncommented. In Germany, many lectures by speakers of different backgrounds are canceled, but when it comes to Palestinians, censorship is often accepted without newspaper articles or angry protest letters.

It was Monika Stein’s responsibility not to side with Dr. Blume and recommend the cancellation of my lecture without speaking with me or informing herself of the facts. The same applies to Frank Orthen, who should have stood by his volunteer and his promise to hold the event as planned, even when confronted with a recommendation from the regional chapter.

And so, it was also my responsibility not to remain silent in the face of arbitrary cancellation and to launch a campaign to expose the GEW and its McCarthyist behavior. This responsibility weighs even heavier considering my privilege as a Jew in Germany. I am not subjected to the same extent of racism and discrimination that Palestinians experience daily. In light of the prevailing racism in the GEW, it was more difficult for them to ignore my case than the many cases of silenced Palestinian voices that are simply overlooked. I could not simply shirk my responsibility.

The process undoubtedly demanded much from me. I was afraid to stand up against a powerful organization with an expensive lawyer and thousands of members. At the same time, I was angry at the wall of silence behind which Stein, Orthen, and Dr. Claar attempted to hide. And I was disappointed and saddened when I ultimately lost the case. These feelings still accompany me—fear, anger, and sadness.

Throughout this process, I lost time, sleep, and some money. I regret the money the least, instead I recall the Yiddish word “rebegeld” — money lost in exchange for a valuable lesson.

I wish I could now say that the story ends here. However, regardless of what happens with the GEW and whether the responsible individuals resign or not, I must continue the fight against Dr. Blume, who continues to spread hatred and justifies it with the excuse of “opposing anti-Semitism.” I will not cease to oppose such behavior.

With many solidarity greetings,

Shir Hever

Translation: Ali Khan. Reproduced with permission