Is it still possible to defend the Palestinian cause in times like these? The question might seem absurd at a time when Israel is governed a by a coalition dominated by men who are extreme racists and proud of it, embarrassing a large share of a country which likes to present itself ‘as the only democracy in the Middle East.’ And yet, in the three most populous countries in Western Europe, an increasingly negative image of the Palestinian struggle prevails Germany, Great Britain and France.
Two factors, the use of the term apartheid and above all any sympathy shown for the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement (BDS) kindles the ardour of the detractors of the Palestinian cause.
The same champions of Israel take advantage and indeed abuse of the increasingly wide acceptance in Europe of the controversial definition of anti-Semitism developed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) which leads to the gagging of all critics of Israel whatever the crimes committed by representatives of that state.
Germany tetanised by its past
It is a self-evident truth: since the end of WW2 Germany has had to bear the overwhelming burden of the wholesale massacre of the Jewish people. It has had to assume the practical consequences – 1945 to 2018, the German government has paid out some 86.8 billion dollars in restitution and compensation to both victims and survivors of the genocide of the Jews, to which have been added moral obligations, primarily to Israel which enjoys Germany’s unflagging diplomatic support.
In Germany itself, solidarity with Israel is no laughing matter. On 17 May 2019, the Bundestag approved a non-binding resolution denouncing the BDS movement, describing its methods as anti-Semitic and reminiscent of the Jewish boycotts of Nazi days. The resolution states that Germany ‘will firmly oppose’ the efforts aimed at slandering Jews or calling into question, ‘the democratic state of Israel’s right to existence or its right to defend itself’. The three main political parties, the Social Democratic Party of Germany, The Christian Democratic Union of Germany and the Grünen all voted this text.1
For the partisans of Palestine, the climate has deteriorated lately. On her website, 972mag.com, Hebh Jamal, a US-Palestinian journalist residing in Germany relates as follows:
Over the past few years, the space for the defence of Palestine in Germany has shrunken considerably. Statements favourable to Palestine are automatically described as anti-Semitic and following the passage of the anti-BDS resolution in the German parliament in 2019, federal institutions have started labelling any action in support of the boycott as anti-Semitic. This has allowed universities, Länder governments and public institutions to deny Palestinians their freedom of expression and assembly.
Though the law designating BDS as anti-Semitic was ‘non-binding’, no sooner was it passed than the head of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, Peter Schafer, a specialist of Jewish studies appointed in 2014, announced his resignation. As described by Mairev Zonszen, an Israeli journalist based in Berlin at the time, ‘he took this decision after being subjected to severe pressure from the leaders of the Jewish community in Germany and the Israeli government who accused the Museum of being involved in anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish activities.’
What had he done wrong? ’A tweet from the Museum approving an article in the progressive daily Die Tagzeitung referring to a letter signed by 240 Jewish and Israeli specialists on anti-Semitism and the ‘Holocaust,’ rejecting the notion that BDS was anti-Semitic. Given such n atmosphere, one understands why so few activists, a few hundred perhaps, dare venture to support the boycott of Israel in Germany.
Hebh Jamal also quotes an Israeli economist living in Germany, Shir Hever, who suffered from this censorship:
I am not the first, nor am I likely to be the last to have been silenced with this tactic. Germany is a democratic country, but when it comes to Israel and Palestine, things are less clear.
Several conferences scheduled recently in which non-Zionist Jews, some of them Israelis, were to speak were cancelled. In July 2022, shocked by accusations of anti-Semitism heard following a conference in which he had participated dealing with the misappropriation of the memory of the ‘holocaust,’ Abraham Burg, former president of the Israeli parliament and of the World Zionist Organisation, wrote an op-ed in Haaretz:
How has it come to this? Israel has made anti-Semitism a powerful diplomatic weapon. Its conservative government has considerably widened the concept. Every criticism is anti-Semitic; every adversary is an enemy; every enemy is Hitler; each tear is 1938.
In any case, Germany is not heading towards a glimmer of insight into what amounts to a denial of freedom.
As recently as 23 May 2023, the Berlin-Brandenburg Higher Administrative Court confirmed the police banning of a demonstration to be held in Berlin commemorating the Palestinian Nakba.2 The police had cited the danger that the event might lead to ‘anti-Semitic incitation of the population, the glorification of violence, transmission of the intention to use violence and thus to intimidation and to violence’.
When London would imitate Berlin
Who could imagine that freedom of speech in the form of the right to criticise Israel – would be one day under threat in the United Kingdom? Quite fantastic until very recently, this prospect became a concrete reality on 3 July 2023, and it is aimed at British public bodies, such as city councils and universities.
We are referring to the passage of a draft bill tabled by Michael Gove, current Secretary of State for Levelling in Rishi Simak’s conservative cabinet. ‘We are firmly opposed to local boycotts which are likely to interfere with the integration and cohesion of communities, hinder exports and harm our economic security,’ he explained in May 2023.
But the real motive does figure in the text, since Israel mentioned. It is as if support for BDS were gaining ground in the UK and every effort must be made to stop it… For Michael Gove, ‘the BDS campaign has only one objective: to attack and discredit the State of Israel and the notion that there should be a Jewish State at all.’
Thus, on last 3 July, the House of Commons passed the bill but showed little enthusiasm: of the 650 MPs, only 208 voted aye, 70 nay, while all of Labour abstained (as did 82 MPs in the Tory majority). As the vote drew near, position taking had not been very noticeable. As compared, for example, with the series of tweets from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign which denounced the bill on 19 June 2023 adding information even more startling on the role of the occupied territories under that anti-boycott bill:
The anti-boycott bill even designates by the name ‘the occupied Palestinian territories’’ and ‘the Golan Heights,’ alongside Israel as protected explicitly against public sector boycotts, with no possible exception now or in the future.
Over 60 civil society organisations, including Greenpeace UK and Liberty signed a declaration denouncing this draft bill.
‘If it passes, that bill will stifle a wide range of campaigns dealing with the arms trade, climate justice, human rights, international law and international solidarity with oppressed peoples fighting for justice,’ their text read in part.
In the view of journalist and consultant James Brownsell, who once worked in the occupied Palestinian territories and who expressed it on 25 May on the website middleeasteye.net, ’ the conservative British government plan to prevent local councils and other public bodies from taking part in boycott and divestment campaigns is only the latest illiberal attack on democratic standards.’
Jewish organisations based in Britain, such as Na’amod and Diaspora Alliance had also rejected the law “A clear example of anti-Semitism instrumentalised to promote anti-Palestinian policies and curtail our civil liberties, declared Emily Hilton, director of the Diaspora Alliance in the United Kingdom.
Yet, despite these many warning cries, Labour’s position on this issue has long been unclear, despite Keir Starmer’s rejection of BDS. The Labour Party has only just emerged from the five-year period when Jeremy Corbyn was head of the Party, from 2015 to 2020, and which has left a bitter taste because of the serious accusations of anti-Semitism within the party, seen as calamitous by a host of self-proclaimed prosecutors. These accusations had led the Party to suspend Jeremy Corbyn before he was partially reinstated.
Some people believe – as did Corbyn’s supporters – that the problem of anti-Semitism in the party was greatly exaggerated for political reasons and to undermine the radical left-wing policies which the Labour leader embodied. Tariq Ali, the prestigious intellectual of Pakistani origin, even went so far as to opine ‘that certain right-wingers in the Parliamentary labour group - 70 to 80 MPs – would rather lose the election than see Corbyn win.’
France, “homeland of human rights”?
What is wrong with France? Why is the country so ill at ease when it comes to Palestine? Why in the so-called homeland of human rights do people who challenge Israel’s policies in the occupied territories find themselves so often in the crosshairs? Why does French officialdom tend to condone the highly debatable confusion between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. There is no simple answer to any of these questions.
Yet the evidence is clear. To understand the context, we must go back to the Alliot Marie circular of 2 February 2010. This was the name of the Minister of Justice at the time, and her text demanded that the public prosecutors around the country bring actions against anyone calling for or participating in a call to boycott “Israeli products,” this by virtue of penal legislation concerning “incitement to hatred and discrimination”. Several prosecutors did as they were told with differing degrees of success according to local courts and it was not until 11 June 2020 that the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found against France in a case dealing with a BDS activist whose conviction by the Appelate court had been confirmed by the Court of Cassation.
As an article by legal expert François Dubuisson explained in Orient XXI at the time, the Strasbourg court considered that the incriminated rhetoric (the call to boycott punished by French justice) fell under the purview of “militant and political expression and dealt with an issue of general interest, that of the respect for international public law by the State of Israel and on the occupied Palestinian territories.” This implied, “a high level of the right of protection of freedom of expression.”
However, the author of the article also noted that immediately following this verdict from the ECHR. The French government counter-attacked: ‘on 20 October 2020, Minister of Justice Eric Dupont-Moretti published a new circular (a ‘dispatch’) related to the repression of discriminatory calls to boycott ‘Israeli products’ in which is reaffirmed again the legal basis for prosecution simply accompanied by a stricter ‘motivation for the decisions of sentencing.’
Will the issue again end up in the courts? The answer is anything but obvious. In the meantime, short of an intervention from the EHRC, French justice considers the boycott of Israeli products an offence likely to send offenders to gaol.
President Macron’s attitude does not help clarify France’s position. Already in March 2022, Macron repeated that’ anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are enemies of the Republic” to the great dismay of a large share of French Jews who demonstrate against Israel’s colonial policy.
France under Macron also adopted the 2019 definition of anti-Semitism coined by the IHRA, already validated by the EU parliament and by 20 countries, among them 16 members of the Union. The problem with that solution is in the examples of anti-Semitism provided and which include criticism of Israel… The non-binding resolution was voted by a National Assembly deserted by half its members, with only 154 members in favour (those of La République en Marche et Les Républicans, mostly), against 72 (the left) and 43 abstentions.
But Macron’s enthusiasm carried him even further. Although few observers took note of it, he went so far as to deliver this sentence:"Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people, I have never ceased to repeat it’ at the annual dinner of the Conseil représentatif des institutions juives de France (CRIF), on 24 February 2022. It was the then Prime Minister, Jean Castex who read Macron’s speech, the President being called away on account of events in Ukraine.
At the same dinner he blamed ONGs such as B’Tselem, Amnesty International, or Human Rights Watch (without naming theme) for being capable of denouncing the country’s ‘apartheid regime’ after long on-site investigation: “That is an abuse of terms laden with shame. It is an untruth.’ Does not the substantial argumentation developed by those ONGs deserve a bit more than a dismissal out of hand?
Finally, it has been possible to observe recently in France that organising conferences on certain subjects with certain speakers may lead to forced cancellations on various pretexts by mayors or prefects. The Franco-Palestinian attorney Salah Hammouri, deported to France on 18 December 2022 after several prison terms for offences he always denied, was held in administrative detention without a trial, and knows a thing or two about this. Several conferences in which he was to participate since then were the subject of complaints and ultimately banned, such as the one in Lyon where the Europe Ecologie les Verts (ELELV) mayor was subjected to pressure he could not resist.
In March 2023, came the turn of the prefect of Meurthe-et-Moselle to ban a round table in Nancy with Salah Hammouri, fearing ‘public disturbances. Then, in May, the prefect of Hérault banned in turn a gathering scheduled for Saturday 27 May by the Montpelier Coalition against Apartheid associating 20 different organisations. In its press release, the prefect “fears the transposition to Montpelier of an international conflict and the holding of discriminant speeches meant to incite hatred against a population by reason of its belonging to a given nation, race or religion.”
Another episode in the saga ended better for Salah Hammouri and his supporters: when Lyon Mayor Gregory Doucet had again banned a conference"Palestine-Israel: colonisation-apartheid’ to be held on 22 June with Salah Hammouri, his decision was overturned at the last minute by the Administrative Court of Lyon.
Two days later, however, another conference was banned by the prefect of the Hérault. This time it was a conference ‘against apartheid’ in Montpellier. The official in charge of the department had stressed the possible presence of ‘radical elements’ ‘in an especially delicate international context’ and an ill-chosen time of the week, a Saturday, ‘Shabbat day’.
So, we must ask the question: why this relentless persecution of the champions in France of the Palestinian cause? A president, ministers, prefects, a number of judges, all ganging up against them, that is quite a lot. Eric Coquerel, the France insoumise MP, recently quoted in Mediapart, suggested an overall reply to the question:
We are witnessing the delayed triumph of that notion of the ‘clash of civilisations’ which, in this case, consists of identifying the Palestinian cause with Islamist terrorism. While that frame of lecture, which ties in neatly with Netanyahu’s, was not that of France, little by little it has gradually seeped its way into the power structure.
That is certainly a part of fit. That ‘seeping’ has also no doubt been helped along by some brave souls, as historian Thomas Vescovi tells us:
First of all there is a group of organisations working hard to repress the movement of solidarity with Palestine since it has taken hold of the notion of apartheid. Not that everything was easy in the past but there were not as many no-goes.’ This ‘intense work’ is ’Elnet, for example, which regularly flies MPs to Israel. It is an organisation which is one of the many relays of Macron’s majority, which bitterly fought the apartheid resolution, the reception of Salah Hammouri and above all defended the confusion between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. This last point seems decisive. By insisting in this direction, these politicians have normalised within the institutions the idea that any public expression of solidarity with the Palestinians becomes suspicious because potentially anti-Semitic and therefore likely to be banned.
So it is the notion of freedom of expression which is being challenged in Europe, paradoxically in the name of a country, sure of itself and dominating, which flaunts international law and human rights with an ever-stupefying arrogance. Anti-semitism is, of course, a shameful posture and is outlawed everywhere, but when a state confuses it with ani-Zionism and every other criticism of Israel, it contributes to the impunity of a country which manipulates the memory of a genocide to ensure its own immunity.
1See documentary by Jad Salfiti, The New Arab, 6 July 2023.
2Hebh Jamal, ‘Everyone should be alarmed’: Berlin police ban Palestinian demo for prisoners’, +972,] 4 May 2023.