Editor’s note: What follows is an article written about the efforts to suppress Palestinian solidarity activism in Germany by Christoph Glanz, a high school teacher and activist in Oldenburg, Germany, who is now teaching refugee children. Glanz informs us that several hundred copies of the teachers´union magazine containing the article have just been shredded.
The article was meant to be published in PaedOL, a local magazine of the GEW, Germany´s most powerful educational union. Titled, “Documenting injustice and demanding justice- impossible in the town of Oldenburg?”, the article highlights the Nakba, which is unknown to most Germans, and the ongoing plight of Palestinians and the result, the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions call of 2005. Glanz– who had adopted the pen-name Christopher Ben Kushka so as to preserve his ability to visit Palestine — then related some of the attacks on freedom of speech and pro-Palestinian activism, including his own, and what that means for German society.
Even before publication, the article got into the hands of the German-Israeli Friendship Society (DIG). Glanz says that everyone who had access to the ready-for-print article, a circle of fewer than 10 persons including the editor in charge and GEW board members, denied forwarding it to the DIG. Within hours the head of DIG, Klaus Thörner, initiated a campaign against the article, accusing Glanz of anti-semitism for endorsing BDS and the GEW for publishing it, and demanding the publication of the article be halted. Several players became involved, Glanz reports: the American Jewish Congress in Berlin, the Israeli Embassy, higher echelons of the German union itself, journalist Benjamin Weinthal from the Jerusalem Post and even some members of the German parliament such as Volker Beck (Greens).
The GEW then bowed to the pressure, and issued a statement declaring the article a “grave mistake on our side”, and apologizing to the broader public, described Glanz and BDS as being in the spectrum of racist, revisionist movements. GEW decided to pulp magazines that had by then been printed with the article in it. (The shredding has been covered by several newspapers among them most notably the aforementioned Jerusalem Post here and here. Most of these accounts have sought to characterize the article as anti-Semitic equating it, counter-factually, with the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses, when Glanz himself has been outspoken about Germany’s Nazi past.) But: Read it for yourself! Our translation is by Glanz himself.
Documenting injustice and demanding justice- impossible in the town of Oldenburg?
Prelude: Personal experience meets “ethnic cleansing.”
During my civil service in an institution for adults with special needs situated in Israel, I used every minute off work to explore the country. Hitchhiking was the preferred means of transport. I remember one moment which had all attributes of Marlboro kitsch: there I was, sitting on the loading area of a pickup truck, hair flowing in the wind and heading northbound from Tel Aviv while the sun set over the Mediterranean.
In that moment I had a sudden and somewhat displaced thought: “Strange somehow. You’ve been to a number of Mediterranean countries before. What you´d expect here, were smaller and larger fishing villages, old settlements, ports, cutters. After all, the sea is a natural source of food.” But even though the highway led us North as the crow flies and always followed the shoreline- no such thing was in sight. Instead many Jewish settlements in which the oldest buildings were maximally a few decades old.
The answer to the unasked question distilled in this moment is in abbreviation: they were there once, the old fishing villages. They did exist. And the fact that they don´t exist anymore is not the result of chance nor the voluntary abandonment of these Palestinian villages. The Israeli historian Ilan Pappé documented this comprehensively in his opus “The ethnic cleansing of Palestine“ and it was this book -among others- that opened my eyes. Massacres on the beach, targeted intimidation campaigns in order to produce panic, the destruction of more than 500 villages and many city quarters and finally the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians – more than 80% of the total population! – from their homeland. This, and the systematic denial of the return of the refugees implemented both by force and by legislation, are cornerstones of the foundation of Israel. Who, except the victims, is aware of that here and today?
For the last few years, I´m trying to contribute as an activist to a peace based on justice. When I get the chance to spend time in historic Palestine, I try to do something to this effect via practised soldarity- always aware of the very humble impact this has. Our group is dedicated to absolute non-violeece. What does it all mean concretely? As international activists we go to one of the many areas of tension. European and US-American passports grant us a certain degree of protection that Palestinians don´t enjoy. We are eager to use this privilege to their favour: we are regularly present at checkpoints, document events with our cameras, intervene when Palestinians are again victims of a show of might by the occupation forces or settler violence. We issue related reports and publish them; the (not so new anymore) media play an important role here. Yet more often than not we are helpless. Based on the feedback of many Palestinians, I tend to believe that the perhaps most important impact is the experience of solidarity they draw from our presence. They, the Palestinians, do get the message. “We haven´t forgotten you. What is happening here, must stop.”
The settlers hang “wanted posters” with photos of activists in the streets and call on the (Jewish-Israeli) public to treat “these antisemitic anarchists appropriately“. We get spit at, beaten, harassed. When I was there last fall, I got to feel my share of abuse too.
Much more drastic than that was: we experienced that two Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli soldiers within 24 hours and right in front of our door step. A journalist of The Guardian and a co-worker of Amnesty International visited us and recorded testimonies of eight international activists. Amnesty International, even though it is considered rather restrained as an organisation, has since then spoken regularly of “extra-judicial executions“ committed by the Israeli army. What do you call it when unarmed people are shot with machine guns? Both victims we saw bleeding on the street, were shot in the back.
What has this got to do with Oldenburg and the GEW union?
For once, I would hope we´ve not yet come to be victims of our self-medicated privatisation entirely. “How could this possibly not affect us?“ is the real question. Also: as members of an educational union we can not stand by apathetically when those who bear the main plight of suffering are children- as always. They are running to school through the vapor of teargas, surmounting checkpoints on their way. They are being harassed by settlers and soldiers. A volunteer from the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem recently recorded with her video camera how a soldiers stopped an 8-year-old girl on her bike, chased her away and threw the bike into the bushes. It is not rare that minors are taken into “administrative detention“. That means: no prosecution, no charges, no visits by parents or lawyers. Youth and children are exposed to solitary confinement, brutal interrogations and beatings. These are mere splinters of the actual situation.
BDS- a human rights campaign in Oldenburg
Eleven years ago a broad association of Palestinian civil organisations published the BDS call. It calls upon righteous people worldwide to boycott the Israeli state and all profiteers of the occupation (Boycott!); to withdraw money from the Israeli state and all profiteers, for example portfolios, stock exchange, pension funds (Divestment!); and finally the S (Sanctions). I was scheduled to give a talk on BDS at the Evanglische Studierenden Gemeinde (ESG; protest student association) nearby the Oldenburg university. This triggered a shit-storm by the so-called “Friends of Israel”: the ESG was flooded with emails, in which the human rights campaign was labelled as “Hamas propaganda“ and counter-factually equated with the boycott of Jewish businesses under Nazi rule. One student demanded as a member of the university senate, the cancelling of the event, on the grounds that BDS was an “anti-Semitic organisation” and I am a “known anti-Semite“. After she declined all options for a non-judicial way of setting this record straight, she was sentenced on June 20 by the Landgericht Oldenburg (local court) under threat of punishment not to ever repeat this denunciation again. She is currently appealing this ruling.
By the way, following this campaign, the ESG did cancel the talk. This couldn´t be changed by a petition signed by Israeli citizens, lots of positive messages received in writing in favour of BDS and myself, nor by appeals to protect free speech, such as from Rolf Verlege, former member of the Zentralrat der Juden in Germany (central board of Jewish communities).
The BDS Initiative Oldenburg then invited the Israeli activist Ronnie Barkan to give a talk with the same title as originally planned with me at the ESG. I rented a larger room at the PFL (a large community center run by the municipality). The event was cancelled by the Kulturbüro (office for cultural affairs) of the Municipality of Oldenburg only four days prior to the talk for “security reasons“. Police, co-workers of the municipality and Staatsschutz (police for political crimes) told Ronnie and me in a personal meeting that violent interruptions by the ultra-left/autonomous scene (self described) were to be expected. They dissuaded us from setting up a demonstration in place of the original event. The most logical solution– protection of the event by the police– was regarded as absurd. That way the “Friends of Israel“ successfully prevented the presentation by a Jewish Israeli in Oldenburg.
Is this actually the way we want to see public debate being handled in this town?
The English–and more powerful– version of [the German] Meinungsfreiheit (literally: right to one´s own opinion) is “freedom of speech“. Freedom of speech contains the right to speak in public and to promote one´s views with arguments. But it is precisely this right that is undermined to the public by a ——— network of actors including pseudo-anarchists, the bourgeois center, members of the university, municipality and police when it comes to anything “Israel”.
My claim is: only people who do not want to see their sectarian world views shaken by facts and arguments act like this. Perhaps I´m the one who is erring here. One could find this out in a publicly perceivable debate weighing the Pros and Cons of this issue. But: this is precisely the discourse the opponents of freedom of speech and human rights are trying to prevent with all their might.
Editor’s afterword: Christoph Glanz is currently chiefly teaching German in a classroom of refugee kids called „Willkommensklasse“ (welcome class). His political activism besides Palestinian solidarity includes feminism, anti-racism and global economic justice, values he tries to instill in his students. He speaks basic Hebrew and has been co-organising events commemorating the atrocities committed by the Nazis since age 16. He is struggling to learn Arabic. His last word today on the current situation:
“Zionists are effectively trying to shut us up. They won´t succeed. We are well aware of the harrassment going on in other parts of Germany, Europe and the US. Their efforts are in vain because we know how the Palestinians suffer on a daily basis. Every attempt of silencing, even though successful at first glance and temporarily, helps us to reach out to the interested public and helps to build new and stronger networks with conscientious world citizens.“