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Boycotting Jews to prevent the boycott of Israel

This week a German bank announced that it is closing the account of a Jewish human rights organisation because it supports BDS. What's next?

The German organisation Jewish Voice for Just Peace (JVJP) is a sister organisation of the US Jewish Voice for Peace and part of the coalition European Jews for a Just Peace (EJJP). It was founded in 2003.

Three weeks ago, the organisation - of which I am a board member - was shocked when it received a letter from its bank, the Bank for Social Economy based in Cologne, that it had decided to close JVJP’s account. No reason was given for the decision. 

This is the first time since World War Two that a German bank has closed the account of a Jewish organisation

But on Tuesday, the bank finally announced, in a second letter sent out by a spokesperson, the reason: JVJP supports the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

This is the first time since World War Two that a German bank has closed the account of a Jewish organisation. The bank appears to have succumbed to pressure by Benjamin Weinthal, a correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, who has been waging a campaign to attack and delegitimise Palestinian solidarity groups in Germany for the last couple of years. 

Weinthal falsely accused the JVJP of being a “pro-Hamas” and an “anti-Semitic” organisation. The timing of his reporting has raised questions within our organisation about whether he was told by the bank that the account would be closed even before we met to discuss the situation, following the original letter, on 2 December.

The bank justified its decision because JVJP took part in several BDS actions in Germany, and claimed in the second letter, sent on Tuesday, that “BDS seeks to destabilise the state of Israel".

However, as the bank could not find any evidence of this claim on the BDS movement's website, it relied on an analysis by the Friedrich-Neumann Foundation, which belongs to the German Free Democratic Party, a right-wing neoliberal party, and on analysis by sociologist Samuel Salzborn, a right-wing pro-Zionist who has accused the entire German left of anti-Semitism, both of which were referenced in the second letter.

Who is next?

Legally, banks in Germany are allowed to close the accounts of customers without giving a reason if they announce the closure in advance. However, giving information to a journalist about an organisation’s account is a violation of confidentiality. 

Giving information to a journalist about an organisation’s account is a violation of confidentiality

Furthermore, the bank issued a statement in which it calls JVJP an “anti-Semitic” organisation, which is a violation of Germany’s libel laws. Abraham Melzer, a German Jewish activist, has recently won a court case against such accusations, which were based only on his critique of the state of Israel’s policies.

As the Bank for Social Economy presents itself as a progressive bank and holds the accounts of many civil society organisations, the outrage in Germany spread quickly. Several peace and human rights organisations have expressed solidarity with JVJP such as Pax Christi, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and the International League for Human Rights. The bank is expected to lose some of its customers, who are considering closing their accounts in protest.

It should be noted that the European Union's foreign policy spokeswoman, Federica Mogherini, has confirmed that the call for a boycott of Israel is allowed in the EU, and that no law exists in Germany against such calls. Legal scholars from 15 European States recently published an opinion defending the right to call for BDS.

The bank has nevertheless decided to make its own law and impose its political views on its customers. Other political groups in Germany could lose their bank accounts as well, if the banks choose to refuse customers of political views which they do not share.

From fear to pressure

A direct link exists between the rise of right-wing groups in Europe and in the US in recent months, and the bank’s decision.

In interviews, Donald Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has expressed the desire to fight against BDS in order to defend himself from accusations of anti-Semitism. Marine Le Pen has used exactly the same argument. How can she be anti-Semitic if she opposes BDS? Blind support for the policies of the state of Israel is being used to legitimise extreme-right groups.

Many Jews from all over the world support BDS not only out of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle but also in an effort to rescue Judaism from being equated with Zionism

It is therefore easy to forget that BDS is a movement dedicated to human rights, equality and international law. Many Jews from all over the world, including in Israel itself, support BDS not only out of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom, but also in an effort to rescue Judaism from being equated with Zionism, and from the Jews all over the world being blamed for the crimes committed by the Israeli military, just for being Jews.

One of the reasons for the strengthening of BDS is its profound impact on the Israeli political discourse. Israel’s strategic affairs minister, Gilad Erdan, has called for a blacklist of all organisations supporting BDS.

Theologian Isabel Phiri from the World Council of Churches in Geneva was deported from Israel recently because she was suspected (falsely) of supporting BDS.

The fear of the Israeli authorities of the spread of BDS translates directly into pressure on international organisations to impose Israel's repressive policies outside of the country against any group supporting BDS, even if it is Jewish.

- Shir Hever is a graduate student at the Free University of Berlin, and an economist with the Alternative Information Centre.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A woman holds a Palestinian flag as a truck passes by, during a protest against Grammy-winning American musician Pharrell Williams near the GrandWest Casino where he was holding a concert in Cape Town, on 21 September 2015. Supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign were protesting against the singer's partnership with major South African retail group Woolworths, over its imports from Israel (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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