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How Israeli influence is squashing free speech in Germany

In the latest blow, a bank has closed the account of a Jewish solidarity organisation, allegedly over its support for BDS
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after a meeting in Berlin on 4 June 2018 (AFP)

The Bank for Social Economy is considered a relatively progressive bank in Germany because its customers are mostly civil society organisations. 

Yet, when it comes to denying Palestinians the right to boycott the Israeli occupation and colonialism, I believe the bank violated the German constitution, by silencing a Jewish organisation that does solidarity work with Palestinian groups in Germany.

Last month, the bank closed the account of Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East, a Jewish solidarity organisation in Germany that won the 2019 Gottingen Peace Prize.

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In a meeting, the bank’s chairman, Harald Schmitz, told Jewish Voice that it had to distance itself from the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. He revealed that other bank customers were asked to differentiate themselves from BDS in writing, a move that suggests the bank has undertaken a policing role to silence BDS activists in Germany - although the bank denies this characterisation.

Contacted by MEE, a spokeswoman said the Bank for Social Economy never demanded that Jewish Voice denounce BDS, but rather asked for a “differentiation” from the BDS campaign.  

Censorship has become prevalent in Germany, accelerating after the German parliament approved a resolution equating BDS with antisemitism

“[The bank] has not issued any ultimatum to any bank customers, nor is it assuming any political or even policing role,” the spokeswoman said, adding that the bank “is a politically neutral financial institute and committed to the principle of freedom of expression … [but] does not regard itself as a suitable platform for ideological or religious conflicts and does not pursue any political objectives.”

The bank previously took action against Jewish Voice in 2016, closing the group’s account but reopening it last year, after hundreds of angry letters from activists and organisations, including the bank’s other customers. Copies of the letters were also received by Jewish Voice. The reopening of the account was accompanied by the publication of a joint declaration by the bank and Jewish Voice. 

The bank later appealed to an outside expert to investigate whether Jewish Voice was antisemitic, but Technical University’s Centre for Research on Antisemitism ultimately withdrew from the requested probe. Subsequently, the bank issued a statement citing the need for its customers to disassociate themselves from BDS.

Targeting free expression

Jewish Voice is now considering launching a lawsuit against the bank for violating Article 5 of the German constitution, which guarantees the freedoms of speech and opinion. Article 18 stipulates that organisations that act to deny others the rights to free speech and association will themselves lose those rights.

McCarthyite censorship has become prevalent in Germany, accelerating after the German parliament approved a resolution equating BDS with antisemitism. 

The government’s commissioner on antisemitism, Felix Klein, recently issued a warning to Jews not to wear yarmulkas in public in Germany, arguing it was no longer safe amid a spike in antisemitic attacks. Klein has worked closely with the Israeli Strategic Affairs Ministry to focus German resources on defending Israeli policy, as opposed to combating antisemitism. 

Visitors look at a model Dome of the Rock at the Jewish Museum in Berlin in 2017 (AFP)
Visitors look at a model Dome of the Rock at the Jewish Museum in Berlin in 2017 (AFP)

Another target of the pro-Israeli attack on Jewish free expression in Germany lately has been the Jewish Museum in Berlin. A liberal and pluralist institution, the museum focuses its work on Jewish life in Germany, rather than on the state of Israel. 

Last year, an event at the museum was cancelled amid pressure from the Israeli embassy, because the speaker allegedly supported BDS. In December, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pressured the German government to stop funding the museum. 

When the museum sent out a tweet about a petition by Jewish scholars that criticised the German parliament’s decision to equate BDS with antisemitism, the resultant controversy forced director Peter Schafer to swiftly resign.

Supporting Israel

The commitment of German politicians and organisations to pro-Israeli politics was once grounded in guilt over the Holocaust, but in 2008, Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a speech in the Knesset, in which she pointed to Germany’s responsibility to support Israel’s “security”. The meaning of this is apparent in a series of arms deals between Germany and Israel, including for submarines that are crucial to the German arms industry.

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It should come as no surprise that this would come alongside Germany’s automatic support of all forms of Israeli policy, including its refusal to recognise the state of Palestine, which flies in the face of statements by German officials about supporting the two-state solution

It appears that Israel is now pressuring the German government, the Bank for Social Economy, German newspapers and religious institutions to move to an even more extreme stage of support for Israel and Zionism - although the bank spokeswoman said allegations that it has come under pressure from Israel are “completely unfounded”.

In this new Germany, Jews who do not demonstrate pro-Israeli points of view no longer deserve to express their opinions. They may not give public talks. They may not have a museum that represents their culture, and they may not have bank accounts. Only pro-Israeli Jews are accepted in such a society.

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

Shir Hever
Shir Hever is a board member of the Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East.