In what may be the most grotesquely contradictory policy in modern Europe, Germany blindly supports Israel, possibly the most racist country in the world, in order to establish its own credentials as a non-racial state. This has led to steadily more repression of Palestinian sympathisers on German campuses, notwithstanding the guarantee of free speech in the German constitution, as the following article describes. The original article, published in Mondoweiss, may be found here.

Pro-Palestinian speech is now effectively banned in German universities

Pro-Palestine activists are facing extreme repression and censorship at German universities as a growing number of students are finally questioning Germany’s unwavering commitment to Israel.

In November, students at Universität der Künste Berlin formed the group, notinournameUdK, calling for a student strike in solidarity with Palestine and demanding a response from their university administration.

Every Wednesday, students and faculty members have initiated a strike, which they plan to continue until further notice. The strike includes weekly sit-ins on campus to draw attention to the situation in Gaza and demand a permanent ceasefire, as well as mourn the loss of innocent lives.

According to their press statement, notinournameUdK says that the strike aims to voice the “urgent need for solidarity with the Palestinian people and to express dissatisfaction with the university’s official position of selective solidarity and its failure to create spaces of respectful dialogue.”

Early in November, the Presidum’s office released a statement updating the student body on the position of the university. In it, the University President’s office stated that the Israeli flag that accompanied its initial statement after October 7 was done under the “clear commitment to the right of existence of the state of Israel. It is the despicable attack on the civilian population on October 7 [that] required a moment of contemplation.”

“As the Presidum, we are responsible for assessing whether acts of the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression jeopardize the freedom and dignity of others and endanger the peace of the university,” the statement said.

“We’re appalled at the insinuations that our intention is to incite violence or intimidate any fellow students,” notinournameUdK wrote in a press statement. “The current position of the UdK and the publication of recent articles, clearly misrepresent the student collective and has led to some striking students, including Jewish students, fearing for their safety.”

The condemnation and backlash against the student actions span the German political spectrum. Articles labeled the group as composed of “pro-Hamas” students attempting to incite against Jewish and Israeli students. An article from the widely-circulated mainstream publication Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described the student demonstration as “loud, aggressive, and frightening,” and that those involved wanted to “overthrow the entire university system, if not the entire German state.”

Mainstream publications have even interpreted the group’s decision to stain their hands red as a reference to the “October 2000 lynching” of two Israeli reservists, instead of as a symbol of German complicity in genocide, as it was clearly intended.

An MP from the left-wing Green Party also condemned the demonstrations, saying that “Berlin universities must be places where Israelis and Jews can study safely and freely.”

A student representative from the group, notinournameUdK, spoke to Mondoweiss about the allegations. “After publicly promising to engage in conversation with our group, the president withdrew after we refused to issue a formal apology for expressing anger towards the administration and president during our confrontation at the protest.”

The student representative told Mondoweiss that the university not only refuses to engage in dialogue, but is participating in the smear campaign that is being led against them in the media. “When the President goes and gives interviews in articles that are actively manipulating the message we are trying to send, he gives authority to these lies and to this manipulative narrative that is trying to demonize this show of solidarity with Palestine and any critique of the State of Israel.”

The student representative of notinournameUdK informed Mondoweiss that one Sinti and Roma activist, who was involved with the group and was present at the protest, was pushed onto the train tracks that same week. The attacker allegedly targeted the activist because they were wearing a keffiyeh. “Instead of reiterating the urgency for safe dialogue, the university and the right-wing and mainstream press are trying to intimidate us,” the group said.

“The university’s failure to condemn Israel’s war crimes and international law violations even after thousands of Palestinians were killed, injured, and maimed shows that they have a very clear disregard for the value of Palestinian life,” the student representative added.

The administration did not respond to Mondoewiss’s request for comment.

Extreme censorship in German institutions

In Germany, higher education institutions have become a battleground for free speech as pro-Palestinian activists have been faced with extreme repression and censorship. The German Rectors’ Conference (HRK) — the association of public and government-recognized universities in Germany — publicly supported the Bundestag’s 2019 anti-BDS resolution, and adopted the working definition of antisemitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which cites criticisms of the Israeli state as examples of anti-Jewish hate.

This has led to an extreme pro-Israel stance by a majority of German universities across the country. In fact, even recognized research institutions like Forensic Architecture had their event canceled at the RWTH Aachen University by the university’s rector. Over 200 students and faculty members signed an open letter condemning the event’s cancellation, calling it a “violation of our academic freedom and the right to free expression.”

One of the reasons for the cancellation was a complaint by Jewish students who cited that Forensic Architecture founder Eyal Weizman, an Israeli himself, supported BDS.

“The students and the Rectorate fear that the event might indeed provide a platform for those who, like BDS, deny Israel’s right to exist,” a representative of RWTH Achen said. 

Then, just this month, Students for a Free Palestine at the Free University Berlin (FU Berlin) attempted to occupy a lecture hall to protest the university’s stance on Palestine/Israel. The goal of the occupation, according to the group, “was to establish a safe environment for learning, sharing and uniting against the ongoing genocide.”

However, the event was disrupted.

“[The action] was hijacked by individuals who behaved aggressively towards us,”  the student group wrote in a press statement that was sent to Mondoweiss. “Throughout the day these counter-protestors pushed and shoved our organizers and participants, tore down our posters, and physically assaulted us.”

The group says the torn-down posters displayed images of murdered Palestinian children. They also stated that they only denied entry to aggressive individuals to protect their space, but “nobody was prohibited from entering due to their identity,” as German media originally claimed. This was even corroborated by the university itself.

The university then called the police on the students, and over 100 officers forcibly removed students involved in the occupation. Videos on social media show police officers aggressively grabbing students despite protesting that they were in pain.

“We condemn the university’s actions, emphasizing our right as students to establish a space for constructive dialogue within the academic environment principles,” the Students for a Free Palestine statement read. “Their involvement of the police led to the forceful removal of students and goes against the principles of peaceful protest.”

Mondoweiss interviewed a few students involved in the action at FU Berlin, as well as those who were arrested by Berlin police.

“My arrest was violent,” student Matus Pollak said. “There was no need to pull me out of the hall in this manner. I was not resisting arrest and eviction at the moment. The university representatives were not even present at this moment, they left us in the hall and unleashed police violence on us.”

Another student activist who asked to remain anonymous and was one of the organizers of the action tells Mondoweiss that there was no official announcement that the students had to leave — instead, the police simply entered the hall unprovoked.

“The police came into the hall and detained a lot of students, most of them bypassed white students to get to the students of color first. Only when white students interfered were they also arrested. Once we pleaded with police that there was no announcement that detainments would begin, did they officially announce their goal to arrest us all” they said.

They say that pro-Israel students were not detained at any point and were, in fact, filming the arrests. Police did not approach them.

“I am pleading for international support because now, we have no one in Germany that is standing up against this repression. The whole state is against us. There is no safe space and no room for conversation,” they said.

Beyond this reality, there does not seem to be a right to hold space in German universities to mourn their murdered Palestinian students. On November 2, Kassel University’s president canceled a memorial service for its own student who was killed by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza. 150 people came on campus to remember Yousef Shaban, a 33-year-old Palestinian who was killed along with his wife and son.

The university president, Ute Celement, originally took part in the memorial and said she was “very saddened by the death” of the student but quickly changed her tune.

According to the publication, Hessenshau, Clement shut down the memorial service and turned off the microphones once a speaker started to talk about the current situation in Gaza. Vigil Organizer Mustafa Saleh was disappointed by the cancellation of the event. “We have lost a friend,” Saleh said. “Shaban did not die in a natural disaster, but was killed because of a political conflict.”

The situation in Germany is getting worse by the day. It is clear university officials and politicians are unsure what to do with the growing support among students who are finally questioning Germany’s unwavering commitment to the state of Israel.

“We will not be silenced and let them walk over us,” the anonymous student activist said. “We saw that no matter how much we compromise the results will be the same. We get framed, lies are being spread, and our pictures are illegally spread. We will stand our ground, we will not repeat your mistake by believing them again.”

They added, “We will not bow down to oppressors. Free Palestine.”

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