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German cities split with 'anti-Semitic' BDS boycott movement

September 10, 2017

The international protest movement to boycott Israel is increasingly encountering resistance in Germany's big cities. Frankfurt, Berlin and Munich have said BDS uses language from the Nazi era.

A man in Cairo screams in support of the BDS boycott movement
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Nabil

For over ten years, an international network of protest against Israeli policy toward the Palestinians has existed: the "Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions" (BDS) movement. It began in 2005 when numerous Palestinian organizations expressed extensive criticism of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. Internationally, the call to boycott Israeli products from the occupied territories and holdings of Israeli companies was based on a long-term campaign in the 1980s against the apartheid system in South Africa.

For a long time, BDS' stance was regarded as critical of Israel as a whole or anti-Zionist. But recently, several German metropolises have judged the protest movement to be "anti-Semitic" and have outlawed official support to the movement.

A few weeks ago, Frankfurt — considered Germany's business and financial capital — turned against BDS. The city's municipal authorities decided they would not allow any locations or public spaces to be used for BDS activities in the city, and they appealed to private landlords to follow suit. In addition, they announced that any associations or organizations supporting the BDS movement would see their public subsidies revoked.

Uwe Becker of the CDU
CDU politician Uwe Becker has initiated anti-BDS petitionsImage: picture-alliance/Sven Simon/M. Ossowski

'An important signal'

Uwe Becker, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and a member of Frankfurt's mayoral council whose portfolio includes religious affairs, provided the impetus for the decision. He told Deutsche Welle that to him, the BDS movement is "profoundly anti-Semitic" as it uses the language "that Nazis once used" in their messaging. Moreover, he callshis city's refusal to support BDS an "important signal." Becker said that he has received much more praise than criticism about the decision and believes that many people "have come to really understand what BDS is about."

At the national level, the anti-BDS movement is also gaining steam. At its annual convention in Essen in December 2016, Merkel's CDU party approved a petition that would make the party condemn or oppose any BDS activities. Becker also initiated that petition.

The Frankfurt alderman says he would like to see further votes of this kind. "If possible, at least the big cities in Germany and Europe should position themselves accordingly. It should become a movement." So far, he has not had any official requests to join his anti-movement movement.  "But at events here and there I am already being approached informally." The topic has been brought up at the Deutscher Städtetag, a meeting of officials from over 3,400 German municipalities. It has not yet been discussed within the framework of the German-Israeli sister city network.

Read more: Israel approves travel ban on activists that call for boycott

South Africans protest in support of the BDS boycott
BDS is modeled after the international boycott against South Africa that helped end apartheid Image: picture-alliance/Anadolu Agency/H. Isilow

Munich, Berlin follow suit

Reaction was swift from the Bavarian capital, Munich, following Frankfurt's announcement. Several German and Israeli media reports have indicated that the city has proposed a bill that would disallow any municipal provision of space or money to pro-BDS entities.

Now Berlin has weighed in. There is, however, a back story to the Berlin Senate's distancing from the BDS movement. In June, an uproar was sparked at a Humboldt University event featuring an 82-year-old Holocaust survivor and a deputy of Israel's parliament, the Knesset. According to media reports the two were "shouted down" by BDS activists. In mid-August, a BDS-organized pro-boycott demonstration in Berlin overshadowed a pop culture festival that had received minor financing from the Israeli embassy. Various artists, mainly from the Arab world, obeyed the call to cancel their participation in the festival.

Harsh criticism of the festival boycott came first from high-ranking city officials. Berlin's mayoral council member and culture minister Klaus Lederer (The Left party) expressed horror at the outcome. "The boycott is disgusting," he said. At the national level, Germany's Minister of Cultural Affairs Monika Grütters (CDU), who supported the festival, was similarly clear. When Berlin Mayor Michael Müller (Social Democratic Party) did not initially comment, the Simon Wiesenthal Center threatened to put him on its annual anti-Semitism list, which garners high visibility internationally.

It was only after a discussion with the Central Council of Jews in Germany that Müller spoke out. "BDS stands alongside anti-Semitic signs in Berlin businesses, which are intolerable practices from the Nazi era. We will do everything possible to take spaces and money away from BDS due to its anti-Israeli hatred," he said. He expressed a desire for a "legally binding ban on providing spaces" and also mentioned the possibility of a proper ban on BDS, a step for which the interior minister, currently Thomas de Maiziere of the CDU, would be responsible. Mayor Müller thus followed Frankfurt and Munich's line. As of Friday afternoon, the BDS had not issued any response to his statements.

A tussle at the event featuring BDS and its critics
A tussle broke out in Munich when a Jewish community member pointed out the bias of the pro-BDS speaker at an eventImage: picture-alliance/Pacific Press/M. Trammer

Reports indicate rising anti-Semitism

Ultimately, these moves demonstrate that municipalities are also taking into consideration the growing concerns of many Israelis and German Jews.

On Friday, national newspaper Die Welt cited new federal government data on anti-Semitism. In the first half of 2017, a total of 681 such offenses were recorded, 27 more than in the same period in 2016. There was also a slight increase in cases of violence and "incitement towards hatred," which, it should be noted, has been a serious felony in Germany since the Nazi era.

Media reports also indicate that in their petition to stop funding pro-BDS entities, CDU and SPD officials in Munich cited another recent federal statistic according to which 40 percent of Germans hold Israel-related anti-Semitic views.

The former president of the Central Council of the Jews, Charlotte Knobloch, called the figures frightening and referred to the emergence of the anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party and the far-right, nationalist, anti-Islam Pegida movement.

Berlin Bundestag representative Volker Beck
Volker Beck says that government figures on anti-Semitism probably underestimate its prevalenceImage: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Kumm

Volker Beck, a Green party member of Bundestag and head of its German-Israeli Parliamentary Friendship Group, initiated the publication of the figures through an official request to the government. However, he told Die Welt, "the dark figure” [the actual or unreported figure behind a statistic — Editor's note] is "to be feared, and is probably much higher." Beck, along with various non-governmental organizations, has long been calling for an anti-Semitism commissioner to serve directly in the Federal Chancellery. In June, however, the federal government made it clear that a decision on such a representative would no longer come before the upcoming Bundestag elections. But the demand is likely to come up again after September 24.

Read more: Israeli bookshop owner in Berlin denies anti-Semitism forced him out of business

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C