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Flag-burning has nothing to do with freedom of speech

Herbsttreffen der Medienfrauen 2017 Ines Pohl
Ines Pohl
December 11, 2017

Those who wish to live in Germany must accept its values. That includes the country's tough stance on anti-Semitism, says DW Editor-in-Chief Ines Pohl.

Protestors burn a makeshift Israeli flag in Berlin
Image: picture alliance/dpa/Jüdisches Forum für Demokratie und gegen Antisemitismus e.V.

In Germany, the right to protest enjoys considerable protection. Curtailing this right is possible only if strict conditions are met. So our democratic system must accept it when political slogans are voiced on German streets that have an essentially anti-democratic character, such as the crude call of "Foreigners out!"

Germany's Nazi dictatorship painfully illustrated what can happen when a state suppresses all criticism and outlaws street protests. That is why in today's Germany it goes without saying that critics of Angela Merkel's government are free to voice their dissent. And why Palestinians in Germany are free to protest in front of the US embassy in Berlin to vent their anger over plans to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

The obligation of Germany's history

But this part of our history does not oblige us to be tolerant of anything and everything — in fact, the contrary is true. Germany is responsible for the murder of at least 6 million Jews during the Holocaust. And no matter how much time has passed since, Germany will always have a unique obligation to fight anti-Semitism. A country that has committed such a crime must not turn a blind eye to any anti-Semitic actions — and particularly those within its own borders.

Ines Pohl photo for App
DW Editor-in-Chief Ines PohlImage: DW/P. Böll

This is why burning the Israeli flag in Germany is utterly unacceptable. Those who have come to Germany seeking safety and a new place to call home must abide by this fact. There are fundamental values in German society that are non-negotiable. 

Germany as a nation of immigrants

It may be common practice elsewhere to burn flags to do one's adversary a dishonor. Germany's constitution, however, places great importance on respecting others and protecting minorities. It is unacceptable when Turkish, Russian, American or Saudi national flags are set alight — even though this does not necessarily constitute a criminal act. Burning flags is unacceptable, no matter how vehemently one opposes a particular country's government.

Germany is a nation of immigrants. But living together can work only if we all honor the lessons learned from its specific history. Those who do not accept this have no future in this country.

Herbsttreffen der Medienfrauen 2017 Ines Pohl
Ines Pohl Bureau head of DW's Washington Studio@inespohl
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