Boycot vs. Boycot

European Diary, 19.10.2020: The consequences of the controversial BDS resolution of the German Parliament of May 2019 are once again becoming apparent. It is apparently understood as a blanket power of attorney for censorship – and perhaps it was meant to be. And so an absurd game is set in motion that only helps those who have no interest in a solution to the conflict over Israel and Palestine. And those who want to prevent us from even thinking about it together.

But let me briefly explain. The movement “Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions”, founded years ago in Israel and Palestine, sees itself as a non-violent resistance against the Israeli occupation in Palestine. And is otherwise not squeamish in its methods. It calls for boycott actions against Israel worldwide. It calls for an end to the occupation of “Arab land”, which quite deliberately goes beyond resistance to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and calls into question Israel’s right to exist in its present form as a “Jewish” defined nation state at all. And at the same time it demands equal rights for all people in Israel, which can certainly be understood as a possible offer to discuss a bi-national state of Israel. Whatever the case, BDS is and will probably remain a rather half-baked, one could also say an extremely inconsistent movement. For which, by the way, many Jews and Jewish Israelis also express sympathy or at least a certain understanding. In view of the deadlocked conditions. And even if one has a bad feeling about it.

But unfortunately, the success of BDS is limited above all to striking the wrong people. For lack of ability to assert themselves in those places where it could hurt Israel, activists (especially in the USA) repeatedly concentrate on scandalizing appearances by Israeli scientists and artists, boycotting cooperation at universities or cultural events. “Cultural boycott” is by no means approved of by all BDS activists, but of course such actions quickly reach a large public, and that is tempting.

And at the same time you hit exactly those who could actually be won over for a possible dialogue. What remains is the pale aftertaste that many in the BDS movement with their cultural boycott actions (from which the leadership of the movement does not publicly distance itself anyway) want to torpedo any discussion about common perspectives. For whatever motives.

So far so bad. But even more successful is the boycott that is now spreading in Europe. And is acting up as “measures against BDS”. These “measures” include in particular the withdrawal of public funding for projects, a broad field for arbitrariness of all kinds. For what is a subsidy? It ranges from the financing of NGOs, subsidies for cultural organizers and projects at universities to the renting of public spaces. And who makes the decision on this? And what does all this have to do with a liberal democracy and a constitutional state? These “measures” authorized by the German Bundestag are now mostly not directed against the BDS movement itself, but against all people who have been publicly suspected by anyone, with whatever right, to have anything to do with BDS. (It is sufficient to have co-signed some appeal years ago…). We have landed in the middle of a new form of McCarthyism. “Are or were you a member?” Or do you know someone?

An interesting example of how far this absurd spiral of boycott and counter-boycott has come in the meantime can be seen in Berlin at the moment. There, at the Weißensee Art Academy, a group of Jewish Israelis has been studying the Zionist narrative of history for a year. Yehudit Yinhar is the spokesperson of the group (“School for Unlearning Zionism”), which is currently planning an exhibition at the Kunsthalle am Hamburger Platz and is organizing lectures, film evenings, and workshops in English and Hebrew.

Before she moved to Berlin to study as a master student at the Weissensee School of Art, she was one of the activists in Israel of the Israeli-Palestinian peace movement Combatants for Peace, which organizes a joint bi-national memorial day for the victims of both sides one day before the Israeli state holiday for the fallen soldiers every year. Even though the movement is massively hindered by the Israeli state, more and more people take part in this ceremony every year, including well-known Israeli music stars such as Achinoam Nini (Noa). In May 2020, 200,000 people finally watched the ceremony online this time due to the lockdown. The Combatants for Peace, who are searching for ways out of the conflict between the fronts, regularly have to put up with harsh criticism from BDS as well as from the Israeli government. And, of course, from all kinds of organizations and media that act as watchdogs against “anti-Semitism”.

This is now also the case with the project at the Weißensee Art Academy. The Jewish-Israeli group has come under fire. And so the opponents of BDS are now organizing a boycott against Jewish Israelis.

First, the right-wing populist Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom, which is close to the government, scandalized the project. The newspaper’s denunciation can now affect anyone. And sometimes nothing happens. But this time the Israeli embassy and the self-proclaimed champion against BDS in Germany, former member of the Bundestag Volker Beck, jumped on the bandwagon immediately and, strangely enough, so did the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee. “No tax money should be used for the delegitimization of Israel,” they said. The NGO Amadeo Antonio Foundation ranks the Israelis’ project under “Anti-Semitic incidents”.  And Volker Beck even demands the withdrawal of “indirect” funding. This could perhaps even lead to the ban of critical Jews and Israelis in Berlin from using the (state-subsidized) subway. Yehudit Yinhar probably sums it up best in the Berliner Zeitung: “A group of Jewish Israelis wants to take a critical look at their own history, but then the white German comes along and says: No, you can’t do that! As if the power to define our own history were German property. What does this amount to? Are we again divided into good and bad Jewish women? When German institutions seriously claim that they want to protect Jewish life in Germany and then withdraw funds from us on suspicion of anti-Semitism, something is going very wrong.”

Now let’s imagine that Donald Trump would demand that the money be withdrawn from projects at German universities that critically deal with American history (for example, the “Indian Wars”) on the grounds that it “delegitimizes” the United States. Or Putin would demand that Russian emigrants in Germany no longer be allowed to critically examine the October Revolution. Or Erdogan would demand that no more Kurdish artists be allowed to perform in German concert halls who also talk about Turkish policy toward the Kurds. (Oh yes, that’s right, he does indeed, and yet he gets rather clear answers…).

Funding for the Berlin project now is stalled and the website is taken offline by the Art academy, that fears loosing future public funding and thus their existence. Welcome to the illiberal democracy of Victor Orban in Germany.

19.10.2019: The House of Commons in London votes in a special session against the immediate approval of the new Brexit Treaty. Boris Johnson is forced to apply for an extension of the Brexit deadline in Brussels. Great Britain is still refusing to withdraw from the EU at any price.

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