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Germany is Criminalising Palestinian Solidarity

In its latest attack on Palestinian human rights, the German police have unleashed a chilling crackdown on Nakba commemorations - including banning the holding of watermelons and repressing Jewish anti-apartheid protesters.

German riot police stand in front of a protester waving a flag at a Nakba Day march. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

‘Where do you think my grandmother spent the Second World War?’  

Adam Broomberg, a prominent Jewish artist and Berlin-based photographer, asked this of the police after they grabbed him by the neck, threw him to the ground, beat him on the back then led him away in handcuffs. It was Saturday 20 May, and he had been listening to speeches at a gathering of around 400 fellow Berliners—Palestinians, Jews and their allies—twelve of whom were arrested as it was violently shut down. Why? Potential anti-semitism. 

The demonstration, called by the Berlin chapter of Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East, was titled: ‘Jewish Berliners demand the right of remembrance—also for Palestinians!’, and was the only legal option for Berliners wishing to gather in public to commemorate the Nakba. Three other protests that week had been pre-emptively banned by the city, so supporters joined together to coordinate. 

On a hot afternoon, armed cops in combat gear mingled amongst the small crowd gathered at Oranienplatz. Two pages of police conditions imposed on the event were read out by organisers in full before speakers began. The tenor of the speeches—no march has been allowed—is one of unity and defiance, but as police demands increased minute by minute, the atmosphere is stilted and hypervigilant.  

Navy helmets infiltrate the crowd in lines, first attempting to separate those waving the flags of a communist youth group and the local branch of the Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network from the rest of the crowd (Samidoun is a proscribed organisation in Israel, but not Germany). Soon, cops are demanding more stewards, leading to a call out on the mic: ‘Who can wear a yellow vest?’ German law dictates any protest must be logged in advance with the police, who hold named registrants personally liable for public safety and subsequent conduct of all attending participants.  

After activists speak and a local rapper has performed, an organiser cautiously takes the mic. ‘We know there are no grounds for it, and we don’t agree, but we need to let you know the police have just warned us that if anyone shouts “from the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free” again, they will disperse the crowd.’ 

Jeers give way to a silence soon punctured by the inevitable shout from the back of the crowd. Berlin Chief Inspector Martin Halweg will later falsely claim to Haaretz that this specific slogan is banned in Germany. Police swarm in, and demonstrators—including numerous distressed elderly participants—are attacked by armed riot police. Refusing police orders to divide the crowd by asking chanting protestors to leave, the stewards carefully attempt to manage an incredibly tense scene. Focussed on de-escalation, they announce the demo is over and request time from the police to peacefully disperse the crowd themselves.  

This time is not given, and chaos ensues. The sight of riot police with obscured badge numbers exchanging grins before attacking peaceful protestors may be a bleak and familiar one to many, but it carries an extra chill when it is German police beating Jews, Palestinians and their allies for ‘Israel-related anti-semitism.’ One officer is photographed kneeling across the back of a young woman wearing hijab, who is face down in the dirt. Amplified orders ring out from speakers atop the fleet of police vans that have encircled the area. ‘Leave the area immediately alone or in small groups. No flags, signs or banners.’ 

Criminalising Remembrance 

Permitted elsewhere across Germany and passing without incident, it is only in Berlin—a city with an identity saturated in political agitation—where Nakba Day commemorations were deemed unacceptable. As part of an ever-rising tide of repression extending far beyond demonstrations, it amounts to a parallel criminalisation of Palestinian life beyond Israeli borders. The Palestinian community in Berlin numbers more than 30,000, with many living in Neukölln, an inner-city neighbourhood routinely depicted in liberal media as a hotbed of violence, lawlessness and so-called ‘imported anti-semitism’.  

These events were organised by Nabka75, a coalition of ‘activists, organisers, and citizens of Germany, the United States, Poland, Syria, and Palestine; Christians, Muslims, Jews, and non-believers alike’ formed in response to the arrests of 2022, where Berlin police had (according to their own court testimony) been ordered to arrest anyone wearing a keffiyeh, Palestinian colours or who even ‘looked like they might attend’ the demonstration. Many people on the street were swept up in the resulting spree of racial profiling, and fines were given out totalling €8,270. In subsequent legal challenges, only white defendants have had their charges dismissed.  

After months of planning, the Nabka75 demonstration against these bans and for the right to Palestinian historical memory was, of course, also banned. The city’s justification noted that ‘participants will largely consist of younger people from the Arab diaspora, especially those with a Palestinian background. In addition, other Muslim-affiliated groups, presumably also from the Lebanese, Turkish and Syrian diasporas, will take part in the march.’ The ban ruling on the demo called by Samidoun described organisers as ‘highly emotional men’ who ‘glorify violence’ and are ‘difficult to control.’  

The justification for a pre-emptive ban on a child-friendly afternoon action to hold up watermelons, the fruit associated with Palestine, would almost be comedic if it weren’t quite so cynical—’antisemitic watermelons’. On Nakba Day itself, police vigilance was so extreme that police at one point stopped people from dancing the dabke on the basis that this traditional Palestinian dance potentially amounts to ‘political expression.’ All literature about BDS and any flyer containing the word ‘Nakba’ was seized. 

Less than an hour after the violence at Oranienplatz on Saturday, activists regrouped to debrief at a nearby cooperative space. A phone is held up with a grimace. The local daily Berliner Zeitung has somehow already filed an online story with the headline ‘Anti-Semitism in Kreuzberg: Palestinians disrupt Jewish demonstration’. To illustrate their bizarre distortions, the paper has used an image of Broomberg in handcuffs. Dark laughter gives way to silence. For twelve hours, Police officers in vans were stationed outside this private space where talks and a small photography exhibition had taken place.  

A feature common to Berlin’s Palestine solidarity demonstrations is men in sunglasses, and Saturday was no different. Boasting press accreditation yet refusing to identify themselves, they are generally armed with video cameras, often photographing protestors at very close range. Any response to these obvious provocations is filmed and subsequently reported as an egregious attack on press freedom by protestors. High-quality footage then appears within hours on social media channels of think tanks and NGOs, judiciously edited and published alongside fabricated narratives, frequently doxing and defaming already targeted protestors. 

The police statement about the day states as fact a fantasy scene where: 

‘Despite the ban on a planned Palestinian demonstration in Berlin, there were antisemitic attacks in Kreuzberg on Saturday afternoon. Between 80 and 100 Palestinian supporters are said to have massively disrupted the rally organised by the Jewish Voice for Just Peace in the Middle East on Oranienplatz.’ 

As well as the implicit racial profiling deployed to separate the crowd into Jews and non-Jews, their narrative begs the question: who is protecting who from who? The grotesque contours of this hall of mirrors also reveal a deep and troubling distaste for Jewish voices that do not conform to German preference. Reflecting on this distorted depiction, Jewish Voice organisers say that ‘an image is conveyed in which well-meaning Jewish activists were overrun by Palestinian Jew-haters. This perfectly reflects the racist anti-semitism discourse in Germany: that is, participants were accused of disrupting our rally, when in fact they were part of it.’ 

It is these actually existing bonds of solidarity, comradeship and political collaboration against apartheid that exist between Palestinian, Jewish and politically committed Berlin activists that are simply intolerable to the German narrative. But that voice grows only louder, from the river to the sea.