Pro-Palestinian Protests in Germany and the Responsibility of Academics

A historian living in Berlin examines the antisemitism of pro-Palestinian protests in Germany.
June 20, 2024
Demonstrators march to commemorate the 76th anniversary of the Nakba on May 15, 2024 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Maryam Majd/Getty Images)

Throughout Germany, there are student protests that define themselves as “pro-Palestinian.” What they have in common is that they decontextualize and ignore the bestial massacres carried out by Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and their supporters on October 7, 2023 in southern Israel. For it was precisely these massacres of children, women and men that were the starting point for the Israeli army’s war against Hamas and its supporters.

The eviction of the protest camps in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany by police forces has been met with fierce criticism, including from Berlin lecturers and professors and other supporters who see it as a threat to freedom of expression and demonstration as well as the rule of law. An open letter from Berlin lecturers and professors states: “Regardless of whether we agree with the specific demands of the protest camp, we stand in front of our students and defend their right to peaceful protest, which also includes the occupation of university grounds.”

Implicitly, this letter supports a narrative that has been circulating online and in the press for months, and not only in Germany: “pro-Palestinian” or Palestinian voices are “suppressed” or “not heard.” The reality is quite different. The “pro-Palestinian voices” have been the loudest ever since October 7, 2023, fueled by an unprecedented antisemitic smear campaign on TikTok, Instagram and other social media, as well as in the press and on the streets.

There are protests on the streets of Germany that publicize their views on the war in Gaza and the sadistic actions of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and some Gazan civilians who participated in rape and looting on October 7 and celebrated the abduction of Israeli hostages on the streets of Gaza. The majority of these protests are whitewashing terror and reinterpreting it as “resistance.” The demands for a ceasefire or an end to the war are directed exclusively at Israel, not Hamas and collaborators; nor is there any demand that Hamas lay down arms.

Since October 7, false, presuppositional claims have circulated, many of which have been well known for decades. Some claim there is a “sense of guilt over the Holocaust” in Germany that does “not allow” for criticism of Israel. This narrative has also been perpetuated by countless journalists over the past few months—journalists who, supposedly objectively, can describe a “war of extermination” against Palestinian civilians in Gaza, calling it a “slaughterhouse,” but do not even question the figures from the Ministry of Health in Gaza. Nor is the sudden halving of the number of 14,500 children killed in Gaza (every child killed is one too many!) on May 8 explained. Perhaps “child murderer” Israel should just leave it at that.

What these claims make clear is that this is an antisemitic smear campaign, nothing more.

A federal press conference of German academics on May 21 characterized the protests as “protests against the war in Gaza,” which triggered “understandable emotional reactions” and was part of a “culture of debate” in which also Jewish students participated. The obviously antisemitic, anti-Israeli, and historically misleading content of the majority of student protests was overlooked. An in-depth analysis of the protest camps and political messages of the student actors and their presentation on the respective social media channels was also largely ignored. These academics claimed that the student protests were at the mercy of “police violence”—a decontextualized and literally invented interpretation of the real events that happened in Berlin and elsewhere. The implication here is that the protest camps were cleared because criticism of Israel is not permitted. This is certainly not true, and it proves that professors and students lack the ability to criticize Israel without fueling antisemitism or without regarding Zionism itself as a crime—another distorted perception.

Graffiti covers a wall following an occupation by pro-Palestine activists in a building at Humboldt University on May 29, 2024 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by ddp – Pool/Getty Images)

The demands by these student protestors are simple-minded, underpinned by post-colonial approaches to explaining the world, enemy images such as “the white Jew,” and even the glorification of Palestinian terror. A real vision for peace in the Middle East, which could be achieved above all through the disempowerment of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (whose origins predate Hamas), does not exist here. The suggestion that the participation of Jewish students legitimizes the protests suggests that you can be “pro-Palestinian” only if you define yourself as “anti-Zionist” and/or question the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state. Moreover, it’s a means to demonize the majority of Jews who disagree with this stance.

And why do the atrocities committed in Israel rarely, in both Germany and throughout the world, trigger any empathy? Since October 7, there has been a multi-front war against Israel and its civilians. To this day, little is known about the targeted massacres of Israeli families and the targeted murder of Israeli children on October 7. The north has been evacuated, while people from the south are still living in temporary shelters. The war with Hezbollah is imminent, Iran attacked Israel directly for the first time on April 13, 2024, and there are repeated attacks from Syria and Yemen, not to mention the seemingly endless barrage of rockets that Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and their supporters are constantly firing at civilians in Israel (and have been doing so repeatedly for almost twenty years). School lessons are interrupted or do not take place at all, and children in Israel are also confronted with hatred on social media. Nowhere is there even a modicum of empathy in these student protests, even when it comes to the release of hostages or bodies of murdered to find their final resting place. On X, Berlin students have the audacity to make comments such as “The hostages will stay there until the war is over.”

And why do the atrocities committed in Israel rarely, in both Germany and throughout the world, trigger any empathy?

The statements made by academics in Germany are a dark turning point. They massively misjudge or ignore the deep-seated hatred of Israel, a hatred that unites mutually exclusive political movements. They ignore disinformation and historical misrepresentation (“the Palestinians took in Jews from Europe”) or brutal hatred of Jews. In addition, the aforementioned lecturers and professors not only ignore the acute massive threat to the State of Israel by placing the war in Gaza in the history of the “Middle East conflict,” in which there is only one “oppressor” (Israel) and one “oppressed” (Palestinians) or one perpetrator and a victim, but also they overlook the obvious Palestinian involvement in other Islamist movements (Hamas – Islamic Republic of Iran) as well as the terror of Hamas, Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations supported by Iran. For them, Netanyahu poses a greater threat than Ali Khamenei. The fact is that October 7 poses a massive threat not only to the security of the State of Israel, but also to a diverse Jewish life worldwide, and also at universities and colleges in Germany.

It is astonishing that lecturers and members of universities—for example on May 23 at Humboldt University in Berlin—believe they must support “pro-Palestinian” students, ignoring the fact that antisemitic statements, the marking with the red triangle (a Hamas symbol for marking opponents) or simple world declarations directed solely against Israel have been made. The seemingly pro-democratic argumentation of lecturers and professors (and not only from Berlin) defines the protest camps as democratic simply because they take place at universities, and literally gives them a free pass. Ignored are the open calls for violence such as “Intifada Revolution,” “Yalla, yalla, Intifada,” the one-sided demand for a ceasefire on Israel and massive ignorance of state and non-state sponsored disinformation on the internet such as “genocide in Gaza” or the open delegitimization of the existence of the State of Israel, as at the Free University Berlin.

The protests become completely absurd when students or professors demand that collaborations with Israeli institutions cease. If you criticize them, you are cancelled, ignored or never receive an answer. Is this the progressive left that demands to hear “all voices”? The overwhelming majority of these student protests lack context and complex perspective on the Israel-Hamas war as well as on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, they rely primarily on the strategy of emotional radicalization. How is it that these academics, who work on the Holocaust, antisemitism, migration and integration, allow narratives that brand Israel as a “white, colonizing apartheid state that is committing genocide in Gaza”? The well-known blind man with a walking stick should realize that this is literally Nazi Germany. Moreover, this branding of Israel leaves no space for the Palestinian side as agents of their own history; a “perpetrator” (Israel) and “victim” (Palestine) dichotomy is quite clearly defined.

The voices of Palestinians who criticize Hamas and the Palestinian leadership are omitted from these protests. For example, consider Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib, who has lost at least 31 family members in the war in Gaza and still maintains a realistic view of the future, or Hamza Abu Howidy, also from Gaza, who accuses most of the protests at universities and colleges in the U.S. of simply hating Jews and says that the protest camps harm the Palestinian cause. He also criticizes the fact that Palestinians did not receive any media support, or any support at all, during the “We want to live” protests in Gaza in 2019 or 2023, which were directed against Hamas. Where were the students then?

The voices of Palestinians who criticize Hamas and the Palestinian leadership are omitted from these protests.

Other Arab voices, such as human rights activist Dalia Ziada, who exposes the narrative of Hamas as resistance as a lie, Bassam Eid, who directs attention to internal Palestinian conflicts and calls for Israel’s policies not to be presented exclusively as an obstacle to peace, or Mousab Hassan Yousef, son of a Hamas founder, who characterizes Hamas as an idea for the destruction of the state of Israel, which is more difficult to destroy than Hamas as an Islamist organization—none of them are discussed here, and rarely in the press. And haters claim of course they are either paid by Israel or Mossad.

Who, if not lecturers and professors, should ask “pro-Palestinian” protesters for the basics of academic work—source criticism? Academics should be initiating critical discussions about phrases that are uncritically promoted by students. Rather than mindlessly shouting slogans, they should be challenging terms such as “white settler colonialism” or “Zionism” and forcing students to confront their various meanings. And instead of stating unequivocally that there is a “genocide in Gaza,” professors should be initiating dialogue about what actually constitutes a genocide and raising a discussion of the genocidal traits of the Hamas massacre of Oct. 7. Further, we should be asking our students: What manipulation strategies do Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad use on social media? And: What critical voices exist in Palestinian society and the diaspora that do not rely on emotionalization but instead aim for peace alongside Israel?

Black-and-white thinking only manifests hatred of Jews and ultimately divides society. German professors and lecturers have a responsibility to resist this kind of thinking.

But perhaps most importantly it is the hate-filled accusation of “genocide in Gaza,” which serves to justify many anti-Israeli activities, that should be viewed critically. This accusation was made by Holocaust and Genocide scholars in the United States just a few days after October 7, 2023 even though the IDF had not even begun its ground offensive. It was said to be a “textbook genocide.” Rather, this view is a textbook example of how a one-sided view and interpretation of sources can damage peace in the Middle East. This was topped only by the statement “Intent in the genocide case against Israel is not hard to prove,“ published on AlJazeera, the mouthpiece of Qatar. More than 800 academics “warned” of a genocide in the form of an open letter and continue to do so to this day. Disinformation that fuels antisemitism is not a way to achieve peace.

But the genocide accusation is not new. In the course of the 1982 Lebanon War, PLO leader Yasser Arafat accused Israel of genocide against Palestinians and even Lebanese. And the German press liked to let Israeli leftists have their say, as in the article in SPIEGEL as of September 1982 entitled “We are all murderers.” In his essay “From Moscow to Beirut” historian Léon Poliakov, one of the pioneers of early Holocaust research, highlighted the underlying masterminds and traditions of antisemitism, a fusion of the Soviet and Arab antisemitic propaganda machinery directed against the “Jew among the states” (Israel).

But the genocide accusation is not new.

He attested to the left-wing press in France (but not only there), where he was living at the time: “The French anti-Semites … were truly celebrating a party.” And he attested to the worldwide pro-Palestinian demonstrations: “Neither the Kurds, the Afghans, nor the last tribes in the Amazon—not even the Cambodians—experienced such ‘care.’” The epilogue to this essay, which will be published in a new edition in Germany in a few days’ time and has never been translated into English or Hebrew, is enlightening. Rudolf Pfisterer, retired senior church councilor, writes on the reception of the 1982 Lebanon war, focusing on the situation in Germany, that even then there were demands, admonitions and patronizing, Israel should moderate itself and exercise restraint. Additionally, he claimed the right-wing government (then under Menachem Begin) was to blame for the war and was the real culprit for the Christian massacres of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. At the time, there were efforts to charge Ariel Sharon in Belgium with war crimes in Lebanon, but these were rejected.

So history repeats itself. Back then, too, Palestinians were described as terrorists, but were always perceived as victims of Israel. Both can be proven using sources in newspaper archives. In 1982, Fatah manipulated the numbers of dead in Lebanon and claimed that the victims were primarily women and children. Poliakov wrote: “Tens of thousands of civilians were killed and injured, 600,000 to 700,000 Lebanese were on the run.” In reality, there were probably around 9,000 dead; the PLO had provoked a house-to-house battle and used human shields. The press worldwide reported mostly uncritically and celebrated Arafat as a hero. Today, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad are demonstrably manipulating the situation.

It is important to campaign for peace in the Middle East, and criticism of Israeli policy can and should be part of this. However, pro-Palestinian activities are not credible if they are based solely on blaming Israel. Why do “pro-Palestinian” protests take place in front of the Holocaust memorial or synagogues in Berlin? Why is the Kindertransport memorial in Berlin smeared with the words “Al Aqsa Mosque” and “Dome of the Rock”? Slogans like “If Gaza burns, Berlin burns too” do not help one Palestinian. To be “pro-Palestinian” today means to define oneself unilaterally through incitement against Israel. In fact, too often it is simply dull antisemitism, hatred of Israel and a desire for destruction.

Lecturers, professors and students must perceive Palestinians and their leaders as acting subjects with responsibility for their history and critically examine the romanticized glorification of Palestinian nationalism. So far, Palestinians have far too often served as a projection surface. There is the urgent need for an unprejudiced discussion of the current war in Gaza and the Oct. 7 massacres. Berlin colleges and universities must question terms such as “apartheid,” “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” in a clear-cut manner. And indeed, there should be no discussion with pro-Palestinian supporters who do not set the minimum standard for peace in the Middle East: the recognition of the state of Israel, which has already been delegitimized at the Free University Berlin.

Another low point of “pro-Palestinian” protests was reached on June 1 in Berlin, which took place in the heart of the city, not at a university but on the streets: 3000 participants marched under the slogan “Solidarity with Palestine” against, among other things, the “genocide in Gaza.”

The agitator shouts: “Rapists” and the crowd responds: “Israel.”

The agitator shouts: “Child murderer” and the crowd responds: “Israel.”

The agitator shouts: “Murderer of women” and the crowd answers: “Israel.”

The agitator shouts: “Genocide” and the crowd answers: “Israel.”

The number of those who confronted the hatred: around 30. They were sent the red triangle of Hamas with finger signs, by men and women, both Muslim and non-Muslim. There was aggression against police officers. Participants in the counter-demonstration and spectators were largely stunned. It is almost a failure of the state when the German government proclaims Israel’s security as a “reason of state” and in reality allows the abuse of freedom of expression at “pro-Palestinian” demonstrations at universities and on the streets. Is the raison d’état only to increase the police presence at Jewish institutions? Freedom of expression is not a free pass for protests that trivialize Islamism, terrorism and antisemitism, which are used to unite left-wing and Islamist actors and spread blind hatred of Israel. As a rule, it is precisely these protests that turn against social cohesion and dissolve the previous consensus on what constitutes Islamist terror.

As a rule, it is precisely these protests that turn against social cohesion and dissolve the previous consensus on what constitutes Islamist terror.

The victims of the current conflicts and unrest, including at German universities and colleges, are undoubtedly the Jewish students in particular. They must be given support and solidarity in order to be able to continue their studies in safety and unthreatened. This no longer seems to be the case at various universities and colleges.

At a meeting with activist Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib in Berlin the common false narrative that criticism of Israel is not allowed and wrongly called antisemitic was proven wrong. He criticizes the Israel government but does not question the existence of Israel and does not use propaganda terms like “Apartheid” or “Jewish supremacy.” He also pushes back against the claim that Gaza is a concentration camp. He can criticize fueling antisemitism or anti-Zionism and explains on X what being pro-Palestinian really means: time for introspection and speaking out against Hamas. He is convinced that there is no genocide in Gaza, even though there might be war crimes. Consequently, he is accused of being a “Zionist” and was blocked by students from “Students for Palestine” or “Students for Jihad in Palestine.” He wishes more Palestinians in the Diaspora would speak out against Hamas—he is sure they exist. According to Alkhatib, ideology that regards Palestinians as mere victims (only of Israel and not victims of their governments) or without any agency or responsibility, are not helping Palestinians .

Professors and student protestors in Germany and beyond would do well to listen to the voices of people like Alkhatib or Abu Howidy.

Dr. Verena Buser is a historian and lives in Berlin. She researches childhood during and after the Holocaust.

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