Germany Believes in Free Speech, but Not for Palestinians

This month, Palestinians mark the Nakba, the wave of ethnic cleansing that began their decades of displacement. But in Germany, trumped-up antisemitism allegations are being used to suppress the commemorations — showing that speech isn’t free for all.

Protesters face riot police as they march on Nakba Day to demonstrate for the rights of Palestinians on May 15, 2021 in Neukölln, Berlin, Germany. (Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

Every year on May 15, Palestinians around the world commemorate the Nakba, the Arabic word for “catastrophe.” It refers to the events of May 1948, when, in the chaos of the Arab-Israeli war, Zionist paramilitaries carried out a campaign of mass ethnic cleansing against Arab Palestinians. The attacks resulted in the expulsion of an estimated 750,000 people — about 75 percent of the native population of what is now the State of Israel — from their land and homes. This was a key, albeit often overlooked, event in Israel’s founding, and continues to be central to Palestinian history and collective identity.

Long a taboo in the Israeli public sphere, the events of the Nakba have since been conclusively established, often by Israeli historians working in Israeli archives. Following the formal end of the British Mandate of Palestine on May 14, 1948, armed militias like the Irgun, the Haganah, and the Stern Gang launched attacks on Palestinian communities, killing about fifteen thousand people and destroying nearly five hundred towns and villages. The same militias are also notorious for mass killings such as the Deir Yassin (April 9, 1948) and Tantura (May 22–23, 1948) massacres, designed to intimidate and force people to leave their homes.

Israeli historian Ilan Pappé describes the operation in his book, The Ethnic Cleaning of Palestine:

The orders came with a detailed description of the methods to be employed to forcibly evict the people: large-scale intimidation; laying siege to and bombarding villages and population centers; setting fire to homes, properties and goods; expulsion; demolition; and, finally, planting mines among the rubble to prevent any of the expelled inhabitants from returning.

For millions of Palestinians, the Nakba is not just a historical event but an ongoing reality. The confiscation of Palestinian land and the forced displacement of Palestinians continue to be major issues, as can be seen in places like Al-Araqib in the Negev and Sheikh Jarrah, where Palestinian residents face the constant threat of dispossession and displacement. Consequently, the Nakba remains a unifying force connecting Palestinians across borders and generations, serving as a symbol of their shared history and ongoing struggle for justice and self-determination.

Berlin is one of the hundreds of cities around the world that sees regular Nakba demonstrations. The German capital has been home to a large Palestinian community since the 1960s, initially made up of Palestinian students, refugees from Lebanon, and political exiles. The community has grown over generations to become one of the largest in Europe, with an estimated forty thousand people. Beyond preserving their culture and heritage, Berlin’s Palestinians are actively engaged in advocating for Palestinian rights in Germany and raising awareness about their cause.

Over the last year, however, the atmosphere has changed. On April 17, a demonstration and two rallies commemorating the Nakba and showing solidarity with Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails were banned by Berlin police.

Citing previous incidents of antisemitic slogans heard on pro-Palestine marches, authorities claimed the ban was a preventative measure to avoid the imminent risk of antisemitism, incitement, violence, and disruption to public peace and security. But for Berlin’s tens of thousands of Palestinians, it feels like the actions of a handful of individuals are being used as an excuse to deprive them of their right to free speech completely.


“They are banning everything that has to do with Palestine, regardless of who is organizing the events,” Said Ahmed Abed, a Berlin lawyer, told Jacobin. “The aim is to undermine the rights of Palestinians who live here. It tells Palestinians living in Berlin that the freedom of speech guaranteed to everyone else does not apply to them — simply because they are Palestinian.”

The latest ban is, indeed, only the latest in a string of police measures seeking to prevent Palestinians and their supporters from demonstrating in public. On May 15 last year, as demonstrators were getting ready to commemorate the Nakba, all officially registered events were banned on short notice. The ban extended to all gatherings with more than two people present, targeting rallies, demonstrations, and vigils organized by the German-Palestinian activist group Palestine Speaks and Samidoun: Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, together with non-Palestinian organizations like Jewish Voice for Just Peace in the Middle East.

Later that day, a group of Palestinian activists decided to organize a flash mob against the ban in the middle of Hermannplatz in Neukölln, a district with a large Palestinian population and, more recently, a left-leaning Israeli diaspora. The group stood silently without banners, raising their fists in the air and posing for a group photo. More people spontaneously gathered, showing their solidarity and opposition to the ban on supporting Palestine.

The police, who seemed to be waiting around the area for a provocation, violently arrested around 170 people, some of whom were mere curious bystanders. Of those arrested, twenty-seven were fined €400 each, for a total of around €8,000. A small number of those arrested chose to appeal the fine in court, while most ended up paying the full amount.

Michael J., a young Palestinian artist who was arrested on May 15, told Jacobin, “I got detained for holding a Palestinian flag. I was alone, standing by myself on the side. The police were on the lookout for anyone with anything with a Palestinian symbol on it. It was something like racial profiling, with the police focusing on people of color who were in the area.”

Abed, the lawyer who is also representing Michael, says the police “chased people through the streets of Neukölln, rounding up anyone wearing a Palestinian headscarf (keffiyeh), holding a flag or displaying any symbol related to Palestine.”

Many of the activists facing repression feel that the process is designed to discourage them from engaging in future political activism more than anything else. Michael, who appealed his fine, described the process at the court as draining and biased: “The court sent me a notice to pay. I lodged an objection, and that was when my trial began. I was found guilty. The judge was by no means neutral. This whole sham of a trial was just meant to wear us down.”

A Hostile Atmosphere for Palestinians and Their Allies

Abed claims that the protest ban is unconstitutional. It violates article five of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany as well as the European Convention on Human Rights.

“The Administrative Court said the ban ought to be in place because anyone who uses the term apartheid in reference to Israel constitutes a danger to public peace and safety,” he explained. “At the same time, the High Administrative Court says the ban is only because the crowds can be hard to keep under control. Here, we have a contradiction in statements.”

But the ban on demonstrations is just the tip of the iceberg. Meanwhile, the Berlin Senate, which funds a number of cultural venues and community centers around the city, has begun pressuring spaces not to hold events on Palestine. The pressure comes in the form of the direct or indirect threat of a cut in funding, a source who prefers to remain anonymous told Jacobin.

On April 29, an event on anti-Palestine racism and repression was scheduled to take place in Oyoun, a nonprofit that describes itself as a “space for critical discussion, reflective experimentation and radical solidarity” and “queer* feminist and migrant perspectives.” A few weeks before the event, organizers were informed that the event could no longer be held at the center. It was later held elsewhere and attended by over 130 people.

Waving the defunding card is seen as very worrying and dangerous by many activists in the city, as it sets a precedent by which the city has the authority to decide which political causes are allowed and which are not. The city, after all, is home to many diasporic communities whose home governments enjoy good relations with Berlin. Will the police impose a similar ban on the Egyptian community next time the Egyptian dictator is in town for a state visit?

Tsafrir Cohen, executive director of the Frankfurt-based humanitarian and human rights organization medico international, views the recent bans as part of a wider trend in Germany:

We have been observing the shrinking of spaces in relation to Israel, Palestine and antisemitism accusations for years. The fact that bans are used here, but not in the case of the demonstrations against the government’s pandemic measures, where the Shoah was repeatedly trivialized, speaks volumes.

In his eyes, the state is using antisemitism as a pretext to normalize heightened levels of police repression:

The danger is that the debate on Israel and anti-Semitism will serve as a gateway for security policy-makers and institutions to establish repressive practices and measures that will then be applied more generally. These sorts of policies will lead Germany in an illiberal direction, like we’ve seen in Poland or Hungary.

A Divided Left and an Intimidated Civil Society

Former Die Linke MP Christine Buchholz was also at Herrmannplatz that day. On March 22, 2023, she was put on trial for attending the Nakba Day protest. Her second court appearance was scheduled for late April, but was postponed. She calls the case “overblown,” and says that “the real scandal is not that we refuse to pay, but the demonstration ban and the police kettle, in which we were held for up to two hours.”

Abed, who is also a member of the party and Buchholz’s lawyer, says Die Linke took a clear stand against the ban. Buchholz concurs, pointing out that the Berlin chapter’s spokesperson for internal affairs, Niklas Schrader, along with Berlin House of Representatives member Ferat Kocak, criticized the ban: “That’s a good start, but more dissent is needed.”

Indeed, not everyone in the party shares her view. The party participated in the city-level government that imposed the ban, and Die Linke’s Klaus Lederer — Deputy Mayor and Senator for Culture and Europe at the time — has denounced the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as “structurally antisemitic” on numerous occasions. Just last year, the Berlin chapter of Die Linke’s youth organization saw its funding suspended after passing a resolution describing Israel as an “apartheid state.” Lena Kreck, Die Linke’s Senator for Justice, Diversity and Anti-Discrimination in the Berlin government from December 2021 to April 2023, remained noticeably silent about the affair.

Other parts of German civil society appear similarly divided on the issue — or simply too intimidated to speak out. Both the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, which has vigorously defended whistleblowers like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, as well as the Association of Republican Lawyers, a nationwide organization that often provides pro bono legal defense to left-wing activists facing state prosecution, declined to provide Jacobin with a statement on the bans.

In 2019, the German Bundestag passed an anti-BDS motion based on the highly controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, a move that Buchholz says has “massively increased the criminalization and defamation of Palestine solidarity” in the country. The IHRA definition has been widely criticized for its conflation of criticism of Zionism as a state ideology with antisemitism as such, and has been described by some groups as a tool to close down debate around the suppression of Palestinians. Indeed, several incidents of Palestinians being disinvited from conferences or denied access to public spaces have been reported since the motion was adopted.

In February 2022, six Arab journalists were fired from the German state-funded broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) on the grounds of alleged antisemitism. Farah Maraqa and Maram Salem, two of the journalists who were sacked, decided to challenge the unlawful termination of their employment and took DW to court. Their dismissal was subsequently ruled illegal by the Labor Court.

Later, on April 26, 2022, the Regional Court of Stuttgart ruled that the State Bank of Baden-Württemberg’s attempts to close bank accounts of the Stuttgart Palestine Committee were unlawful. In justifying its decision, the bank cited the German parliament’s anti-BDS motion.

To Buchholz and others, the double standard couldn’t be more obvious.

Who’s Protecting Whom?

While it is little surprise that public opinion around Israel-Palestine would be different in Germany — the country that bears a unique historical responsibility for the industrial murder of over six million European Jews — than in the rest of the world, the growing repression of Palestinians and their supporters increasingly looks like the German state imposing its foreign-policy stance on the groups affected most affected by it.

In an open letter published on April 21 of this year, one hundred Jews and Israelis living in Berlin spoke out against the ban, stating: “In our view, the blanket ban, based on suspicions of possible illegal activity, discriminates against the Palestinian minority in Germany and sets a worrying precedent that is bound to affect other marginalized communities.”

Yossi Bartal, a journalist, writer, and member of the Diaspora Alliance, an organization dedicated to combating antisemitism and promoting the values of a multiracial democracy, was among the signatories of the letter. He told Jacobin, “The letter was sent to the Minister of the Interior, Iris Spranger (SPD [Social Democratic Party of Germany]), and to my information there has still been no response. We are making it clear to the authorities that they should not use us as a tool to impose their authoritarian vision.”

What exactly is that vision? “Many demonstrations in Berlin have a history of some actions or statements that went against the wishes of the organizers, banning demonstrations is not the answer. Singling out Palestinian demonstrations sends a very concerning message.”

“The ban on Palestinian demonstrations has nothing to do with protecting actual Jews in the city. Preventing Palestinians from exercising their right to protest serves no purpose in protecting anyone, let alone Jews,” he continues. “Instead, it perpetuates a system that targets one of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in Germany. This group includes many stateless individuals who are already struggling within the system, which is deeply concerning.”

Cohen agrees:

Germany has laws against hate speech that allow the police to remove offenders from of a demonstration and enforce the law. Isn’t that why the police are sent to demonstrations in the first place? And wouldn’t that be much more in line with both the police’s responsibilities and our country’s democratic constitution? Instead, Berlin is once again preventatively — and utterly disproportionately — denying freedom of assembly to the many, in the expectation of misbehavior by individuals.

Freedom of Assembly Is Universal, or It Doesn’t Exist

Despite the repression over the last year, Palestinians in Berlin are once again getting ready to commemorate the Nakba later this month. Nakba75, a campaign that was launched on March 8 in preparation for the commemoration, is planning a broad mobilization across Germany against the ban on demonstrations and against anti-Palestinian racism in Germany.

There are also plans for performances and art exhibitions to commemorate the Nakba around Berlin. A group of Palestinian artists is in the planning stages of a photography exhibition. However, as has been the case in the past, they are struggling to find a suitable space.

Galleries and other spaces fear being labeled as antisemitic or losing state funding. Michael J., the Palestinian artist who contested his fine in court, told Jacobin, “We are having a hard time finding a place to hold the exhibition. We have been in contact with a number of venues and there has been no success.”

Hanging over their heads during all of their preparations is the looming threat of another ban, which, if implemented, would suggest that the Berlin authorities plan to shut down Palestinian activism in the city for good. Should that happen, however, they won’t be alone. Buchholz told Jacobin, “We need more solidarity against the bans. I expect everyone who in other contexts stands up for freedom of speech to do that here, too.”

Bartal from the Diaspora Alliance agrees, telling me that,

the failure of political parties and official institutions to publicly denounce the ban on demonstrations is worrying. As history has shown, human rights violations in one place can quickly spread beyond their initial context. This means what starts with Palestinians in Berlin, does not end with Palestinians.

Moreover, he points out, “Last year’s Nakba demonstration saw the participation of Jewish activists, with some of them even being arrested. This year, more Jewish activists are expected to join, as they believe their rights are intertwined with those of the Palestinians.”

Regardless of the rationale behind the ban, restricting freedom of speech in this manner sets a dangerous precedent — and undermines the core values of democracy and open dialogue that Germany claims to uphold. For free speech to really exist, Palestinian voices must have the same respect as everyone else.