Why banning Nakba demos is wrong

What are we talking about when we say Nakba? The Nakba (English: “catastrophe”), which is commemorated annually on May 15, describes the flight and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the course of the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. For Palestinians, this date marks a collective trauma, the core of the fragmentation of Palestinian identity and culture, also for those who have never seen Palestine and were born in Berlin, for example. The Nakba was accompanied by the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian villages and several historically documented violent crimes by Zionist militants. The state that was founded as a result was a place of refuge for numerous Jews.

In Israel/Palestine, despite political resistance, the Nakba has now largely been historically processed. It is also hard to imagine without it in terms of cultural history. Israeli author S. Yizhar’s 1949 novel Khirbet Khizeh, taught in Israeli schools, treats the displacement of Palestinian people as a story of historical regret – from the perspective of those ‘First Israelis’ who caused it. For the novel Eine Nebensache by the Palestinian author Adania Shibli, which was also published in German last year, the Nakba is the basis of a historical-political search for meaning and identity in today’s Palestine. A more recent documentary called “Tantura” by Israeli director Alon Schwarz, which made quite a stir, explores that dark first chapter of Israeli history in interviews with contemporary witnesses and experts, along with a massacre that Israeli forces carried out in the Palestinian town of Tantura on the committed by the Palestinian population. What is now a parking lot on the beach became a mass grave in 1948.

In recent years, historians such as Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldberg or the journalist Charlotte Wiedemann have repeatedly and impressively discussed how it is possible to commemorate the Nakba parallel to the commemoration of the Holocaust, without offsetting one against the other – in other words, without to relativize the Holocaust. An example of such a discussion, which should have taken place in November 2022 at the Goethe-Institut Tel Aviv, was canceled without further ado due to local political pressure. In other words, the Nakba is still a topical political issue, perhaps more than ever, in view of the extreme right-wing, radically religious Israeli government.

In Germany, talking about the Nakba is often categorized as anti-Semitic, for example in a recently published report by the Amadeu Antonio Foundation. As an “anti-Zionist myth,” it says, the “Nakba narrative” would be used in a distorted manner. The fact that a recognition of the existence of Israel can also go hand in hand with a recognition of the local, historical injustice on which Israel is founded – an injustice that the Palestinian community is still struggling to acknowledge around the world to this day – seems to have been unimaginable in the eyes of many in this country.

The freedom of assembly is undermined

Those who follow such debates will hardly be surprised by the recent bans on pro-Palestinian Nakba memorial demonstrations. For example, the Berlin police had already banned five pro-Palestinian gatherings in May last year, including a vigil announced by a Jewish organization to commemorate the Nakba and the Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot by Israeli soldiers . The justifications for those bans in 2022 were based on the fact that similar demonstrations had been “highly anti-Israel, even going as far as anti-Semitic.” In general, Palestinians are now considerably “emotionalized” due to local conflicts in Israel/Palestine.

From a legal point of view, this reasoning seems questionable. The lawyer Ralf Michaels commented at the time that those bans undermined the fundamental right to freedom of assembly: “The freedom to demonstrate is essentially used to ensure that people demonstrate because they are tense and emotional,” says Michaels. Following this logic, they are only allowed to demonstrate again “when they have calmed down”. The most recent 14-page justification for the ban on the “Peace Rally for Displaced Peoples” at which the Nakba was to be commemorated last weekend, May 13, also refers to the tense situation in the Middle East. And the fact that “anti-Semitic slogans that glorify violence” were chanted at comparable demonstrations.

The latter is not wrong: anti-Israel and sometimes anti-Semitic statements have been heard at pro-Palestinian demonstrations in recent months and years. For example in Neukölln in April of this year. Or in Gelsenkirchen in May 2021: demonstrators threw up Turkish and Palestinian flags in front of a local synagogue and shouted anti-Semitic slogans.

A generalizing negative slide

It would be fundamentally wrong to simply tolerate such statements. They should be prevented and sanctioned if necessary. However, to explain the named cases as a general standard against which background any Representation of Palestinian identity, symbolism or memory is taboo or per se is declared as a potentially anti-Semitic escalation does not help much – as far as the prevention of anti-Semitism is concerned. Rather, such an authoritarian and generalizing response from state authorities inverts the presumption of innocence. The unquestionably resonating suggestion reads that Palestinians are sui generis antisemitic. At least until they prove otherwise. By preemptively banning demonstrations, the opportunity for even that is undermined. It must be said clearly that this is an undemocratic process.

How undemocratic is already evident on the streets of Berlin. For example, police forces are subjecting Palestinians, or people who look like Palestinians in their eyes, these days (apparently in disregard of the current ban in Germany on racial profiling) generalized controls. For example, if they wear a kufiya (the so-called ‘Pali cloth’). It’s hard to imagine how repressive this situation must be for Palestinian Berliners, especially in view of the political escalation in Israel/Palestine, which is undoubtedly further politicizing the Nakba memory. According to the latest information, around 16 civilians, including children, died as a result of Israeli drone fire in Gaza during the most recent offensive. Israeli officials spoke of those victims as “collateral damage.”

A draft by the Federal Ministry of the Interior to modernize nationality law, which is to be passed in the coming weeks and is also intended to cover “anti-Semitic acts”, among other things, gives rise to fears that Palestinian stateless persons who would like to become German citizens could soon be subject to far-reaching, generalized prejudices. For example, by making their naturalization dependent on their attitude towards Israeli politics or their assessment of Israeli-Palestinian history.

One could speculate whether all of this is a specifically German projection that assigns a special role to the Palestinians as quasi ‘troublemakers’ in memory politics. There is no question: their existence, their history, and their criticism irritates a popular caricature of Israel as a kind of conciliatory end point in the history of German guilt. Some people in Germany protect this image so vigorously because they fear a deeper confrontation with their own family history. Or because they don’t want to talk about continuities of Nazi ideology in the oh-so-democratic Germany of today.

It’s also possible that the generalized assumptions about Palestinians are simply a modern version of right-wing Kulturkampf that has recently become more popular. This was recently shown in the USA, for example, when the speaker of the US House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, tried to ban the Palestinian-American MP Rashida Tlaib from holding an event on Nakba Day in the US Capitol.

Be that as it may: if you follow the debate about the bans on demonstrations, you suspect that the issue here is neither to protect the existence of Israel nor the Jews living in Germany, but rather the German majority society. before? The difficulty of dealing with Palestinians – their history, their forms of expression, their criticism – instead of simply dismissing them as dangerous mumbo-jumbo.

Ultimately, the attitude towards Palestinian remembrance goes far beyond the question of the demonstrations. In the future, it will be possible to measure against it whether and to what extent German society is actually capable of plural remembrance. Or whether we are not more concerned with managing memories in a zero-sum manner: to preserve the status quo and our own ignorance.

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