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An Anti-Palestinian Crackdown Across Europe
An Anti-Palestinian Crackdown Across Europe
European leaders are responding to growing pro-Palestine protests with an unprecedented wave of repression.
Jonathan Shamir

On Saturday, London held its biggest ever pro-Palestine march—one of the ten biggest demonstrations in British history—which drew between 100,000 and 300,000 people. “When the government and opposition are abandoning Palestinians, it’s important to show them that the world cares,” Johnnie Bickett, who attended the march in London, told Jewish Currents. The London march was only one of several protests this weekend where tens of thousands took to the streets of Europe’s capital cities to protest in solidarity with Palestinians. According to Alice Garcia, advocacy and communications officer for the European Legal Support Center (ELSC), which defends Palestinian rights advocates in court in the European Union and the United Kingdom, “the [pro-Palestine] movement is growing,” with “demonstrations getting bigger and more frequent.”

But as the protests have grown, so has the repression against them. Since Israel declared war on Hamas after the group killed over 1,400 Israelis on October 7th, most European governments have given the country a carte blanche to embark on what experts have called a genocidal assault on the Gaza Strip. Israeli bombings have already killed at least 7,000 Palestinians, leading to immense public pushback that has been met with a far-reaching crackdown on pro-Palestinian expression. In the past weeks, France, Germany, Hungary, and Austria have all banned protests in solidarity with Palestine, arresting those who defy the order. Meanwhile, British politicians and media have ramped up their attempts to delegitimize such protests, treating Palestinian flags and slogans as threats to public safety.

In addition to official bans, there has been a rash of smaller-scale efforts to silence pro-Palestine activists via firings, event cancellations, and even criminal charges. “There is an unprecedented wave of anti-Palestinian racism,” said Garcia, who noted that the repression is animated in part by right-wing officials using this moment “as an opportunity to advance their own political agenda of anti-immigrant policies.” Across Europe, Garcia said, such leaders are “cracking down on the right to protest, advancing the war on terror with a ‘clash of civilizations’ narrative,” noting: “We have never been so overwhelmed by requests for legal support and reports of incidents.” Garcia said that so far, Germany has seen the greatest number of cases of repression, followed by France and the UK.

Germany has long held an ardently pro-Israel political line: In 2008, then-chancellor Angela Merkel declared that ensuring Israel’s security was part of Germany’s Staatsraison, or reason for existence, a way of atoning for the crimes of the Holocaust. Germany has lived up to that commitment by providing decades of diplomatic and material support to an increasingly right-wing Jewish state—and by restricting criticism of Israel’s human rights violations against Palestinians. In 2019, the German parliament passed a resolution explicitly declaring the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement antisemitic. For the last two years, the police have banned Nakba Day protests in Berlin. German activists say these dynamics have now intensified. On October 12th, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz—who visited Tel Aviv last week for a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—gave a speech to parliament announcing a ban on “all activities and organizations supporting Hamas,” which he noted is listed as a terrorist organization in Germany. His interior minister, Nancy Faeser, went further, threatening to deport any immigrants who are found to support Hamas.

Despite the stated focus on Hamas, however, in practice the German government is targeting all forms of pro-Palestine activism. On October 13th, the Education Ministry recommended banning the keffiyeh—the Palestinian scarf—in schools, citing “a threat to school peace.” Meanwhile, Berlin police have banned almost every rally in solidarity with Gaza since October 7th—whether organized by Palestinians, Jews, or other allies—on the basis that such protests could “potentially incite antisemitic hate and violence.” On October 14th, the police banned a “Peace in the Middle East” demonstration at the last moment, violently cracking down on protesters who rallied anyway. That same day, police also canceled a Jewish-led demonstration against violence in the Middle East, warning that the rally could include “hateful, antisemitic calls” and the “glorification of violence.” Wieland Hoban, the chairman of Jewish Voice for a Just Peace between Israel and Palestine—the anti-Zionist Jewish group that had organized the latter demonstration—described the police’s letter relaying the cancellation as “a copy-and-paste of what they’ve used for the last two years, since they’ve regularly started banning demos.” He noted that the letter included familiar language speculating about “the emotional Palestinian community” and “the likelihood of acts of violence,” which he called “racist terminology that is used exclusively against Arab communities.” Such police repression of Palestine activists was not confined to Berlin; cities like Mannheim, Munich, and Frankfurt also saw protests outlawed, with local courts managing to overturn such bans only in rare cases. Indeed, German police have zeroed in on pro-Palestine protests so indiscriminately that some demonstrators are registering their marches with oblique names like “Decolonize: Against Global Oppression” in order to be able to protest without police repression.

German media outlets have portrayed some of the protests, including an October 18th one in Berlin’s largest Palestinian neighborhood of Neukölln, as “riots.” But while some protestors did indeed pelt police with stones and set fire to cars, Ben Mauk, a journalist who was present at the Neukölln rally, told Jewish Currents that the police response was far more violent. Mauk recalled that police showed up in full riot gear, intimidating protesters and beating up at least one before turning to pepper spray people filming the incident, including Mauk. “I’ve never felt so unsafe in my own neighborhood,” Mauk said. “I’ve lived here for nine years, and I’ve never seen anything like this—it looked like militarization or an occupying force.” He noted that Berlin police have also violently repressed completely peaceful protests elsewhere in the city, stamping out candles at vigils for the hundreds of Palestinian killed at Gaza’s Al-Ahli hospital, for example. “Banning expressions of grief for people in Gaza is making Germany less safe, for Jews and for Muslims,” Mauk said.

Artists, journalists, and public figures have also faced repercussions for speaking out about Palestine, or simply for being Palestinian. Since the German parliament banned BDS in 2019, a wide range of German cultural organizations have effectively blacklisted critics of Israel—censure that has largely affected Black and brown scholars and artists, a trend that appears to be accelerating. On October 13, the Frankfurt Book Fair announced that it would postpone an October 20th award ceremony for Palestinian author Adania Shibli “due to the war in Israel.” Media outlets, including the Bavarian Broadcasting Company, the public European cultural channel Arte, and the talk show Late Night Berlin, likewise canceled contributors and guests over pro-Palestine speech. The Maxim Gorki Theatre Berlin canceled a play—The Situation, by Israeli Austrian writer Yael Ronen, which deals with the reverberations of Israel/Palestine politics in Berlin—because, the theater said, “Hamas’s terror attack puts us on Israel’s side.” Meanwhile, the soccer club Mainz suspended player Anwar El Ghazi for posting “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” on Instagram. And the House of Poetry, a cultural center in Berlin, called off the launch event of a poetry anthology featuring Arab and Palestinian artists. While the cultural center told Jewish Currents that the event had not been canceled, merely postponed due to budgetary constraints, the editor of the anthology, Palestinian Swedish poet Ghayath Almadhoun, saw a clear act of repression that he found reminiscent of his time living under a repressive regime in Syria. “Ironically, I fled Syria in 2008 because of censorship,” he quipped on Instagram.

In France, authorities have long been “seeking a pretext to accelerate a crackdown” on Palestine activism, according to Pierre Motin, the advocacy officer for the Platform of French NGOs for Palestine. In 2021, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin asked the French police to outlaw Palestine protests, leading to a ban in some cities. In 2022, Darmanin further tried to ban two local pro-Palestine groups, Collectif Palestine Vaincra from Toulouse and Comité Action Palestine from Bordeaux, in a decision that was later overturned by the courts; he also pushed several institutions to cancel events with exiled Palestinian lawyer Salah Hamouri.

Now, “Darmanin is sensing an opportunity to be more repressive to social movements and Muslim communities,” one independent French journalist who covers Israel/Palestine—and who requested anonymity due to fear of repression—told Jewish Currents, noting the minister’s authoritarian politics. On October 12th, Darmanin announced that pro-Palestine protests would be banned outright throughout France, citing a potential disruption to “public order”; he also threatened to deport foreign nationals who participated in such actions. But across the country, including in Paris, Strasbourg, and Lyon, activists proceeded to host demonstrations, even in the face of a heavy police response. (In Paris, they were met with water cannons and tear gas.)

Not all French authorities have backed Darmanin’s campaign of repression. On October 19th, the Conseil d’État—which acts as France’s supreme court for administrative justice—ruled against Darmanin’s blanket ban, saying that it would be up to individual precincts to shut down protests that might lead to “civil disorder.” Following the ruling, around 15,000 people held the first authorized protest in Paris, while thousands gathered in other cities across France. However, French police still say they will not approve a larger Paris demonstration on October 28th, alleging that the organizers, Association France-Palestine Solidarity, have made comments that “suggest they could support Hamas.”

The repressive dynamics in Germany and France have many parallels in the UK. On October 10th, the British Home Secretary Suella Braverman sent a letter to police in England and Wales encouraging them to consider whether waving a Palestinian flag in certain contexts could be “intended to glorify acts of terrorism” and therefore unlawful, and whether chants such as “from the river to the sea, Palestine with be free” could amount to racial aggravation and therefore constitute a criminal offense. (The police have since said that the slogan would not amount to a criminal offense at a demonstration, but could be deemed unlawful if chanted “outside a synagogue or Jewish school, or directly at a Jewish person or group intended to intimidate.”)

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister James Cleverly explicitly told pro-Palestine demonstrators to stay at home, while the opposition Labor Party urged lawmakers and members to avoid attending demonstrations. Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick has also threatened to expel foreigners who commit antisemitic acts or praise Hamas. Given the loud chorus of conservative politicians, media outlets, and establishment Jewish groups decrying pro-Palestine protests as “pro-Hamas” and anti-Jewish, civil liberties advocates worry that such policies could be used to target Palestine activists more broadly. Katy Watts, a lawyer at the civil rights group Liberty, framed officials’ comments discouraging protests as “part of a wider campaign to make it harder for us to exercise our rights and stand up to power” and as an effort to create “confusion about the law and uncertainty around the consequences people might face for taking to the streets.”

According to Ben Jamal, the director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, pro-Israel groups and mainstream media are also trying to delegitimize the protests by conflating Palestine solidarity rallies with a separate fringe protest by the Salafist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, and by treating a handful of signs at the main protest—which, for example, expessed explicit support for Hamas, or depicted Netanyahu as Adolf Hitler—as representative of the entire action. In a particularly stark misrepresentation, the counter-extremism chief in the Home Office claimed that the solidarity protests were “stirred up” by a network of Iran and Hamas activists in the UK. “There’s an intent to frame the whole protest in this way,” Jamal said, instead of “listening to what the organizers actually said.” He pointed out that the speakers actually invoked “international law and human rights” as a guiding principle for the protest, and that his own speech emphasized the importance of fighting antisemitism as part of a broader anti-racist politics. Jamal said that the government and mainstream media’s “willful failure to understand [the protest’s message] amounts to anti-Palestinian racism—an assumption that Palestinians must be harboring barbaric and antisemitic motivations.” He added that these responses feed “the broader campaign to conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism” and to “associate Palestine activism with terrorism.”

As they have elsewhere in Europe, the UK’s official crackdowns on Palestine solidarity have been accompanied by a chilling of pro-Palestine expression in the wider cultural sphere. On October 20th, Liverpool Hope University canceled a lecture by Israeli British historian Avi Shlaim after members of the local Jewish community expressed concern that Shlaim would be too critical of Israel. Similar cancellations have taken place in many other parts of the UK, sometimes at the behest of police.

Thus far, this wave of repression has not kept people from joining pro-Palestine demonstrations in enormous numbers. The record-breaking march that took place in London on October 21st was largely peaceful, with only ten people being arrested for public order offenses such as shooting a firework or assaulting an emergency worker. But although the protests are continuing, Jamal expressed concern about what will come next. “I never feared we would not be allowed to march, but that’s becoming a little bit more fragile,” he said. “I fear it will become more like Germany.”

As governments and civil society organizations across Europe move to constrain pro-Palestine speech, concerns over Jewish safety are frequently being marshaled as a justification. In France, for example, officials have pointed out that some of the protests against Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza spiraled into attacks on local Jewish institutions, with some using this precedent to justify their repressive actions. In the UK, Home Secretary Suella Braverman likewise said that her crackdown on pro-Palestine chants and symbols is necessary to ensure the “safety of our Jewish communities.”

This rhetoric comes as Jews in Europe are experiencing a real surge in antisemitic incidents. In Germany, for example, a synagogue was firebombed and Jewish homes were daubed with the Star of David, while in the UK, a Jewish school has been vandalized. In France, graffiti reading “killing Jews is a duty” has appeared outside a stadium in southwest France, alongside other incidents such as a crowd gathering to shout threats at a synagogue, and a Jewish high-school student being accosted by peers calling out antisemitic slurs.

However, the officials and organizations charged with tracking this upswell tend not to distinguish between acts that target Jews and those that protest Israel, making it difficult to measure the scope of the problem. In the UK, the Community Security Trust (CST), a leading anti-antisemitism NGO, has reported an unprecedented spike in cases of anti-Jewish attacks. But the cases cited on the CST’s website reflect a conflation of antisemitism with anti-Zionism, featuring reports of protestors shouting “free Palestine” at Jews alongside social media calls to send “big nosed Jews” to gas chambers. (CST did not respond to Jewish Currents’s request to see its full list of antisemitic incidents.) The same organization has also referred to the “from the river to the sea” chant as “genocidal,” and has called on police to “make arrests, not excuses” at pro-Palestine protests. Similar dynamics are at work in France, where Darmanin has made it clear that he sees anti-Zionism as a form of antisemitism.

Progressive critics of Israel worry that by using genuine cases of antisemitism to crack down on Muslims, European governments are undermining the safety of both groups. Emily Hilton, the UK director of Diaspora Alliance—a progressive organization that seeks to fight antisemitism and its weaponization—told Jewish Currents that while attacks on Jews are “evoking historical trauma” in the community, politicians who “conflate Jews and Israel, Palestinians and Hamas” have not helped address such feelings productively. Instead, she said, “we have to help people better understand the difference between criticism of Israel and antisemitism, and not create a competition between Palestinian lives and Jewish safety.”