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BDS protesters turn on German cultural institution



South African haters of Israel have resorted to intimidatory tactics to bully German institutions far removed from the conflict in the Middle East, demanding that the country stop supporting Israel in its war on Hamas.

On Friday, 9 February, anti-Israel activists staged a protest outside the Goethe-Institut in Johannesburg and the German consulate in Cape Town.

Germany has faced criticism for its unwavering support for Israel, which has endured in spite of the ongoing war. Berlin’s detractors say guilt over the Holocaust has impelled it to defend Israel in its war in the Gaza Strip.

However, Germany has staunchly defended Israel’s right to defend itself, and has opposed calls for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. It also supported Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), where South Africa brought a case accusing the Jewish state of genocide.

Small groups of protesters gathered outside the two venues, and accused Germany of being complicit in genocide. They delivered a memorandum with a list of demands including, among others, that Germany withdraw its military, political, diplomatic, and cultural support for Israel; that German cultural institutions including the Goethe-Institut refuse to police the politics of their artists; that the German state stop conflating criticism of the state of Israel with antisemitism; and that Germany revoke its suspension of funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).

The memorandum said that the Goethe-Institut wielded “enormous power” when it came to policing criticism of Israel.

“Disappointingly and contrary to its stated ‘independence’, the Goethe-Institut has previously cancelled events of cultural workers who have expressed support for Palestine and/or who have been critical of the Israeli regime,” the memorandum stated. It went on to say that this could be viewed as an attack on freedom of expression.

The national chairperson of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Professor Karen Milner, said this was “a typical BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions organisation] ploy”.

“It has nothing to offer in terms of bringing about a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so it organises meaningless protests against cultural institutions who themselves are in no way involved in the conflict,” Milner said.

“Rather than play any meaningful role, BDS just engages in bullying campaigns. It attempts to intimidate and silence anyone who holds a different view to its own. It does so also in the hope that it will create an environment of fear for anyone who contradicts its hate-filled narrative.”

Rolene Marks, the spokesperson for the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF), said Israel was the canary in the coal mine of South Africa’s relations with the democratic world.

“The targeting of German institutions follows the Israeli and American embassy protests at the beginning of the war. The SAZF continues to be in contact with all supporters of Israel in the country to work together against the targeting of democratic interests in South Africa.

“Supporters of genocidal groups like Hamas don’t have the authority to dictate the definition of genocide. We thank our German supporters for taking a principled stand in the name of democracy and human rights,” Marks said.

Dr Christopher Schmidt, the spokesperson for the German Embassy, said Germany supported “both the right to exist of the state of Israel, and the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people. Germany is pushing intensively for a diplomatic settlement of the current conflict on the basis of a negotiated two-state solution.

“Israel has a right to self-defence against the unprecedented attacks by Hamas within the confines of international law. At the same time, we see the unspeakable suffering of the civilian population in Gaza. Germany is one of the world’s leading supporters of the Palestinian Authority and of the global humanitarian relief efforts for the Palestinian people,” Schmidt said.

He said UNRWA’s role was vital for the provision of basic services to the Palestinian people, and that though no new funding would be made available by Germany pending UNRWA’s investigation into the extremely grave allegations (that staff members participated in the 7 October massacre), Germany’s current funding remained unaffected.

“At the same time, Germany is stepping up its humanitarian assistance via the International Committee of the Red Cross; the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs; the United Nations Children’s Fund; and others,” Schmidt said.

The Goethe-Institut said it rejected all forms of violence, racism, and antisemitism. “For more than 70 years, we have offered a platform for dialogue, including those that end in respectful disagreement. Often, this open space has been the last link between civil societies, when even formal diplomacy stalled. Therefore, we don’t believe that boycotts or embargos are useful tools in the realm of international cultural exchange. That’s also why we keep operating, even in illiberal countries.”

It said that regardless of hardening resentment and violence, it wanted to continue to pursue this path, be it at its locations in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Gaza, or anywhere else.

Meanwhile, South African writer and commentator, Malaika Mahlatsi, who is studying in Germany, was last week summonsed by German authorities over what has been described as the “rewarding and awarding of a crime”. Mahlatsi has been vocal about her support for Palestine and the South African government’s case of genocide against Israel before the ICJ. She was ordered to appear before a hearing this week.

Schmidt said there was no indication that there was any connection between this and the recent BDS protest action outside German institutions.

International Relations Minister Dr Naledi Pandor described Germany serving a South African social commentator with a summons over her stance on the Middle East conflict as “shocking”.

“From an established democracy, I find it to be quite shocking, but we know Germany’s view – it wrote to us indicating its displeasure at us going to the ICJ and that it would be supporting Israel,” she said.

Similar protests by the BDS and aligned organisations were planned for Gqeberha and Windhoek.

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