The dangers of advocating for Palestine in Germany

Anna-Esther Younes (Nuray Koschowsky)

David Kattenburg

Mondoweiss  /  June 2, 2022

The story of the secret dossier aimed at silencing Anna-Esther Younes reveals the structural racism towards Palestinians at the heart of German society, and serves as a cautionary tale for Palestine advocates around the world.

Of all the places where draping oneself in a keffiyeh or waving a Palestinian flag is a bold act (other than in front of Israeli police at Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate), nowhere is it more perilous than on the streets of Berlin.

This past May 15, Nakba Day, an estimated thousand German police broke up a solidarity event that authorities had banned days earlier. Flags were ripped down, activists were kettled and 170 arrested for no other reason than wearing a keffiyeh or the ‘colours of the watermelon’, waving a flag or shouting “Free Palestine.”

At least one man was hospitalized.

Among those detained — a Palestinian man who’d lost his father and five siblings in Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza.

So were members of the German groups Jüdische Stimme (Jewish Voice).

Days earlier, Berlin authorities had denied Jüdische Stimme a permit to hold a vigil for murdered Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, citing the “immediate risk” of antisemitic intimidation and violence.

As German police suppress pro-Palestinian activism, slivers of justice are handed down by German courts.

On May 6, the District Court of Berlin ordered a state-funded German organization to release the dossier it had gathered on Anna-Esther Younes, the 39-year-old daughter of a Palestinian man and a German woman, and that it shared with a German political party in order to get Younes disinvited from a panel discussion on right-wing extremism.

Anna Younes, born in the eastern shadow of the Berlin Wall, is a scholar on critical race theory, colonialism, feminism, and psychoanalysis. The story of her mistreatment at the hands of German authorities and public entities is a cautionary tale for Palestine advocates around the world.

A secret dossier

The most recent chapter began in early November 2019. Younes had been invited to join a panel discussion entitled “Strategies Against the Right,” organized by Germany’s leftist Die Linke party, where she would present her work on right-wing extremism and anti-Muslim racism in Germany.

But the night before, Younes was abruptly disinvited, for vague reasons and with no opportunity to respond to the slurs that the panel’s chairperson had apparently received.

A couple of weeks later, a dossier that had been emailed to that chairperson, Katina Schubert, the head of Die Linke’s Berlin chapter, was leaked to Younes by sources inside the party. The dossier profiled her as an antisemite, a Hamas sympathizer and – of all things – a sexist.

Younes’ political profile had been assembled by the German NGOs RIAS (Research and Information Centre on Antisemitism) and MBR (Mobile Advice Against Right-Wing Extremism). Their umbrella organization, the VDK (Society for Democratic Culture, or ZDK) opposes “terrorist and radical ideological movements like right-wing extremism and Islamism that counter fundamental freedoms and human rights.”

RIAS Berlin and its federal association are among Germany’s most effective promoters of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of Antisemitism (IHRA-WDA). Through their efforts — in cooperation with Germany’s ‘antisemitism’ commissioner Felix Klein — Germany has become one of the most hostile environments for pro-Palestinian activism in the world. Since 2017, anti-BDS resolutions have been enacted in the cities of Frankfurt, Munich, Berlin, Cologne, Dortmund, Bochum, Bonn, Leipzig and Bielefeld, and in the states of Baden-Württemberg, Thuringia and North Rhine-Westphalia. The federal Bundestag passed its own anti-BDS resolution in May 2019.

BDS Activists have responded, wresting back their right to gather and organize in over a dozen German courts.

Still, speaking out for Palestine in the Federal Republic of Germany can trash a person’s career. Anna-Esther Younes knows this story, chapter and verse. 

The BDS blacklist

According to Younes, the German State targets “vulnerable people” who oppose Israeli crimes and the parallel erasure of the indigenous Palestinian people, and who think Israel should be held accountable.

Within weeks of her disinvitation from the November 2019 panel on right-wing extremism, Younes and her lawyer learned that a VDK staffer had phoned panel chair Katina Schubert prior to providing her with Younes’ dossier.

After Younes’ dossier was leaked, a Die Linke member posted a video of Schubert at the panel talk, explaining Younes’ absence. Schubert told the audience that Younes was “close to BDS,” a movement that “quite offensively proclaims the boycott of Israeli and Jewish goods … ’Don’t buy from Jews’.”

“We had that here already once, and therefore this cannot be accepted here,” Schubert said [translation of a German transcript provided to Mondoweiss].

Stressing the real and present danger Younes would have posed, had she been allowed to present her scholarly work (which had nothing to do with BDS), Schubert cited the foiled attack on a synagogue that had occurred just three weeks earlier, in the city of Halle.  

As the Anna Younes affair exploded, Schubert may have had second thoughts. A meeting was arranged with Anna and her lawyer. No details of the conversation have been provided to Mondoweiss.

Mondoweiss has asked Katina Schubert to comment on these events. She has not replied.

Smear campaign exposed

In early April 2020, with support from the Amsterdam-based European Legal Support Center (ELSC), Younes’ lawyer asked RIAS to provide a copy of the dossier it had gathered on her, in accordance with Article 15 of the EU General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR). Younes had already seen the dossier, RIAS responded (although RIAS’s cover letter to Katina Schubert had offered to provide further information, on request).

RIAS also countered that Articles 85 and 89 of the EU data regulations exempted it from handing over Younes’ file, since it was the product of ‘journalism’ and ‘scientific research’.

In response, in June 2020, Younes’ lawyer lodged a complaint against RIAS and MBR at Berlin’s Data Protection Authority (DPA). For two years, the DPA dragged its feet, so a lawsuit against the DPA was initiated — and a judicial review application at the Berlin District Court, for good measure.

Tired of waiting for resolution on Younes’ complaint, in April 2022, the ELSC launched a petition campaign. Over a thousand scholars, organizations, artists, journalists and activists declared their support for Younes and her struggle. (This writer was among them).

The petition and accompanying media campaign paid off.

On May 2, the VDK – RIAS and MBR’s parent organization — handed over Younes’ dossier. Within days, the Berlin District Court ruling came down: Anna-Esther Younes did indeed have a right under both EU and German data protection law to access her file. The VDK was assigned court costs.

So, what was in Younes’ dossier?

Cherry-picked pieces she’d authored over the years, both scholarly and journalistic, “completely taken out of context,” Younes told Mondoweiss. Among these, a 2010 paper entitled “A gendered movement of liberation: Hamas’ women’s movement and nation building in contemporary Palestine.”

Facebook posts were in there too, including the image of a ‘Boycott Israeli apartheid’ poster on a Tel Aviv wall and a 2018 letter Younes had signed, together with other scholars on antisemitism and critical race theory, petitioning the German government and parliament to retract their policy decisions on BDS and Palestinian advocacy in general.

Structural racism against Palestinians

Having won her two-year battle to see how RIAS profiled her, the taste of victory is bitter-sweet. It’s the structural racism baked into that political profile, and the entrenched state policies that weaponize it, that trouble Younes the most.

“In South Africa you had laws,” Younes told Mondoweiss. “In Israel you have laws. Racial laws … But in Europe, they grind you down with policies and you have to prove that there is some sort of structure in place that discriminates against you. You cannot say the state is responsible. You cannot say the government is responsible. You cannot even say that the people who are our politicians, coming up with these policies, are responsible.”

Younes wants the German government to acknowledge that its policies are racist, and that Palestinians and their supporters in Germany have a right to earn a livelihood and express themselves freely.

German-Palestinians “are not able to rent rooms in public anymore,” she told Mondoweiss. They can’t gather without being “busted or surveilled by the police.”

“They basically give you the feeling that you’re not welcome. If you shut up about your identity and your history then that’s fine. But if not, you’re just not welcome.”

Of course, Palestinians aren’t the only victims of structural oppression and vilification in Germany, Younes says. “When you’re black or when you’re Palestinian or when you are Kurdish or when you’re a Sinti/Roma, you’re not supposed to demand your rights in Europe, or in the western world. There’s always a certain framework and leeway that is given to you, and the minute you exceed that, you will be put into your place.”

Perversely, Younes adds, the discourse has been twisted.

“[It’s] people of colour and black people who’ve been called the real racists — whether that’s in South Africa, with the Black Panthers in the US, or whether that’s Palestinians in Palestine now, or Israel now. They’re supposedly the racists.” It’s this “narrative battle” – not just a single court case — that needs to be won.

For a scholar and public intellectual like Anna Younes, the personal stakes of this struggle are huge.

“People distance themselves from you,” she told Mondoweiss. “They’re scared that whatever happened to you will happen to them.”

Has Younes’ career been damaged?

“Yeah, yeah, of course. This was just one of the latest incidents,” she says.

Last year, two weeks before taking up a new university post, a departmental contact told Younes on the phone that they’d changed their mind. The university would lose its funding if they hired her. Its networks and projects would be disrupted. It couldn’t afford the resources to justify Younes’ hiring.

Younes has stopped applying for state-funded German posts. Most scholarly opportunities are, in Germany today.

If there’s an upside to Anna-Esther Younes’ situation, it’s the encouragement she’s received from other activists, and from the European Legal Support Center. Having secured a sliver of justice for Younes, the ELSC is redoubling its efforts on behalf of scholars, activists and NGOs across Europe, where the struggle for Palestinian freedom can get you surveilled, defamed, strong-armed, arrested, hospitalized or canceled.

The ELSC can be contacted here.

David Kattenburg is a university science instructor and radio/web journalist