Bowing to a new law in Germany, the Open Source Festival in Dusseldorf rescinded its invitation to Brooklyn-born rapper Talib Kweli. In May 2019, the German government passed a law stating that the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel (BDS) until it met the basic national demands of the Palestinian people was anti-Semitic. As a result, Kweli, who is a long-time advocate for the Palestinian cause, could not perform at a music festival using public funds, as this one does.
When it comes to BDS, Germany won’t tolerate “don’t ask, don’t tell” either. I have no idea whether Kweli would have said a word about the Palestinians at his show, and neither do the show’s organizers. Some of Kweli’s songs mention his support for the Palestinians and opposition to Israeli policies, but it’s hardly a primary theme of his. It’s just one piece among many of his stances for social justice. He did not start this; the festival producers asked him as a litmus test for his entry.
That’s how far anti-BDS legislation goes in its quest to stifle speech that might illuminate the Palestinian case.
It’s also a great example of how, even without the full force of law, these statements have a chilling effect on speech.
One can understand why the demands of the BDS movement worry Israel and its hardline supporters. The demands to end the occupation, end discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel, and to respect the rights of refugees—particularly their right of return—alarm Israelis, who see them as a stealthy path to the elimination of their homeland. But for Palestinians, these demands reflect nothing less than the recognition of their most basic rights, as well as the core of their national liberation movement.
The imbalance of power between the regional power, Israel, backed by the world’s line superpower, the United States, against a stateless, dispossessed people is the most fundamental reason that this conflict has gone on for so long. That power imbalance is reflected in the anti-BDS legislation in Germany as well as the many bills and actions on the federal and state level in the United States. That imbalance leads to the prioritization of ensuring a Jewish majority in Israel over the basic human, civil, and national rights of the Palestinians.
The conflict engenders endless debates, from the neighborhood tavern, to houses of worship, to editorial boards, and through all levels of government. For many years, Israel and supporters of its policies have been comfortable in winning the debate decisively enough that there have been no significant challenges from the United States or Europe to their policies. And that absence has led to impotence from much of the rest of the world.
Although global policy has shown no sign of changing, the debate is no longer so one-sided. As more and more people have learned of the plight of the Palestinians and the draconian, brutal nature of Israel’s policies, as more people have seen the devastation in Gaza and come to recognize the despair there and in the West Bank, and as the intransigence and rejectionism of the Israeli government for decades has been laid bare by the extremism of the Benjamin Netanyahu-led right wing, more and more people are seeing the Palestinian side of the story.
To counter their loss of control of the debate, supporters of Israeli policies—lacking any substantive arguments to counter the growing perception of reality—have turned to a tactic they have long used: shutting down the debate. But where false accusations of anti-Semitism once sufficed for this purpose, the cry of wolf has worn thin (unfortunately for myself, and the vast majority, precisely at the time when real anti-Semitism is rising significantly again for the first time in decades). So, they have turned to legislation.
I can’t think of a better way to grow the BDS movement than by trying to mute it through laws that penalize businesses and shared public spaces for standing up for what they believe is right, just, and, crucially, democratic. BDS is a legitimate, nonviolent political action. Boycotts and efforts at economic action have a long and diverse history, whether in South Africa or right here in movements to boycott England for taxation without representation and, more recently, the Rainforest Action Network boycotting Mitsubishi for its destruction of rain forests.
Any civilized society recognizes that you disagree by debating and by counter actions, not by censorship. The right to boycott and to press for different policies with action and the diversion of funds is one of the few ways ordinary citizens come together and collectively apply real pressure for change. No one argues that if others disagree with those goals, they cannot do the same and promote, in this case, Israeli products and services.
Aside from the obvious harm these pieces of legislation do to Palestinians and their supporters, anyone who thinks this is good for Jews or for Israelis is delusional. The only winners here are Nazis around the world. Talib Kweli clearly understand this very well. When the Open Source Festival demanded that he clarify his stance on BDS, making it clear that they would not invite him if he continued to support it, he sent them the following response:
By lying and saying that BDS is anti-Semitic movement, the German government is engaging in fascism and doing a disservice to the German people. Palestinians are treated like second class citizens in the region, due to their darker skin and Islamophobia. White supremacy is insidious like that. It will have “white” skinned Jewish people aligning with the very same Nazis and KKK who want them dead. Nazis and KKK often hold Israel up as a great example of an ethno state due to how Palestinians and other darker skin people are treated there. This is an unholy alliance that the German government is enabling by suggesting BDS is anti-Semitic and trying force artists to agree with them.
Boycotting, Divesting and Sanctioning are peaceful solutions to the crisis that destroys Palestinians homes and lives. It is the opposite of terrorism. It worked to make South Africa a more fair and equal nation and it could work in Israel if its opponents were not so anti-black and anti-Muslim. It is not a coincidence that Donald Trump, virulent racist and frequent admirer of Nazis and dictators, shares Germany’s official position on BDS. If Donald Trump agrees with you, you are on the wrong side of history. Why would Germany champion the suppression of free speech? BDS does not engage in violence. I get why Germany’s government would want to be cautious about platforming hate, but to equate a peaceful push for the rights of Palestinian people to the horrors of Nazi Germany is a false and offensive equivalency. Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu wants to annex the West Bank which would create a state in which mostly white skinned Jews rule over mostly dark-skinned Arabs. The far right around the world supports this. I do not. If I’m not allowed in Germany because I support humanity, fuck it. I won’t go. The ball is in your court. I would like to perform in Germany but I don’t need to. I’d rather be a decent human being and stand up for what’s right then censor myself and lie about BDS for a check.
Kweli is incorrect about Jews in Israel being “mostly white.” The majority of Israeli Jews are Mizrahi and Sephardic, Jews of Color who look more like Palestinians than they do like Ashkenazi Jews. It’s a crucial point because the issues in Israel and Palestine certainly have a lot to do with race, but the discrimination also transcends race and includes other forms of bigotry.
But aside from that, Kweli’s statement cuts to the heart of the matter. These laws are trying to force people to agree with the Israeli side of the issue. They are an attempt not just to stifle debate but to pre-determine outcomes and cut off diplomacy, forcing a consensus on Israel’s terms. This fight is bigger than BDS, but BDS is at its heart. Stifling free expression and barring people from acting in a peaceful manner to promote what they see as justice are incompatible with an open society of any kind. The struggle to open a debate, and to allow free expression is crucial for Palestinian rights, for the future of everyone in the region. It is also a struggle that must be won to create a society that values freedom of expression and participatory democracy.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct an earlier version that mistakenly characterized the Bundestag’s non-binding statement as a law.