BERLIN — “Nobody is allowed to say the word ‘Jew’ here, only ‘Zionist.’ Shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ is forbidden. This is not good for publicity,” warned Jurgen Grassmann, the chief organizer of Berlin’s Al-Quds Day March on Friday. “Keep Allah in your heart, but don’t say so out loud.”
Suddenly, amid the yellow Hezbollah banners and tri-colored Palestinian flags, a group of men began to shout “Allahu Akbar.” They were soon quieted by organizers of the march.
Throughout his pre-march speech, Grassmann emphasized that the march was not against Jews, only Zionists.
“The Zionists will try to provoke us. Jews are our brothers, Zionists are our enemies,” said Grassmann.
Below Grassman were two members of the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox fringe sect Neturei Karta, covered with anti-Israel paraphernalia and holding placards proclaiming, in German, that “Judaism opposes the Zionist state.”
After reports emerged recently of anti-Semitic chants and acts at pro-Palestinian rallies in Europe, particularly in France, the German police had warned the organizers to tone down the demonstrations and avoid anti-Semitic rhetoric.
Stefan Redlich, spokesperson for the Berlin Police, explained, “We know that the world is looking at us. It is a difficult task today. We told the Al-Quds Day demonstrators that they cannot burn any flags or effigies and that they could not shout slogans that incite violence.”
The organizers kept this in mind. Large men with the word “Order” written across their white armbands aggressively kept back any members of the march that attempted to start scuffles or shout incendiary slogans. As the march proceeded past pro-peace and pro-Israel demonstrators, a youth burst forth from the Al-Quds Day contingent and shouted “Qassams on Tel Aviv!”
Within seconds, he was seized by one of the security personnel, held back and told to “shut up and make a peace sign!” Similar outbursts that were openly anti-Semitic were also quickly shot down by the organizers.
The more rowdy activists could not always be kept in line. Joachim Glauer was standing on the sidelines of the Kurfurstendamm avenue with a small Israeli flag in his hand. A row of policemen in riot gear stood between him and the rest of the protesters. Suddenly, a group of 7-10 youths burst through the barricade, pushed the elderly man down, and grabbed his flag. The police quickly stepped in and moved the boys away. One of the boys returned to the crowd and was cheered as the aged Glauer stood there, shaking.
“People have a right to demonstrate,” Glauer stated. “I want to support Israel’s right to exist.”
However, with the exception of a few incidents, the organizers were successful in keeping the march tame, governed by a message calling for peace and solidarity with the Palestinians.
But looking at all the posters of Shi’ite leaders and their supporters, one would think that Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the late Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini, and Syrian President Bashar Assad were the great protectors and fighters for world peace. Indeed, most of the banners were of Shiite leaders, with no visible endorsements of Fatah or Hamas.
Two teenage girls, Berlin residents Camle and Diana, who declined to provide their last names, were holding up pictures of Nasrallah. Camle was wrapped in a yellow Hezbollah flag. They explained, “We support Hezbollah and Nasrallah because of Hezbollah’s support for the Palestinians. We will say nothing against Jews. Islam is not against Judaism.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by virtually everybody interviewed. They repeated the mantra of marching against Zionism and not Judaism, marching for peace and against oppression.
Ahmed E., wearing a Palestinian keffiya scarf, stated proudly, “We Muslims walk with Christians and Jews against Zionism and genocide. We believe we all can live in peace.”
At one point, the marchers even sang the German national anthem.
Daneesh D., waving a large black Shiite flag, said, “I am against violence and oppression, I have nothing against the Jewish people. Al-Quds Day is against injustice everywhere.”
What about Iran’s treatment of homosexuals?
“Everybody who believes in God knows that homosexuality is forbidden,” he said.
When confronted with Iran’s oppression of minorities and Hezbollah’s use of violence, some demonstrators outright denied such atrocities had taken place, and/or claimed that these accusations were propaganda emanating from the West.
David, who wouldn’t provide his last name, claimed to be a German peace demonstrator, but did not have a problem marching with Hezbollah flags with guns on them or photos of Assad.
What about Syria’s atrocities? “I haven’t looked into Syria and Assad too much,” he said.
Other non-Muslims in the rally, like Sebastian, 30, supported Assad and the violent Hezbollah brand of resistance. “Assad and Iran are the only ones that stand up to America,” he said.
Iran was clearly seen as the opponent of the United States, Israel, and what many of the demonstrators believed to be the latest manifestation of Western imperialism.
The marchers emphasized that the demonstration was about unity, about justice, and about solidarity with the Palestinians. Hisham K., a Palestinian Sunni, took no issue with the Shiite flags. “We had our [Palestinian-organized] demonstrations a few days ago; today, Al Quds Day is founded by Iran.”
“Iran is against cruelty and supports life. Iran has a democracy,” said Hamid H., a student wrapped in an Iranian flag, who is currently studying in Germany.
Not every Iranian agreed with this sentiment. Kazem Moussavi is the spokesperson of the Iranian Green Party in Germany and a vocal critic of the Iranian regime. He spoke in support of Israel at a counter demonstration organized by the leftist No Al-Quds Day group and said, “The thousand marching today [in the Al-Quds Day march] are not representative of the millions of Muslims around the world. The Iranian freedom movement stands against radical Islamic movements. We stand with the Israelis and against Hamas.”
At the same counter demonstration, members of Germany’s leftist and anti-fascist groups came together in support of Israel and against extremism. While some Al Quds Day demonstrators shouted “Allahu Akbar,” the anti-fascist demonstrators shouted “No God, No State, No Emirate!”
They waved rainbow flags, Israeli flags, red flags, and American flags. Many wearing the anti-fascist “uniform” of all black clothing chanted “Free Gaza from Hamas!” and “Long live Israel!”
While seeing anti-fascist and far-left demonstrators on the side of Israel is rare outside of Germany, in Berlin on Friday, the overwhelming majority of anti-fascists were on Israel’s side.
Fabian Wolf, 21, a German student, waved a large red and black flag with “Anti-fascist Action” written across it.
“I’m here because I’m afraid of the wave of anti-Semitism that is supported by left-wing groups. Not everyone in the left is anti-Israel and anti-Semitic,” said Wolf.
Alex, 25, who declined to give his last name, shared Wolf’s sentiment. “As a German, it is my duty to stand against anti-Semitism.”
How did Alex combine his anti-nationalistic views with his support for Israel? “I don’t like nations, but it is better to have Israel than no Jewish state. It’s necessary,” he explained.
While the 300 counter-demonstrators in the anti-fascist event were dwarfed by the 1,100 Al Quds Day demonstrators, the views they expressed were far more diverse than the controlled message of their opponents.
Anna, 27, did not feel comfortable with the national flags and with what she perceived to be nationalistic slogans like “Long Live Israel” in the rally. However, she did feel it was important to show support for progressive elements on both sides. “None of the demonstrations is for me, but I am against Al Quds Day. So I’m here.”
Others, had no problem with the flags and slogans. Rene Patzwaldt, 33, from Leipzig, carried a large American flag. He identified with the far left anti-fascist groups, but felt the American flag was a symbol representing “a liberal world view.”
Patzwaldt had a special reason to be here and demonstrate against the heavily pro-Iran and anti-Israel Al Quds Day. “My grandfather was a resistance fighter and member of the KPD [Pre-War German Communist Party]. He was interned in Sachsenhausen [concentration camp]. Showing solidarity with Israel today is in keeping with the continuity of the anti-fascist movement [in Germany's past],” said Patzwaldt.
Two prominent leaders from Germany’s Left Party (or Die Linke) made a special effort to be at the march and expressed their support for Israel’s existence and opposition to elements within their party that are virulently anti-Israel. A regional chapter of the party has in the past called for boycotts of Israel and labeled Israel “a rogue nation,” and several prominent members were on the Gaza flotilla in May 2010. During the anti-Semitic rallies over the past week, there were prominent party flags.
Stefan Liebich, a representative of Die Linke in the German Bundestag and a member of the Bundestag’s Committee of Foreign Affairs, came to the rally to make clear that Die Linke is not anti-Israel.
Standing in the midst of Israeli and leftist flags, he said, “It is very important that our party is present in this demonstration. In the last years we had anti-Semitic actions [by members of Die Linke]. We send a strong message against them.”
Liebich had harsh words for party members who came to recent anti-Israel rallies: “It is a terrible mistake to support demonstrations without criticism of Hamas. I am ashamed of these demonstrations. The clear majority of our party has a different opinion. We defend Israel’s right to exist. We support Israel’s right to defend itself, but are critical of certain policies. The left needs to be reflective and reexamine its views on Israel. The minority is loud, and I hate it!”
Klaus Lederer, the Chairman of Die Linke’s Berlin chapter, shared Liebich’s view. “There are double standards on the left, but there are people who disagree with them.”
A few blocks over, just off of the Kurfurstendamm on Georg Grosz-platz, was another pro-Israel demonstration, organized by the Jewish community and attended by more centrist and conservative German supporters of Israel.
Peter, 67, who did not give his last name, faced the marchers behind a large Israeli flag. He had personal reasons for being here.
“I suffered anti-Semitism in Romania. I was called a ‘dirty Jew.’ Last week I saw the demonstrators chant ‘Hamas Hamas Juden ins Gas!’ [Jews to the gas!] I felt like it was Kristallnacht,” he said.
“The Islamists want to take over all of Europe. This is the same thing as in the 1930s. My father told me how during the war when he was in Klausenberg [Cluj Napoca], a woman who escaped a German camp warned the Jewish community about the camps. The Jews said, ‘it couldn’t happen, the Germans were too sophisticated, the woman should be sent to a crazy house!’ Soon after that, my father was in the ghetto and then all the Jews were deported,” he said.
By the end of the march, the Al Quds Day demonstrators reached Wittenbergplatz, where large formerly Jewish-owned department stores towered over them.
In the concluding remarks of the march, a speaker took the microphone and shouted, “The police will not let us chant ‘Israel child killer,’ but we will!”
As he and the crowd proceeded to chant “Israel child killer!” the organizer Grassman grabbed the microphone and admonished the crowd. He then proceeded to thank the Neturei Karta members who had continued to stand near him throughout the march, and invited contributions to raise money to pay to transport to Neturei Karta members to future events.
Lana, 34, a Jewish Berliner, watched the Hezbollah flags, the chanting, and the huge angry mob in horror. Visibly shaken, she said, “I’m speechless. Totally speechless. Berlin is my home. I grew up here. I don’t feel safe any more.”