Reporter's notebookAfter Berlin calls BDS anti-Semitic, reminiscent of Nazi era

As rowdy German parliament okays landmark anti-BDS law, far-right AfD wants more

Anti-immigration party, shunned by German Jewish community leaders, calls itself ‘Israel’s one true friend in parliament’ as it pushes for stronger legislation

Yaakov Schwartz is The Times of Israel's deputy Jewish World editor.

People hold flags during a demonstration by Germany's nationalist party AfD (Alternative for Germany) on May Day in Erfurt, central Germany, May 1, 2017. (AP/Jens Meyer)
People hold flags during a demonstration by Germany's nationalist party AfD (Alternative for Germany) on May Day in Erfurt, central Germany, May 1, 2017. (AP/Jens Meyer)

BERLIN — Well before Germany passed landmark legislation condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement on Friday, it was clear that the motion, sponsored by two of the country’s largest parties, would pass. All the same, the session was significantly livelier than the one on European economics preceding it.

Cheers and jeers (mostly the latter) rang out as MPs argued for and against three competing versions of anti-BDS legislation sponsored by different groups.

The language of the bills ranged in severity from a complete and enforceable ban on BDS — coming from the far-right Alternative for Deutschland, or AfD, party — to a simple condemnation of any anti-Semitism which might be found within the BDS movement, backed by the Left Party.

In the end, a strongly-worded, but ultimately non-binding, resolution was passed, sponsored by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian-Democratic Union and the Social Democrats (SDP), along with the opposition Green Party and Free Democratic Party.

The resolution states that “the pattern of argument and methods of the BDS movement are anti-Semitic,” and calls on the German government not to support events organized by BDS or other groups that actively pursue its aims. It further vows that parliament won’t finance any projects that call for a boycott of Israel or actively support the movement.

Lawmakers attend a polling at the German federal parliament, Bundestag, at the Reichstag building in Berlin, Germany, Friday, May 17, 2019. German lawmakers have approved a resolution denouncing the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement against Israel and describing its methods as anti-Semitic. (Wolfgang Kumm/dpa via AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the decision — the first of its kind by any major European country — and said he hoped it would lead to “concrete steps” to halt funding for pro-boycott groups. Israel’s ambassador to Germany Jeremy Issacharoff also hailed the “important” move.

“This is an important decision in its own right and especially as it was adopted in a leading parliament in Europe,” Issacharoff said. “The decision reflects the understanding that BDS makes no attempt to build bridges, to engage in dialogue and to encourage coexistence for stability and peace between Israel and all its neighbors.”

While the various parties each backed their own BDS resolutions, no lawmaker argued completely against legislation dealing with BDS. Many compared BDS tactics, such as placing stickers that say “Don’t Buy” on Israeli products, to Nazi-era policies.

The Reichstag building of the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, May 17, 2019. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)

Several lawmakers also made clear their displeasure with BDS attempts to disrupt the wildly popular Eurovision Song Contest, which is being held this weekend in Israel.

“It can’t be allowed for Israel’s right to exist to be called into question, that concerts be interrupted by enemies of Israel,” said Christian Lange, of the SDP.

“This is not criticism of Israel, it’s anti-Semitism,” said Sebastian Brehm of the Christian Social Union. “BDS isn’t calling for a two state solution, it’s calling for the destruction of Israel.”

AfD says other parties ‘shying away’ from tougher measure

But the resolution that was ultimately approved wasn’t strong enough for some. Arguing on behalf of the AfD motion, MP Jurgen Braun belligerently declared his party “Israel’s one true friend in parliament,” and accused the other factions of “shying away” from making BDS illegal. “Anti-Semitism comes from the left,” he said, “and it comes from Islam.”

In his three-minute speech, Braun was booed three times and reprimanded by the Bundestag vice president, Claudia Roth, for using a word once utilized by the Nazis. A spokesman for Braun told The Times of Israel that the reprimand was selective, saying the word is frequently used by all.

With 91 seats, AfD is the third-largest party in the 709-member parliament. Its lawmakers did not ultimately vote against the resolution — despite the fact that it competed with their own alternate version — choosing instead to abstain so that the text wouldn’t be voted down.

AfD is taboo among German Jewish community leaders and Israeli officials. Issacharoff reiterated last week that he avoids all contact with the party, due to its alleged nostalgic sentiments toward Nazi Germany.

Supporters of German AfD wave flags in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, May 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

While some constituents – especially younger ones – espouse xenophobic or neo-Nazi views, Braun’s spokesman admitted to The Times of Israel, he added that this is something the party is actively trying to remedy.

Still, he said, “we will never be ashamed of our voters.”

Other MPs were not afraid to voice their criticism of the far-right party.
Iranian-born Bjan Djir Sarai of the Free Democratic Party said of AfD that “the central committee of Jews in Germany said you are false friends and that they don’t need you,” while SDP representative Helge Lindh accused the party of trying to “instrumentalize anti-Semitism for its anti-Muslim racism.”

Opposition from some in Israel

While the anti-BDS legislation was widely supported in the Bundestag, it ironically didn’t fare quite as well in the eyes of some Israelis.

An online petition signed by more than 60 Israeli and Jewish academics argued that the “amalgamation” of calls for boycotts with anti-Semitism “is wrong, unacceptable and a threat to Germany’s democratic foundation.”

Some of the signatories — including well-known professors from universities in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Beersheba, London and Paris — said that while they may dislike BDS, they still “reject the fallacious claim that the BDS movement as such is anti-Semitic, and we defend every person and every organization’s right to support it.”

Alternative for Deutschland MP Jurgen Braun addresses the German parliament about anti-BDS legislation, May 17, 2019. (Yaakov Schwartz/Times of Israel)

MP Heike Hansel agreed, saying her Left Party was against the other motions.

“General condemnation of BDS is problematic because these are the forces of Palestinian civil society, and it would delegitimize this,” she said, as she referred to the Israeli-signed petition. “It would be good for us if these warnings from Israeli civil society had been taken into account.”

“The three motions may have seemed similar, but they had completely different narratives,” Jewish MP Frank Muller-Rosentritt of the Free Democratic Party told The Times of Israel after the vote.

“Our liberal group of parties started this initiative, and the language is very different now than it was when we started. But we’re an opposition party, so we had to compromise, and that’s very difficult,” he said.

Still, he said, “It’s a big day for Germany, a big day for Europe, a big day for Israel and for our Jewish community, that we have, in the German Bundestag, had this victory against BDS.”

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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