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Peter Ullrich on moral outrage, antisemitism, and repression against the Palestine solidarity movement


A protester raises the Palestinian flag during the Revolutionary May Day demonstration in Berlin, 1 May 2024. Photo: IMAGO / Emmanuele Contini

The traditional Revolutionary May Day demonstration in Berlin this year was characterized by a large and visible presence of pro-Palestine protestors in a way that it had not been in previous years, sparking controversy and debate both within the movement and beyond. Erik Peter of the taz spoke with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Peter Ullrich about the repression against the Palestine solidarity movement in Berlin, accusations of antisemitism both real and imagined, and how he thinks the movement for a ceasefire in Gaza can push for a universalist message and avoid the trap of nationalism.

Peter Ullrich is a sociologist, an alumni coordinator at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, a senior researcher in the field of “Social Movements, Technology, and Conflicts” at the Center for Technology and Society, and a fellow at the Center for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University Berlin.

Mr. Ullrich, the Revolutionary May Day demonstration in Berlin was basically a pure Palestine demo. Other topics were relegated to the sidelines. Did that surprise you?

There were a lot of indications in advance that this would be so. The topic was deliberately placed at the centre of the demonstration. And for left-wing movements it is a central conflict that keeps coming back every now and then - especially with such a dramatic escalation in the Middle East.

Forbidden slogans such as “From the river to the sea” were occasionally heard at the demonstration. A police intervention with subsequent escalation as a consequence was imminent. Where does this tendency to shout these things come from?

First of all, because that’s simply the protestors’ opinion.

Then it is certainly also about self-assertion against the massive action taken against the pro-Palestinian movement. Think of the ban on all protests in the first weeks after 7 October, with the at least implicitly racist assumption that they were all pro-Hamas demonstrations. Or the completely disproportionate severity with which the Palestine Conference was attacked and shut down. People react to this pressure with a certain defiance and an attempt to show strength by not giving in to the “reason of state” discourse.

People often not only engage in a universalistic effort to liberate people from occupation, but also become partisan in a nationalist conflict between Zionism and the Palestinian national movement.

On the other hand, one can observe a disturbing extreme anger and a constant indignation that seems almost religious, which cannot be explained solely by the conflict itself, especially among those who are not personally affected.

Then where does it come from?

On the one hand, you can see the influence of current anti-racist discourses and certain forms of “identity politics”. It radicalizes the logic of standpoint theory: only those affected have the right to express themselves on certain topics.

A reductive application of postcolonial discourses to Israel also plays a role. The colonial aspects of the creation of Israel are emphasized, while the national liberation aspects are ignored. The thinking is very antagonistic, there is no room for ambiguity. The other thing is that society as a whole feels on the defensive. All of this increases the danger of falling into particularism.

An over-identification with the Palestinian cause?

People often not only engage in a universalistic effort to liberate people from occupation, but also become partisan in a nationalist conflict between Zionism and the Palestinian national movement. The nationalism of the real life conflict leaves its traces in the “Middle East conflict of the solidarity movements”. Antagonisms are solidified here instead of taking a third position, which would be necessary for a politics of peace. This maximalism contributes to the movement being extremely unresponsive to criticism, even constructive criticism from a position of solidarity with the movement, and shying away from reflection.

What do you base this assertion on?

An example: I was a guest at the birthday of the Jewish Voice for Just Peace in the Middle East last November at Oyoun in Neukölln, with nice people and good music. And yet I felt quite alone there, despite all the similarities, for example with regard to criticism of the occupation.

What irritated me was that there was no sense that 7 October had happened only shortly before. The silence surrounding this heinous terror was truly deafening. But there was no antisemitism or glorification of Hamas either. This event could have just as easily taken place ten years ago. This feeling has also been articulated by Jewish leftists who, although they see themselves as part of the Palestine solidarity movement, have not experienced empathy for their trauma and losses after the Hamas attack.

Funding for Oyoun was subsequently cut.

I strongly criticize that, too. What I perceived as an ambivalence was portrayed, in the public debate, as people taking clear and unambiguous positions, as if Oyoun were an antisemitic centre and not an important place for queer and anti-racist work.

Do you think the criticism of the movement is unfair?

Palestine activists are sometimes seen as revenants of the Nazis. It is said they stand in front of Jewish shops like the Nazis did in 1938. These kinds of critics of antisemitism are quite serious about this. They are subjectively of the opinion that fighting against the BDS movement is anti-fascist and so virtually all means become permissible. Complexity and ambiguity are banished from people’s thinking, and this has its mirror image in the narrow-mindedness of parts of the Palestine movement.

What is this narrow-mindedness?

When I give lectures on antisemitism – and I’m not talking about legitimate criticism of Israel, even radical criticism – people often simply cannot separate it cognitively. They will say: “But it’s so bad in Gaza.” Yes, it’s actually extremely bad – but that wasn’t the subject of the lecture. The entire subject area is structured in a highly antagonistic and non-discursive manner. There are only a few people left who try to talk to different people, to bring different voices together. Contradictions are not tolerated.

Is the movement sabotaging itself and thus undercutting its main aim, to get people to pay attention to the suffering in Gaza?

Sometimes that is true. In the US, the university protests featured slogans like: “Hamas, we love your rockets, too.” That doesn’t describe the whole movement by any means, but the fact that something like that finds resonance there is a problem.

The question is whether BDS or the maximalist slogans actually do anything for the Palestinians.

Another example: The boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement recently decided to make the Israeli movement Standing Together a new target. Standing Together is currently the most determined voice against the war in Israel. But now it is cast [by the BDS movement] as an exponent of an impending “normalization” of contact with the “enemy”. This logic is not progressive and weakens the peace camp.

You criticize that the strategy of BDS is no longer discussed and reflected upon.

The question is whether BDS or the maximalist slogans actually do anything for the Palestinians. One could question whether everything one can insist on is actually wise to insist upon, and who one is alienating.

I think one can propagate a boycott as a means against occupation without immediately having to listen to accusations of antisemitism. But the fact that for Jews in this country this also awakens historical memories of the Nazi boycott of Jews could be understood with a minimum of empathy. It’s the same with “From the river to the sea”. This slogan is very much open to interpretation. It can be read as a demand for a democratic society for everyone who lives there, or, in Hamas terms, as the call for a purely Palestinian-Islamic state. I would like more clarity.

What about the insistence on a term like “apartheid”?

The primary historical context for the term is South Africa. It is now also a legal term that, although it draws on this experience, has its own definition. One should actually have a discussion about the various historical, political, legal and moral implications of the term instead of just postulating unambiguous truths. One side says loudly “clearly apartheid”, while the other finds even the discussion about it unbearable and suspects an antisemitic perpetrator-victim reversal.

Are these movement slogans symptoms of an overall rather simplistic treatment of the Middle East conflict?

There are NGOs that carry out regular monitoring or write complex analyses, scientific observers of the debate who are politically active. But in the solidarity groups on the streets there is often a martial demeanour, with the risk of adopting the nationalism of one’s own side in the conflict.

Actually, we were once already further along. In the 1970s and 1980s, leftists had high hopes for national liberation movements as agents of revolutionary progress. We know that this hope was generally not justified. History repeats itself.

How could one do better?

We should advocate for a universalist perspective again. In such a complex conflict, you cannot simply take sides. You can still take a position, but on specific questions: against the war, against the occupation, against settler violence, but also against the corrupt Palestinian Authority and the extremely reactionary and terrorist Hamas. But when it comes to the question of the right to life of people in Israel and Palestine, one must stand on the side of universal human rights. It is important to remember this because it risks being lost in the national furore of some in the movement.

What role does antisemitism play in this hardening of the debate?

I think this is a factor that only explains a small part. The central driver for a very woodcut-like criticism is the radical identification with one side of the conflict. Genuinely antisemitic patterns play a role and are part of Hamas’s program, but that is not enough to explain the anger in the wider movement for a ceasefire and against the occupation.

Under the cover of an understandable moral outrage and by politicians in charge, basic rights are being undermined here heavily.

Again, about the slogan “From the river to the sea”: It is interpreted as antisemitic because it lays claim to the entire country. But if you look to Israel, there you will also find maps everywhere in which non-Israeli territories are assigned to Israel. You can see that these are universal patterns in violent conflicts, where maximalist positions are represented on both sides and the claims of the opponent in the conflict are negated.

The accusation of antisemitism comes too quickly?

Some very simple definitions are used, such as the 3D test for antisemitism, which postulates the criteria of demonization, delegitimization, and double standards. But these are all patterns that can be observed in escalated conflicts. There is nothing specifically antisemitic about this. What is true, however, is that the logic of the conflict increases the tendency to adopt antisemitic interpretations as ammunition for one’s own position. The Middle East conflict is of course not the cause of antisemitism, but it fuels it.

The pro-Palestinian political scene has often failed to distance itself from statements after the Hamas attack that clearly cross the line [translator’s note: to supporting attacks on civilians and apologism for the Islamist right]. Why?

Many people probably don’t express such criticism [of Hamas and its actions] because they believe it weakens their own side. There is also a renaissance of authoritarian-left groups that see revolutionary impulses lying dormant in Hamas’s terror in their simple anti-imperialism. Critical thinking is needed in order not to wall oneself in and to protect oneself from becoming stupid. One protective mechanism is integration into other political discourses and topics. If you do only Palestine solidarity work, you tend to create your own political world that is structured exclusively by this issue.

The state is currently cracking down very hard on the pro-Palestinian movement. What is your perspective on this?

It is unbelievable how the Palestine Conference was squashed with entry and activity bans under outrageous conditions that did not even give the organizers the chance to behave “correctly”. Here, a police ideal of a “state police” comes into play, under whose banner reasons of state are pushed through, comparable to the police riots at the G20 summit in Hamburg in 2017. Under the cover of an understandable moral outrage and by politicians in charge, basic rights are being undermined here heavily. These are highly authoritarian tendencies that will ultimately affect other actors and issues.

This article first appeared in the taz and later in Left Renewal. Translation by Daniel Mang.