German state continues crackdown on Palestine solidarity

Activists spoke to Peoples Dispatch about the crackdown on Palestine solidarity groups and how the recent bans may set a dangerous precedent

July 01, 2024 by Peoples Dispatch
Palestine solidarity rally in Duisburg. Photo:KO

In May 2024, the Ministry of the Interior of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia enacted a ban on the organization Palästina Solidarität Duisburg (Palestine Solidarity Duisburg, PSDU). The case involved an extensive espionage operation by state authorities and eventually raids on the homes of four activists. Those affected have now established the “Committee Against the Ban on PSDU” in order to fight back against state repression in the courts.

The ban on PSDU occurred just a month after hundreds of German police shut down the Palestine Congress in Berlin on April 12, arresting several attendees and ordering delegates to leave immediately. Police have also been heavily repressing the massive mobilizations in cities across Germany calling for an end to the genocide and have conducted targeted raids on activists.

Peoples Dispatch spoke with Leon Wystrychowski*, a former member of PSDU, and Sylvia Brennemann**, a member of the Committee Against the Ban on PSDU, about their case and the wider rightward shift of the German state today.

Peoples Dispatch: In mid-May of this year, the Ministry of the Interior of North Rhine-Westphalia banned Palestine Solidarity Duisburg (PSDU). What was the official reason for the ban? And how was the intelligence service involved?

Sylvia: PSDU was a locally based group of activists founded in the summer of 2023 to organize solidarity with Palestine. Although it was a small organization, it was very active and well connected in both the region and throughout Germany. Through its demonstrations, its consistent advocacy of the Palestinians’ right to resistance, and its very active social media work, the group grew stronger in the fall of 2023 and garnered a lot of attention. Of course, this also included the German state authorities, specifically the “state security” department of the city police, the Ministry of the Interior of North Rhine-Westphalia, and the federal intelligence agency (the “Verfassungschutz”). The latter initiated the idea of ​​banning PSDU and then pushed it forward by, among other things, co-drafting the ban decree and infiltrating the PSDU with informants.

The reasons for the ban are ridiculous: they are not of a legal nature, but openly political. The group is accused of being antisemitic, of violating Völkerverständigung (“understanding amongst the peoples of the world”) and of having “intellectually supported” Hamas, whatever that means. More than 60 pages of text were produced and around 180 pages of “evidence” were compiled, which are used to conceal the fact that PSDU cannot be accused of any specific crimes, with many insinuations, distortions and, in some cases, outright lies.

PD: As part of the ban, the homes of four activists were raided by the police. What was the reason for this and how did the operation unfold?

Leon Wystrychowski: In all four cases, the initial aim was to confiscate the group’s assets in order to dismantle PSDU as an organization. What counted as “assets” was, of course, decided by the police themselves: an envelope with cash was confiscated from me, on the grounds that my name on the envelope indicated that it was a transfer of money as part of PSDU. Private items such as clothing, a pavilion, a sound system, and so on were also taken.

Laptops and cell phones were confiscated from all of us, including from some spouses. In one instance, the police have informed the member by letter that the confiscation had been revoked as illegal. But when that person called the police to ask when the devices would be returned, they answered that the devices were still being analyzed.

In my case, the police came with two search warrants because they had also filed a criminal complaint against me. Once again, it was an attempt to criminalize a political position. You see, when referring to Israel’s crimes in Gaze, terms like “genocide” or statements like “Israel is killing children” or slogans like “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free” have all led to criminal prosecution in Germany today. So, the police wanted to find information on my electronic devices that could incriminate me. But most likely, this operation was primarily about intimidating, obstructing, and financially harming us all, because, as I said, they’ve taken everyone’s devices.

PD: How do you oppose this ban? What impact would a reversal of the ban have on the wider Palestine solidarity movement in Germany?

Leon: Those of us targeted by the authorities have filed a lawsuit against the ban. It will probably take several years before a verdict is reached. We have therefore also initiated expedited proceedings to have the ban suspended until the matter is clarified by the courts. This will probably take several weeks or even months. We have also filed complaints and lawsuits against the police raids.

I think the PSDU ban was a blueprint for the banning of other organizations. Our case is different to the banning of the organization Samidoun, which was decreed by the federal government in November 2023. Samidoun is falsely accused of being an offshoot of the PFLP, which is classified as a “terrorist organization” in the EU. The authorities were unable to construct such a connection with the PSDU. With the justification they have brought against us, many other organizations could also be banned – and that is exactly what is now being demanded: On the day of our ban, the Interior Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Herbert Reul, called on the federal government to ban other organizations that are active nationwide. He is referring to organizations such as the BDS campaign, Palestine Speaks, and the Jewish Voice for a Just Peace. There are also local groups in various cities, some of which have already been the subject of calls for a ban.

I therefore believe that our ban is being closely monitored by the authorities throughout Germany. If we had let the one-month deadline pass without filing a lawsuit, it would have been an invitation for the repressive authorities to strike against our comrades in other states of Germany. Now they will probably wait and observe how our struggle develops. If we win the expedited proceedings and our legality is restored in a few weeks, that would be a great victory for the entire movement. If not, we have tried at least – and will of course continue the fight against the ban! But then it is of course possible that our lawsuit has only given the movement a breather, and further bans will follow soon.

PD: How can the ban on the PSDU be seen as a further step in a broader rightward shift in the German state? Germany has, for instance, also just updated its naturalization rules, with the acceptance of Israel’s “right to exist” now being a prerequisite for German citizenship. Has the Federal Republic of Germany always taken this hardline approach against Palestinian solidarity or has there been a qualitative change after October 7 last year?

Sylvia: It is perhaps not so clear to those outside of Germany, but the political discourse around Palestine has become wholly hysterical and divorced from reality in our country. Just one example: the debunked lie of the 40 beheaded babies is still being spread by what are considered “serious” mass media outlets and even by state broadcasters to this day.

This method of consistently propagating one single narrative while forbidding any alternatives is being deployed on other political issues, such as the war in Ukraine. But Palestine has been a central battleground for many years. Here, fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are being attacked by the state. And, since October 7, the whole thing has taken on dimensions that would have been unimaginable a few years ago: the bans on Samidoun and PSDU within a few months, the mass censorship and harassment, the bans on Palestine demonstrations in various parts of Germany, in some cases for weeks and months, etc. And these are just the executive acts, which can at least be scrutinized in the courts and in some cases still reigned in.

Then there are the legislative initiatives, which, once they have passed through parliament, are very difficult to resist. The naturalization law you mentioned is just one of many racist and undemocratic initiatives in this direction. When the current anti-Palestinian hate campaign and hysteria has finally subsided and we all have time to breathe, we will really realize what victims this political rampage that is currently taking place has claimed within just a few months.

*Leon Wystrychowski, is a former member of the Palästina Solidarität Duisburg (Palestine Solidarity Duisburg, PSDU) and one of the plaintiffs against the ban.

**Sylvia Brennemann is the spokeswoman for the Committee Against the Ban on PSDU.