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Shir Hever discusses the bank’s decision to close Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East’s bank account. This is the second time since Hitler that a Jewish account was closed, this time because of pressure from Israel to block the boycott and divestment movement

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MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Twice since the Nazis ruled Germany, a German bank has closed the account of a Jewish organization. It happened in 2016— same bank, same Jewish organization once again. The bank is called the Bank for Social Economy, which operates accounts for many civil society organizations, and it’s considered a progressive banking institution. Nonetheless, they closed the account of Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East. Jewish Voice— as it’s known— is a German organization promoting solidarity with Palestinian rights. We covered this here at The Real News before, describing how it was part of a worldwide campaign to demand that the Bank for Social Economy refrain from discrimination against its Jewish customers. The bank ceded and the bank reopened the account. This year, things heated up again. The bank then commissioned an external expert to investigate whether the Jewish Voice is an anti-Semitic group. Although eventually, the expert refused to conduct such an investigation. Then Jewish Voice proceeded to win the Göttingen Prize. Shortly afterwards, the bank posed an ultimatum to them— renounce BDS or we’ll close your account.

And we’re joined now by a Board Member of Jewish Voice who also happens to be a correspondent for The Real News, to discuss why Jewish Voice refused to engage in an investigation, whether they are anti-Semitic or not, or why they refused to renounce BDS. Shir Hever is a Board Member of Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East and a correspondent for The Real News Network living in Heidelberg, Germany. His most recent book is Privatization of Israeli Security. Welcome back, Shir. Always good to talk to you.

SHIR HEVER Thank you, Marc, for having me.

MARC STEINER This is a really complex subject in some ways, so what happened in the intervening time? I read the statement from the bank and I’ll give you my thoughts about that in a minute, but tell me what happened here.

SHIR HEVER Well, the bank conducted a negotiating process with us, with Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East and—

MARC STEINER Were you part of that? Were you part of that? The negotiation?

SHIR HEVER No, no. Other members of the board participated in the negotiation process and basically, we were quite optimistic about this negotiating process. We came with a very positive outlook to it and we thought the bank is actually willing to apologize for blaming us of anti-Semitism and arranging this investigation against us. The bank was also, understandably, under a lot of international pressure and also pressure inside Germany to close our account because it was generally understood that if a Jewish organization loses its account for supporting the BDS Movement, then every organization in Germany will have to. All the other organizations will have to announce that they reject BDS, otherwise their accounts will be closed as well in a very McCarthyistic way.

So it was very important for us in that context to tell the bank that we want to keep our account with them as a symbolic issue and that we want to ensure that our existence in this bank is proof of the freedom of speech in Germany. But at some point, the bank just told us, either you publish a statement or sign a statement that we will write for you where you distance yourself from the BDS Movement and basically say that you reject it, or we will close your account. Of course, we will not accept this kind of thought control or political control. There is, according to the German Constitution, the right to free speech and free political expression is protected. The bank doesn’t seem to understand that, and they just told us that they were going to close our account.

MARC STEINER Well let me raise, when I read the bank statement and I was, kind of, thinking about where this would live, but this seems to me a very complex issue. On the one hand, you’ve got a bank that refuses to take the Jewish Voice account in a country that is overly-sensitive about things Jewish because of the Holocaust, what happened in World War II and before. On the other hand, you have all— it seems from what I’ve been reading— you have all these right-wing Zionist organizations that were pushing to insist that your account be withdrawn and that you were in fact, even though you’re Jewish, you’re anti-Semitic. Or, some like to say, self-hating Jews. [laughs] But so, let’s talk about that, about those two, kind of, contradictions and realities that exist and how they played into all this, and your analysis of that.

SHIR HEVER I think the best analysis is to use a biblical story and I’m sure you know it, but maybe not all of our viewers know it— the judgment of King Solomon, which is in the Bible. In that story, two women who claim to be the mother of the same baby go to the king, and the king’s solution is to cut the baby in half. One mother says that she’s okay with it, but everyone will get a half and basically, no one will get a baby. And the other one says, no give it to the other one; just don’t kill the baby. And then King Solomon says, oh she must be the real mother, and gives her the baby. I think this is a very similar situation. Unfortunately, the bank doesn’t seem to know its Jewish culture and history very well because we have a situation here where the baby is Jewish life in Germany. The question is, can Jews live in Germany safe and free, and have their own political opinions and their own choice, what political opinions to hold?

And in this bank, there used to be another organization, another Jewish organization called Keren Hayesod, which is a pro-Israeli organization. Actually, Keren Hayesod is registered in Israel. It’s a Zionist organization. It funnels money to illegal colonies in the West Bank. It buys land which only Jews can live on, so it’s a very right-wing racist organization. And we never at the Jewish Voice for a Just Peace called the bank to close their account. We believe that even if this organization is racist, they are entitled to their opinion. We’ll fight their opinion, but we’re not going to silence them. We’re going to make sure that our opinion is also heard. So in that sense, we are willing to have Jewish life in Germany where everyone will get an opinion. The bank however— Now, what happened is actually that Keren Hayesod, they said if the bank doesn’t kick out us, they will leave the bank.

MARC STEINER And they have more money than you.

SHIR HEVER [laughs] They have a lot more money than us. They are supported by the Israeli government, so they have a lot more money. But anyway, when the bank last year reopened our account, they left in protest and said we’re closing our account with this bank. Now, see what’s going to happen to this bank because they are kicking us out. After we get kicked out, what happens if Keren Hayesod says, oh we want our account back in the Bank for Social Economy. If the Bank for Social Economy says, no we are not a place for having political debates— like they do in their statement— we’re not the right place for having political discussions among Jewish groups.

Then basically, they’re saying political Jewish groups may not have accounts in the bank, which is a totally racist statement. Their other option is to say, yes, we are willing to have Keren Hayesod, the right-wing organization open their account, but not the Jewish Voice for a Just Peace. That means the bank says, yes, we’re pro-occupation, pro-racism, pro-right-wing Jews, but we are against Jews who stand up for human rights. And so, this means that this is not really a bank so much, but more of a political organization— which again, the bank in their statements says we’re not a political organization. So, make up your mind. Either you’re a political organization or you are an organization that doesn’t allow Jews being customers.

MARC STEINER What do you think really pushed, forced this decision to happen? I mean, from what I’ve read about this bank, the Bank for Social Economy, I called it in the opening, kind of, a progressive institution as banks go. I mean, if this was here in the United States, it would be considered a progressive bank that takes all these civic groups, it takes their money, and it seems to back a number of those kind of progressive causes inside of Germany itself. So what happened? What do you think is really at work here?

SHIR HEVER What is at work here is that the Israeli lobby is working extremely hard in Germany to try to make BDS illegitimate and even to criminalize it. They’re willing to use every last card that they have, drawing on the guilt feelings of Germans over the Holocaust. Although, this is really not the issue so much for these right-wing Germans who are pro-Israeli and they have pushed this decision that the German parliament—They are using organizations in Germany that are pretending to be organizations that represent all Jews in Germany, but of course Jews are a very varied group, and they have many different opinions, and no one organization can represent them.

MARC STEINER Always. Always, I said.

SHIR HEVER Always. Yeah, yeah. Of course, of course. And so, these are the organizations that claim again and again, BDS is anti-Semitic, and that’s of course a lie. But our organization, the Jewish Voice for a Just Peace, many of our members support BDS. That’s a big problem for them because it proves that BDS is not anti-Semitic. We keep publishing information about the rights of Palestinians, international law, and how German policy towards Israel is riddled with internal contradictions because it’s blindly supporting Israel and still claiming to be supporting international law and the opinions of the European Union, and that just doesn’t go together. That’s why these organizations are very much focused on taking down the Jewish Voice for a Just Peace. That’s a very problematic target for them. And the fact that we won the Göttingen Peace Prize this year is something that on the one hand shows just how widespread is the support, the grassroots support for our organization in Germany. But also, it’s really like a call to arms for the right-wing pro-Israel organizations that now have to redouble their efforts and redouble their funding to try to delegitimize our organization.

MARC STEINER So with the little bit of time we have left here, just two very quick questions. A— how divided is the Jewish community, which is a miniscule community compared to what it was in the 20s and 30s, obviously, but how divided are they on this issue like they seem increasingly divided here in the United States? And B— what are the next steps?

SHIR HEVER I think in Germany what you don’t really have so much as you do in the United States is a very large and old, well-entrenched Jewish community that doesn’t concern itself everyday with matters of Israel-Palestine, that are more interested in Jewish life for itself. What you do have in Germany is a generation of Jews that came mainly from the Soviet Union and they’re somewhat of an older generation here, and they tend to be more conservative. Of course, their political opinions are just as varied as any other group, but this is the main support base for the organization called the Central [Council of Jews in Germany], which is a right-wing pro-Israeli organization, and their Chairman, Dr. Josef Schuster, is constantly attacking our organization, calling us anti-Semites. But then, you have a new generation of German Jews, many of them coming from Israel, many of them knowing firsthand what the occupation looks like and what apartheid looks like—

MARC STEINER As yourself.

SHIR HEVER As myself. Yes. And there are tens of thousands like myself who came from Israel to Germany because Germany is considered a liberal and democratic country where people can express their opinion. Only that we came to this country to find out that yes, it is a liberal and democratic country on any topic except Israel. On that issue, German politics is still very backwards, unfortunately. But among this group of Jewish immigrants to Germany, the opinion is much more to the left. Again, of course, it’s a very varied group. There are also pro-Israelis among the group, but they’re a small minority. And a very large proportion of this group supports the BDS Movement.

MARC STEINER So very quickly because we do have to end this, so what’s your next steps?

SHIR HEVER Well, we’re considering to appeal to the court and to file a lawsuit against the bank because according to the German Constitution, Article 5 of the German Constitution enshrines the right for free speech and freedom of organization. Interestingly, there’s another article of the German Constitution, Article 18, which has never been actually used before. But this article says that an organization that abuses their freedom of speech and freedom of organization in order to take away the rights of other organizations to express themselves freely, will lose those rights. And I think that the Bank for Social Economy did not do their homework and did not properly research before they took this very rash decision. The fact that they’ve taken a political position as a bank is something that puts their very existence at risk.

MARC STEINER Well, Shir Hever, it’s always a great pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much for this report and we look forward to obviously talking to you again very soon.

SHIR HEVER Thank you very much, Marc.

MARC STEINER Thank you. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Take care.

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Dr. Shir Hever grew up in Israel and now lives in Germany. He has been reporting on Israel/Palestine stories for 16 years, and for the Real News specifically since 2016. He’s the author of two books and many articles, and is a committed member of several Palestine solidarity groups.