Israel’s influence in Europe could lead to criminalization of critiques of Zionism

The International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism convened earlier this month in Malmö, Sweden. According to the Swedish government, “The programme focused on four main themes: Holocaust remembrance; Holocaust education; Antisemitism on social media platforms; and Combating antisemitism and other forms of racism in all spheres of life.” While the forum served as an important call to combat antisemitism in Europe and beyond, human rights advocates warn that the European Union is creeping dangerously close to criminalizing the speech of any who speak out against Israel’s settler-colonial and apartheid violence against Palestinians by conflating Judaism with Zionism and critiques of Zionism with antisemitism.

In this interview, recorded from the Netherlands, TRNN contributor David Kattenburg speaks with Ronnie Barkan and Dr. Anne de Jong about the deeply troubling effort to stifle critiques of Israel and the chilling repercussions it could have in Europe and beyond. Anne de Jong is a member of the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences at the University of Amsterdam with a regional expertise on the Middle East (Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Bahrain); she was also an organizing member and participant in the 2010 Gaza Freedom Flotilla. Ronnie Barkan is an Israeli activist, a conscientious objector, and co-founder of Boycott From Within—a group of Israelis who support the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS).


Transcript

David Kattenburg:    Hello, and welcome to The Real News Network. My name is David Kattenburg reporting. Today, it’s my pleasure to have a couple of guests with us from the Netherlands. And Ronnie, are you right now in Israel?

Ronnie Barkan:     Yes, I’m in Palestine at the moment.

David Kattenburg:    In Palestine, right. We’re going to get to that distinction. A couple of interesting items in the news today, Interesting news often comes in pairs. On the 13th of October, a joint letter was published by both The Guardian and an open letter in NBC News, cosigned by or regarding a letter that has been sent to Google and Amazon signed by roughly 900 Amazon and Google workers calling on the two tech giants to cancel their involvement in something called Project Nimbus, which is a 1.2 billion venture that will provide cloud services to the Israeli government and military, and to the Israeli land authority, the agency that essentially steers Israel’s continued expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank in violation of international law. So nearly 1,000 anonymous signatories at Amazon and more than 600 at Google have joined this call, which is kind of astonishing.

At the same time, this week there was a conference taking place in the city of Malmö in Sweden, the International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism, attended by Israeli lobbyists and EU officials. And one of the major items in the agenda is discussion of the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, which critics say muzzles free political expression and expression of free points of view about the so-called conflict in Israel and Palestine. So, two interesting items of news.

With me to discuss these are Ronnie Barkan who is a Jewish-Israeli activist and dissident, one of the founding members of a group called Boycott from Within, and one of three individuals who were charged by a Berlin court back in 2020 for disrupting a talk by an Israeli official at Humboldt University in Berlin. And they were charged with trespass and various other things, and they were acquitted in August of 2020. So that’s Ronnie Barkan. With me as well is Anne de Jong who’s a member of the Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Amsterdam and the author of a paper entitled Zionist Hegemony, the Settler Colonial Conquest of Palestine and the Problem with Conflict: A Critical Genealogy of the Notion of Binary Conflict. Interesting.

Anne de Jong was also one of those who participated in the Gaza flotilla in 2010, and she and others were stopped in their tracks on the high seas and treated rather poorly by the Israeli military. So Anne de Jong and Ronnie Barkan, it is a pleasure to have you both with me here on The Real News. Can I just ask you each in turn to tell me what your thoughts are on the Malmö conference in Sweden where they’re discussing the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism? And the fears are that free speech is going to be muzzled. Are you concerned that a gathering of this sort essentially hinders or stands to compromise your ability to speak freely about the situation in what I’ll call Palestine-Israel or Israel-Palestine? Ronnie, why don’t you begin?

Ronnie Barkan:    Okay. So thank you for having me. I think that, first of all, I’m not at all concerned about different organizations, governments, etc., trying to muzzle freedom of expression. I mean, I’m not personally concerned. I’m concerned about the situation in large. But personally, I think this is an opportunity for us to tackle these issues because for example, in the IHRA definition or the mis-definition, which turns on its head the whole idea of antisemitism, they have basically gone against, by the way, in a way that goes against even the person who initiated, who was initially writing the IHRA definition. This was applied in a way that that person didn’t even intend for it to be applied. And the way that they are trying to apply that very problematic definition is in order to conflate a criticism of the criminal apartheid state, the criminal Zionist race state, with Judaism or with anti-Jewish sentiment.

And actually it couldn’t be farther from the truth. I would argue very clearly that there is absolutely no connection whatsoever between Zionism and Judaism, and I can talk much about that, and any conflation whatsoever between the two is in itself antisemitic in its very nature. It implies that those who are Zionist or those who are Jewish, let’s say in a broad sense by religion or otherwise, are also necessarily Zionist. And that in itself, to say myself because I’m somehow regarded as Jewish, I’m also supportive of that criminal supremacist enterprise. That in itself kind of amalgamates all Jews into one monolithic group. And it says that we are all criminals and barbarians, etc. So that in itself is a very racist approach.

Now, every Israeli representative says that if you’re critical of the state of Israel, you’re also somehow antisemitic. And we have to be very straight with the logic. What I just said is that if they say that if you’re critical of the state of Israel, then you must also be somehow against Jews. It also means exactly what I mentioned before, that if you are Jewish because of this or that criteria, you must also be necessarily supporting of that criminal apartheid state. So we have to challenge the entire idea of conflating between the two.

David Kattenburg:     Anne de Jong, what are your thoughts on this conference now taking place in Sweden where the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism is being promulgated and adopted? Is this a threat to free speech in places like the Netherlands and Germany and elsewhere?

Anne de Jong:       Yes and no. Yes, it’s a threat to free speech in the sense that it stifles debate. It intimidates, particularly young people, young scholars, for example, who are working in the academy and want to speak out about the situation. On the other hand, no, I would say not because the war of discourse has been going on for a very long time. And if you are involved like Ronnie, for example, or like me for a long time, you also realize that this is actually an opportunity to challenge discourse. The very long paper you mentioned before, and don’t worry for people who do not want to read the academic stuff, there’s plenty of other stuff more accessible, but really focuses on the war of narratives and discourse surrounding Israel-Palestine, Palestine-Israel.

And mostly what I want to add to the very important distinction that Ronnie laid forward, the distinction between Jewish Jews and on the other hand Zionism as a political ethnonationalist project. And the other point that I think is important to point out, that while it looks like a stiffening of free speech, it actually challenges the peace and conflict paradigm. The peace and conflict paradigm means that there is a conflict between two sides and the desired solution is peace. And while that sounds very innocent, it actually really distorts what’s going on on the ground because it distorts that it actually concerns a very unequal power relation. It’s one between a highly militarized state with lots of international support and an oppressed indigenous people, the Palestinians. It also legitimizes human rights violations, right? Because in a conflict, obviously, there’s violence and one needs to defend itself, rather than actually what’s going on is very much an occupation, a military occupation.

And the third reason why I really object to the peace and conflict paradigm, and why I think it’s good that now at least we are talking about how and the words we should use, is because it does not reflect reality on the ground. This is not two states, two people next to each other fighting. It’s a military occupation of the West Bank. It’s a near [to full] blockade of Gaza, which basically means an open-air prison. It’s segregation in Jerusalem, and it is institutional discrimination within Israel. And in all the land between the seas, as it’s often referred to, is apartheid. Very simply saying that there is a distinction between people based on their ethnonationalist identity.

David Kattenburg:    And to say this sort of thing –

Anne de Jong:      While I think the definition is definitely challenging because it would incriminate me as an academic for doing my job and for critically looking at human rights violations, I also think it’s important that we at least have the opportunity to counter this and say, hold on, what you are saying is not actually academic or theoretical or reflects reality on the ground. So I surely am worried about definitions like this. On the other end, I rather see them as an opportunity to discuss the very basics of what’s going on in Palestine.

David Kattenburg:     But I mean to say what you are saying, to use the word apartheid to describe Israel, the state of Israel as an apartheid state or a settler or a colonial state, or to suggest that the Palestinian people are the ones who are indigenous to the land, these very assertions are categorized under the IHRA definition of antisemitism as antisemitic.

Anne de Jong:      Yes, but it has nothing to do with… My entire work is against human right violation and against all forms of racism and exclusion. And what I’m doing with my work is looking at the basic problem in Palestine and Israel. And that is on the one hand, those who are told that human rights should only count for Jewish Israeli inhabitants of Palestine. And on the other hand, there’s people who say, well, human rights should be regardless of one’s ethnonationalist identity. And if that definition is antisemitic, I would say that the definition itself is antisemitic, because it claims Judaism for a political entity called Zionist. And that is an unfair equation and it is not an academic equation. It’s a very political equation.

Ronnie Barkan:      We should also ask actually what brings about this challenging or this defining and redefining of antisemitism, and that is the issue. It is all about trying to silence any and all criticism of that Zionist race state, which some people claim to be Jewish. And even when we talk about the IHRA definition, which is a terrible definition, it doesn’t hold water. From the legal perspective, it is defined in a cyclical way, etc. But that definition in itself is not as problematic as the use that they’re trying to apply to it. And following that definition, there is a whole list of examples of how they implement that problematic definition. And the implementation is even far worse than the way they define it. So even if we challenge the definition in itself, this is not the only issue that we have to bear in mind, because the whole idea is how they intend to implement it in a very, very convoluted way. And I fully agree with everything that Anne said about how it is being used.

David Kattenburg:      Ronnie Barkan and Anne de Jong, the European Union and its member states, particularly the United Kingdom and France and Germany included, but the EU at the highest level, declares Israel’s settlement enterprise to be flagrantly unlawful, and is highly critical of Israeli activities in the occupied territories. And yet at the same time, the European Union and its member states most notably, again, Germany, the UK, France, and the European Union extend what seems to be unconditional support to the state of Israel to do what it wants, and actually extend economic aid and assistance and cooperate with the Israeli establishment. Notwithstanding their absolutely categorical position that Israel’s activities and enterprise are illegal under international law. How do you explain this? How do you explain that on the one hand, the European Union is totally categorical about the unlawfulness of Israel’s activities, on the other hand, it extends its support and actually seeks to, some would say, criminalize criticism of Israel? How do you explain this kind of contradiction? Anne?

Anne de Jong:     Well, I would say that in the Netherlands at least, it is based on partly historical guilt. I mean, what happened during the Holocaust is horrific. And the Dutch state completely worked with Nazi Germany on that. So it’s a historic guilt misplaced on the situation in Israel and Palestine. It also has a lot to do with economic interest, but above all, I would say it’s the residue of the peace and conflict paradigm. People, political parties, and companies are afraid to burn their hands by even engaging in and talking about this. So they really say, oh, it’s a conflict, it’s too complicated. You have to be balanced between the two sides. And by [inaudible] to that few, you basically say nothing at all because it’s too complex and too difficult. But while I look into the Netherlands, I actually find the interesting part is not the policy. I have no hope or ambition that the Dutch government somehow will be a front runner in the circle for social justice.

But I do think it’s very interesting to see that within Dutch grassroot society, there is a big day change going on and people are discussing what’s going on. There are active demonstrations and calls for BDS. And on the television, Palestinian films are shown during the latest May 21 attack on Gaza, for example. They published huge op-eds and places discussing, should we call Israel an apartheid state? I think then that the politicians or policy will not so much push for change, but like instances in South Africa, the people will finally push the politics to adopt a different stance.

David Kattenburg:     Ronnie Barkan?

Ronnie Barkan:     Yes. We have to understand that when the EU, for example, tries to speak this discourse about being somewhat critical of certain settlement activity in the occupied West Bank, when they criticize to a certain degree certain practices even inside what is regarded as Israel proper, that when they promote the penalty false discourse about the conflict resolution or a two-state solution, they are actually trying to cover up their involvement in promoting a deeply supremacist race state, which practices crimes against humanity for the past seven decades. And I would refer especially in that context to the EU Israel Association Agreement, which is basically the trade agreement. And more than that, dealing with the business ties between the entire EU and Israel. And in that agreement, article two of that agreement says very clearly that if there is a consistent human rights violation in Israel, and obviously there is, then the whole agreement is null and void. Basically, the EU can take corrective measures. They can sanction. They can freeze the agreement. They can do all kinds of actions.

What they cannot do, according to their own written document, what they cannot do is carry on doing business as usual with Israel. What they choose to do is that every EU member state looks the other way, chooses to look the other way, in order to protect and promote Israeli crimes against humanity. This is how we should be treating that issue. The involvement of the EU in actually shielding Israel from criticism, and yes obviously, and shielding Israel from criticism also implies that they do criticize to a certain degree, just a little bit, in order to give a semblance of pluralism and criticism, et cetera.

You know that whenever we are being told, especially as BDS activists, we’re being told that it is perfectly fine to criticize the policies of the state of Israel, but the moment that we start criticizing the very nature, the very character of that race state, then we are being tagged as antisemitic, et cetera. And what I argue is that it is the exact opposite. We should only focus on that criminal and illegitimate to the core character of that state, which is all about white supremacy, ethnic supremacy, ethnic racial supremacy, and ethnic domination.

David Kattenburg:     Ronnie, it’s rather risky to say the sorts of things that you say in Germany. We hear that Germany has actually criminalized this sort of discourse. That to promote boycott, divestment, and sanctions, or to call Israel an apartheid state, settler, colonial, racist state, to refer to Zionism as racism, one can be criminally charged in Germany for saying these kinds of things. Is that true or is that really a misconception?

Ronnie Barkan:     It has almost been criminalized. So basically, for example, quite recently, the Bundestag, the German parliament, passed a resolution saying that criticism… that basically, BDS is somehow antisemitic. Now, that resolution is being referred to all the time. And this was passed by the coalition, by the SPD-CDU coalition. But again, I would stress that whatever I said about the EU, it is far worse with regard to German complicity in Israeli crimes against humanity. Because it was… actually, there was an incident where the entirety of the German Bundestag voted about three different resolutions, one resolution which passed, and two other resolutions, one of the so-called left, Die Linke, and the other of AfD, the right wing. And all three motions said the exact same thing in different wording, but implying the exact same thing. And every single member of that parliament either voted in favor or abstained. There was not a single voice of dissent questioning that false equation between BDS and antisemitism.

So it goes far deeper than only saying that this is somewhat criminalized, et cetera. It says that there is a wall-to-wall support for this patently false discourse. And not only false discourse, this says that our struggle for equality, our struggle against racial supremacy, against apartheid, which is defined in the law as a crime against humanity on par with genocide. Our struggle against that is at the very least… We should be ashamed and we will be sanctioned for it, if not actually regarded as criminals. And this comes from a state which has committed genocide and seems to have learned nothing from its past.

David Kattenburg:      It’s reputationally hazardous to say the sorts of things that you’re saying. I mean, you’re Jewish Israeli, you are white if I may use that term. But if one is a Palestinian, a person of Palestinian descent, and speaks out about these things, they can lose their job at the university. They can be sanctioned.

Ronnie Barkan:     Yes. Especially in Germany, there is quite a lot of strength to those accusations, false accusations of antisemitism against different people. People can definitely be sanctioned as I mentioned, for example, lose their job simply for speaking up for Palestinian rights or against Israeli crimes. And this is the case in Germany, and we have to deal with that. This is a social issue, not only a legal or political issue. And I would argue, especially in Germany, and the reason that I was living in Germany for a few years was exactly in order to challenge all of that, because I see Germany as basically the last standing bastion for Zionism. When all countries of the world will realize that something is desperately wrong with Zionism, still Germany will hold on strong in its support for Zionism. And that is why I see that my role there is actually… I can be possibly more effective in challenging that in Germany exactly because of what we were discussing here.

And so we have to understand that it is very difficult to criticize Israel in Germany, and there is wall-to-wall support both within the political arena and also among the society. And this is a very tough struggle that yes, that needs to be handled. Yes.

David Kattenburg:      Anne, what’s the situation in the Netherlands? Is it reputationally hazardous to speak out about these things?

Anne de Jong:      In the Netherlands, it’s a little bit more of a silent monster in the sense that we do not have the official IHRA definition yet. We do not have a policy where you can be punished for speaking out. Freedom of speech is very, very crucial in Dutch society and also in Dutch universities. That said, the consequences for individuals who speak out is really, really severe. For me right now, it’s easier to speak than, let’s say, 10 years ago, because I am an associate professor, I do have tenure. I have a university that has my back. That said, every time you do speak out about human rights, you’re called an activist, and this is not in any way, shape, or form an accident. They do that very much on purpose to challenge your credentials and to challenge what you say. Why? Because they do feel that if a university professor or someone outside of the realm of, but these are pro-Palestinian activists starts saying these things, it becomes difficult to uphold their very political and ethnonationalist agenda.

So in the Netherlands, what happens if you speak out, you get reprimanded very much on social media. You get threats. You get threats in your home address. These threats are mostly very gendered. So particularly attacking women and young women, and very racialized, very much anyone who has a non-Dutch background gets targeted. What they do is defunding. So people who are like, oh, but you’re an activist academic. Therefore, you are to be taken less seriously. There’s lawsuits, a constant stream of lawsuits. Luckily, the University of Amsterdam has been good so far after you have to make your case why you’re not an activist and an academic, which I find problematic to begin with, but that’s maybe something we can continue to later.

There is very much a fear of reputation and indirect stifling of voices. Because if you are a master student, or a PhD student, or not yet tenured at university, you will not even dare to touch this subject because it will damage your career. It’s not a case if it will damage your career, it will damage your career. For me, personally, I cannot not speak out. It would actually go against my academic integrity. Because if you are focusing on human rights in the Middle East, you cannot in any way, shape, or form not see the huge human rights violations by Israel. So it’s a matter of academic freedom is there, but it is stifled because it has huge consequences for individuals, especially women and people of color.

Ronnie Barkan:    I would like to give you an example, if I may.

David Kattenburg:     Yes, please, quickly.

Ronnie Barkan:     …Of the way that we are being treated in Germany. And I’m talking we, those who are among the privileged, white, even those who come from a Jewish descent. Three Jewish activists, including myself, went to challenge the Israel tag, the celebrations of Israel Day, so-called Israeli Independence, which is also Nakba Day. And this was done in Berlin in the open, and also with the presence of the Israeli ambassador there. And we went there, three activists, holding signs. So the moment that the first person opened her banner challenging Israeli apartheid, she was taken by force by the police.

When I was about to pull my sign out, I was actually jumped by German police, gagged twice. I was gagged while being dragged to the ground, etc. And also later on, gagged again by German police while being in handcuffs. This was all filmed on my camera on Facebook Live. So some people got a chance to get a glimpse of that. But a few minutes later, this was totally removed off Facebook. And all three of us were detained. I was kind of arrested for a little while. So this was totally… We were totally silenced physically, and obviously politically, and also every evidence or most of the evidence was basically removed from social media. We managed to find some video actually by another participant, a Zionist participant who filmed part of that incident. And the viewers can go and watch that. I can send a link later.

David Kattenburg:     A final question if I can ask each of you to be as brief as you can. Do you see winds of change within the European Union and within key states within the European Union vis-à-vis policy towards Israel and the so-called conflict there and Israel’s behavior and violation of international law? Do you see governments shifting in their stance towards Israel and the EU to give teeth to their statements?

Anne de Jong:     Well, regarding the European Union or the Dutch government, I have no illusion whatsoever about spontaneous political change, just zero. I don’t think it’s a left or right thing. I do believe that it’s a topic that they don’t want to risk their political stance for. So there, I’m not very optimistic. However, I am really optimistic, at least in the Netherlands and also worldwide. If you look at young Jewish people, young activists of conscience who want to be included in the human rights struggle. In that sense, I do think that finally and very rightfully so, Israel is becoming the South Africa of our times. And you can see that people start to look at it in terms of human rights and human rights struggle.

If you look at major social change, for example, abolition of slavery, or the end of segregation, or the end of apartheid in South Africa, it was people power first. And I do think if we look at the current European Union or the new generation, our generation and the new generation, is very brave, and it speaks up, and it keeps speaking up, and it’s very eloquent in how they do so. They do so via law. They do so via BDS. They do so via direct protest. It is happening in cultural institutions and also in universities. So policy, political wise, not so much. On the grassroots, the winds are changing and human rights are being put on the forefront again.

David Kattenburg:      Ronnie?

Ronnie Barkan:    Yes. If politicians would’ve been doing their job, then it wouldn’t be left for us. Then Israeli apartheid would not be able to carry on doing whatever it does, because it gets full support both from the US and the EU and many other countries. But what EU countries are choosing to do is actually act against their own laws. European laws obviously, acting against international law in that respect by protecting Israel. So now it is up to us, the people, to speak up and to act. And I’m very happy to see the change happening. There are winds of change happening, and this only increases, at the moment, the activity against us by these institutions mentioned before.

Now, for example, that letter by Google and Amazon employees, that is very refreshing and I’m very happy to see that. I’ve been trying to bring to light the whole involvement of Israeli IT companies in occupation and apartheid. Myself, I’m an IT professional. And I used to condition my work in this or that company by only working with civilians, because it is not very common to only work with civilians. Most if not all Israeli IT companies are actually heavily involved with, at the very least, Israeli ministries if not the military and the Shin Bet. I even, for example, resigned from a startup company that I used to work in in the past the moment that they were purchased by Oracle. Oracle, a very large IT company, which its business in Israel, actually one third of its business, is with Israeli army. It holds one conference a year specifically only for military personnel. So obviously, I couldn’t participate in that.

So I’m very happy to see that these things are changing. There are these voices coming from IT professionals around the world, from other communities around the world. We are joining forces with Black Lives Matter or indigenous groups around the world. This is very, very important because we have to understand that by doing that, we are also finally able to change the discourse. And this is why these institutions are so afraid. Because it is not only about this or that occupation, it is about a whole system of oppression, which is also a criminal system acting against… I mean, committing crimes against humanity for the past seven decades and more. And this system of oppression, like apartheid in South Africa, like slavery in the US, et cetera, the only way to abolish that system is to abolish it. It doesn’t mean abolishing the state, it means abolishing that system of oppression. And there is no way around it. We cannot seek half equality or three quarters equality. It is either equality or nothing.

And the moment that we demand the rights of Palestinians, and I would make it even simpler, the moment that we demand equality in return, it works very well in Hebrew, [speaking Hebrew]. The moment that we demand equality in return, we are demanding the most radical thing that we could ever, ever imagine in this place. Because this land, this Zionist race state is all about denying exactly that. It is all about creating a state for one and only one people at the expense of all the others, especially if they are the indigenous people to this land. And when we discuss the issue of apartheid, for example, it is not only this or that apartheid in the West Bank and Gaza, which is horrible, which is unbearable.

The most part of Israeli apartheid is that which exists since the very foundation of the state of Israel, which means that 6 million people today are living in forced exile. And they have been living in forced exile for the past seven decades simply for having the wrong ethnicity. They’re in forced exile for the crime of wrong ethnicity. This is the heart of the matter, that people are denied even from living on their land, from returning home, only because of their racial ethnic characteristics. And also when we talk about Gaza, yes, the situation is unbearable. 95% of the water is not potable, and the entire destruction and the bombing of Gaza. And yet when there was the March of Return of those people from Gaza, 70% of whom are refugees, when there was the March of Return, certain organizations, including pro-Palestinian organizations, claimed that this is a march against the criminal siege of Gaza. It is not. It is about their right to return home, home here in Palestine.

David Kattenburg:     I’m going to jump in there, Ronnie. Thank you so much. One could go on at great length about this. I’d like to thank both of you for joining me today on The Real News. Ronnie Barkan is a Jewish Israeli activist and dissident, one of the founding members of a group called Boycott from Within. And Annie de Jong, Anne de Jong is a faculty member in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Amsterdam. Before we go, please don’t forget to subscribe to The Real News YouTube channel and head on over to therealnews.com/support to become a sustainer of the network. Every dollar ensures that we can keep bringing you important coverage of this sort of conversation such as the one you’ve just listened to. Thank you so much for watching and listening. This is David Kattenburg reporting for The Real News Network.

David Kattenburg

David Kattenburg is a journalist, human rights advocate, and science educator based in Breda, Netherlands.