‘You live in fear if you want to say something about Israel’

 A German jury’s decision to strip British Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie of a literary prize because of her pro-Palestinian activism, underscores how ignoring Palestinian rights has become normalised in Germany, according to pro-Palestinian figures in the country.

On September 18, days after its initial decision, the eight-member jury of the Nelly Sachs Prize, named after the German-Jewish Nobel laureate, a poet and playwright, withdrew its $16,000 award over Shamsie’s support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

In a statement, they said the “cultural boycott does not transcend borders, but affects the whole of Israeli society regardless of its actual political and cultural heterogeneity.”

BDS was established by Palestinian activists in 2005 to exert economic and political pressure on Israel to meet its obligations under international law and is modelled on similar campaigns by the United States civil rights movement and anti-apartheid fight against South Africa in the 1980s.

“If you are talking about Israel, or writing about Israel, you are entering a no-go or a dangerous area,” Iris Hefets, chairwoman of Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East, a group of mostly Israeli, British and American Jews living in Germany, told Al Jazeera.

What happened to Shamsie is part of a pattern of censoring, intimidating and undermining artists and public figures for their political views, said Hefets.

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Germany’s Bundestag became the first European parliament to denounce BDS as anti-Semitic in May when it passed a multi-party resolution that compared the campaign with the Nazis’ boycott of Jewish businesses – saying it was “reminiscent of the most terrible chapter in German history”.

Though the motion was not legally-binding, it added weight to the argument that BDS and Palestinian rights advocacy were akin to anti-Semitism in Germany.

The effects are felt especially by the more than 200,000 Palestinians living in Germany, who are the targets of suspicion and censorship, according to Gaza-born Majed Abusalem, a political organiser with human rights coalition Palestine Speaks.

“BDS only demands basic rights. If demanding freedom, justice, equality and dignity is radical then Germany has failed to learn anything from its history,” said Abusalem, who will face trial alongside two Israeli activists over their disruption of a speech by Knesset member Aliza Lavie in Berlin’s Humboldt University in 2017.

“This censorship is a disgrace and I’m angry that Palestinians have to fight for places to speak in a country which claims to be a democracy,” he added.

But the parliament’s motion could face a legal test.

Last week, a German court ruled that the city of Bonn’s decision to exclude a pro-BDS Palestinian women’s group from a cultural festival constituted “unequal treatment” and violated the European Convention of Human Rights, which protects the freedom to boycott.

anisation had its bank account shuttered in June after sustained criticism from Israeli media and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, a Jewish human rights organisation, for its support for BDS.

“You live in fear if you want to say something about Israel. You have to say Israel is great if you want to be protected, and to be funded.”

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