Why I must oppose smears against Israel’s critics in Germany

By Adri Nieuwhof, Electronic Intifada, 15 February 2017

Veteran South African
activist Farid Esack (Meraj Chhaya/Flickr)

I have to speak out against the
smear campaign waged in Germany against Farid
, an Islamic studies professor from South Africa.
When Israel’s supporters learned
that Esack had been given a teaching post at the University of Hamburg, they
made baseless allegations of anti-Semitism against him.
The smears were spread by members
of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, the right-wing
populist partyAlternative für Deutschland, the Green
Party’s Volker Beck and Katharina Fegebank, as well as by Israeli
I have to speak out because my
parents suffered under the German occupation of the Netherlands. One lesson I learned from
their past is that I should never remain silent when the rights of others are
trampled upon.
That is why I supported the South
African people in their fight against apartheid and
that is why I defend the rights of the Palestinians today.
I am deeply disturbed about how
academics such as Eleonora Roldán Mendívil, Farid Esack and Norman Finkelstein have come under
attack in Germany because they criticize Israel’s violations of Palestinian
rights. The pro-Israel lobby is waging smear campaigns against defenders of
Palestinian rights, with a view to excluding them from German universities.
The lobby’s tactics remind me of
the witch-hunting McCarthy era in the US.
The tactics remind me, too, of
the Radikalenerlass (“Radicals Decree”) in 1970s Germany. It banned thousands from working as civil
servants because of accusations that they held “radical views.”
I have known Farid Esack since
the 1980s when I worked with the Holland Committee on Southern Africa. Our
committee organized boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns against
South Africa and provided political and material support to the liberation
movement, the African National Congress (ANC).
Esack fought apartheid as a
leading member of the Call of Islam organization and the United Democratic Front
The UDF was founded in the 1980s – at a time the
ANC was banned by the apartheid regime. It brought together trade unions with
various grassroots organizations, including the Call of Islam.
The aim of these organizations
was to make South Africa ungovernable by mobilizing people in campaigns to defy
the apartheid regime. For example, Esack was among the organizers of a 1989 peace march in Cape Town. Around
30,000 people took part in that protest, defying the state of emergency.
Ten years after South African
apartheid was defeated, our paths crossed again. We were both speaking out
against Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights and supporting the
Palestinian people in their fight for freedom, justice and equality.
In recent months, Esack has been
a guest professor at the Academy of World Religions in Hamburg University.
Pro-Israel lobbyists have attacked the university for hiring Esack and
slandered him personally.
The accusations against him were
first published in the German newspaper Die
Esack is the chair of BDS South Africa, which urges nonviolent
activism against Israeli apartheid.
“It should be clear to everyone
of goodwill that Israel-hatred is anti-Semitism,” Daniel Killy, a spokesperson
for Hamburg’s Jewish community, has told The Jerusalem Post.
But criticism of Israel’s
policies and practices is not the same as Israel-hatred or anti-Semitism. False
accusations of anti-Semitism are frequently used to stifle criticism of Israeli
state violence.
In the same Jerusalem
 article, the Israeli embassy in Berlin makes an unsubstantiated
accusation that Esack is “a man who expressed anti-Semitic statements and who
is sympathetic to Holocaust denial.”
That is a lie. Esack has described the Holocaust as a “crime
against humanity of unspeakable proportions.” At a 2013 Holocaust Remembrance
Day event in Johannesburg, Esack said that he felt “ashamed – bloody ashamed”
whenever he heard Muslims expressing a hatred of Jews.
The Jerusalem Post also claims that Esack has helped raise funds
for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
I asked Esack about this
allegation. He replied that neither he “nor anyone else in BDS South Africa
raised money for any organization designated as a terrorist organization by
Esack was also quoted in The
Jerusalem Post
 as saying that “the idea of an Islamic state must be
allowed to be represented in Germany.”
The newspaper was apparently referring
to what Esack told a conference about Islamophobia in Europe that was held in
Hamburg last month.
“I defended the right of various
communities to argue the case for their own political utopias,” Esack told me.
“Coming from South Africa, this included the right for people to argue for a
state inspired by Islamic values, or, for that matter, for vegans to make the
case for a society where all meat consumption is banned. In fact, I am not well
disposed towards any state founded for any particular religious or ethnic
I am proud to have known Farid
Esack for so long and I highly respect his consistency in opposing injustice
and all forms of racism – including anti-Semitism.
The pro-Israel lobby must not be
allowed to prevent academics who defend Palestinian rights from visiting German
universities. It is vital that the universities themselves stay calm when they
come under attack.

If these smear campaigns
continue, then academic freedom will be at risk.