You haven’t been to a Palestinian solidarity event until you’ve attended one in Berlin. It’s not because they’re necessarily better than those held elsewhere in the Diaspora. The demonstrations I’ve attended in Brussels and London are equally unforgettable. The difference that is Berlin is its history.
The German capital is where the Holocaust was planned and is one of Europe’s biggest magnets for refugees. Like the rest of country, Berlin does an ambivalent job of balancing these legacies. But, at its best, the city considers itself obligated to care for the generations of persons worldwide affected by the Nazi genocide, and Berlin’s diverse civil society reflects that.
No matter how strongly Israeli right-wingers would argue the opposite, the Palestinians are victims of the same events which destroyed Europe’s Jewish population under Hitler. Without their purposeful liquidation in concentration camps and mass killings, the situation of Palestine’s indigenous inhabitants would not be what it is today.
That’s not to say that there would have been no conflict with Jewish settlers. Prior to Hitler’s rise to power, Palestine witnessed more than its fair share, and in all likelihood, the situation would have continued worsening. The pressure placed on the region, however, by the events that took place in Europe during WWII magnified a tragedy that would have otherwise been far smaller.
Looking to the sectarian strife that engulfed the post-colonial Middle East, in which multiple multiconfessional and multicultural states were built – Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, for example – we are left with possible ideas for how things might have ensued. Not necessarily ideal, by any stretch of the imagination. But not the paradigmatic ethnic state crisis that has built up to today, either.
Few ‘clashes of civilisation’ have been as ideologically informative as those fought in the borders of Israel-Palestine. A decades-long Spanish Civil War equivalent for the Western far right, it’s hard to imagine the anti-Islamic, nationalist politics of contemporary Euro-American conservatism without the examples set by settler colonialism in the former Mandate territory.
Indeed, when Jews wonder why European extremists admire Israel so much, despite their obvious anti-Semitism, one just has to point to events such as Monday’s carnage in Gaza. The willingness to inflict such a high level of casualties on civilians trying to cross a border is a dream come true for populists fearful of migrants, who wish European governments could do the same.
Those EU member states guilty of the worst transgressions against refugees – take Hungary or Poland – look positively liberal in comparison. The danger, of course, is that if the Jews can define their frontiers this way, especially given what they went through, Europeans should be allowed the same liberties, too. After all, the refugees facing both are the same: Muslims.
Hence the beauty and the fragility of Berlin. An impoverished city, unable to pay its own bills, for decades it has relied upon immigrants to repopulate its abandoned buildings and restore its shattered economy. Though it still has a long way to go economically, one cannot argue that the multiethnic, interfaith society being built here isn’t breathtaking in its cosmopolitanism.
That communities from the Middle East should play such a dramatic part of that is historic justice. For those who bemoan the conflicts between Muslims and Jews that also ensue, it’s just part of the package. It is nowhere near as bad as France, let alone Syria, obviously, or Israel-Palestine. The fact that there are so many Palestinians and Israelis here is testimony.
The videos embedded in this article are part of this story. Recordings of the annual Nakba Day demonstration held in Neukölln, they are especially charged, given the violence that took place on Monday. According to the United Nations, 55 Palestinians were reported killed, and 2771 wounded, attempting to breach the border with Israel. 13o remain in critical condition as of Tuesday.
Commentary by Joel Schalit. Photograph and videos courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.