As Israel destroyed Gaza’s universities, German academic leaders condemned students who protested against it. Now, as Israel invades Rafah, they’re stepping up their repressive effort — using police to make sure US-style campus occupations never take root.

Students of Dusseldorf University of Applied Sciences stage a protest on the university campus against Israeli attacks on Gaza in Dusseldorf, Germany, on May 15, 2024. (Hesham Elsherif / Anadolu via Getty Images)

Over the last few weeks, protest camps against the war in Gaza have spread from US universities to Europe. This includes Germany, Israel’s closest ally alongside the United States. More than 150 students occupied a courtyard at the Free University of Berlin (FU) on May 7, the same day that Israeli armed forces began their assault on Rafah. The camp had barely been set up before the university administration called the police onto campus — and had the peaceful protesters forcibly evicted.

An open letter by academic staff from Berlin and other German universities published on the same day emphasized the students’ right to peaceful protest, calling on administrators to pursue dialogue and negotiations. This sparked a bitter public controversy that had little to do with the war in Palestine — and completely ignored the fact that Israel has systematically destroyed all universities in the Gaza Strip.

Education minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger accused the signatories of trivializing violence and antisemitism. She even insinuated they were violating Germany’s constitution, the Basic Law. The mayor of Berlin stated his express intent to nip the camps in the bud before things could reach the level of the United States or France. In the days that followed, conservative politicians called for the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution to investigate university lecturers, along with the  expulsion and, where possible, deportation of pro-Palestinian students. Germany’s largest tabloid, Bild, published a full-page article with photos of some of the signatories to the open letter in the style of “Wanted” posters — prompting sharp condemnations from the presidents of the universities concerned, as well as some academic associations and trade unions.

Generations of Protest

Judging by the German media response, you might get the impression that the protest camp at the Free University was unprecedented. But universities and colleges have always served as spaces for debates about (international) political conflicts. Academic institutions are not only places for the production of knowledge but are also expected to create spaces for exchange and critical comment and serve as sites of political education. Dissent is an integral part of such critical education, and sometimes that means protests.

Germany’s largest tabloid published a full-page article with the photos of signatories to an open letter in defense of peaceful protest — presenting them in the style of ‘Wanted’ posters.

Student protests have long been a catalyst for intergenerational upheaval and social change in Germany. In the late 1960s, the struggle between students, teachers, the extra-parliamentary opposition, and the state negotiated how to deal with the Nazi past, the new reality of capitalism in West Germany, and the liberalization of social norms. More recently, climate activists made headlines by occupying lecture halls in 2022 and 2023. An occupation at the Martin Luther University in Halle ended after five days of negotiations, with the university administration committing to climate targets.

More often than political controversies, higher education policies have triggered waves of protest, such as the Bologna reform in the 1990s or the introduction of tuition fees in the 2000s. A nationwide education strike in 2009 marked the high point of this movement. Before that strike, students blocked highways in the state of Hesse and a university rector’s car was set on fire in Bielefeld.

That said, students almost always rely on nonviolent forms of protest. In addition to permitted, legal demonstrations, these also include civil disobedience tactics such as sit-ins, disrupting events, occupying lecture halls, or blocking roads. Physical violence usually only comes into play when the police attempt to evict people or counterdemonstrators attack. As could also be observed at the FU on May 7, property damage and other violations of the law only began after the police intervened.

The current protests are thus hardly unique but fit into a history of struggles in which different sides in academia — sometimes together, sometimes against each other — struggle over the future of the institution and society as a whole. This raises the question of why the current debates about the role and nature of German universities are so vicious. Evidently, a lot is at stake.

Protesting at the Neoliberal-Feudal University

The current escalation on German campuses is a symptom of a growing tension between overlapping processes of social change and internal university issues. New demographic realities that break with traditional notions of homogeneity and dominance in German society, instrumentalized and increasingly dysfunctional “anti-antisemitism” policies, economic precarity, and authoritarian tendencies already visible in the treatment of the climate movement, raise fundamental questions about how we want to live together in Germany. Universities also have to respond to these emerging social dynamics — but increasingly risk slipping into a crisis of their own.

The war in Gaza and the International Court of Justice’s preliminary ruling that Israel could potentially be committing genocide have very concrete and tangible domestic political and social effects in Germany, which are also reflected at universities. They clearly demonstrate how heterogeneous German society has become in recent decades — one in four residents now has a migration background, while among children and adolescents this figure is as high as one in three. Marginalized groups increasingly see themselves as political subjects entitled to participate in public debate and shape politics and the world they live in. This not only sparks a backlash on the right-wing fringe, but it also presents the university with major challenges that it can choose to tackle either with authoritarianism or with cooperation.

In contrast to many elite universities in the United States, which sometimes look more like investment funds with a school attached, German universities are by and large state-funded mass institutions. Today 56 percent of young people in Germany go to college. Their institutional independence is guaranteed by policies of so-called “university autonomy,” but as state funding declines, that autonomy is undercut by competition for third-party funding.

Thus, the German university is a mass institution in which feudal and neoliberal logics intersect. Because graduates are workers with marketable qualifications, the university fulfills an important function in the logic of capitalist markets. What degrees are offered — and therefore which professorships — is decided not least by (imagined) employer interests. At the same time, the university is “feudal” in the sense that it formally grants professors wide autonomy, concentrates institutional power in professorial committees, and makes nonprofessorial academic staff dependent in clientelistic working relationships.

While the increasing heterogeneity of German society and global interdependencies are clearly reflected among students, this is only partially the case among the professorial staff who dominate the university. Seventy-two percent of all professorships are still held by men, and only rarely by people with a foreign passport, migrant background, or parents without a university degree.

This institutional architecture has direct implications for how the university can practically fulfill its role of informing and organizing debate and providing comprehensive education. How can issues find their place in the institution that lie outside the concerns of those who hold institutional power? How is it possible to take up an issue that students care about in academic forums? What happens when those issues have no place in the institution because the university offers no corresponding professorships or degree programs? This is precisely the issue that is visible today, and it is particularly evident in Germany’s large, metropolitan universities.

Right-wing narratives about alleged ‘no-go areas,’ ‘imported antisemitism,’ and the need for a strong state to maintain social order, can increasingly be heard from liberal and even ostensibly left-wing media-political actors.

The violence in Gaza simply does not occupy the same place of importance for professors that it does for students. Professors and students are not only separated by a generational gap, but also by differences in social background. Nonprofessorial academic staff are often closer to the student population in terms of their experience and perspectives. However, clientelistic dependency and neoliberal precariousness (80 percent of academic staff in Germany are employed on fixed-term contracts) limit their ability to speak freely.

Moreover, only a few universities in Germany offer serious instruction, let alone research on Israel–Palestine. Middle Eastern studies, including the relevant languages, are not taken very seriously and have been starved of higher education funding for years. There is therefore a real lack of people with the necessary knowledge and expertise to deal with the issue at most universities.

Defining Antisemitism

The fact that the Free University of Berlin decided in favor of the police and against dialogue on May 7 cannot be explained by the internal constitution of the university and its relationship to social diversity alone. Political pressure from decision-makers who align their actions with German state interests may have also played a role. The administration’s decision to set aside university autonomy and hand matters over to the police was probably influenced by German politics and the dominant form of combating antisemitism, which is based on the controversial Working Definition of Antisemitism produced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

The IHRA’s Working Definition allows for the delegitimization and even criminalization of protests that express solidarity with Palestine and are critical of Israel by labeling them as antisemitic incitement to hatred — even if the people involved are anti-Zionist Jews. The definition’s influence in German politics has been growing since the late 2010s, but since the Hamas terrorist attack on October 7, efforts to make it binding have intensified in various locations. In this moral panic, right-wing narratives about alleged “no-go areas,” “imported antisemitism,” and the need for a strong state to maintain social order can increasingly be heard from liberal and even ostensibly left-wing media-political actors.

As Diaspora Alliance and other dissident Jewish organizations in Germany point out, this dynamic hinders the overall fight against antisemitism and other forms of racism. After all, the repression against pro-Palestine protests in Germany is happening in a context in which most antisemitic violence is still committed by the far right, in which right-wing violence against individuals and groups labeled as political enemies is on the rise, and in which the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is polling almost 20 percent nationwide and is the strongest party in some states.

The dominant form of combating antiesmitism in Germany can be understood as a form of securitization. Administrative bans and police repression dominate over promoting knowledge and understanding. The securitization of the university — and thus the risk of it turning into a police organ — is obvious not only in the eviction of the protest camp, but also in the fierce behind-the-scenes debates over the inclusion of the IHRA Working Definition in university by-laws and funding guidelines for German cultural institutions.

Since a nonbinding parliamentary resolution against the Boycott, Divestment, abd Sanctions (BDS) movement in 2019, in which the IHRA Working Definition was cited as a point of reference for the first time, a growing, legally questionable instrumentalization can be observed, whereby any criticism of the Israeli state is branded as antisemitism. Academic experts have warned against making the definition legally binding, including more than a thousand Jewish academics such as Omer Bartov, Seyla Benhabib, Atina Grossmann, Avishai Margalit, and many others who are highly regarded in Germany — including one of its original authors, Kenneth Stern. Since 2020, the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism has provided a definition with broader academic support that makes it possible to combine the fight against antisemitism with a focus on fundamental rights and thus do better justice to our increasingly pluralistic societies.

Some members of the German Rectors’ Conference, the politically influential association of German universities, have also expressed concern that a more extensive implementation of the IHRA definition could jeopardize academic freedom of opinion and academic freedom. In any case, the smear campaigns in the media-political response to the academics’ statement point to more fundamental conflicts emerging around basic rights as well as the representation of diversity in Germany’s institutions. Even if the state and police are pursuing their own agendas here, the police cannot resolve these broader social shifts. Germany’s authoritarian turn thus also appears to be a symptom of crisis and transition.

The German state’s anti-antisemitism strategy is now converging with authoritarian tendencies that could previously be seen in the response to social movements like Black Lives Matter or the climate movement. Such policies not only promote repression, criminalization, and a lack of solidarity, but also tolerate if not encourage violence “from below” (such as when individuals attack climate protesters).

Universities should see themselves as incubators of new ideas, not as government agencies.

Instead of uniting democratic forces against the right-wing authoritarian threat, authoritarian initiatives have repeatedly emerged from Germany’s political center, especially after May 7. The aforementioned surveillance of unwelcome academics by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution is one example. So, too, are threats of expulsion, blacklisting — and the ongoing political intimidation in the media.

Reflection and Repression

These campaigns are already limiting the space for dissident views. They are, quite deliberately, blurring necessary (albeit complex and controversial) distinctions: between criticism of Israel and antisemitism, between antiwar protests and support for terrorism, between provocative slogans and actual violence, between understandable feelings of insecurity, a politically fueled moral panic that incites and exploits these feelings, and the actual security to which all university students and staff are entitled.

The eviction of the protest camp at the Free University of Berlin and the media-political response have shown two things: Germany doesn’t seem ready to talk seriously about current Israeli government’s policies. As a result, voices that seek to do so are being pushed out of the public debate. Moreover, German universities do not yet seem fully aware that they should be the central place where debates on social and political change are held.

Universities have the unique privilege — but also the obligation — to enable sober and critical thinking about social change and to encourage participation in the processes that go with that. To serve the cooperative pursuit of knowledge, they should see themselves as incubators of new ideas, not as government agencies. Should they instead choose to police those ideas, they narrow the space for cooperative knowledge production and undermine the university’s potentially democratizing role. To change course, we need to be creative — and have the courage to overcome the university’s neoliberal-feudal structure, turning it back into an institution for society as a whole.

This article first appeared on Jacobin.de

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