The country’s authorities have banned many protests in the name of fighting antisemitism. Critics say such restrictions are discriminatory.
Since fleeing Syria a decade ago, Wafa Mustafa has spoken out for political prisoners at the United Nations, held vigils outside war crimes trials and chanted in solidarity with Iranians protesting their authoritarian government.
Her activism won attention and praise in Germany, her adopted country — until she took it to a protest in support of Palestinians.
Last month, Ms. Mustafa said the police approached her and a fellow activist in Berlin as they stood on the sidelines of a protest, which the authorities had banned, against the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. The two were not demonstrating, she said, but wore the black and white Palestinian scarf known as the kaffiyeh. The police pushed her friend to the ground, pinned him down for several minutes and arrested him.
She filmed the episode while demanding an explanation. Instead of getting an answer, she, too, was briefly detained, accused of resisting the police.
“What I saw in their eyes is similar to what I saw in the eyes of Assad regime forces,” Ms. Mustafa said, referring to Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator. “I know it’s not the same, but that is how I felt,” she said. “When you look into their eyes, there is nothing. You cannot talk with them, you cannot discuss with them. You cannot ask them, ‘What are you doing?’”
Since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks on Israel and Israel’s subsequent bombardment of Gaza, governments across Europe have grappled with how the conflict has played out in their own countries. Some, citing security fears, have imposed stiff restrictions on pro-Palestinian protests in particular or banned them altogether, raising concerns about the violation of civil liberties.
The authorities tried to prohibit pro-Palestinian protests in Austria, Hungary and Switzerland, where some cities took the approach of banning protests of any kind. In France, a court dismissed a blanket ban on pro-Palestinian demonstrations, but they can still be banned case by case.
Even where protests have not been banned, some government officials strongly discouraged pro-Palestinian demonstrations, or harshly condemned them.
Nowhere has the debate over what is legal and legitimate expression of dissent been more fraught than in Germany, where it has struck at the heart of how the nation defines itself, and prompted questions about which values should be prioritized at the cost of others.
Germany sees severely restricting criticism of Israel as a necessary part of atoning for the Holocaust. But many in its immigrant communities — Arabs, and also many progressive Jews and Israelis — say the restrictions not only violate free speech, but are discriminatory as well.
In recent weeks, Hamburg banned protests — or restricted the number of Palestinian flags that could be waved. In Berlin, officials authorized schools to bar students from wearing the kaffiyeh or the Palestinian flag or its colors.
The police in Berlin said they had blocked over half of the 41 scheduled Gaza solidarity protests, sometimes on the grounds that they would “emotionalize” residents of Palestinian origin. These included a children’s demonstration to mourn the Palestinian children killed by Israeli strikes in the past month. Permitted protests were banned from using slogans such as “stop the war” and “free Palestine.”
The Berlin police prohibited the protests based on “an imminent danger that the gatherings would lead to incitement to hatred, antisemitic statements, glorification of violence, incitement to violence and thus to intimidation and violence,” a spokeswoman said.
Asked for comment about Ms. Mustafa’s video and account, the police would only confirm that two people were detained, and gave no explanation.
Activists blame the authorities for incitement: In Berlin, a police officer stomped out candles at a vigil for Gaza’s dead. The police said that a video of the episode was too short to determine context, but that the officer was required to extinguish the candles because they were on the street.
Among those present was a spokesman for the activist group Palestine Speaks, who asked not to be identified over concerns about hate mail. He has lost 19 family members in the strikes on Gaza. For over two decades, he felt at home in Berlin, where he is a pediatric surgeon. But in recent years, he has felt alienated by what he said was an increasingly hostile stance toward Palestinians and any criticism of Israel.
He recalled how the city had embraced the protests he joined to support Ukrainian hospitals under Russian bombardment. The contrast to how Germany is restricting protests over the suffering of Palestinian civilians, he said, was painful: “I feel discriminated against. I feel second class. I feel traumatized.”
Germans defending the restrictions note that the country has a less permissive stance on free speech than many democracies for subjects beyond Israel, a legacy of World War II and how the Nazis exploited the democratic process to seize power. Holocaust denial is illegal, for example, as are slogans that directly avow National Socialism.
“The consensus in Germany is that in spite of the great democracy we have, there are certain things which are not accepted at all in our society, and that limits the political discourse,” said Felix Klein, Germany’s antisemitism commissioner. “Antisemitism is bad anywhere, but it has this other dimension which it doesn’t have in any other country.”
Those who support Germany’s measures point out that antisemitic incidents have surged since the Israel-Hamas war, including in Berlin, where firebombs were thrown at a synagogue. No information has been released about the perpetrators of the synagogue episode.
More recent Berlin protests have been banned before they could even be held, making it hard to assess how incendiary they would be. Many activists say their protests are being unjustifiably equated with antisemitism.
“I feel so stupid that I have to say this all the time — but our fight is not against Jews,” Ms. Mustafa said.
Jewish and Israeli protests have been canceled, too. Last month, the police detained a woman standing in a Berlin square after she refused to put down a poster that read, “As a Jew and Israeli: Stop the genocide in Gaza.”
They also prohibited a demonstration by the progressive Jewish group Jüdische Stimme.
Explaining their reasoning on the Jüdische Stimme protest, the police told The New York Times that the demonstration was “explicitly open to participants of Palestinian origin,” and said organizers coordinated with protesters whose demonstrations were banned over concerns about antisemitic incitement.
Udi Raz, one of the protest organizers, said the police decision was “heartbreaking” and “anti-democratic in its essence.”
Over 100 Jewish writers, artists and academics signed a letter condemning Germany’s practices: “If this is an attempt to atone for German history, its effect is to risk repeating it.”
Among them was Deborah Feldman, whose memoirs were the basis of the Netflix series “Unorthodox,” about fleeing her Hasidic community in New York. She was raised by Holocaust survivors and now lives in Berlin.
“They seem to be trying to pave the way, in a sense, to criminalize the public expression of Palestinian identity,” she said.
Some critics argue that the restrictions are linked to growing hostility toward migrants and the rising popularity of the far-right party Alternative for Germany, now the second most popular party in the polls.
A planned modernization of the naturalization law includes a provision for denying citizenship to people convicted of racism or antisemitism.
Such steps have had a chilling effect on free speech, leaving many worried for their citizenship or jobs, given Germany’s increasingly expansive definition of antisemitism. A well-known German talk show last week said it was unable to get any Arab guests because of these anxieties.
At the same time, critics say, German natives with exposed past Nazi sympathies have faced little accountability.
In August, childhood classmates of Bavaria’s finance minister, Hubert Aiwanger, said he once distributed an antisemitic flier and gave Nazi salutes — accusations he either dismissed as youthful defiance or denied.
He was re-elected anyway, and amid growing Gaza protests has been quoted broadly in the German news media warning of “imported antisemitism” by immigrants.
Government statistics show, however, that registered antisemitic attacks are mostly from the far right, which committed around 84 percent of them last year.
“Germany is pushing antisemitism onto migrants,” said Tomer Dotan-Dreyfus, a novelist and a signatory of the protest letter. “It allows Germans to not deal with homemade antisemitism, which is way more dangerous than antisemitic sayings and demonstrations for Palestine.”
For Arab residents, the problem is larger than what many see as hypocrisy — to them, the health of Germany’s democracy is at stake.
“This is about the freedom of speech of every single person in this country,” Ms. Mustafa said. “If I am banned today, you will be banned tomorrow.”