The Palestine Congress That Never Was

BERLIN — The Palestine Congress was going to be historical. International solidarity at its finest, a condemnation of complicity, a step forward to speak truth to power. The weekend conference convening activists, artists, and scholars for panel discussions, workshops, and teach-ins was planned for April 12 to 14 in Berlin. A month prior, advertisements on the metro condemned the event as an antisemitic hate summit and this foreshadowed the violence to come. Though the country has built a reputation for federal funding of artists and art spaces, several arts organizations have recently been punished and defunded for speaking out about Palestine. As it turns out, the Congress would be subjected to the same censorship. 

Participants weren’t given the location of the Congress until the morning of the event to protect it from getting shut down. The press conference on the first day of the Congress was like a scene from Law and Order. Upon arrival, we were met with barricades that looked like checkpoints. A pro-Palestine Jewish activist held up a banner that said “Jews against Genocide” and was immediately arrested. You would think the organizers would be the ones letting people in, but in this case, it was the Berlin police. Around 2,500 cops were called for the conference. Of the 1,000 attendees, almost none were initially allowed into the building. We found ourselves in a tense room with speakers, journalists, cops, and the few attendees who managed to sneak in.

Ridikkuluz Palestine congress keffiyeh wall
Conference organizers cornered German media who had managed to sneak into the room and raised their keffiyehs in the air, forming a quilt to block the reporters’ view of the speakers.

I recognized Ghayath Almadhoun, a Palestinian-Syrian poet I met on my first night in Berlin a month ago. He has lost over 100 family members in Gaza over the past six months and recently had a performance at Haus für Poesie canceled without explanation. Archive of Silence has been documenting artist cancelations and censorships in Germany since October 7, and Almadhoun was one of the few Palestinian artists to have been documented on this list. More often than not, Palestinians aren’t even given the opportunity to get canceled because they aren’t platformed in the first place.

Salah Said, a Palestinian community organizer in Berlin whose home has been raided by police three times, informed me that conference speaker Ghassan Abu-Sittah, surgeon and rector of the University of Glasgow, was denied entry upon landing at the Berlin Airport. We would later find out Germany put a European travel ban on him for a year.

Another speaker was Udi Raz, a Jewish Israeli pro-Palestine activist. He was fired from the Jewish Museum Berlin last fall for mentioning the word “apartheid” in reference to Israeli occupation during a private tour. “By politicizing antisemitism to justify an ongoing genocide, antisemitism shifts from a phenomenon that should be addressed seriously into a ridiculous category at worst, or meaningless at best,” he told me.

Before the conference began, baffled organizers cornered German media who had managed to sneak into the room and raised their keffiyehs in the air, forming a quilt to block the reporters’ view of the speakers — a performance piece in its own right. Marina Abramović could never. 

However, the conference was over as soon as it started. Following an opening address by journalist Hebh Jamal, the first speaker was Salman Abu Sitta, a Palestinian writer known for creating an “Atlas of Palestine” by mapping the return of refugees. Thirty seconds into his live-streamed speech, the cops blocked the projector and panel speakers. Fifteen minutes later, the electricity was cut. Outcry spread across the room, from condemning the shutdown to calling the German police “Nazis.” Raz was arrested soon after, wearing his watermelon kippah as he was escorted amid a wave of keffiyehs and chaos.

Meanwhile, a protest camp was happening in front of the German Parliament. Artists and culture workers gathered to share their experiences of censorship. One of them was Athina Panagiotidou, a young muralist who is part of the collective Spray of Solidarity. They had just completed a mural in Cologne about Gaza that featured QR codes linked to atrocities from the last six months. The mural has been vandalized twice by the police.

Palestine congress protest
Child balanced on top of two other individuals at the protest for the cancelation of the Palestine Congress.

Another artist I spoke to was Palestinian illustrator Hudda Salama, who said she was told to refrain from using watermelons by an arts organization she asked to keep anonymous. Watermelons became a symbol of resistance because their colors — the same ones in the Palestinian flag — were banned during an exhibition in Ramallah in the 1980s featuring artists Sliman Mansour, Nabil Anani, and Isam Bader. History repeats itself; I wouldn’t be surprised if the watermelon emoji got banned from our keyboards soon.

Artists in Germany are being threatened for speaking up, despite the crucial role of art as a means of documentation, of recording memory for the future. It’s clear that our freedom and rights are contingent on whether we bow down to Israeli authorities and their friends from the fascist international. Censorship here is beyond anything we’ve seen from the rest of the world. The Berlin Senate is trying to pass the Higher Education Act, which would punish student protesters for speaking out about Palestine and open the doors for discrimination against marginalized students. At the Berlin University of the Arts, the president sent out a letter prohibiting any symbols of resistance and forced faculty to sign a letter committing to Israel.

Artists are supposed to be revolutionaries. They should put their body on the line and demonstrate outside of producing work. This moment in history is a test of character, and it has never been more crucial to stand in the face of oppression. Do you have a backbone? Are you about that life?

Athina P German mural vandalized
The German-based collective Spray of Solidarity had their mural about Gaza vandalized twice by the police. (photo courtesy Athina Panagiotidou)

I hear my mom’s voice in my head: “Don’t wear your keffiyeh. Don’t talk about Palestine at the University. Be careful what you paint. Just focus on your studies.”

How can I focus during a genocide? A slow and systemic death that has no answer? You can’t put Palestine back in the closet. And Europe is the worst place to be Palestinian. At least there are conversations about it in the US, but it’s an immediate chop here. We’re forced to meet in secret through Telegram and Signal. The US thinks we deserve to be repressed, and Germany thinks the repression is as non-existent as the idea of Palestine itself. Just last week, I was followed on the metro by a cop for wearing my keffiyeh (sorry, Mom). He hovered over me, peering at my phone for 10 stops. As a distraction, I played a makeup tutorial, as if my queerness would save me.

Germany is still recovering from perpetuating genocide after genocide. Berlin always professed to be the capital for arts and giving rise to new cultural movements. But in reality, it was never a golden city. It’s the place where artists can thrive if they fall in line, and for Palestinians, it’s where we are called to a court whose judge is our oppressor. There is not a single German cultural institution that has stood in the face of this genocide to protect its artists or culture workers of color in the past six months. We need to recognize the role that art and culture play in whitewashing Zionist apartheid and German complicity. The doxxing will continue. Those in power in the art world will still toe the line. And after all is said and done, Germany will have to look in the mirror and confront itself. Again.

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