Why was Yanis Varoufakis banned from Germany?

Suppressing pro-Palestine voices is absurd, illiberal and counterproductive.

Sabine Beppler-Spahl
Germany Correspondent

Topics Free Speech World

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The German government has blocked Yanis Varoufakis from entering the country. The former Greek finance minister was set to deliver a speech at a pro-Palestine event in Berlin last week, only for the interior minister to issue a ban on him conducting ‘all political activity’ on German soil. Bizarrely, this ban meant that he was even forbidden from delivering his speech to the conference via video link.

Varoufakis wasn’t alone here. Several other speakers set to appear at the Palestine Congress event were denied entry to Germany, including British-Palestinian surgeon Ghassan Abu Sitta and his uncle, Palestinian researcher Salman Abu Sitta. When Salman Abu Sitta attempted to give his speech remotely, police cut the power supply to the conference venue and ordered the approximately 250 people in attendance to disband. The event, which was supposed to last three days, was shut down in a matter of hours on the orders of Berlin mayor Kai Wegner. The authorities said they feared that attendees would make anti-Semitic remarks and glorify violence.

This heavy-handed approach is typical of the way the German authorities have handled the debate around the Israel-Hamas war. Banning radical pro-Palestinian events is the government’s way of ‘taking a stand’. But this approach has proven to be both illiberal and counterproductive.

Varoufakis has certainly made plenty of questionable statements about the Israel-Hamas conflict, but this surely is no justification to ban him from speaking in Germany. While he was stopped from giving his speech live at the Palestine Congress, he was still able to upload a recording online. In this video, he makes no mention of the rapes of Israeli women, the murder of Israeli children or the terrible plight of the hostages, of whom 134 are still held captive by Hamas. Instead, he accuses Israel of ‘80 years of… ethnic cleansing’ and refers to what happened on 7 October as a legitimate act of resistance to an ‘apartheid state’. He also denies that Hamas started the current war or that Israel is engaged in an existential struggle for its survival.

Varoufakis deserves to be criticised for this. But by banning him – a former government minister from a fellow EU country – from addressing a conference, even via Zoom, the German authorities have made themselves look ridiculous. Far from changing anyone’s mind, this has given him more attention by turning him into a martyr of cancel culture.

Even the more extreme voices at the Palestine Congress ought to have been allowed to have their say. Salman Abu Sitta, for instance, is known to have sympathies with Hamas. In January, he wrote that if he had been younger and still living in Gaza, he would have likely taken part in the 7 October attack, while flatly denying any atrocities took place. He also praised the ‘determination and courage’ of the Hamas terrorists who took part. You can certainly understand why many of Berlin’s Jews would have been unsettled by his presence in their city. But free speech is only worth its name if it applies to those who hold views we abhor.

Germany’s illiberal suppression of pro-Palestine voices has done nothing to stem the tide of either anti-Israel sentiment, let alone full-blown anti-Semitism. Far from it. It has only given those who wrongly believe that Israel is an all-powerful puppeteer of global affairs – a belief that lies at the heart of modern-day anti-Semitism – a sense of vindication.

Of course, while banning the critics of Israel is illiberal and counterproductive, that doesn’t mean the German government shouldn’t be concerned about the public’s growing antipathy towards the Jewish State. According to a recent survey by Stern magazine, 57 per cent of Germans take a critical view of Israel.

In many ways, it is the German government’s own ambivalence towards Israel that has stoked public scepticism. Germany has regularly failed to show support for Israel’s right to defend itself when it really matters. In December, Germany refused to reject a UN resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, instead abstaining from the vote. A month earlier, German chancellor Olaf Scholz stood quietly by as Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan harshly criticised Israel. And in February this year, German culture minister Claudia Roth applauded when actors spoke of Israel’s ‘genocide’ against Palestinians at the Berlinale film festival. So too did Berlin’s mayor.

The German elites are clearly too cowardly to publicly stand with Israel, and so they have resorted to cancelling and silencing its critics instead. This rank authoritarianism does the Israeli cause no favours. Free speech must prevail.

Sabine Beppler-Spahl is spiked’s Germany correspondent.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Free Speech World


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