Salma is an activist with BDS Austria.
After retweeting an image of a poster spoofing a historic Palestine tourism ad, BDS Austria was SLAPPed by the city of Vienna. Facing increasing repression by the government, these activists are fighting for justice in Palestine in an ever-shrinking civic space.
Answers edited for length and clarity. Salma spoke with Valentina Stackl, PTP member and Senior Communications Specialist at Greenpeace USA.
To start, could you tell us a bit more about the global BDS movement?
The BDS movement as a whole started in 2005 as a grassroots call from civil society in Palestine to boycott, divest, and sanction Israeli products, economically, politically, and culturally. BDS Austria was started in 2014 by a group of activists. It took a couple of years before we got accredited by the Boycott National Committee because whenever you want to try to start a BDS group in your own country, you have to have a lot of actions in order to be accredited to show you’re taking this seriously. Once you’re accredited by the BDS National Committee, you’re officially part of BDS, and this obviously comes with a lot of privileges such as this legal help we have received, lawyers, a lot of calls to action, so you’re part of the bigger BDS community.
How did it all begin for you, I mean you moved from Palestine to Austria, did you get involved with the group right away?
Definitely, the question of “I want to be part of a pro-Palestinian group” was definitely there, but I think my problem in the first couple of years was having to learn German in order to be able to integrate and also have conversations politically as well, most of the activists do not speak that much English.
BDS I already knew; I had a friend from London who does that work on BDS, then I asked for advice. I moved to Austria in 2017 and ever since 2014 a lot of [pro-Palestine] groups died out because of the political repression; there was a Palestine Youth Movement that stopped being active, and right now we just have BDS as the only official pro-Palestine group in the entirety of Austria. There’s also the Palästina Solidarität Österriech (Palestine Solidarity Austria), basically a coalition for pro-Palestinian movements. BDS is different than just being a pro-Palestinian movement, it has different implications.
Can you walk me through what happened with BDS Austria and the lawsuit?
In August 2021 a fellow BDS activist found a picture of a poster being put up in one of streets in Vienna. The famous “Visit Apartheid” poster has been adapted by the artist Amer Shomali, from the original one which is the “Visit Palestine” poster [designer by Jewish-Viennese graphic designer Franz Krausz in the 1920s]. And on the poster, there was a logo of the city of Vienna. A BDS activist found it online through a channel and posted it with a sarcastic caption saying we’re glad that the city of Vienna also has the opinion that Israel is an Apartheid state. And then we tagged them as well. There was no indication that someone from BDS had made the poster and shared it around. It was reposted by a lot of people, not just BDS. Someone took a picture, posted it, and we reposted it.
And then, how quickly did the city of Vienna contact you?
It was a month afterward, one of the BDS activists came with the letter from the city of Vienna saying we’re being sued basically by the city for a lot of things, defamation, copyright, etc. for an amount that could be up to 35,000 euros. Even though a lot of other groups posted this picture it was just BDS [that was sued]; the justification was that we tagged them [the city of Vienna], and other groups did not.
It’s interesting. Maybe it’s because we brought it to their attention.
I imagine you share social media posts all the time, but what was it about this that made it something that you wanted to share?
It was some type of provocation or hinting at the city like “oh look, there’s this poster with the city of Vienna, and maybe you should think of your own like colonial history.” It was great, an activist did this, and we’re going to repost it because we think it’s very relevant to us as well.
What was it like when you found out you were being sued?
For the entire group, it was really a “disappointed but not surprised moment,” but it was also kind of shocking because that was one of the biggest things that has happened to us. This is also a good starting point to start looking at all of the policies the city of Vienna and other cities in Austria have imposed on BDS.
A couple of years before they even had the resolution banning BDS generally, like banning it from spaces, also in Graz (2019 “Erklärung gegen Antisemitismus und BDS”) and Innsbruck (2020 “Erklärung gegen Antisemitismus und BDS”) we were officially smeared as being anti-Semitic; this was a resolution from the City Council itself. So this reaction from the city of Vienna was both expected and unexpected. Unexpected in the sense that we were the only ones who reposted who were being sued, which sounded also very ridiculous. They’re suing us under defamation, saying that we had made this poster posted, took a picture of it, posted it, and then shared it again. They don’t have any evidence for that.
For the people in the US, who might not know the history, could you walk me through the context of the Austrian government’s repression of the BDS movement?
So basically in 2018, it started with a resolution from the City Council of Vienna, with the title “No cooperation with the anti Semetic BDS movement.” And the resolution obviously had a position against BDS as well as a decision that the city of Vienna could not allow any spaces for the BDS movement. This has also been signed by all parties in Vienna. It was a progressive government, a coalition of the Green Party and the Social Democratic Party. It’s also was really surprising to see that. The parties kind of identified as being liberal or green or very democratic also signed this resolution. There were no internal discussions. They all agree that BDS is anti-Semetic, right-wing or left-wing, and should be banned from spaces in Vienna. This reflects generally on the political scene in Austria, using this anti Semitic trope.
There are so many more laws in Europe and in Austria about Holocaust denial and all those things, is it connected to that?
For sure, a lot of people have compared the BDS campaign to a campaign that was initiated by the Nazis during that era which was Kauf Nicht Bei Juden [Don’t Shop with Jews]. So that’s literally how it’s compared to, this boycott is always seen as “why do you hate the Jewish State so much,” which obviously comes a lot from the whole like World War Two, Germany, Austria, white guilt. Israel is a Jewish state, why do you want to boycott, divest, and sanction a Jewish state? Palestinians are never part of the conversation.
A lot of people are also losing their jobs as well, if people notice that you’ve been at a pro-Palestine demonstration. Deutsche Well just fired five of their journalists, because they found out from old tweets or Facebook posts that they were in a pro-Palestine demonstration. Same with Nemi El-Hassan, she was also in German, she was also kicked out she was supposed to be a host of a TV show, but then it’s because you know she was in a Jerusalem demonstration back in May 2021, it became problematic. It’s very bad.
Being Palestinian is not a great thing to be in Germany and Austria, it’s never about what it means to be Palestinian. This translates into leftist and liberal groups, whatever they may be, communists, liberal, neo-liberal, democratic, right-wing, they all agree on one thing [about being anti-Palestinian].
If you’re Palestinian and you get a space to talk, then you have to adjust to this white audience agenda. You can say, “Yes, there is war in Gaza, and that is very, very sad,” but nothing that has explicitly to do with the Israeli state.Salma
When we talk about this stuff in the US context, one of our biggest lines of defense is in our constitution, you have the right to free speech in this country. Obviously, that doesn’t necessarily exist in the same way in Austria, but what does speaking out mean to you and how has this experience changed how you think about free speech and speaking out?
I think like for me personally coming from Palestine and then moving to Vienna, I was looking for a space where you can do a lot of pro-Palestinian work. Where you have more freedom to express that because, obviously, when you have so many groups and organizations and communities, then you’re supposed to find a space where you are able to criticize the Israeli state, demanding sanctions and demanding boycott is really just one of the ways. But slowly you start to realize how much this does not exist, and hide behind “Oh, you do have freedom of speech”. If you’re Palestinian and you get a space to talk, then you have to adjust to this white audience agenda. You can say, “Yes, there is war in Gaza, and that is very, very sad,” but nothing that has explicitly to do with the Israeli state. This obviously has a psychological impact, as well as a lot of fear for a lot of activists….[The Austrian Government says…] “Oh, we don’t care if you have free speech or not, if you’re Muslim or Palestinian.” [Learn more on the most recent raids against Muslim people living in Austria, Operation Luxor]
Where is the case now, since you just had a hearing on February 28?
The lawsuit is technically not against the whole group but against one individual. We are not recognized as an actual group, but it’s legally represented by this one person, who is named in the lawsuit.
So far there has not been any decision made. So we’re still waiting and it’s interesting because we also got another lawsuit by the eighth and the ninth district of Vienna, for the same reason. Is this a way for them to elongate the whole thing?
Why is quitting not an option, like why, when so many pro-Palestine groups are no longer operating because of all the things you mentioned, why are you keeping on, why is it important?
Being Palestinian myself, it was never really an option not to be with a Palestinian cause or being part of BDS, individually as well as collectively. So many BDS groups as well as other groups have managed to change policies in their own countries and cities. A BDS activist in Munich for example also filed a lawsuit against the city when it refused to allow him space, and that activist actually won. That is why quitting is not an option. Something has to change. And something is changing, and the fact that you’re triggering or provoking is also very important.
In the name of international solidarity, what would you say to someone facing a similar threat?
We talked about it as a group, and they gave me a really cool answer:
- Continue doing the work,
- Build networks,
- And seek international support, which has helped us a lot.
So that was really just three pillars or three takeaways from the whole experience generally.