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    Climate activist Greta Thunberg spoke at a pro-Palestinian rally in Leipzig. Her stance on Israel and Palestine is dividing the German and the international climate movement.

    (diesen Artikel auf Deutsch lesen)

    Several hundreds of people are gathered on the marketplace. Palestinian flags float above, every few minutes someone chants “Free, free Palestine”, and the crowd responds. This is definitely not a climate protest. And yet many people here are waiting for Greta Thunberg.

    Just before the rally on the 24th of January, the rumor has spread that she will be attending. There is no official confirmation, so doubts remain. She will not show herself to the crowd for over an hour. Until then, representatives of other attending groups give speeches.

    What is happening?

    The rally was organised by the Palestinian diaspora group “Handala Leipzig”. Representatives of other groups are also present, among others “Students for Palestine”, left-wing groups such as “Zora” and “Föderation klassenkämpferischer Organisation” (Federation of Class Struggle Organisations), and the anti-colonial movement “Defend Kurdistan”. Alongside Palestinian flags and the organisations’ flags, several people hold South African flags. South Africa has recently accused Israel of genocide in the International Court of Justice in The Hague because of its military operation in Gaza. The rally itself was advertised under the slogan “Stop the genocide / Freedom for Palestine”.

    The genocide accusation is repeated throughout the speeches. Speakers condemn the conditions under which people in Gaza are living and dying, and repeat the demand for a ceasefire. Some contributions from the left-wing groups place solidarity with Palestine in a broader context of the global struggle against colonialism, imperialism and oppression.

    Several speeches also address the situation of people living in Germany who are Palestinian, refugees, and/or read as Muslim. They draw parallels between the “remigration” plan endorsed by members of the far-right AfD party and the German government’s increased deportation policy. According to the speakers, migrants who stand with Palestine have been the target of racist hostilities even by people who oppose the AfD. The AfD, they say, is not the only problem in Germany.

    A representative of “Students for Palestine Leipzig” also gives a speech. The recently founded group is made up of students from different universities in Leipzig. Together with similar groups from other German and Austrian universities, they campaign for solidarity with Palestinians and a permanent ceasefire in Gaza. The speaker denounces not only the destruction of the education system in Gaza, but also the discrimination that she says Palestinian students and students who show support for Palestine experience at German universities. She calls it defamation that their positions are indiscriminately condemned as antisemitic and sees the freedom of speech and assembly in Germany restricted.

    Die Flaggen Palästinas und Südafrikas auf der Kundgebung.

    The flags of Palestine and South Africa at the rally. (Photo: emg)

    Waiting for Greta

    After over an hour of speeches, the crowd stirs. Press photographers and others push to the first row to get a good picture. And then she is standing in front of us, the celebrity guest of the evening: Greta Thunberg. Short and inconspicuous, with a Palestinian keffiyeh around her neck, she almost disappears in the crowd. Her speech is short enough to quote it in full.

    No one can remain silent,” she begins. “No one can remain silent when there is an ongoing genocide and when people are denied the most basic human needs. We must always stand up and speak up against oppression, against imperialism, against war and against discrimination and racism in all forms. To stand with Palestine is to be human. We cannot allow ourselves to be silenced. So thank you for being here and thank you for continuing to protest, speaking up, boycotting and doing everything that you can to raise your voice for Palestine.”

    The crowd then chants the slogan that Thunberg has already used at previous events: “No climate justice on occupied land”. This refers to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.

    Distance and division

    Soon after the rally, the first articles criticizing Thunberg’s participation were published. One of the subjects of criticism was the organizing group. On their website, Handala Leipzig distance themselves from antisemitism and from equating Jewish people with the state of Israel, but the group is described as antisemitic by critics and, according to some media reports, is said to have approved of the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7. Some articles also pointed out that a climate demonstration had taken place at almost the same time in Leipzig, which Thunberg did not attend.

    Thunbergs appearance in Leipzig was surprising, but her position and its criticism were not. Thunberg, now 21, is known as the face of the international climate movement, especially as the inspiration of “Fridays for Future” (FFF). She has frequently attracted criticism for her uncompromising approach, mostly from the conservative and right-wing spectrum. This did not harm her status as a climate icon – probably on the contrary. But for some months now, criticism has been coming from within the movement.

    Fridays for Future is divided. (Photo: Pixabay)

    Since 20 October 2023, Thunberg has repeatedly called for solidarity with Gaza, at events and on social media, and has accused Israel of genocide. For this she incurred criticism, especially in Germany and Israel. Israel fully rejects the accusation of genocide and justifies its military operation with self defense against Hamas.

    Thunberg was subsequently accused of not having sufficiently condemned Hamas’ attack on Israel, of not showing enough solidarity with Jewish people, of taking a one-sided view of the conflict, and of politically instrumentalizing the climate movement. Volker Beck, a former parliament member from the Green Party and current president of the German-Israeli Society, declared that Thunberg was now a “full-time Israel-hater” and that “Fridays for Future” was over. Many German politicians and climate activists expressed similar criticisms. Green Party leader Ricarda Lang called Thunberg’s statements “absolutely indecent” and said she was abusing the climate movement to advertise her opinion on the conflict.

    As a result, the German branch of Fridays for Future has distanced itself from Thunberg and the international movement. Luisa Neubauer, a well-known face of the German climate movement, expressed her disappointment in Thunberg and reaffirmed her support for Israel. Another point of contention was an Instagram post on the international FFF account that has now been deleted (and was not written by Thunberg). It accused Western media of “brainwashing” with regards to Israel and was therefore widely condemned as antisemitic. FFF Austria also distanced itself. This means that for now there will be no more cooperation between FFF Germany and Austria and other international FFF groups.

    In response to the criticisms, Greta Thunberg and other FFF Sweden activists published an opinion piece in which they clarified their position. They state that the climate movement has always been a political movement for justice. They condemn all forms of discrimination, including antisemitism and islamophobia. Furthermore they emphasize the importance of distinguishing between Hamas, Muslims and Palestinians, as well as between the state of Israel, Jewish people and Israelis. Referring to international expert opinions, they continue to call the situation in Gaza a genocide and demand an end to the violence.

    From an international perspective, Thunberg’s position is far from uncommon. The majority of countries in the UN Assembly voted in favor of a ceasefire in Gaza on 12 December 2023, including Thunberg’s home country Sweden. The accusation of genocide is being investigated by the International Court of Justice. And on the streets of the world, thousands of pro-Palestinian protests have taken place since the beginning of the war, far more than pro-Israel protests. In Germany, Greta Thunberg’s position may isolate her, but globally she is not alone.

    Her appearance in Leipzig shows that neither criticism nor the division of the climate movement can dissuade her from her opinion. This should not come as a surprise. Greta Thunberg rose to fame because of her uncompromising approach. And uncompromising she remains.


    Hochschuljournalismus wie dieser ist teuer. Dementsprechend schwierig ist es, eine unabhängige, ehrenamtlich betriebene Zeitung am Leben zu halten. Wir brauchen also eure Unterstützung: Schon für den Preis eines veganen Gerichts in der Mensa könnt ihr unabhängigen, jungen Journalismus für Studierende, Hochschulangehörige und alle anderen Leipziger*innen auf Steady unterstützen. Wir freuen uns über jeden Euro, der dazu beiträgt, luhze erscheinen zu lassen.


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