The Palestinians are Offside: Observations on German Football

In April 2022, Borussia Dortmund, a German club that in recent times has distinguished itself on the football world for the development of players such as Erling Haaland, Jude Bellingham and Jadon Sancho, hosted a charity match against Ukrainian club, Dynamo Kyiv, to raise funds for Ukrainian civilians affected by the Russian invasion. Both teams and officials raised a banner with the slogan “Stop War.” While their efforts were noble, raising over 400,000 Euros for the cause, it is ironic, to say the least, that four days after this display of goodwill, Dortmund announced its trip to Israel for a friendly match against an Israeli club postseason. Although the trip was quickly called off, or rather, postponed to an indefinite date for “security reasons,” it is hard to ignore the hypocrisy of values the club allegedly holds. 

German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW)—whose editorial board adopted a code of conduct in September 2022 that threatened to fire staff members if they were critical of Israel (a policy they have executed)—reported that these security reasons were over the fact that  “three Israelis were killed in an attack in the city of Elad,” in close proximity to where the match between Dortmund and the Israeli club was to be held. DW further shot down the possibility of this postponement taking place because of pressure by BDS supporters as “speculation” and quickly rebranded the narrative as a call to anti-semitism. Users responded to Dortmund’s post with videos showcasing the treatment of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers, which the article renounced as “alleged documentation.”

Now fast forward to October 7th when Hamas launched an attack on Israel. Ten Bundesliga (German league) clubs: Stuttgart, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig, Wolfsburg, Eintracht Frankfurt, Borussia Monchengladbach, Union Berlin, Werder Bremen and FC Köln, promptly posted messages of prayers and condolences to Israel on their official German X (formerly known as Twitter) pages. In addition, Borussia Dortmund shared a post a few days later by ADIRA, an antisemitism and discrimination network based in Dortmund, in support of their upcoming rally to combat “anti-semitism.”

One of the clubs that initially abstained from posting any condolences, Hoffenheim, released a lengthy statement on their website on October 17th, ten days after the attack, condemning Hamas and affirming that Israel’s security is Germany’s responsibility, all before listing its own awards and accomplishments in combating racism and antisemitism. It is worth noting that Hoffenheim’s main striker from 2020 to 2023 was Mu’nas Dabbur, an Israeli-Arab Muslim, who had long spoken out against the Israeli Occupation and quit the national team in 2022.

As the clubs released statements, fans also communicated their support for Israel, not only on social media but also in person, hoisting banners during matches. In the Bundesliga, the visibility of large banners is common, often arranged by the club’s set of supporters called the “Ultras.” It is customary for the banners to normally “protest the increasing commercialization of the game and to express their views on other socio-political issues,” with Deutsche Welle even gloating over German football’s “social inclusivity” in comparison to the Premier League. During their match against Hoffenheim on October 7th, Werder Bremen’s Ultras held up a banner that said, “I Stand with Israel.” Supporters of the fourth division club, BSG Chemie Leipzig, displayed large banners that read, “Peace for the people of Israel,” “Stop terrorism and fascism,” “Freedom for all people” and “Free Palestine from Hamas” during their match. BSG Chemie Leipzig’s protest bears the difference from top-tier clubs, which have majorly refrained from mentioning Palestine, by costuming the narrative as Palestine seeking liberation from Hamas.

Despite the strong and swift condemnation from both clubs and supporters, none of them have publicly extended any condolences to Palestine to date. Meanwhile, Bayern Munich’s Noussair Mazraoui, a practicing Muslim from Morocco, expressed his solidarity with Palestine on Instagram, one post depicting a collage of four screenshots of his and three other Moroccan players’ stories with an accompanying text, “morocco’s NT players aboukhlal, ziyech, mazraoui & sabri all posted stories in support of palestine but you can only see the stories if you go to their profile, they’re trying to silence us, it’s literally us against the WORLD [sic]!” This is in no doubt addressing Instagram’s notorious shadow-banning of Palestinian content. In response, Bayern Munich—arguably Germany’s most successful club both domestically and internationally—held an extensive discussion with the player about his Instagram post “in connection with the terror against Israel.” Sparingly quoting the player’s generic comments of peace and condemnation of all terrorism, it once again interjected its position of standing by Israel. Of course, it could not provide any statement on Palestine, only hoping for “peaceful coexistence for all people in the Middle East.” Much to the chagrin of some supporters, the club took no further action against the Moroccan player, such as deportation, which a few German parliamentary members were calling for. In fact, the recurring omission of “Palestine” from German clubs mirrors its censorship in German high schools, where there have been cases of Palestinian students being deliberately designated nationalities other than Palestine by teachers and where there is a ban on displaying symbols of solidarity with Palestinians like wearing the keffiyeh or stickers that say “Free Palestine.”

Following Mazraoui’s posts, German tabloid newspaper, BILD, published a critical article titled, “Terror supporters on the lawn? Unbearable!”, lambasting Mazraoui by demanding he distance himself from Hamas’ “bloody deeds” as well as to justify why he “welcomes hate slogans.” The “hate slogans” the newspaper is referring to are the aforementioned screenshots, which were of the Palestinian flag, Qur’anic verses and the befitting quote by Malcolm X, “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people being oppressed, and loving those doing the oppressing.” BILD adds the fact that Bayern Munich’s former president was Jewish and once had to flee from the Nazis. The newspaper sanctimoniously concludes that footballers need to be role models for the youth, “a terror supporter can never be a role model.”

By eliciting memories of the atrocities faced by the Jewish community during World War II in this context, BILD attempts to exploit the readers’ emotions under the false premise that being pro-Palestinian somehow dishonors the Holocaust. BILD’s rhetoric is in line with the Israeli narrative, echoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who labeled Hamas the “new Nazis.” Raz Segal, an Israeli professor of Holocaust and genocide studies, aptly responded, providing appropriate context: 

A powerful state, with powerful allies and a powerful army, engaged in a retaliatory attack against stateless Palestinians under Israeli-settler colonial rule, military occupation and siege, is thus portrayed as powerless Jews in a struggle against Nazis.”

Segal further draws parallels between Israel’s weaponization of the Holocaust and Russia’s reinterpretation of World War II as well as Putin’s justification of Ukrainian invasion as a form of “denazification.”

Deutsche Welle, on the other hand, chose a rather neutral headline for its report on Mazraoui: “Bayern Munich defender posts pro-Palestinian video.” However, its abstract was predictably partial, stating also how “in the wake of Hamas terror attacks” Mazraoui was wishing for Palestinian victory. Interestingly, when reporting Mazraoui’s sentiments, DW’s language was more matter-of-fact—chunky direct quotes and to the point—compared to the emotive language used when sharing Munich’s Israeli back-up goalkeeper’s appeal for “athletes to speak out against terrorism.” Notably, the article didn’t use any direct quotations (ostensibly reflecting its own views) and referred to his message as “emotional.”

Similarly, Borussia Dortmund’s Algerian player, Ramy Bensebaini, was seen with a Palestinian scarf when on international duty. This action compelled Daniel Lörcher, Borussia Dortmund’s anti-discrimination officer, to hold an extensive discussion with the player. Almost as a public form of exoneration, Lörcher explained that Bensebaini’s action should be viewed in light of his native country’s relationship with the “Palestinian territories” and how scarves are used to express condolences to the civilians who had died. Deviating from the status quo of German rhetoric, Lörcher acknowledged the civilian casualties in Gaza, but ultimately engaged in the same narrative, boiling it down to “consequences of the Hamas attack on Israel.”

A vastly different outcome to the above two incidents occurred after Dutch player Anwar El Ghazi voiced out his support for Palestine on Instagram, resulting in his German club, Mainz, suspending him. The suspension lasted roughly two weeks when Mainz announced that they would allow El Ghazi a chance of “rehabilitation” after he had allegedly shown remorse. However, the player soon publicly doubled down on his position, refusing to retract or apologize for any of his statements, revealing that anything contrary is untrue and was not authorized by him. He openly called for an end to genocide, apartheid and oppression. Mainz was swift to respond, claiming to be surprised and uncomfortable with El Ghazi’s stance. In his original post, El Ghazi had included the chant, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which is considered criminal by some in Germany. (Berlin police had even broken up this year’s Nakba rally after the chant had been sung.) This is in contrast to the Netherlands, where the chant is legally protected on the grounds of free speech. 

The narrative would not be complete without the center of German football, the Deutscher Fußball-Bund (DFB), the national football association of Germany, making its position clear. On October 14th, the German national team played the US national team in a friendly match. Before kick-off, the DFB published a statement on their official website announcing a minute of silence before the match in honor of those who died before and after “the devastating terrorist attack on Israel.” It took it even further, stating: “The terrorist attack by Hamas on the State of Israel and its citizens fills the DFB with horror and sadness. Hamas’ cruel actions have cost numerous innocent victims. In this difficult situation, football in Germany stands firmly with us friends and partners in Israel.” The DFB President Bernd Neuendorf further expressed his solidarity with the Israeli ambassador to Germany. By erasing the murdered Palestinians as victims, it contradicted its own human rights policy, which proclaims that as a “principle,” it wishes to prevent “causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through its own actions.” Between the time of the Hamas attack and the friendly match, over 2000 Palestinian civilians were killed and a little under 9000 were wounded by Israeli forces. Yet no mention of this tragedy, let alone the name “Palestine,” made it into DFB’s statement.

The response from Germany’s footballing milieu is only an excerpt of a larger issue at hand in the country. Germany’s continued authoritarian suppression of Palestinian activism and support is well documented, including authorities banning pro-Palestinian rallies “out of fear of further expression of extremist sentiment”, detaining protestors as well as intimidating them with water canons and an overhead helicopter. The police have cracked down on protests by exercising violent force such as beating people lying on the ground and sitting on their upper bodies, hence obstructing their breathing. Interior Minister, Nancy Faeser, stated that the government would deport any Hamas supporter by all legal means, yet the definition of “Hamas supporter” is obscure to say the least, especially given the fact that earlier this year, Zaid Abulnasser, a Palestinian refugee from Syria, had his refugee status in Germany revoked for his affiliation with Samidoun, a pro-Palestinian organization that campaigns for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. According to a UN Special Rapporteur, there are currently 5,000 Palestinian prisoners, including 160 children, and an estimated 1,100 of them “detained without charge or trial.”

Hebh Jamal, a Palestinian-American journalist based in Germany, stated, “The clampdown on criticism of Israel in Germany has intensified considerably since the Bundestag adopted the controversial definition of antisemitism, which conflates criticism of Israel with antisemitism, which was put forth by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2017.” Many Bundesliga clubs adhere to this definition. IHRA lists one of the forms of antisemitism as, “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”

With such an egregious affiliation, it is not hard to see that Germany is simply capitulating to an Israeli chokehold in penance for what Jewish people faced at the hands of Nazis. As Emily DischeBecker, director of the German branch of Diaspora Alliance, an NGO fighting both antisemitism and misuse of antisemitism accusations, contended, it is Germany’s wish for “Israel to be the happy ending to the Holocaust.” Although statistics show that over 90% of antisemitic crimes have been committed by right-wing Germans, Muslims and Arabs have been made the scapegoat. In a desperate attempt to whitewash its own history and switch its perpetrator status to a philo-semitic one, Germany pushes forth in its efforts to “project its Holocaust guilt onto Palestinians.”

Photo by Abigail Keenan on Unsplash

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

Mona Zaneefer

Mona Zaneefer is a graduate in English with Creative Writing. Her interests include literature, Islamic history and football.

One thought on “The Palestinians are Offside: Observations on German Football

  1. Just recently Maximilian Steinbeis, a well known german specialist of constitutional law, voiced his concern about a growing tendency in Germany to adopt a special law, effectively banning objecting to Israels perspective on its status and its so called self-defence. It is blatantly unconstitutional and he doesn’t know how anyone could think otherwise. In other words: In Germany it’s pure madness when it comes to the topic of Israel.

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