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Pro-Palestine Solidarity in Denmark Unfolds in a Hostile Milieu

By Mette Edith Stendevad

Pro-Palestine and Palestinian activism existed in Denmark long before October 2023. But since then, weekly and daily protests, sit-ins, and marches, as well as teach-ins and fundraising events have galvanized pro-Palestinian sentiment among the Danish population, enabling those who had been hitherto covert supporters of Palestinian freedom and self-determination to come out into the open. Already few in number, activists, students, scholars, and artists who spoke openly about Palestine in Danish society were largely silenced or censored in the public sphere and rarely got airtime on public media outlets prior to October 2023.

Knowledge about historical Palestine, the occupied territories, Palestinian children held captive in Israeli prisons, Israel’s violations of international law, and the illegal settlers in the occupied West Bank, or the siege of Gaza, as well as all the Israeli assaults on the territory from 2008–19, and during the 2021 Unity Intifada, rarely hit the Danish news headlines. Academic research, by scholars such as Anja Kublitz (2016) and myself (2020), shows that Palestinians in Denmark are generally viewed negatively: they are easily labeled “terrorists,” they are questioned about their ethnic origins, and often feel othered in Danish society. Moreover, poor record-keeping and incomplete databases have also resulted in insufficient documentation: Palestinians in Denmark are generally referred to as “stateless,” without reference to their places of origin (whether the Palestinian diaspora or from within historical Palestine), and Danish-born Palestinians with a UN-guaranteed right to Danish citizenship are referred to as “the stateless case” after Denmark initially granted asylum to 321 stateless Palestinians under a special law passed in 1992 but failed to grant their children Danish citizenship.

Prior to October 2023,  there were several pro-Palestinian initiatives in Denmark, including the Palestinian Cultural Institute (and Film Festival) established by Palestinians in Denmark, the NGO Music4Aida, the Danish chapter of the International Solidarity Movement, and the Free Gaza Movement Denmark, which was established in 2006 to support the Gaza Freedom Flotillas, in addition to the Boycott Israel group launched in 2002. Since 2019, Students Against the Occupation have actively been working to get the University of Copenhagen to divest from illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, handing the university administration a petition to that effect that included almost 2,000 signatories in 2023.

A protest on March 15 in Nuuk, Kalaallit Nunaat (the Indigenous name of Greenland). Photo courtesy of Aka Hansen.

Civil society groups and grassroots organizations play a key role in pro-Palestinian activism in Denmark. Their alliance with other anti-colonial and anti-racist causes is crucial in a context that has favored Israeli discourse for decades. While they have succeeded in mobilizing the largest-ever pro-Palestinian protests in Denmark, the gap remains wide between the official Danish stance on Palestine and what is now a markedly pro-Palestinian civil society. There is still far to go for the Palestinian narrative to be acknowledged in Denmark.

Many of the events organized to help raise awareness about Palestine in

Denmark have benefited from direct collaboration with nonprofits such as the

Ramallah-based Danish House in Palestine (DHIP). With the overall mission of fostering popular engagement, DHIP’s goal is to inform, educate, and inspire dialogue, understanding, and cooperation between Danes and Palestinians. The Palestinian solidarity movement in Denmark also mobilizes mass protests via groups such as Stop Annekteringen af Palæstina (Stop the Annexation of Palestine), an anti-capitalist group working for Palestinians’ right of return to Palestine under the umbrella of the International Forum, “Alle På Gaden For et Frit Palæstina” (Everyone to the Street for a Free Palestine), kuffiyeh.dk, and Palestinian Solidarity Action. Marching tirelessly through the streets of Copenhagen, peaceful protesters have organized into subgroups such as Queers against Genocide, Nurses and Doctors against Genocide, Artists against Genocide, Jews for Just Peace, and The Children’s Block, as well as the three groups mentioned earlier (Students Against the Occupation, Free Gaza Movement Denmark, and Academics for Palestine). And finally, with the slogan “From the icecap to the sea, everyone will be free!,” Inuit Against Genocide reference the historical experiences of settler colonialism experienced by the Indigenous people of Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland) and their solidarity across continents with the Indigenous people of Palestine. (Kalaallit Nunaat was under direct Danish colonial power from 1721–1954, and there remains a Danish presence to this day.)

A group of Palestinians in Denmark recently established the news platform Puls 48 as a forum to build bridges and create a deeper understanding of the Palestinian narrative and Palestinian history, where they can share their own personal experiences of everyday life under occupation. The group “Jøder for Retfærdig Fred (5784)” (Jews for Just Peace) was also launched in October 2023, as part of the mass protests against the unfolding Israeli genocide in Gaza. According to Birke F. Jessing, a member of the group whose grandmother survived the Holocaust, the association was established to bring together Danish Jews dedicated to struggling for freedom, equality, and democracy for everyone in historical Palestine and against occupation and apartheid. Their main purpose is to take part in the mass protests and to have a place at the table in public debates. They have organized protests in front of the Israeli Embassy in Copenhagen and are providing an alternative to the mainstream Jewish community in Denmark, which Jessing describes as “generally conservative and pro-Israel.” Students at Danish universities and public schools have also started organizing pro-Palestinian actions nationwide, including the Palestine Solidarity Network at Roskilde University, which is calling for unity between the different student-led groups across the country. At this writing, we are still to see the US-wide Gaza Solidarity Encampment protest spread across Danish university campuses.

Gaza protest in front of the Danish Parliament (Christiansborg Slotsplads), October 22, 2023. Photo by Sukhraj Singh.

All told, the collective mobilization in Denmark has succeeded in creating what is historically the largest protest movement in support of Palestine in the country. With Palestinians in Denmark taking up more of the public space on the streets and in the media, and thus being heard by a broader public, the pressure is on, vis-à-vis the Danish government led by Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, to act in solidarity with the Palestinian people and against the Israeli occupation as well as the war crimes Israel is committing in Gaza. Throughout her five years at the helm, Frederiksen has done all she can to maintain the privileged diplomatic relationship Denmark established with Israel in the 1950s. So far, she has taken no meaningful steps in support of the Palestinian people, unlike other similarly small European players such as Spain and Ireland, both of which have halted arms sales to Israel and are taking serious divestment steps. When Frederiksen was invited to speak at an International Women’s Day event held on March 8 at the Vega concert hall, that was organized by a leading gender and equality initiative (KVINFO), the minister’s address was interrupted by cries of, “Stop your hypocrisy,” “Free, free Palestine,” “Everyone in Gaza has the right to live,” and other chants, while a large banner adorned with the Palestinian flag was unfurled from the auditorium’s balcony.  Frederiksen, along with her team of ministers, was prevented from speaking and chose to withdraw from the well-attended event, which had drawn a wide array of activists, scholars, artists, authors, and women in leadership positions, including Palestinians.

The protest sparked an outcry about who in Danish society has the right to speak – and to interrupt – and about democratic nonviolent methods of disrupting power.  Although a social democratic politician, Frederiksen is a member of the elite who has been scandalously silent on Palestine. Protesters and journalists have repeatedly asked her if she cared to show her sympathy for the Palestinian people and use her diplomatic power to condemn Prime Minister Netanyahu. In response, she signaled that showing solidarity with the Palestinians would be inappropriate: when a TV2 journalist in October 2023 asked Frederiksen if she would do the same for the civilian victims in Gaza as she had in sympathy for those Israeli civilians killed on October 7 by placing flowers in front of the Israeli Embassy, she responded that “such a question is ahistorical” and refused to answer. A measure of the March 8 protesters’ success may be inferred from Frederiksen later changing her discourse. On March 22 , she said, “Israel must allow at least 500 trucks of aid daily into Gaza” and asked Israel to change its strategy immediately, at a time when man-made starvation stalked hundreds of thousands in Gaza. Pro-Palestinian activists in Denmark responded that this had come too late, after six months of bombardments and more than 32,000 Palestinians killed.

A protest in Copenhagen calling for a boycott of the Eurovision Song Contest, 2024. Photo by Klaudia Petersen.

The support for Palestine in civil society stands in stark contrast to official state policies in Denmark. Danish politicians have repeatedly called Denmark “a friend of Israel” and upheld the mantra that Israel had “the right to defend itself,” evincing little sympathy for the Palestinian people and their demands for freedom, and willfully ignoring the history of settler colonialism in Palestine. Danwatch, a media and research center with Information, has revealed how Danish companies export combat aircraft and drone protection equipment to the Israeli military. This despite the allegations of Israeli war crimes and genocide in Gaza; moreover, and notwithstanding the fact that Denmark has committed itself to stopping the export of “military equipment for wars and conflicts where the equipment risks being used in violation of human rights and the rules of war,” these transfers continue apace. Protesters have for weeks blocked the entrance to companies such as Terma, and four human rights NGOs (Amnesty Denmark, Oxfam (Ibis), MS Action Aid, and Palestinian Al-Haq) have launched suits against the Danish state for supplying arms to Israel. The pressure from activists, legal experts, journalists, and NGOs eventually led to a slight political shift with the Danish Foreign Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen implementing a measure to restrict the legal procedure by which Denmark contributes to Israel’s provision of F-35 military aircraft. However, the restrictions are not sufficient to meet Denmark’s international obligations, legal experts say. And several political parties have expressed skepticism regarding the government’s change of course, describing it as virtue signaling.

Palestinian solidarity activists in Denmark observe that they have never witnessed anything like this level of pro-Palestinian solidarity. Nonetheless, Danish-born Palestinians also aver that they have never felt as othered in Denmark as they do today. Over the past seven months many activists, artists, students, and academics who are of Palestinian descent have been subjected to character assassination, censorship, and verbal attack in the media. Many Palestinians in Denmark have lost their jobs, been intimidated, or have experienced negative exposure after October 2023 and thus been pressured to remain silent.

March for Palestine calling for immediate ceasefire. High Street Copenhagen (Strøget), 2024. Photo by Klaudia Petersen.

There is an enormous gap between academic knowledge production on Palestine and the type of knowledge that is publicly accessible through the media. Automatically dismissed for being critical of Israel, Palestinian scholars in Danish academia rarely get airtime on national TV or radio since their critical stance is regarded as unacceptable. Journalists routinely tell both Danish and Palestinian academics with years of experience in disciplines such as Arabic, Islam studies, Palestine studies, and settler-colonial studies that they cannot be featured as expert voices because they are critical of Israel and/or have signed the “Statement of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, Scholars, Researchers, and Educators of the Middle East in Denmark” (2021). As Associate Professor Somdeep Sen of Roskilde University wrote in an Al-Jazeera article, “censorship has always been a necessary complement of genocide.”

Palestinian scholars and experts on Palestine I have spoken to expect this form of censorship to increase, and they fear that nonviolent pro-Palestinian activism may be criminalized in the future by being labeled a violation of the Danish Constitution. Bilal Al-Issa, the spokesperson for Stop the Annexation of Palestine – one of the Copenhagen protests’ main organizers – describes in Omar Shargawi’s podcast, “En snak om Palæstina” (A Talk about Palestine), how he has received more than 500 hate messages accusing him of “anti-Semitism and bias” and that in desperate attempts at character assassination, journalists have contacted Danish gangs to enquire whether he was associated with them. Pro-Israel politicians are also trying to withdraw state funding for DHIP where Al-Issa is a board member, and they have contacted his manager at work to try to get her to censure and fire Al-Issa on the grounds that he has refused to yield to the media’s demand that Palestinians must condemn Hamas before being allowed to speak in public. And diaspora-born Palestinians who have lived several years in Denmark and who contribute to Danish society have been targeted by right-wing politicians in the process of applying for Danish citizenship: they have been singled out and publicly ridiculed, and have been described as prone to “terrorism,” “unworthy of Danish citizenship,” and “dangerous to Danish society” on the basis of the sympathy they have expressed on social media for the plight of their people in Palestine.

Palestine is rarely a part of the national high school history curriculum in

Denmark, where the history of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany has for decades taken center stage. The history of Palestine before, during, and after 1948 remains largely silenced. A Copenhagen-based high school teacher told me that in November 2023, their school administration instructed all teachers to avoid speaking about Palestine in the classroom. Another Copenhagen suburb high school has allowed Gaza to be a topic in history lessons where genocides such as the Holocaust and the Cambodian “killing fields” under Pol Pot have been discussed alongside Israel’s current war on Gaza. The same high school has created a “sorrow group” on campus for students directly affected by the war but have forbidden showing the Palestinian flag on campus, where in 2022 it had enthusiastically raised the Ukrainian flag.

A protest on March 15 in Nuuk, Kalaallit Nunaat (the Indigenous name of Greenland). Photo courtesy of Aka Hansen.

In a moment of increasing pro-Palestinian activism and solidarity at a time when Europe is engaged in extreme neo-liberal, anti-Palestinian, capitalist warfare, those who identify as pro-Palestinian must ask ourselves why it took genocide, man-made starvation, countless war crimes and atrocities, and over 40,000 human lives taken in Gaza for such inspiring pro-Palestinian initiatives and acts of solidarity to come out in the open – after all, Israel was guilty of these crimes long before October 7, 2023.

  • Mette Edith Stendevad is a Danish scholar and PhD in Palestine studies, oral history, and settler colonialism. She is the co-founder of Academics for Palestine, a network dedicated to broadening knowledge about the history of Palestine and making it accessible to the wider public. Her doctoral dissertation is entitled “Palestinian Women of Syria Speaking Back: Portraying Stateless Female Diaspora” (2022).

1 Comment

  1. Ed Wolfe

    The 5th of Iyyar according to the Hebrew calendar arrives on the 14th of May this year. It was also the 5th of Iyyar, the 14th of May 1948, when the State of Israel was declared—merely 3 years and a few days after the Jewish NAKBA or HOLOCAUST had ended. And, just as there are holocaust deniers, there are also deniers of BOTH Palestine and Israel…as if either name (and other names) for the same piece of land never, ever existed. Of course they did, but we quibble, don’t we? We deny one another’s humanity…and, frankly, probably not just a few of us (me included!) deny our own humanity and that of Germans, Japanese, etc., who also stood on or stepped over to the wrong side of history. Whether it was or not Mahatma Gandhi who said, ‘An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind’, should not WE also get the point?

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