May 7, 2022

Antisemitism Accusations against documenta: A Scandal about a Rumor

ruangrupa

This is a letter from ruangrupa, the artistic team of documenta fifteen, and some curators of the recently canceled forum We need to Talk! Art — Freedom — Solidarity reflecting an ongoing debate in Germany around the upcoming edition of documenta. –e-flux

It is with great regret that we announce that the discussion forum "We need to talk", which was set up in response to accusations of antisemitism directed at participants in documenta fifteen, has been suspended. After intensive discussions with the forum participants, it became clear that the accusations made against documenta fifteen and the forum itself currently render a free and productive discussion impossible. Following criticism by Josef Schuster, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, over the makeup of the forum, some of the participants withdrew, or considered withdrawing, just a few days before the forum’s intended opening. The forum intended to confront and problematize the accusations in their full breadth moving beyond entrenched institutional positions. The accusations were to be the subject of discussion, not the basis for it. documenta fifteen has now decided to await the official opening of the exhibition in order to meet the need for discussion as it arises, on the basis of the works shown and statements made at the exhibit.

To be clear: no antisemitic statements of any kind have been made in the context of documenta fifteen. We strongly reject these accusations and refuse to accept bad-faith attempts to delegitimize artists and preventively censor them on the basis of their ethnic heritage and presumed political positions. [1] It was also never planned to hold events featuring the Palestinian-led BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) movement at documenta fifteen.

To reiterate what the genesis of the accusations are:

In January 2022, the curators and several artists of documenta fifteen were accused of antisemitism on the Wordpress blog of an "Alliance against Anti-Semitism Kassel". Despite its name, this "alliance" seems to consist of a single person who has links to an extremist splinter group. The so-called "alliance" has nothing to do with the Jewish Community of Kassel.

These accusations were published for the first time on this blog, which features the self-declared slogan "There Is No Anti-Zionism Without Anti-Semitism," and continue to haunt documenta fifteen and its artists to this day. The blog text openly aimed for the disinvitation and silencing of artists and the firing of hosts and curators. Members of the search committee and the artistic team are accused of being in a camp with people “promoting hatred of Israel” on the basis of having signed the open letter "Nothing Can Be Changed Until Faced" together with some 1,500 signatories, many of whom are Jews, many of whom are Israeli citizens. This letter does not promote the hatred of Israel or of Jews but instead argues that the 2019 BDS Resolution of the German Parliament is a threat to artistic freedom and freedom of speech.

The open letter, however, explicitly states that the signatories hold different views of BDS, both pro and contra, but believe that banning discussion of it is counterproductive and dangerous. Indeed, the current accusations against documenta fifteen show how pertinent the criticism of the Bundestag resolution issued in that letter is. Irrespective of the fact that the resolution was a non-binding opinion from the last legislative period and that numerous German courts have since ruled that its practical implementation violates the German constitution, its ripple effect remains: one neither has to support nor defend BDS in order to be labeled as antisemitic. It suffices to speak out against the blanket exclusion of anyone who has ever supported BDS from public institutions. This dismaying line of argument could already be observed in the debate around the "Initiative GG 5.3 Weltoffenheit".

The blog text by the “Alliance against Anti-Semitism Kassel” becomes more aggressive in its condemnation of the invited Palestinian collective "The Question of Funding" (TQoF). Misconstruing a fictional text, one of the artists is falsely accused of being an "antisemitic thug." In a dubious triple jump, the blog text turns Khalil Sakakini, a progressive Palestinian educator of the first half of the twentieth century, into an ardent antisemite with the help of partly abbreviated, partly false quotations from Wikipedia, turning a cultural center named after him in Ramallah, as well as “The Question of Funding”, which is connected to the cultural center, into a cesspool of antisemitism. [2] The journalists Joseph Croitoru and Elke Buhr have shown how little this portrayal has to do with reality; the historian Jens Hanssen has shown how complex the figure of Sakakini actually is. A glance at the Sakakini center’s website shows that it is a reputable institution where many international organizations, including German foundations such as the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation, like to stage their own events.

In between making false accusations, the blog text sprinkles in some racist humor: "ruangrupa has launched the so-called 'lumbung', which is not an alcoholic mixed drink, but means 'collectively managed rice barn'"—an allusion to the infantile racist joke-name "Lumumba" for a cocktail mixed with cocoa and rum, named after the assassinated Congolese freedom fighter and former president Patrice Lumumba. Such racist jokes are seamlessly intertwined with the accusations of antisemitism that were adopted by numerous major German newspapers—largely uncritically and in defiance of basic journalistic standards. The fact that this falsification of history in the name of silencing and censoring free speech and expression was so carelessly adopted in the name of Germany's special "historical responsibility" is not without a certain ironic quality. The consequences are extremely serious, however, revealing the dangerous proximity between German historical ignorance and racist smears.

The blog finally made explicit what actually disturbs its author about documenta fifteen and the planned forum: that the perspective of the Global South is to be treated as "equal." Diversity is perceived as a threat to German discursive hegemony. The attempt to smear individual Palestinian artists as antisemites, either directly or by way of “guilt by association”, is precisely the kind of character assasination often seen in extreme-right and right-wing discourse. That such allegations were made by an “Alliance” of one based on amateurish internet research and misinformation is deplorable enough. Worse still is that these allegations were uncritically echoed by leading German newspapers. These papers are apparently careless and ignorant enough when it comes to the important topic of antisemitism that they are content to simply circulate rumors. Of this we have taken note.

In the following, we would like to address some of the points made in the letter from the President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster, to the State Minister for Culture and Media, Claudia Roth. This letter has been quoted in the press in recent days. We welcome the Central Council's letter as a contribution to the public debate and take the concerns expressed in it seriously. However, in our view, the communication with the Central Council proceeded differently and so the public record requires correction. The accusation that the forum’s lineup displays a "clear bias against [sic!] antisemitism" is unfounded.

Contrary to the letter’s claims, the managing director of the Central Council was informed of the intention and conceptualization of the series of talks in March 2022 in a detailed conversation. The Central Council was informed as soon as the details of the forum’s program were finalized and before its publication. The series of talks was put together according to scholarly criteria, international expertise and lived experience. A wide range of voices and positions from relevant individuals, institutions and organizations were taken into account. Official representatives of religious communities, parties and associations were deliberately not invited. Such representation is not the task of an art institution. At no time was there any binding organizational involvement of the Central Council (or any other body). However, the organizing team did incorporate suggestions for speakers and content into the overall concept. Care was taken to invite different perspectives—including those that corresponded to the Central Council's official position and, in some cases, were also institutionally involved with the Central Council. The problem, thus, is not that the Central Council's position was not represented. Rather, the actual issue appears to be the refusal by some to engage with and attempt to effectively deplatform recognized scholars whose views they don’t share.

The criticism of the multi-directional conceptualization of the planned panels of the forum, expressed by the Central Council and some media, clearly shows that it is difficult in Germany to bring both perspectives—the one affected by antisemitism and the one affected by anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian racism—into conversation. It is correctly consensus opinion that antisemitism affects Jewish people and people identified as Jewish, and that Jewish perspectives can never be ignored in a discussion about allegations of antisemitism. It should equally be the consensus opinion that racialized people need to have their say in a conversation about the racist effects of a false rumor of which they are the subject. The accusation of "BDS proximity", from which in turn the accusation of "Israel-related antisemitism" is derived, primarily affects people from the Global South and especially from the Middle East and has led to censorship, exclusions and disinvitations. [3] It is precisely this constellation that the forum took into account. We therefore wholly reject the criticism of the multi-directional conceptualization of the planned panels.

Since the real problems of the Israeli occupation, which violates international law, cannot be resolved discursively in discussion groups in Germany, we also cannot resolve contradictions in the evaluation of this occupation and the resistance against it. These contradictions must be endured; otherwise, a discussion would be restricted from the outset, so that it would hardly be deserving of its name. These real contradictions are only reinforced when this reality is disavowed and confused with a performative confessional culture whose effectiveness in the struggle against antisemitism, racism, colonialism, oppression, and global injustice is questionable at best. Also, from the point of view of those involved in documenta fifteen, the relationship between antisemitism and racism, which the forum had planned to address in a differentiated debate, cannot be completely separated historically despite their distinctions—especially when these are played off against each other in the present. To relate these phenomena to each other is not the same as equating them. This already bears saying since the accusations of antisemitism directed against some participants of documenta fifteen partly feature racist tropes.

When any criticism of Israeli state action is routinely demonized and equated with antisemitism, one can only expect that demonization to be challenged. This challenging comes primarily from those who are affected by the Israeli state's human rights violations. The German culture of equating anti-Zionism and even non-Zionism with antisemitism excludes, smears, and silences Palestinians and non-Zionist Jews from the fight against antisemitism by declaring them to be themselves antisemites. The forum would have been a place to precisely engage with this contradiction, the contentiousness of certain definitions of antisemitism (IHRA) and the particularly contentious examples of "Israel-related antisemitism." Those who reject this political debate in advance are leaving the conversation before it has begun. But those who do not want to allow this conversation to take place at all, but rather would like to determine who and what is considered debatable and silence those they consider to be unacceptable voices, should clearly state so publicly, instead of hiding behind criticism of organizational and curatorial details of the planned panels. Scholarly practice cannot exist without open debate. An effective fight against antisemitism needs this practice as a foundation. If this debate is made impossible, the real antisemitic threats of terror and violence are far harder to fight.

The well-known "sharp sword" of the accusation of antisemitism, which can end careers in Germany and beyond, must be wielded with prudence and responsibility and must not be politically instrumentalized on the basis of an assumed or actual "BDS proximity" of individuals or collectives. [4] Hollowing out the charge of antisemitism trivializes and undermines the fight against it. Instead, this discourse that presumes antisemitism due only to “BDS proximity” reproduces antisemitic tropes that conflate actions of the Israeli state with Jewish or Jewish-identified people. The equation of BDS and antisemitism is highly controversial academically both within and outside of Jewish communities. It is therefore subject to debate, not a neutral basis for discussion and should accordingly not be the sole basis for declaring someone or something antisemitic. Censorship, guilt by association, racist smears, and rumors—repeated uncritically—threaten to make international cultural cooperation in Germany impossible.

In retrospect, the forum strikes us as an honorable but futile attempt to formulate a good response to a bad question. No question about the accusations of antisemitism against some artists of documenta fifteen could be answered "correctly", because for the plaintiffs the guilt of the accused was already certain from the outset. The defendants, in turn, rightly resent having to defend themselves against bad-faith accusations before their artistic contributions can even be seen, discussed, and debated. The forum attempted to assemble a panel of experts with differing opinions who could have illuminated and debated the initial premises of this debate in order to better understand the positions involved. Because some people are not even interested in debating but instead would rather spread smears and rumors, this failed. The preliminary failure of the forum is thus also a failure of the German debate on antisemitism and racism.


ruangrupa, the artistic team of documenta fifteen and some curators of the failed forum

[1] It is worth recalling the campaign against Achille Mbembe, who had been invited to give the keynote address at the Ruhrtriennale, to name one of the many examples from the recent past. What all these cases share is that censorship was carried out through indirect measures, whether it was a disinvitation to perform, the complete cancellation of the planned event, or the withdrawal of funding or space.

[2] Khalili was the director of a cultural center founded in 1996 that is named after Khalil al-Sakanini, who died in 1953. By the logic of the accusations, the employees of the German Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation would have to be held liable for all statements and political actions made by their namesake. A discussion about the figure of Sakakini and all his contradictions would have opened up the possibility of beginning a conversation about nationalism, decolonization, and modernity that could also be relevant to contemporary global contexts. In the ahistorical condemnation of Sakakini, this opportunity was missed.

[3] The Working Definition of Antisemitism, often just IHRA definition for short, is a definition originally developed informally for monitoring purposes. Attached to it are practical examples that refer primarily to common examples of criticism of Israel. It has been adopted, sometimes without the controversial examples, by numerous organizations, from governments to soccer clubs. The definition has been heavily scrutinized, one of the authors, Kenneth Stern, has publicly bemoaned its political “weaponizing”. In his analysis of IHRA definition, sociologist Peter Ullrich writes: "The weaknesses of the ‘Working Definition’ are the gateway to its political instrumentalization, for instance for morally discrediting opposing positions in the Arab-Israeli conflict with the accusation of antisemitism. This has relevant implications for fundamental rights. The increasing implementation of the ‘Working Definition’ as a quasi-legal basis for administrative action promises regulatory potential. In fact, it is instead an instrument that all but invites arbitrariness. It can be used to abridge fundamental rights particularly freedom of speech with respect to disfavoured positions on Israel. In contrast to what the designation ‘Working Definition’ suggests, no further development of the definition to rectify these weaknesses is occurring." (https://www.rosalux.de/fileadmin/rls_uploads/pdfs/rls_papers/Papers_3-2019_Antisemitism.pdf)

A a reaction, internationally recognized scholars from the fields of Holocaust studies, antisemitism studies, and Jewish studies have developed the "Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism" in order to more clearly delineate between positions critical of Israel, including antizionist, from antisemitism (https://jerusalemdeclaration.org/).

[4] The German Federal Commissioner against antisemitism Felix Klein used this phrase to warn against “rash” accusations of antisemitism made against Hans-Georg Maaßen, a CDU politician and former head of German intel, who uses antisemitic tropes such as "globalists" and linked to the website of a Holocaust denier, https://www.fr.de/hintergrund/vorwuerfe-gegen-maassen-bekraeftigt-90575450.html.

Subject
Palestine, Protests & Demonstrations, Germany

ruangrupa is a Jakarta-based collective established in 2000. It is a nonprofit organization that strives to support art within an urban cultural context by involving outside artists and other disciplines such as social science, politics, technology, and media, with the aim of developing critical views on contemporary urban issues in Indonesian. ruangrupa also produces collaborative works in the form of exhibitions, festivals, art labs, workshops, research, books, magazines, and journals.

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