July 25, 2022

Who Is Anti-Semitic?

Franco “Bifo” Berardi

Istubalz, Vuoto, 2022

In the year 2017, when I was invited to take part in Documenta 14, I proposed to put on a performance. I wrote a text dedicated to the suffering and death of countless migrants coming from countries where war and hunger are making survival impossible.

Every year, thousands of migrants die drowning as they try to cross the Mediterranean Sea, while millions are deported and detained in the concentration camps that Europe has built all along the coast from Turkey to Libya, from Lesbos to Puglia to Calais. Many of them are fleeing the consequences of European colonialism and climate catastrophe, caused in the first place by European fossil modernity. The title of my piece was “Auschwitz on the Beach,” which I intended as both a tribute to the victims of Nazism in the past century, and a tribute to the contemporary victims of European racism and neocolonialism.

The announcement of my performance sparked protests in the German press and a small group of people came to Kassel waving Israeli flags to protest the title of my work. I did not speak with these aggressive protesters. Instead I went to the Sarah Naussbaum Center for Jewish Life in Kassel, where I met the director, Eva‐Maria Schulz‐Jander, as well as the staff of the organization. After a friendly discussion with them, they agreed that Europe’s rejection of today’s economic and climate migrants could be compared with the rejection of 120,000 Jews who tried to migrate to the UK and US in 1939. Nevertheless, they told me that the title of my performance could be painful for some. Therefore, I decided to cancel my performance because I did not want to offend the sensibility of my friends at the Sara Naussbaum Center. So, instead I gave a talk at the Fridericianum museum about racism yesterday and today. Eva‐Maria Schulz‐Jander came to the talk. A group of friends showed their solidarity by countering the intolerance of a small crowd of fanatics with Israeli flags standing outside. Today, five years later, this intolerance continues to grow, and has become more confrontational, more arrogant, and much more violent.

Then earlier this month I saw that someone in Kassel was preparing a meeting at the Bürgerhaus Philipp‐Scheidemann‐Haus whose topic was: “Antisemitismus im Nah-Ost-Konflikt und in der Kunst der postbürgerlichen Gesellschaft” (Anti-Semitism in the Middle East Conflict and in the Art of Post-Bourgeois Society).1

The Facebook page for this event labeled me an “anti-Semite.” It proclaimed:

An anti-Israel group of artists and activists was invited to Documenta 15 by the Ramallah-based collective “The Question of Funding.” Our research in connection with this invitation brought to light that numerous functionaries and organizers of the art exhibition belong to the anti-Israel and sometimes also anti-Semitic “Israel-critical” scene of cultural workers. This phenomenon is not entirely new; the conversation with Edward Said at Documenta 10, the artist Peter Friedl’s “anti-Zionist giraffe” at Documenta 12, and the appearance of the anti-Semite Franco Berardi at Documenta 14 all indicate that we are dealing with a systematic connection.

After reading the Facebook page I decided to reply to this insult—not to encourage the organizers of this propagandistic and nationalist event, but to share my contempt and dismay, since for me, “anti-Semitic” is as violent an insult as can be. The following is my response.

*

I don’t like the word “identity.” I consider it philosophically ambiguous. Nevertheless, the identity of a person is not based on their belonging, but on their becoming. It isn’t blood or territory, but rather the intellectual and ethical choices they make that define, if you like, a person’s “identity.”

As far I am concerned, the cultural flows that have shaped my thought and my behavior come from my reading, and particularly from my reading of Jewish novelists and philosophers. I recognize in my intellectual and cultural formation the imprint of diasporic Jewishness, from Spinoza to Benjamin. And this is not even to mention the influence of people like Isaac Bashevis Singer, A. B. Yehoshua, Gershom Scholem, Akiva Orr, Else Lasker-Schüler, Daniel Lindenberg, and Amos Oz.

In addition, through reading I also acquired the points of view of those intellectuals who were the harbingers of Rootless Reason (Heimatlose Vernunft), the ground of modern democracy and of proletarian internationalism.

The Jewish condition of deterritorialization is at the base of the conception of the modern intellectual, of someone who does not make choices based on their belonging but rather on universal concepts.

I remember what Amos Oz writes in A Tale of Love and Darkness:

My Uncle David especially was a confirmed European, at a time when, it seems, no one else in Europe was, apart from the members of my family and other Jews like them. Everyone else turns out to have been Pan-Slavic, Pan-Germanic, or simply Latvian, Bulgarian, Irish, or Slovak patriots. The only Europeans in the whole of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s were the Jews. My father always used to say: In Czechoslovakia there are three nations, the Czechs, the Slovaks, and the Czecho-Slovaks, i.e., the Jews; in Yugoslavia there are Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, and Montenegrines, but, even there, there lives a group of unmistakable Yugoslavs; and even in Stalin’s empire there are Russians, there are Ukrainians, and there are Uzbeks and Chukchis and Tatars, and among them are our brethren, the only real members of a Soviet nation.2

For all these reasons, I affirm that Jewishness is an irrevocable part of who I am, and therefore I consider the epithet “anti-Semitic” to be the worst of insults.

During the last century, as a reaction to the persecutions of Jewish people, some of them were led to identify themselves as a nation and to occupy a space that was home to the Palestinian people. The possibility—this was surely possible—of a peaceful cohabitation was purposefully barred by nationalist prejudice, which has now paved the way for an endless hostility that daily destroys the lives of Palestinians and Israelis alike.

The declaration of Israel as the state of the Jews by the Knesset in 2018—that is, the reinforcement of Israel as an ethno-national state—not only violates the basic principles of democracy and the equal dignity of all people, but also trashes the legacy of enlightened Jewish culture. This is the paradox of identification. Those who have most suffered from racism have in the last years turned into racists themselves—and in the peculiar case of Germany, the country that committed the vilest acts of anti-Semitism in history now supports occupation and attacks against Palestinians by the Knesset as a form of apology.

My point of view on the Middle East conflict has always taken distance from Arab nationalism. I do not accept the identitarian principle that feeds nationalism—the same principle that inevitably feeds fascism. So, I also lack any affection for the concept of a Palestinian state. As the twentieth century has shown, the separation of political citizenship from cultural identity is the only way to create the conditions for civilized life.

I’m sorry to say that I have never written about these matters because I was afraid—afraid of being accused of a fault that I consider repugnant: anti-Semitism. But the insult that I read on the Facebook page for the Kassel event delivers me from that fear. I no longer fear insults from those who support the colonial oppression of Palestinian people, the systematic killing of young Palestinians,3 the assassination of journalists like Shireen Abu Akleh.4 Those who commit these racist crimes and those who wave the Israeli flag as a form of protest against the freedom to address political violence in a cultural setting are the true anti-Semites, not me.

Because of the systematic violence that Israeli colonialism has unleashed in the past several decades, the beast of anti-Semitism grows throughout the world. As it is impossible in some countries to openly assert that the politics of the Israeli state are wrong and dangerous, many don’t say this explicitly, even if they cannot stop thinking it. This silence is also what fuels existing anti-Semitic hate.

As history has shown, the greatest danger to the future of the Jewish people is the kind of nationalist fanaticism that attacks Palestinian artists, and that calls for nationalist meetings—not the solidarity of artists and philosophers fighting for justice.

Notes
1

See .

2

Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness, trans. Nicholas de Lange (Harcourt, 2004), 59–60.

3

See Amnesty International, “Israel/OPT: Increase in Unlawful Killings and Other Crimes Highlight Urgent Need to End Israel’s Apartheid against Palestinians,” May 11, 2022 .

4

See Martin Chulov, “Shireen Abu Aqleh Killing: ‘She Was the Voice of Events in Palestine,” The Guardian, May 11, 2022 .

Category
Contemporary Art
Subject
Racism

Franco Berardi, aka “Bifo,” founder of the famous Radio Alice in Bologna and an important figure in the Italian Autonomia movement, is a writer, media theorist, and social activist.

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