German cultural leaders warn against ban on Israel sanctions movement

Leaders of some of Germany's most important cultural institutions at a news conference in Berlin to present the open letter on Thursday (Silke Briel)

Melissa Eddy

The New York Times  /  December 11, 2020

Signatories of an open letter say a parliamentary resolution declaring the campaign anti-Semitic has led to self-censorship and is stifling artistic expression.

BERLIN — For months, the leaders of dozens of Germany’s most prominent cultural institutions met in secret, swapping stories of self-censorship, of hours spent worrying about the social media histories of artists or scholars they wanted to invite to their programs, and fears for their futures, if they slipped up.

Their concern? That they or their institutions could face charges of anti-Semitism over links — real or perceived — to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, widely known as B.D.S. That’s what happened earlier this year to a prominent Cameroonian philosopher, who was disinvited from addressing a high-profile arts festival in Germany for drawing parallels between the situation of Palestinians and apartheid in South Africa in his writing.

The striking of Achille Mbembe from the program of the Ruhrtreinniale, in May, led to a months-long public debate here, in which the relationship of genocide and colonialism to the Holocaust, and Germany’s special relationship to Israel, all came into question. It also sparked the cultural leaders’ decision to go public with their fears that the discussion was taking an unwelcome turn.

At a news conference in Berlin on Thursday, the directors of 32 institutions released an open letter in which they rejected the sanctions movement. “At the same time,” the letter added, “we consider the logic of a counter-boycott, triggered by the parliamentary anti-B.D.S. resolution, to be dangerous.”

They were referring to a resolution passed by the German Parliament in May 2019 that designated the sanctions campaign as anti-Semitic. The advisory declaration called on all Germany’s states and municipalities to deny public funding to any institution that “actively supports” the movement, or questions the right of the state of Israel to exist.

But instead of curbing anti-Semitism, the resolution has stifled the open exchange of ideas in the public sphere and freedom of expression in the arts, both of which are guaranteed by Germany’s constitution, the open letter’s signatories said.

“Cultural exchange does not work by deciding who we are allowed to talk about, and who we aren’t,” said one of the signatories, Johannes Ebert, the secretary general of the Goethe Institute, an organization that promotes German culture abroad. “Especially in international cultural exchange, you have to listen closely, you have to be willing to speak to people whose positions you don’t share.”

The directors of the Berliner Festspiele, the Humboldt Forum and the Federal Cultural Foundation, along with the leaders of theaters, museums and institutes for Jewish cultural studies from across the country, are among those who signed the appeal.

Monika Grütters, Germany’s minister for culture, said in response to the letter that cultural institutions always walk a tightrope between artistic freedoms and the limits of what is acceptable in society. But red lines exist, she said, and one of them is anti-Semitism.

The German government’s view was that there are “rules applying to contentious and controversial debates. With regard to Israel, these include unequivocal recognition of Israel’s right to exist,” Ms. Grütters said through a spokesman. Germany “rejects anti-Semitism and the denial or trivialization of the Holocaust in the strongest possible terms,” the spokesman added.

Germany is not alone at finding its political discourse upended by the debate over the Israel sanctions movement. But whereas in the United States and Britain the focus is on college campuses, in Germany, it is in the cultural sphere, which depends heavily on government funding, that the dispute comes into sharpest relief.

Months after the 2019 resolution was passed, the director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum, Peter Schäfer, quit his post amid criticism that he had become too politically involved in the battle over the sanctions movement. The previous year, the Scottish rappers Young Fathers were removed from the line-up of the Ruhrtriennale over their public support for it.

Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger, the director of the Berlin Institute for Advanced Study, an interdisciplinary research institute, said the resolution limited the mandates of organizations like hers, which encourage the free exchange of ideas among scholars.

“If we were to take this resolution literally, then we could not invite many Jewish and Palestinian Israeli intellectuals who oppose the human rights violations of their own government,” said Ms. Stollberg-Rilinger, another signatory of Thursday’s open letter.

Felix Klein, Germany’s government-appointed commissioner for fighting anti-Semitism, defended the resolution as an important symbol of the country’s unequivocal rejection of anti-Jewish sentiment in all its forms and its unwavering support for Israel’s right to exist.

“Our democracy is a militant democracy,” said Mr. Klein, whose pronouncement of Mr. Mbembe as anti-Semitic fuelled the debate over the Cameroonian philosopher’s dismissal earlier this year. “It is deliberately against such displays of intolerance.”

He said that he was surprised the cultural leaders decided to make a public pronouncement about their difficulties with the resolution, without ever discussing them with him first.

Yehudit Yinhar, a Jewish Israeli student at the Weissensee Art Academy, learned first-hand how the resolution could be interpreted when she found herself, along with the other members of a project she jointly organized called “School for Unlearning Zionism,” facing accusations of anti-Semitism.

“We want to do our own homework, teaching ourselves about power and privilege,” she said of the events, which consisted of 12 online lectures and public discussions, with titles such as “Zionism as Settler Colonialism.” Participants were encouraged to explore what Ms. Yinhar described as “perspectives outside of the language of power” that were learned growing up in Israel.

Instead, the group found their website, which was hosted by the academy, taken offline after accusations of links to the sanctions movement among some of its members surfaced, first in the Israeli and then in the German news media. “No taxpayer money should be used to delegitimize Israel,” the American Jewish Committee Berlin said in a statement on Twitter, pointing out the Weissensee Art Academy is publicly funded.

A description of the project is now listed on the site of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which documents anti-Semitic attacks in Germany. There, it joins reports of police officers circulating Nazi symbols in a chat group and a violent attack on a Jewish student wearing a skullcap in Hamburg.

“The claim of anti-Semitism toward us and our project is violent,” Ms. Yinhar said in an interview. She declined to comment on the sanctions movement.

“It feels like a group of Jewish Israelis doing research on their own collective story are being told by the white German institutions they can’t do that,” she said. “As if they have the right to set the conditions on which we are allowed to define our own history and participate in public discourse.”

Harassment of individuals, often starting on social media, has become widespread as a result of the parliamentary resolution, said Bernd Scherer, the director of the House of World Cultures, a Berlin exhibition space.

“Although the resolution mentions nothing about individuals, what we have seen is that it usually how it is carried out,” Mr. Scherer said.

In addition to denying financial support, the resolution calls on states and municipalities to make public spaces off limits for events involving supporters of the sanctions movement. The Bavarian capital of Munich implemented such a ban already in 2017.

The following year, when a citizen sought to organize a public debate on the local ban in Munich’s City Museum, local authorities refused to allow it to proceed, on grounds that the movement would be discussed.

Last month, a higher Bavarian court ruled that this decision violated the constitutional right to freedom of expression, adding that an event could not be banned in anticipation of what might be said at it.

The city has said it will appeal the ruling, but the rebuke was welcomed by the 32 cultural leaders, who said it gave credence to their argument.

“We want to show that we have a problem with carrying out this resolution,” said Hortensia Völckers, the artistic director of the Federal Cultural Foundation, who signed the open letter. “We need to have a discussion with political leaders to make it clear.”

 Melissa Eddy is a correspondent based in Berlin who covers German politics, social issues and culture; she came to Germany as a Fulbright scholar in 1996, and previously worked for The Associated Press in Frankfurt, Vienna and the Balkans.