December 18, 2020

German Museum Chiefs Condemn BDS Ruling, Arts Community Calls for Repeal

Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt, whose curator Hila Peleg is a signatory of the letter. Photo: Ansgar Koreng / CC BY-SA 3.0 (DE).

BERLIN, GERMANY—More than a thousand artists, educators, and academics who live in Germany or have ties to cultural institutions there on Monday signed an open letter demanding the German parliament, or Bundestag, reverse a 2019 advisory resolution condemning the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) as “anti-Semitic.” The missive came on the heels of another open letter, noting that thanks to the resolution, “accusations of antisemitism are being misused to push aside important voices and to distort critical positions.” Released on December 10, it was signed by thirty-two directors of German arts institutions, who in their statement announced the formation of Initiative GG 5.3 Weltoffenheit (“world openness”), which rejects the resolution as “dangerous” and detrimental to the democratic public sphere.

The 2019 resolution calls on German states and municipalities to deny public funding to any organization that “actively supports BDS” or that questions the state of Israel’s right to exist. Critics say that the ruling, while meant to underline Germany’s rejection of anti-Semitism and its firm commitment to Israel’s right to exist, is squelching public discourse and restricting artists’ freedom of expression, thus denying them two guaranteed constitutional freedoms. Those calling for its repeal additionally contend that the ruling dangerously marginalizes other oppressed groups.

Among the more surprising incidents spawned by the resolution are the October 2019 denial by the city of Aachen of a cash prize to Walid Raad (though he eventually received it) after the Lebanese-American artist refused to condemn the BDS, and Peter Schäfer’s resignation this past June from his position as director of Berlin’s Jewish museum after coming under fire from Jewish community members and Israeli officials for tweeting an open letter opposing the labeling of BDS as anti-Semitic. This fall, Cameroonian philosopher and political theorist Achille Mbembe was branded an anti-Semite in the media and by German lawmakers after he compared Israel’s expansion of settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories with apartheid in South Africa.

“Cultural exchange does not work by deciding who we are allowed to talk about, and who we aren’t,” said Johannes Ebert, a signatory of the December 10 letter and secretary general of the Goethe Institute, an international promoter of German culture, speaking with the New York Times. “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.”

German culture minister Monika Grütters told the Times through a spokesperson that the “rules applying to contentious and controversial debates” in Germany include unequivocal recognition of Israel’s right to exist,” noting that the country “rejects anti-Semitism and the denial or trivialization of the Holocaust in the strongest possible terms.”

The December 14 letter, signed by Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Candice Breitz, Hans Haacke, and Michael Rakowitz, as well as by Israeli artists Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Yael Bartana, and Hila Peleg, among others, declares that “no state should be exempt from criticism. Regardless of whether we support BDS or not, as signatories of this letter we share an insistent belief in the right to exercise non-violent pressure on governments that violate human rights.”

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