Earlier this month, the Ruhrtriennale art and music festival in northwestern Germany cancelled the August 18 concert of the Scottish band Young Fathers because its members refused to renounce their support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement — an international coalition promoting the right of return of Palestinian refugees against Israeli occupation. Then, late last week, the festival’s organizers reversed course and invited the band back.
The Ruhrtriennale, an acclaimed arts, culture, and music festival founded in 2002 by Gerard Mortier (whom New Yorkers may remember as the director of the New York City Opera from 2008 to 2012), is organized in three year cycles with each edition organized by a new artistic director. Typically, each edition features around 80 performances of around new 30 productions. Over the years, this interdisciplinary event has hosted many major figures in the arts including Ariane Mnouchkine, Peter Brook, Bill Viola, Ilya Kabakov, Peter Sellars, Christian Boltanski, Bill Frisell, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, Akram Khan, and Cecilia Bartoli, to name a few.
In 2016, German-born Stephanie Carp was appointed artistic director of the Ruhrtriennale 2018, which runs from August through October. Carp previously served as co-director of the Schauspielhaus in Zurich between 2000 and 2004, later working as a dramaturge under Frank Castorf at the Volksbühne in Berlin until 2007.
In the original June 13 statement, Carp said:
Regrettably, the Young Fathers have not distanced themselves from BDS. We explicitly do not conclude from this that the band is anti-Semitic, and, in this context, I consider it important to emphasize that criticism of the policy of the current Israeli government is not per se equivalent to anti-Semitism. However, the Ruhrtriennale distances itself in all forms from the BDS movement and wishes to have absolutely no connection with the campaign. We have therefore decided to cancel the concert. We regret this immensely, because the Young Fathers would have set an important tone in the program of the Ruhrtriennale.
Known for their unique blend of hip-hop, experimental pop and punk, the Young Fathers have not let their rising music careers affect their political beliefs. The acclaimed trio consisting of Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole, and Graham ‘G’ Hastings met in Scotland and remain based in Edinburgh. In 2014, they won the prestigious Mercury Prize, an annual award for the best album released in the United Kingdom, which catapulted the band to international fame.
The band called Carp’s decision to cancel their scheduled performance a “wrong and deeply unfair decision,” stating further that it was wrong of the festival to ask them to “distance ourselves from our human rights principles in order for the appearance to go ahead.”
Shortly after the festival’s June 13 statement, the story appeared in many leading music news outlets, including Billboard and Pitchfork. The band soon released a statement via Artists for Palestine UK, a network of artists and cultural workers who advocate for Palestinian rights, which read:
Anyone who knows the band and our history will know we oppose all forms of hatred and racial discrimination. Always have. And we, like BDS, ‘do not tolerate any act or discourse which adopts or promotes, among others, anti-Black racism, anti-Arab racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, sexism, xenophobia, or homophobia.’
We support one of the only peaceful protests a person can take, in the hope to achieve a just and comprehensive peace that allows Palestinian refugees the right to return to a safe homeland, and that allows Israelis and Palestinians of all faiths (and none) to live together in peace.
Following the exchange of statements between the band and the triennial, music legends Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, and Brian Eno expressed their support of the band. “First respect to the Young Fathers,” Waters tweeted, questioning the logic of why the Ruhrtriennale would want to “distance itself in all forms from the BDS movement.” He added that the Palestinian-led BDS movement is “an international nonviolent protest movement that seeks to promote equal human and civil rights for all people everywhere.”
Eno wrote: “To criticize the Israeli government after the recent killings of unarmed Palestinian protestors is not antisemitism. It is pro-civilisation — speaking out in favor of civilized behavior and against state brutality. It is standing up and saying: ‘The rule of law applies everywhere.’”
Moore took to Facebook, posting a message of support for Young Fathers that concluded: “BDS is working towards peace, hope and resolve. If anything, it is the most pro-Israel concern on the world stage. Join hands. Get with it.”
Other artists set to perform at Ruhrtriennale this year showed their solidarity with the banned group, but many — including Laurie Anderson, Olu Oguibe, and Jonas Staal — remained silent. Only the Beirut-based artists Sherif Sehnaoui, Mazen Kerbaj, Tony Elieh, and Raed Yassin of the acts Wormholes and A Trio announced they were cancelling their scheduled concerts in solidarity with Young Fathers.
Then, in a surprising reversal likely due to the overwhelming amount of negative press and high-profile expressions of solidarity, Carp announced on June 21 that she was re-inviting Young Fathers to perform at Ruhrtriennale.
“Following the impression of many discussions and reflections over the last few days, I would like to correct my approach: I wish to invite the Young Fathers again to the concert in Bochum on 18 August 2018 although I do not share their attitude to the BDS,” Carp’s statement reads in part. “I believe that we need to allow the different perspectives and narratives, because this openness is the dramaturgic credo of our program. I therefore have to defend the freedom of the arts, and do not, under any circumstances, even indirectly, wish to exercise censorship.” As of press time, Young Fathers has yet to publicly accept or reject the re-invitation.
Regardless of the outcome in this case, the tension surrounding the BDS movement in Germany is unlikely to dissipate any time soon. At issue is the prevalent and problematic reading of BDS as being tantamount to anti-Semitism (which is a felony offense in Germany). Last year, a number of German cities including Frankfurt, Berlin, and Munich ruled in separate cases that BDS uses language from the Nazi era, thereby leading to a ban on BDS within Germany’s largest cities.
Consequently, BDS is currently banned from using any locations or public spaces for their activities and any private associations or organizations who assist BDS, according to new legislation passed last year, will have their public subsidies revoked. Given that the Ruhrtriennale receives public funding from the government of North Rhine-Westphalian state, it is possible that Carp’s decision to cancel the performance was in anticipation that the Ruhrtriennale may lose public funding, crucial to its survival, if it in any way supports or gives platform to BDS.
According to Frankfurt’s mayor Uwe Becker, one of the architects of the plan to have cities effectively ban BDS, the movement is “profoundly anti-Semitic” because it uses language “that Nazis once used,” citing the infamous Nazi slogan: “Don’t buy from Jews. Shop in German businesses.” As such, Becker is leading the charge in strangling BDS in Germany and censoring the campaign in support of Palestinian rights. This has effectively led to a case of bureaucratic and administrative censorship, though not without precedent. During the GDR, the word “verboten” (“forbidden”) was rarely if ever used to censor artworks; instead, censorship took the form of administrative measures, which disturbingly appear to be the same tools now being applied to BDS.
The strategy employed by BDS has a notable precedent, however, in the anti-apartheid campaigns against white minority rule in apartheid South Africa. After the decision in 2004 by the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which ruled that Israel’s wall built on occupied Palestinian territory is illegal, Israel refused to acknowledge the judgment and continued to build settlements on occupied Palestinian territories. Today, after more than 60 years of colonial expansion from the Palestinian West Bank (including East Jerusalem), the Gaza Strip, and the Syrian Golan Heights, BDS builds on the South African model of non-violent initiatives that support peace, justice, and reconciliation.
Accordingly, in a country still coming to terms with the anti-Semitic past of the Nazi era, the German variant of BDS has become very contentious. Other festivals in Germany have encountered opposition for accepting financial support from Israel; Berlin’s Pop-Kultur festival, for instance, receives funding from the Israeli embassy in Germany, causing several artists to pull out of that festival — including, notably, Young Fathers in 2017.