Haus der Kulturen der Welt ("House of the World's Cultures") in Berlin, Germany (Ansgar Koreng/Flickr)

In an open letter today, December 14, hundreds of artists, academics, writers, and cultural workers who live in Germany or work with German cultural institutions called on the country’s parliament (Bundestag) to reverse a resolution from last year which labeled the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) as “anti-Semitic.” That open letter follows a statement by 32 directors of leading German cultural institutions on Thursday calling the resolution “dangerous” and “detrimental to the democratic public sphere.”

The advisory resolution, which passed in the Bundestag in May of 2019, calls on Germany’s states and municipalities to deny public funding to any institution that supports or identifies with the BDS movement, or questions the right of the state of Israel to exist. Critics say that while Germany should continue to fight anti-Semitism and atone for the Holocaust, the resolution stifles free speech and marginalizes other oppressed groups.

A cascade of events last year showed the far-reaching implications of the resolution on German cultural institutions. In October of 2019, Lebanese-American artist Walid Raad was denied a cash prize from the German city of Aachen after refusing to condemn the BDS (Raad was eventually awarded the prize). A month before that, the German city of Dortmund withdrew its decision to award the British-Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie a literature prize, citing her support for BDS. And last June, the director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum, Peter Schäfer, resigned from his post after some members of Germany’s Jewish community and Israeli officials attacked him for tweeting out an open letter opposing the labeling of BDS as anti-Semitism.

More recently, German lawmakers and press outlets accused the Cameroonian philosopher and political theorist Achille Mbembe of anti-Semitism after he compared Israel’s settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territories with apartheid in South Africa. Members of the German Liberal Democratic Party (FDP) in North Rhine-Westphalia signed a letter calling to ban Mbembe from speaking at the Ruhrtriennale, a leading cultural forum that was eventually canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. In response, Mbembe said, “There is a dangerous instrumentalization of anti-Semitism in order to silence any criticism of Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories.”

Philosopher and political theorist Achille Mbembe (via Wikimedia Commons)

These acts of censorship have led 32 directors of major German institutions — including the Goethe-Institut, Haus der Kulturen der Welt (“House of the World’s Cultures”), and Humboldt Forum — to form the “Initiative GG 5.3 Weltoffenheit” (the name is a reference to Article 5, Paragraph 3 of Germany’s Basic Law, which guarantees freedom of the arts and sciences, while the word Weltoffenheit stands for “world-openness” in German).

“We consider the logic of counter-boycott, triggered by the parliamentary anti-BDS resolution, to be dangerous,” their statement reads. “By invoking this resolution, accusations of antisemitism are being misused to push aside important voices and to distort critical positions.”

“It is unproductive, even detrimental to the democratic public sphere to exclude vital voices from critical dialogue, as occurred in the debate surrounding Achille Mbembe earlier this year,” the group added. “Germany’s historical responsibility should not lead to a general delegitimization of other historical experiences of violence and oppression, neither morally nor politically.” However, the directors noted that they oppose a boycott on Israel as they “consider cultural and scientific
exchange to be essential.”

In a statement to the New York Times, Germany’s minister for culture, Monika Grütters, responded to the letter saying that “rules applying to contentious and controversial debates” in Germany include “unequivocal recognition of Israel’s right to exist.”

The minister added that Germany “rejects anti-Semitism and the denial or trivialization of the Holocaust in the strongest possible terms.”

Today, Initiative GG 5.3 Weltoffenheit received support from more than 900 artists, writers, and cultural workers who signed a separate open letter condemning the anti-BDS resolution’s curtailment of the right to boycott as a “violation of democratic principles.”

“Since being passed, the resolution has been instrumentalized to distort, malign and silence marginalized positions, in particular those which defend Palestinian rights or are critical of the Israeli occupation,” the letter reads.

“No state should be exempt from criticism,” the statement continues. “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.”

Hans Haacke, Michael Rakowitz, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Sam Durant, Jumana Manna, Candice Breitz, and the group Forensic Architecture are among the artists who signed the letter. The list of signatories also includes Israeli artists, scholars, and curators including Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Yael Bartana, Hila Peleg, and the historian Ilan Pappé, among others.

The group argues that the resolution has created “a repressive climate in which cultural workers are routinely asked to formally renounce BDS, as a prerequisite for working in Germany.”

The letter continues to say that cultural institutions in Germany “are increasingly driven by fear and paranoia, prone to acts of self-censorship and to pre-emptively de-platforming and excluding critical positions.” Therefore, an open debate around Germany’s past and Israeli-Palestinian conflict “has been all but suffocated.”

While acknowledging and “deeply valu[ing]” Germany’s ongoing commitment to atoning for the Holocaust, the group condemns “the negligence of the German state when it comes to recognizing and atoning for Germany’s past as a perpetrator of colonial violence.” 

“The fight against antisemitism cannot be conveniently decoupled from parallel struggles against Islamophobia, racism and fascism,” the open letter says. “We emphatically reject the monopolization of narratives of oppression by states such as Germany, which have historically been perpetrators of oppression. We reject the notion that the suffering and trauma of victims of political and historical violence can be measured and ranked.”

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant and he holds an MFA in Art Writing from the School of Visual...