An open letter published today on e-flux addresses the ongoing controversy plaguing Documenta, the prestigious quinquennial exhibition of contemporary art in Kassel. Authored by ruangrupa, the Indonesian artist collective that was selected to curate this year’s edition, along with the organizers of a recently canceled discussion forum, the missive denounces allegations of anti-Semitism that have been leveled at the curators and artists participating in the show, labeling them “bad-faith attempts to delegitimize artists” and a form of censorship.
Titled “Antisemitism accusations against documenta: A scandal about a rumor,” the letter also provides a fuller explanation for why the organizers of a discussion forum set up to probe questions of anti-Semitism, colonialism, and racism pulled the event a month ago.
“It became clear that the accusations made against documenta fifteen and the forum itself currently render a free and productive discussion impossible,” the letter reads.
The letter points out that virtually all of the accusations originate from the Kassel Alliance Against Anti-Semitism — a blog whose subtitle is “there is no anti-Zionism without anti-Semitism” and which “despite its name, essentially consists of the individual Jonas Dörge,” a member of the pro-Israel leftist Antideutsche movement. It continues that despite the amplification of the accusations by major German outlets like Die Zeit, the charges rest entirely on assorted instances in which curators and participating artists signed letters condemning Israel’s treatment of Palestinian people — committing a familiar error of conflating criticism of Israel with prejudice against the Jewish people.
In January, a blog post by the Kassel Alliance Against Anti-Semitism accused several people involved in Documenta 15 — including members of its advisory board, members of ruangrupa, and participating artists — of anti-Semitism. The author of the post did not cite actions against Jewish people by these individuals, but rather their support of letters and advocacy efforts in solidarity with Palestinians. These included a statement condemning the German Parliament’s passage of a resolution that labels the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel as anti-Semitic; an open letter criticizing the Fundação Bienal in Sao Paulo for accepting financial contributions from the Israeli state; and a call to support the Palestinian struggle against Israel’s apartheid system. “There is a brown shadow on Documenta,” read the Kassel Alliance Against Anti-Semitism’s blog post.
The blog post also implied that Lara Khaldi and Yazan Khalili, two artists participating in this year’s edition, were Nazi sympathizers because they had previously served in leadership positions at the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center (KSCC), a prominent nonprofit arts and cultural organization based in Ramallah in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. (Sakakini, for whom the center is named, was a poet and philosopher who has been accused of holding anti-Semitic views.)
In an interview with Hyperallergic, Emily Dische-Becker, an advisor to Documenta 15, expressed indignation at the baselessness of the charges.
Speaking specifically of the allegations against Khalili, she said: “For having worked at a cultural center that was founded in 1996 and named after a man who died in 1953 — who was a progressive Palestinian educator and an important figure beyond the fact that he did express in a diary sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s, which is not that unusual for national liberation movements at the time though it’s something that should be discussed — but for that to be used as a five degrees of separation thing, where [Khalili] is now responsible for the name of the cultural center where he once worked, and that makes him an anti-Semite: That shows exactly how crazy things are.”
Despite the dubious source of the allegations, Dische-Becker said they were soon “regurgitated” by national newspapers. To her knowledge, many reporters did not bother reaching out to members of ruangrupa or any of the artists who were being defamed.
Khalili told Hyperallergic that “what was scary and shocking to everyone was that German media just treated [the allegations] as fact” without any further investigation.
“The German media began attacking us just based on this blog post,” Khalili said.
Cornered into responding, Documenta posted a short statement on its website on January 12. “Documenta fifteen in no way supports antisemitism,” the text read. “It takes the stand for freedom of art and science, and supports efforts to resolutely oppose antisemitism, racism, right-wing extremism, violent religious fundamentalism and any kind of discrimination.” Documenta also assured that it would “deal intensively with the criticism.”
A few weeks later, Documenta announced that it would be hosting a virtual series of three panels to address related topics. The first forum would concern how conversations in Germany on Palestinian rights and anti-Semitism compared with other international dialogues on the same issues. The second would be on postcolonial perspectives on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and the third talk would address anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim racism. Panelists slated to take part in the events included Forensic Architecture founder Eyal Weizman and conceptual and video artist Hito Steyerl.
But on April 5, Documenta said it was suspending the talks. “Documenta will open the exhibition and first let it speak for itself, as a basis for continuing the discussion in a productive manner,” a statement on its website read. “At this moment, documenta’s intended goal for the series of talks — to open a multi-perspective dialogue beyond institutional frameworks in the run-up to documenta fifteen — is unfortunately not realizable.”
According to the German media outlet Deutsche Welle, there was more happening behind the scenes. The cancellation of the panels reportedly followed a letter sent by Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, to Claudia Roth, Germany’s state minister for culture and media. Schuster criticized the “clear bias against anti-Semitism” at Documenta and stressed the need for “clear avowals and resolute political action at every level of politics, art, culture and society” to combat anti-Semitism.
Ruangrupa and the other authors of today’s letter contest Schuster’s claim that the Central Council of Jews was cut out of the loop, insisting that the group had been consulted about the series in March 2022 and implying that their criticism reflected a refusal to engage with different viewpoints. According to the letter, Schuster’s dismay at the composition of the panelists led to the withdrawal of participants days before the forum’s first scheduled date, contributing to the organizers’ decision to cancel the event.
“One of the most dangerous things about Germany is how it’s becoming McCarthyist,” Khalili told Hyperallergic. “If anyone accuses anyone of anti-Semitism, you’re trolled and bullied by media.”
This, he added, “makes Palestinians anti-Semites by default.”
The attacks against Documenta “don’t engage with the nuances that artists are bringing about,” Khalili said. “It doesn’t engage with our work. If we’re there as representatives of a certain idea of Palestine that they have in their mind, they’re not interested in our work — which has nothing to do with the political situation, or BDS, or any of that.”
“The accusation of ‘BDS proximity,’ from which in turn the accusation of ‘Israel-related antisemitism’ is derived, primarily affects people from the Global South and especially from the Middle East and has led to censorship, exclusions and disinvitations,” reads the letter published on e-flux.
Documenta was founded in the wake of World War II as an attempt to reintroduce modern art to a cultural landscape ravaged of experimentation under the Nazi regime, and has gained a reputation for being vast and genre-bending, often exhibiting artists who are less widely known. Nicknamed the “museum of 100 days,” it is scheduled to run from June 18 through September 15 this year.
Editor’s note 5/15/22 1:15pmEDT: A previous version of this article associated the German term “brauner Schatten” (“brown shadow”) with a racist slur. The term is commonly used in Germany to refer to Nazism. The article has been corrected.