Protesters march on Al Nakba Day to demonstrate for the rights of Palestinians in Neukoelln district on May 15, 2021 in Berlin (photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

Hamburg’s first antisemitism commissioner Stefan Hensel, who was appointed in July 2021 for a three-year term, has repeatedly criticized artist Adam Broomberg over his involvement in what he calls the “antisemitic” Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. Broomberg, a Jewish photographer who was raised in South Africa and now lives in Berlin, has frequently denounced what he characterizes as Israeli’s apartheid system in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

In statements made to Jüdische Allgemeine, Zeit Online and in a post on Hensel’s Facebook account (among other platforms), Hensel described Broomberg as someone who “repeatedly defames [Israel] as an apartheid state and advocates a boycott against Israel,” “seems to hate Israel,” and “does not shy away from legitimizing terror against Jews.”

In an interview with Hyperallergic, Broomberg said that Hensel’s comments come from an “extremely right-wing and Zionist, and racist, perspective.”

“For a commissioner of antisemitism, for his first and most vehement and powerful attack to be on a Jew and to put a Jew’s life and profession at risk, is totally ironic,” he said.

Artist Adam Broomberg (photo courtesy the artist)

Hensel’s remarks come at a tumultuous time for the German art world, which saw accusations of antisemitism leveled at the contemporary art exhibition Documenta 15. The commissioner has similarly disparaged two members of the ruangrupa art collective that organized last year’s edition of Documenta —  Reza Afisina and Iswanto Harton —  following their appointment as guest professors at the University of Fine Arts, Hamburg (HFBK). Broomberg shared a professorship at the school with fellow artist Oliver Chanarin from 2016 through the fall of 2022. The position ended due to the pair’s artistic separation.

Last January, allegations of antisemitism against ruangrupa and some of the show’s artists surfaced on a blog known as the Kassel Alliance Against Antisemitism, which cited their support of BDS. The early accusations were expanded in ensuing German media coverage. In June, four days since the opening of Documenta, a work by exhibiting Indonesian collective Taring Padi titled “People’s Justice” (2002) was taken down over its inclusion of imagery some viewed as antisemitic, and in July, Documenta’s director resigned.

Of Afisina and Harton’s professorship at HFBK, Hensel said in his Facebook post, “The fact that antisemitism and Israel-related hatred can be career-boosting has been shown time and again.”

In response to a Hyperallergic inquiry, a representative for Hamburg’s Science, Research, Equality and Districts Authority said Hensel was not available for immediate comment and that an interview could be scheduled within the next two weeks.

Hamburg’s anti-semitism commissioner (via Wikimedia Commons)

Before Hensel assumed his post as Hamburg’s antisemitism commissioner, he served as chair of the German-Israeli Society in Hamburg since 2014. The organization seeks to promote cooperation between the two nations in “civil society, culture, and science” and has repeatedly equated antisemitism with criticism of the Israeli state. In an interview with Hyperallergic, Broomberg mentioned that Hensel had recently converted to Judaism, although Hensel’s office declined to confirm or clarify the claim.

“I just buried my mother who knew the Holocaust and I come back and I’m accused of being a hateful Antisemite advocating for terrorism against Jews,” Broomberg continued. “I couldn’t be more Jewish; it’s affected me profoundly.” The artist added that he’s received “nonstop” negative social media messages and that he feels unsafe due to the attacks that followed the Documenta scandal.

Broomberg says he is also afraid for the future of his career, since cultural and educational organizations in Germany are largely public and the office of the antisemitism commissioner is also an arm of the state. “So I would never get a job as a teacher or be able to work as an artist with a cultural institution because as it stands, I am an antisemite and a terrorist,” he said. Broomberg has penned a letter to Hensel in response to his accusations.

This week, HFBK will hold a symposium titled Controversy Over Documenta Fifteen: Background, Interpretation, and Analysis to discuss last year’s scandal and foster a debate that “explicitly addresses antisemitism in the art field.” Ruangrupa’s Afisina and Hartono will participate, as will a group of other academics including Israeli and Israeli-German scholars. In Jüdische Allgemeine, Hensel criticized the upcoming symposium for its alleged exclusion of representatives from the antisemitism office and two German Jewish organizations (the Central Council of Jews and the Jewish Community of Hamburg), and derided the event for including the voices of BDS supporters and “some Jewish protagonists who operate far removed from our Jewish reality and Jewish institutions.” 

The university has declined to comment on Hensel’s statements. A representative said the panel would include “various perspectives of Jewish communities from Germany and abroad” and that HFBK will “continue to seek dialogue with the local Jewish community.”

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.