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German Cultural Scene Navigates a Clampdown on Criticism of Israel

German Cultural Scene Navigates a Clampdown on Criticism of Israel


Museum shows were canceled. A book prize was suspended. And some artists were barred from applying for a major commission.

This all happened recently in Germany because of concerns that the artists involved support a boycott of Israel, a position that the German Parliament has designated as antisemitic and which can be punished by the withdrawal of public funding.

Yet in the heightened atmosphere since the Hamas terrorist attacks of Oct. 7, arts administrators are also increasingly concerned over artists whose public comments about Israel have nothing to do with a boycott, including accusing the country of war crimes, or describing it as an “apartheid” state. Officials have been combing through social media posts and open letters, some going back over a decade. And they have been calling off projects as a result.

Billions of dollars flow annually through museums, theaters and cultural exchange programs in Germany, which support the livelihood of thousands of artists there and abroad. But the steady drum beat of cancellations has struck at the country’s reputation as a haven for free expression and risks isolating international artists whose views on Israel don’t line up with Germany’s unqualified support.

Susan Neiman, the director of the Einstein Forum, an organization for international intellectual exchange based near Berlin, said in an email that the situation was “awful,” with artists and intellectuals now “declining invitations to work.” In a recent essay in The New York Review of Books, Neiman said that Germany’s overzealous approach to combating antisemitism had turned into “hysteria” that “threatens to throttle the country’s rich cultural life.”

In the art world alone, the Folkwang Museum in Essen last month halted a collaboration with Anaïs Duplan, a Haitian curator based in the United States, because, in Instagram posts, he described Israel’s retaliation in Gaza as genocide. A week later, the Biennale für aktuelle Fotografie, an event that was scheduled to be held in three German cities next year, was canceled after administrators found that one of the lead curators had shared an interview on social media in which somebody likened Israel’s actions in Gaza to the Holocaust.

Hito Steyerl, an internationally renowned artist who has represented Germany at the Venice Biennale, said the situation had become all-encompassing. “There is no discussion of art anymore,” she said. “It’s Israel-Palestine, and that’s it.”

In the literary world, too, cancellations have been rife. In October, the Frankfurt Book Fair canceled an event honoring the Palestinian author Adania Shibli, shortly after a German newspaper said her writing characterized Israel as “a killing machine.” And last month, the authorities in Bochum, a city in western Germany, announced that they were postponing awarding the Peter Weiss Prize, a major literature award, to Sharon Dodua Otoo, a British author, because she had once signed a petition supporting a boycott of Israel by arts workers.

There are historical reasons for Germany’s unease over calls for a boycott, which many Germans see as comparable to Nazi campaigns to avoid Jewish businesses in the 1930s. Because of the Holocaust, many German officials also feel a special responsibility toward Israel and are attuned toward any resurgence of antisemitism at home.

In a 2019 parliamentary resolution, lawmakers urged regional governments to deny public funding to any group or individual that “actively supports” the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, known as B.D.S., or that questions Israel’s right to exist. Even before the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7, the resolution was used to justify shutting down exhibitions, concerts, lectures and panel discussions, as well as removing acts from lineups.

The cancellations and rescinded invitations were all met with pushback, and cultural leaders raised concern that the resolution was having a chilling effect on artistic freedom. But other rejections have been less public, such as the artists who were screened out of a major public art commission in Cologne over their views on Israel.

In August, the Cologne Cathedral kicked off a search for an artist to create a work responding to some antisemitic medieval carvings in the building that it had chosen to leave in place but contextualize. According to a letter seen by The New York Times, the cathedral asked “eight personalities from the international contemporary art scene” to nominate peers for the task, but rejected seven of the nominees because they had signed open letters that supported boycotting Israel or criticized the country’s actions in Gaza. Those included an open letter published in Artforum in October, whose signatories included many of the international art world’s major stars.

Markus Frädrich, a cathedral spokesman, declined to name any of the rejected artists, but said that the church could not work with anyone who had signed open letters that “trivialize terror or spread antisemitic ideas.”

Claudia Roth, Germany’s culture minister, said in an email statement that she would not tell institutions how they should balance free speech with combating antisemitism, but added that canceling events or revoking awards should be “the last step, not the first.”

“I would hope that we can move away from fear and move toward dialogue and discourse,” Roth said. “Germany’s commitment is very clear,” she added. “We don’t want Jews to feel unsafe in this country.”

Yet the pursuit of that aim has, in some cases, deprived Jewish artists of a voice. On Nov. 24, the museum authorities in Saarland, in southern Germany, canceled an exhibition scheduled for next year by Candice Breitz, a South African Jewish artist who has been based in Berlin since 2002. Her work often focuses on political themes, and Breitz has been a vocal critic of Israel’s actions in Gaza on social media, where she has said that “flattening Gaza will not make Jews safer” and criticized the censoring of “leftist Jewish” views.

In an emailed statement, Andrea Jahn, the director of the Saarlandmuseum, where the show was planned, said that Breitz’s social media posts created “a public image that questions Israel’s right to self-defense, fueling a discussion we as a museum cannot provide a platform for.”

In a separate statement, the Saarland Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees the Saarlandmuseum, said that the decision was taken because of Breitz’s “proximity to the B.D.S. movement.”

Breitz said in an interview that she did not support that movement, although she believed that boycotts could be a useful tool of protest. She added that it was “absurd” that “Germans with Nazi ancestry” were telling a Jewish woman what she could and couldn’t say.

Some artists fear that the clampdown will grow tougher in coming months, especially following a recent court decision. In November, Shibli, the Palestinian author, applied for a preliminary injunction against Die Tageszeitung, a German newspaper that published an article calling her a “committed B.D.S. activist.” The court in Hamburg dismissed Shibli’s application because she had signed two open letters: one in 2007 that urged the Rolling Stones not to play concerts in Israel, and one in 2019 that criticized the organizers of another literary prize that was derailed by B.D.S. accusations. The second letter was also signed by dozens of major literary figures including the Nobel Prize winners J.M. Coetzee and Abdulrazak Gurnah.

Shibli declined to comment for this article, but her lawyer, Roger Mann, said that the Hamburg court’s decision was procedural and shouldn’t have legal implications for the other signatories. But he pointed out that some German newspapers had theorized that a host of globe-trotting authors could now be excluded from German cultural life. Mann said that Shibli was appealing the court’s decision.

For some Jewish artists, the debate over canceled shows and rescinded prizes is a mere sideshow to the question of rising antisemitism. Germany has seen a steep rise in reported antisemitic incidents since Oct. 7, including the attempted firebombing of a Berlin synagogue. Igor Levit, the German pianist, who is Jewish, said in an interview that he had felt “alone in grief” in Germany, because so few cultural institutions had issued statements condemning Hamas and the spiking attacks on Jewish people.

Some artists and writers had made “despicable” comments, he added, but he said he did not feel that canceling their exhibitions or performances was the answer. For decades, Levit said, Germany had tried to combat societal problems, including antisemitism, using rules and regulations, whereas more open discussion and debate was needed.

“You will never solve a problem,” he added, “by fearfully trying to push these people away.”



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