Speaking to the German news outlet Bild am Sonntag, Felix Klein — the German federal commissioner for countering antisemitism — commented that the Documenta art festival, which opened this weekend in the city of Kassel, had failed to dispel the impression that some of the artworks now on display promote antisemitic tropes. Writes Hugh Fitzgerald
For understandable reasons, the German government claims to be, and sometimes is, acutely sensitive to displays, public or private, of antisemitism. Included in the internationally recognized definition of antisemitism is criticism leveled at Israel that is not leveled against any other country for similar behavior. And especially to be censured as antisemitic are the grotesque comparisons that are made between the IDF and the Nazis. Antisemitic exhibits were present at this year’s Documenta, held in Kassel, one of the two most important displays of contemporary art in the world (the other is the Venice Biennale). A report on this moral disaster is here: “Leading Contemporary Art Show Opens in Germany Amid Political Storm Over ‘Antisemitic’ Exhibits,” by Ben Cohen, Algemeiner, June 19, 2022:
“The top official tasked with combating antisemitism in Germany has criticized a leading art show that was opened by the country’s president on Saturday for failing to deal with the accusations of antisemitism that have overshadowed its production.
Speaking to the German news outlet Bild am Sonntag, Felix Klein — the German federal commissioner for countering antisemitism — commented that the Documenta art festival, which opened this weekend in the city of Kassel, had failed to dispel the impression that some of the artworks now on display promote antisemitic tropes.
It wasn’t just that the Documenta organizers and some of its participants had ”failed to dispel the impression” that some of the artworks on display were antisemitic. This was no mere “impression,” but an absolutely clear manifestation, of antisemitism
Mounted every five years and regarded as the world’s leading contemporary art show alongside the Venice Biennale, the current edition of the Documenta festival has been curated by Ruangrupa, a collective of Indonesian artists which supports the ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ (BDS) movement seeking to isolate Israel politically, culturally and economically. The Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament, passed a motion in May 2019 that decried the BDS campaign as antisemitic and urged the government to regard organizations advocating Israel’s elimination, or a boycott of Israel, as ineligible for state funding.
Indonesia is a Muslim country and Indonesians are, unsurprisingly, anti-Israel. This is not a secret. Once it had been understood by the German government that the 2022 show would be organized by a collective of Indonesian artists, did no one in the political echelon worry about what kinds of “artists” and “art” those anti-Israel Indonesians might select to appear in the Documenta festival?
One of the artistic groups participating in the festival, the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center, located in the West Bank city of Ramallah, has repeatedly expressed support for boycotts of artistic events in Israel. The center is named in honor of Khalil al-Sakakini, a Palestinian scholar who lived in Jerusalem prior to Israel’s creation in 1948 and was openly sympathetic to Nazi Germany.
It is the official policy of the German government to oppose BDS and to outlaw any attempts to promote it. But when it came to Documenta it was asleep at the wheel. When did it find out that one of the groups taking part in the festival – a very great honor, one proving most profitable, in the art world – was a Palestinian cultural center named after Khalil al-Sakakini, a prominent Arab scholar who had been a Nazi supporter during World War II. Sakakini believed that Nazi Germany could “liberate Palestine from the Jew.” He wrote that Adolf Hitler had opened the world’s eyes to Jewish world power, and that Germany had stood up to the Jews and put them in their place. This is the man after whom that Palestinian “cultural center” was named, the same center now showing its “art” from June to September to millions of visitors expected at Documenta. It would have taken approximately one minute to learn all about the unsavory Sakakini, but no one in the German government bothered. No alarm bells, no curiosity, no worry about Indonesian sympathizers with antisemitic Palestinians choosing the exhibitors.
One of the artworks being exhibited at the show was produced by a Palestinian group calling itself “The Question of Funding.” A series produced by one of its artists, Mohammed Al Hawajiri, titled “Guernica Gaza,” depicts Israeli military operations in Hamas-controlled Gaza as akin to the bombing of the Spanish city of Guernica by the German Luftwaffe during the Spanish Civil War — an atrocity that was famously rendered in the painting “Guernica” by Pablo Picasso.
The message [of this painting]: Israel’s army is what the Nazi air force was,” responded Leonard Kaminski of the German Antisemitism Research and Information Center (RIAS) in a post on Twitter. According to the widely-accepted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, “comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” are antisemitic.
The Nazis, testing their new planes in 1937, bombed the Basque town of Guernica, where there were only inoffensive civilians, killing or wounding one-third of its inhabitants. The Israeli military, on the other hand, does everything it can to avoid harming civilians. The IDF sends warnings to people in buildings that are soon to be targeted, by every means possible – telephoning, emailing, leafletting, and making use of the “knock-on-the-roof” technique. Given that Hamas always hides its weapons in or near civilian structures – houses, apartment buildings, schools, hospitals – it is hellishly difficult to avoid all civilian casualties, but Israel makes great efforts to minimize them, even if it means allowing some Hamas fighters to escape.
Another artwork made light of Palestinian terrorism against Israelis. A graphic assembled by the London-based artist Hamja Ashan shows the silhouette of a chicken on top of a machine gun, alongside the words Popular Front for the Liberation of Fried Chicken (PFLFC) — an allusion to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) which gained notoriety for airplane hijackings and gun attacks against civilians during the 1960s and 1970s.
Various Palestinian terrorist groups — the PLO, the DFLP (Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine), the Abu Nidal Organization, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the PFLP, and others less known, as well as Arab terrorists acting on their own. have killed 3,500 Israelis, and wounded 25,000, since the 1948 war. This unfunny graphic of the harmless “chicken” is meant to belittle and mock Israeli anguish over those deaths – see, the graphic says, the PFLP is about as threatening to Israel as a “chicken.” Those Zionists, always making a fuss over nothing. What fun.
In his interview with Bild, Klein [Felix Klein, the German federal commissioner for countering antisemitism] deemed that the allegations of antisemitism leveled at the Documenta festival could not be “credibly dispelled.”
Not “credibly dispelled” is bureaucratese for what should be expressed more forcefully: “the antisemitism in these displays at the Documenta festival is both obvious and nauseating.”
Added Klein: “I very much regret that, especially after the heated public discussion about this.”
In his Saturday address that opened the Documenta festival, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier expressed discomfort at the persistent charges of antisemitism that dogged the show’s preparation, saying that a “boycott of Israel is tantamount to denying its right to exist.”
Steinmeier denounced BDS as “a strategy of exclusion and stigmatization that cannot be separated from antisemitism.” He added that he regretted that the dispute could not be resolved through “a direct discussion between the representatives of the Global South [since when did Muslim states come to represent “the Global South”?], the Jewish community in Germany and Israel.”
By showing up to deliver a speech at the opening of Documenta, German President Steinmeier lent the even an undeserved respectability, when the exhibits I’ve mentioned above — and there were others similarly unpleasant — ought to be the subject of German shame and chagrin. He ought to have refused to appear, and instead explained that he could not in good conscience have anything to do with Documenta because of the clearly antisemitic exhibits it contained and that its organizers refused, after objections were made, to remove.
Steinmeier’s appearance at the show was strongly criticized by Volker Beck, a former Green Party parliamentarian who now heads the German Israeli Society (DIG).
“It’s a bit pointless to lament now that a direct discussion between the representatives of the Global South and Documenta and the Jewish community in Germany did not come about,” Beck said. “Documenta didn’t want to invite representatives of the [Central Council of German Jews], just plenty of BDS representatives instead.”
Those meticulous Germans were apparently not meticulous enough to vet the exhibitors before the show opened, when they might have pressured the organizers to remove the exhibits.that displayed anti-Israel messages amounting to antisemitism.
So what should the rest of us do? Let President Steinmeier’s office know of your deep unhappiness with certain exhibits that were part of this year’s Documenta festival. Make another statement by staying away from Kassel. Don’t visit Documenta, don’t review the exhibits at Documenta, don’t praise anything at Documenta, don’t buy a damn thing that is now shown at Documenta. And five years from now, when Documenta, its hour come round again at last, is being organized, make sure such an intolerable result is not repeated.
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