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June 19, 2022 11:14 am
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Leading Contemporary Art Show Opens in Germany Amid Political Storm Over ‘Antisemitic’ Exhibits

avatar by Ben Cohen

A protestor outside the Documenta art festival in Germany holds a sign reading “Where Israel is boycotted, Jews are boycotted.” Photo: Reuters/Boris Roessler/dpa

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

In his interview with Bild, Klein deemed that the allegations of antisemitism leveled at the Documenta festival could not be “credibly dispelled.”

Added Klein: “I very much regret that, especially after the heated public discussion about this.”

In his Saturday address opening 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, the Jewish community in Germany and Israel.”

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.”

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