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June 21, 2022 11:49 am
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Crudely Antisemitic Mural Removed From Top Art Show in Germany as Controversy Over Jew-Hatred Roils On

avatar by Ben Cohen

Display boards in the German city of Kassel advertising tickets for the 15th Documenta art festival in 2022. Photo: Reuters/DPA

The storm over antisemitism at one of the world’s leading contemporary art shows continued unabated on Tuesday as organizers removed a mural that included crudely antisemitic depictions of Jews.

The mural on display at the Documenta art festival in Kassel, Germany was initially covered over on Monday night after it was heavily criticized by politicians and the Central Council of German Jews. The creation of an Indonesian artistic collective called Tarang Padi, the mural, titled “People’s Justice,” was first unveiled in 2002 to highlight the abuses of the Suharto dictatorship that ruled Indonesia with an iron fist from 1967 until 1998.

However, alongside depictions of the military figures and bureaucrats who served Suharto are two antisemitic caricatures. One image shows a man with a hooked nose and fanged teeth wearing sidelocks and a black hat traditionally associated with Orthodox Jews embossed with letters “SS” —  a reference to the Nazi paramilitary organization. A second image in the same mural showed a soldier wearing a helmet shaped in the head of a pig and emblazoned with the word “Mossad,” Israel’s security and intelligence agency.

On Tuesday morning, Christian Geselle, the Mayor of Kassel, confirmed that the mural would be removed from the exhibit entirely. However, critics of the exhibition urged festival organizers to take further action.

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Claudia Roth, the German government’s commissioner for culture and media, demanded clarification as to “how this mural with antisemitic image elements was installed there in the first place.”

Roth also called on “those responsible for Documenta and the curators to immediately check and ensure that no other clearly antisemitic visual elements are shown at the festival.” She added pointedly that “human dignity, protection against antisemitism as well as against racism and any form of misanthropy are the basis of our coexistence, and this is where artistic freedom meets its limits.”

In a separate statement, the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) called on Sabine Schormann, Documenta’s executive director, to resign her post immediately. “The open antisemitism on display should be stopped and the relevant works removed,” the organization’s Berlin representative Reemko Leemhuis told the Tagesschau news outlet.

Meron Mendel, the director of the Anne Frank Center in Frankfurt, told German radio that the row over the mural and the broader concerns about antisemitism that have overshadowed the festival demonstrated the difficulty of finding a compromise “between antisemites and Jews.”

“It pains me that because of the antisemitism of individuals, the entire Documenta festival and especially the other artists who have nothing to do with it are placed in a bad light,” Mendel added.

The controversy over the mural quickly followed the show’s opening on Sunday by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who expressed discomfort at the persistent charges of antisemitism that dogged its preparation, remarking that a “boycott of Israel is tantamount to denying its right to exist.” That comment was sparked by the reported support of Ruangrupa — the Indonesian collective chosen to organize the festival’s current edition — for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement that seeks to isolate Israel from the international community.

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