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June 24, 2022 10:13 am

German Art Show Controversy: Media’s Scare Quotes Seem to Question Validity of Antisemitism Charge

avatar by Gidon Ben-Zvi


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

In a piece titled, “Indonesian artists’ ‘antisemitic’ work removed from German show after upsetting Israel,” The Independent reports: “The work of an Indonesian art collective has been taken down from a major art show in Germany after it was condemned for bearing ‘antisemitic’ elements.”

Notice the use of quotes, both in the headline and opening paragraph of the piece. While such “scare quotes” can be used to emphasize a point, a more common application of this semantic device is to imply skepticism or disagreement with the word that’s in the quotation marks.

To The Independent’s credit, the publication does accurately present the broad outlines of the German art show story: both the German government and the Israeli embassy in Berlin expressed outrage over the displaying of antisemitic imagery at Documenta, one of the largest art exhibitions in the world.

The Independent adds that the controversial images came from an Indonesian art group, and depict a pig wearing a helmet with the word “Mossad” written on it, along with a caricature of a religious Jew with fangs and an SS hat.

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However, the online British newspaper fails to report on a significant part of the Documenta story.

The internationally acclaimed art fair had already been the subject of controversy for months over the inclusion of a Palestinian artists group with alleged ties to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. In Germany, BDS is deemed to be antisemitic and is not allowed to receive any public funding.

Nowhere in The Independent piece is BDS mentioned.

With regards to the current controversy, The Independent includes the Indonesian collective’s apology for its antisemitic display:

We are sorry that details of this banner are misunderstood other than their original purpose. We apologize for the injuries caused in this context. As a mark of respect and with great regret we cover the relevant work which is found offensive in this particular context in Germany.

But what the prominent news organization leaves out is that Ruangrupa — the Indonesian collective chosen to organize the festival’s current edition — is reportedly a supporter of the BDS movement’s goal of isolating Israel from the international community.

Indeed, the campaign’s promotion of the Palestinian people’s’ “Right of Return” is one example of blatant Judeophobia, as its actualization would result in the elimination of the one and only Jewish state.

Had The Independent included this important background information in its piece, would the seeming dismissal of the antisemitism charge implied in the report’s headline still have been included?

With regards to the Documenta story, The Independent isn’t alone in downplaying the threat of hate crimes targeting Jews (see here, here, here, and here). Mitigating clear-cut instances of Judeophobia with such terms as “accusations” and “allegations” ignores the fact that violence against Jews has soared in the nearly three years since a landmark UN report on global antisemitism warned governments of its dangers.

So serious is the issue that the US House of Representatives passed a resolution in May condemning the rise of antisemitism. An overwhelming majority, 420 members, supported the resolution.

To cope with contemporary forms of antisemitism, a new definition has emerged. Drawn up by the Berlin-based International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), it has been adopted or endorsed by 865 entities worldwide, including 37 countries, and the US Departments of Education and State.

The IHRA makes it clear that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

However, and of special relevance to the German art show story, the IHRA’s definition includes comparing Israel to the Nazis, calling the Jewish state racist, or applying to it double standards, as clearly delineated points at which legitimate criticism of Israel crosses the line into antisemitism.

On June 22, Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, voted in favor of the definition of antisemitism proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. According to Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy:

The Knesset, as the house of representatives of the Jewish people, is committed to fighting antisemitism in its ugliest forms … which includes the denial of the Holocaust, the denial of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, as well as expressions of antisemitism under the guise of criticism of Israel.

Guided by the IHRA, journalists would make better-informed decisions in choosing how to cover stories. This is all the more important given that antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories continue to be spread at a rapid pace.

The author is a contributor to HonestReporting, a Jerusalem-based media watchdog with a focus on antisemitism and anti-Israel bias — where a version of this article first appeared.

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