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German Parliament to Debate Official Probe Into Antisemitism at Flagship Contemporary Art Festival

avatar by Ben Cohen

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

The row over antisemitic imagery at Germany’s highly-regarded Documenta festival of contemporary art reached the German parliament this week, as legislators urged tough consequences for the individuals involved with the festival’s management.

Complaints that the Indonesian curators of the current festival, which takes place in the city of Kassel every five years, had been trafficking in antisemitism stretch back to January of this year, beginning with the participation of artistic groups who support the campaign to isolate the State of Israel through a comprehensive boycott. Then, shortly before the festival opened, the leading German federal official tasked with combating antisemitism, Felix Klein, warned that the absence of Israeli artists from the festival suggested a boycott had been applied.

After the show’s opening in mid-June, another scandal unfolded that centered on a mural which included ugly antisemitic stereotypes — among them the depiction of an Israeli soldier as a pig, wearing a helmet emblazoned with the letters “SS,” for the Nazi paramilitary organization. Although the mural was removed from display, Germany’s Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, canceled a visit to the festival in protest at the “disgusting” images it contained.

This week, Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, plans to confront the issue at two separate meetings.

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A session of the parliament’s culture committee on Wednesday will discuss the problem of antisemitism in the presence of Culture Minister Claudia Roth, Documenta director-general Sabine Schormann, and a representative of the Indonesian Ruangrupa collective that curated the festival, Ade Darmawan.

On Thursday, a parliamentary debate will be held on a proposal from the center-right CDU and CSU parties to set up a commission of inquiry into this year’s festival.

Such an inquiry would “identify bad planning, bad processes and wrong decisions, and identify personal responsibilities,” Christiane Schenderlein, a spokesperson for the CDU/CSU bloc, told the Spiegel news outlet.

Schenderlein added pointedly that the “intransigence of those responsible on site makes it difficult to deal with honestly and openly.”

Meanwhile, a prominent member of the Documenta jury resigned last Friday, in protest at the festival’s handling of the antisemitism complaints.

“It was up to me to send a signal by resigning: It can’t just always be Jewish associations that remind us what antisemitism is, and how to deal with it,” Prof. Ulrich Haltern, a lawyer based in Hanover, declared on Twitter.

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