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July 18, 2022 12:08 pm
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Antisemitism Scandals at Major Art Festival Demonstrate Danger Posed by BDS Campaign, Says Head of German Jewish Community

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 successive scandals over antisemitism plaguing one of the world’s leading showcases for contemporary art demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the BDS campaign targeting the State of Israel for economic and cultural isolation, the head of Germany’s Jewish community has said.

“Unfortunately, the Stürmer [Nazi newspaper] caricatures at the Documenta [art festival] and the associated antisemitism scandal  is only the tip of the iceberg,” Josef Schuster — president of the Central Council of German Jews — told the Bild news outlet on Sunday. “BDS is deliberately played down and presented as a legitimate protest movement.”

Added Schuster: “BDS is clearly an antisemitic ideology.”

Mounted in the city of Kassel every five years since 1955, the Documenta festival is held in high regard across the art world for its cutting edge displays of painting, sculpture and audio-visual works. However, this year’s edition, curated by an Indonesian artists’ collective, was completely overshadowed by sustained accusations of antisemitism, culminating in the removal of the “caricatures” mural referred to by Schuster — which included depictions of an Israeli soldier as a pig  and and an Orthodox Jew with a hooked nose and a fedora hat emblazoned with the letters “SS,” for the Nazi paramilitary organization. The widespread shock with which the mural was received led to Germany’s Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, canceling an official visit to the festival.

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On Sunday, the row over antisemitism claimed its first major scalp with the resignation of Documenta’s director, Sabine Schormann, by mutual agreement with the festival’s board. Since January, when the first concerns about the BDS campaign were aired, Schormann has been heavily criticized by politicians and Jewish community organizations for allegedly minimizing the extent of the problem.

Last week, she claimed that the festival’s Indonesian curators had “feared censorship” because of the antisemitism accusations, asserting that they felt “that they were under general suspicion and defamed and sometimes threatened, because of their origin, their skin color, their religion or their sexual orientation.”

Schuster said that Germany’s cultural scene had failed to understand the true nature of the BDS campaign, pointing out that several artists had opposed the 2019 decision of the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, to classify boycott calls as “antisemitic.”

“We expect those responsible for cultural policy to clearly support the Bundestag decision and fight against the trivialization of BDS,” said Schuster. “Otherwise there will always be incidents like Documenta.”

Schuster welcomed Schormann’s resignation, calling it “a step that was long overdue and came much too late.” Similar views were expressed by Felix Klein, the leading German federal official tasked with combating antisemitism, who remarked that the “necessary conclusions” about the management of Documenta needed to be drawn.

“Antisemitism must not be accepted in any form in cultural life, regardless of where the cultural workers come from,” Klein stated.

Criticism was also directed at Germany’s Minister of Culture, Claudia Roth, for not intervening decisively during the long preparations for the festival’s opening. For her part, Roth welcomed Schormann’s departure, saying during a media interview on Sunday that the festival’s management could now establish how a blatantly antisemitic work came to be exhibited in the first place.

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