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September 13, 2022 3:56 pm
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German Art Festival Dogged by Antisemitism Allegations Refuses to Remove Pro-Palestinian Installation ‘Glorifying Terrorism’

avatar by Ben Cohen

A mural containing antisemitic images is covered up and removed at the Documenta art festival in Germany. Photo: Reuters/Peter Hartenfelser

The series of scandals concerning the display of antisemitic works of art at the flagship Documenta festival in Germany continued to fester this week, as its curators pointedly refused to remove a video installation ostensibly declaring support for the Palestinian cause that caused outrage among some visitors.

In an angry statement published on Saturday, ruangrupa — the Indonesian artists collective selected to curate the 15th edition of the festival in the city of Kassel — rejected the criticism of an independent experts panel that the work in question, titled the “Tokyo Reels” and highlighting “the largely overlooked and undocumented anti-imperialist solidarity between Japan and Palestine,” was antisemitic.

“We are committed to art’s role in resisting these broader societal injustices,” the statement declared. “In the context of Documenta fifteen and the specificities of the German context, we see that the targeting of Palestinian artists is the point at which our anti-colonial struggles meet, and have become a focal point for attack.”

The statement condemned the creation of the experts panel in August, following frequent revelations of works on display that contained antisemitic images, among them a mural that contained the depiction of an Israeli soldier as a pig wearing a helmet emblazoned with the word “Mossad,” for the Israeli intelligence agency, and a caricature of an Orthodox Jew with a hooked nose and traditional hat embossed with the letters “SS”, for the Nazi paramilitary organization.

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Ruangrupa’s statement also condemned the widely-accepted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, which includes examples of anti-Zionist discourse, arguing that it conflates “criticism of the State of Israel and criticism of Zionism with antisemitism.”

The runagrupa statement went on to assert that the “question is not the right of Israel to exist; the question is how it exists. Resistance to the State of Israel is resistance to settler colonialism, which uses apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and occupation, as forms of oppression.” It pointed out that many Indonesian artists identified with the Palestinians “because of the historical solidarities between these transnational anti-colonial struggles.”

In a statement released on Saturday, the experts panel of seven scholars — formed to investigate the presence of antisemitic works at the state-funded festival — emphasized that “the most urgent task is to end the screening of the compilation of pro-Palestinian propaganda shown under the title ‘Tokyo Reels.'” It said that the films collected by the installation were “filled with with anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist set pieces, and also the commentaries by the artists inserted between the films, in which they glorify terrorism through their uncritical discussion.”

An earlier analysis of the installation noted that the films were “bursting with hatred for Israel.”

In a separate statement, the representative body of Germany’s Jewish community declared itself “stunned” by ruangrupa’s reaction to the experts’ critique.

“They [ruangrupa] continue to refuse an open and honest reckoning with antisemitism and hatred of Israel,” the statement from the Central Council of German Jews declared. “In doing so, they once again prove that anti-Semitism was structurally in place at this Documenta from the very beginning.”

The council’s president, Josef Schuster, bemoaned the fact that “what Jews often experience is once again made clear here: the accusation of antisemitism is presented as more serious than the antisemitism itself.”

“This edition of the Documenta has damaged Germany’s reputation,” added Schuster.

The Documenta festival is widely regarded as one of the most important showcases for contemporary art alongside the Venice Biennale. Known as the “museum of 100 days” — the length of each festival — the first show was mounted in 1955 by its founder, Arnold Bode.

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