‘Free speech is a facade’: how Gaza war has deepened divisions in German arts world | Germany

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Two weeks after Hamas’s brutal attack on Israel on 7 October 2023, Berlin’s senate for culture commissioned a legal report to establish whether a cultural centre in the German capital’s Neukölln district had violated the city’s antisemitism prevention guidelines and should lose its funding as a result.

In question were several statements that the cultural centre had posted or shared on its social media channels in response to Israel’s retaliation against Gaza – including phrases such as “apartheid state” and “settler colonialism”. The investigation was also, however, looking at the centre’s plans to host an event one wouldn’t ordinarily suspect of meeting anyone’s definition of antisemitism: a wake hosted by a Jewish organisation to commemorate the victims of 7 October.

Housed in a yellow-bricked former brewery, the Oyoun cultural centre occupies the space where art and activism overlap: it is dedicated to championing works from a “de-colonial, queer-feminist, neurodiverse and class-critical perspective”. This has got it into difficult terrain: a strident stance on the war in Gaza has been criticised by some members of its own community, with one black former member of its advisory board dissociating themselves from the centre, saying it had failed to show empathy with the victims of the Hamas massacre.

Yet when it came, the report commissioned by the Berlin senate – the authority responsible for cultural policy in the German capital – was clear: “No antisemitic activity on behalf of Oyoun […] is identifiable,” it concluded. It was a finding that made the senate’s next move particularly surprising: despite the report’s conclusion, it announced it would be withdrawing the centre’s funding of roughly €1m a year.

Louna Sbou, co-founder of the Oyoun culture centre. Photograph: Steffen Roth/The Guardian

“As the child of immigrants in Germany, I grew up on the belief that this is a country that dots the i’s and crosses the t’s when it comes to the law, which protects democracy and freedom of speech,” said Oyoun’s co-founder Louna Sbou, who is of Amazigh origin. “And now it looks to me like that was always just a facade.”

Less than 10 years ago, Germany, and especially Berlin, was held up as a beacon of openness and inclusivity in a western world rocked by Brexit and Donald Trump. Angela Merkel’s decision to take in thousands of refugees displaced by the war in Syria boosted her country’s reputation in progressive circles, with many international artists and academics choosing to make the German capital their new home.

Yet the conflict in the Middle East is showing Germany in a new light, highlighting fissures in society and the arts world that until now had been easier to ignore.

The war in Gaza has put civil society in many western countries under intense strain, affecting the outcome of byelections in the UK and leading to the resignation of university presidents in the US. But nowhere in Europe has the fallout been as focused on the cultural sector as in Germany, where an international and ethnically diverse arts scene has rubbed up against a particularly strong pro-Israel consensus among the politicians and officials who oversee its finances.

In the last five months, awards ceremonies have been postponed or cancelled over allegedly imbalanced or offensive depictions of Israel-Palestine relations, art exhibitions called off over postings or likes on social media, and guest professorships ended over open letters signed years in the past. Most recently, some German media commentators called on the state to withdraw funding from the Berlin film festival, after several prize winners called for a ceasefire during the awards ceremony.

Israeli director Yuval Abraham (left) and Palestinian director Basel Adra on stage at the 74th Berlinale International film festival after receiving the documentary award for No Other Land. Photograph: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty

Many German politicians say there is a simple explanation why the war in Gaza is proving especially divisive in Europe’s largest economy: it’s that Germany’s murderous history in the first half of the 20th century means the country is especially sensitive to rising antisemitism and has a moral duty to take a clear stance.

“We are in Germany, the country that practically annihilated Judaism in Europe,” said Karin Prien, a politician for the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). “Eighty years on from the liberation of Auschwitz, we still bear a special responsibility to stand up against antisemitism.”

German police officers leave a house in Berlin in November last year during a raid against Hamas supporters. Photograph: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

That historic duty also obliged her country to confront antisemitic attitudes in supposedly progressive circles, said Prien. “There is a post-colonial, anti-racist school of thought that discredits Israel as the prototype of a white, America-adjacent nation pursuing supposedly racist policies, and which absurdly holds Jews all over the world accountable for this.”

In her role as the culture minister of the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, Prien last June introduced a clause saying arts funding should go only to cultural projects that “reject any form of antisemitism”, which Berlin’s CDU-led culture senate says it intends to replicate in the capital.

Critics say such measures will amount to the de-facto exclusion of pro-Palestinian perspectives from higher education and cultural institutions, further silencing a German-Palestinian diaspora community that is the largest of its kind in Europe but in effect nonexistent in the public discourse.

“It has been a structural and systemic endeavour by German state institutions for the past 20 years to mainstream an understanding of antisemitism that is in line with imperial German domestic as well as foreign policy interests,” said Anna Younes, a Berlin-born academic of Palestinian-German parentage who has taken part in events at Oyoun.

“We have a conversation about racism that is led by the global south and people of colour from Germany, which the German state is trying to brand as antisemitic,” Younes added. “And if we present our relationship to race, racism and European genocides from a non-European or non-white perspective, we get cancelled.” The 41-year-old said she was planning to leave Germany this summer after she was blacklisted from public engagements over misrepresentations of her work.

Police officers in Berlin stand guard during a protest in solidarity with Palestinians on 4 November 2023. Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

Not only Palestinian but also Jewish voices are at risk of being marginalised by German officials’ attempts to police debates on Israel-Palestine, critics say.

Asked about the row at the Berlinale, Prien said that some of the comments made during the festival’s awards ceremony were “definitely antisemitic”, singling out the use of the term “apartheid”: “Anyone who defames the entire state of Israel, which is a democratic state, as an apartheid state is making an antisemitic statement,” she said.

She did not qualify her criticism when her attention was drawn to the fact that the only person who had used the phrase “a situation of apartheid” on the night was a Jewish Israeli film-maker. “If that kind of vocabulary is used by an Israeli Jew, it doesn’t make it any better,” Prien said.

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Meron Mendel, the director of Frankfurt’s Anne Frank educational institution, in Berlin-Mitte. Photograph: Steffen Roth/The Guardian

As entrenched as the standoff between German officials and the country’s culture scene may appear, there are more recent dynamics at work that have increased the friction.

In the political sphere, what may appear as an age-old consensus among the parties with seats in the Bundestag is actually a relatively new phenomenon, argues Meron Mendel, the director of Frankfurt’s Anne Frank educational institution. Researching his book Über Israel reden (Talking about Israel), the Israel-born historian scoured through parliamentary speeches going back to the foundation of postwar democratic Germany. “I presumed that the German political consensus has always been to stand by Israel’s side,” he said. “But when I looked into archives from the 50s, 60s and 70s, I was amazed to find that absolutely wasn’t the case.”

Bonn rebuffed Israel when it first sought to take up diplomatic relations with West Germany in 1954, fearful of nudging Arab states into giving diplomatic recognition to socialist German Democratic Republic (East Germany), and opposed US military support for Israel via German soil during the Yom Kippur war. Power politics, not a sense of historic duty, was West Germany’s guiding principle.

Chancellor Angela Merkel receives a standing ovation after a speech in German to the Knesset in Jerusalem in 2008. Photograph: Getty Images

The importance of strong diplomatic ties with Jerusalem increased after the 2006 election of Angela Merkel, who had grown up in an East German state that condemned Zionism. German chancellors between 1949 and 2006 made a total of four state trips to Israel, but Merkel visited eight times in her 16-year tenure. On one of these trips, in 2008, she announced that Israel’s security was Germany’s raison d’etatmeaning a principle for foreign policy that should override other legal, moral and religious considerations.

Even though Merkel’s credo of Israel’s security as Germany’s Staatsräson went beyond the foreign policy priorities of her predecessors, the phrase was lifted wholesale into the coalition treaty of the three-party government that has governed the country since December 2021.

“The contemporary interpretation of Israel as Germany’s raison d’etat is problematic in several ways,” said Mendel. “In terms of foreign policy, it’s unclear what it means: is it a declaration of solidarity with a government that includes many rightwing extremist politicians, or is it a declaration of shared values, which would more likely be those in opposition?”

The makeup and motivations of Germany’s arts scene has changed, too. Since the turn of the millennium, cultural institutions in the country have attracted a growing amount of international talent – not only because of the erstwhile abundance of cheap studio space in post-Berlin Wall Berlin, but also by political design.

If public investment in the arts in the UK has decreased by roughly 21% over the course of the 2010s, cultural expenditure in Germany since 2010 has seen an increase of 22.3%.

“Germany realised that there was such a thing as globalisation, and it needed cultural figures to represent that process,” said Hito Steyerl, a Berlin-based artist whose experimental films and video installations have seen her championed as one of the world’s most influential contemporary creatives. Steyerl criticised German institutions for inviting artists and curators from the English-speaking sphere so as to appear worldly, rather than nurturing talent among its own minority communities.

Since the start of the war in the Middle East, it has been those in Berlin’s anglophone communities who have been able to voice their anger and disappointment most vocally on their social media channels, and Steyerl questioned the sincerity of its most vocal actors’ desire to change minds and shape the debate in the country, suggesting some were practising “art as social media performance”.

Hito Steyerl: ‘There are many unaddressed legacies of the National Socialist period.’ Photograph: Christian Jungeblodt/The Guardian

“A lot of the expats who moved to Berlin post-2015/16 did not understand where the debate here was at, because they didn’t speak the language or just didn’t care – they believed they were in an extension of an English-language academic bubble,” said Steyerl, who in 2022 withdrew her work from the Documenta contemporary art exhibition in Kassel, in protest against its organisers’ failure to confront the antisemitic content of some of the works on display.

“They also notoriously underestimated that Germany is still a rather racist and antisemitic state, that there are many unaddressed legacies of the National Socialist period, also with respect to cultural flagship events like Documenta or Berlinale. They were mistaking the country for some kind of vanilla liberal welfare state utopia.”

What surprised Steyerl about the current state of the debate was that the vast majority of people working in the culture sector more or less shared the same position on the conflict in the Middle East. “They condemn both the crimes of Hamas and the terrible violence against civilians in Gaza. Yet somehow it is the other 5% – who only condemn violence on one side – that dominate the debate.”

For now, however, there are few signs that cycles of performative outrage on both sides could lead to a genuine exchange of views. “In previous big national debates in Germany, such as the so-called Historikerstreit of 86-87 [a dispute between conservative and left-of-centre intellectuals over how central a role the Holocaust should play in Germany’s national story], there was a sense of a start and an end to an argument,” said historian Mendel. “This debate has been raging for five years and I see no progress, I just see people getting more embittered.”

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