Hundreds of artists and cultural workers around the world signed a petition calling to boycott German cultural institutions in response to the nation’s “McCarthyist policies” targeting critics of Israel’s violence against Palestinians. 

Signed by over 650 people including artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Palestinian poet and activist Mohammed El-Kurd, and French writer Annie Ernaux, the anonymously authored “Strike Germany” petition questions the European nation’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism, according to which “the targeting of the state of Israel” can be construed as a form of hostility toward the collective Jewish people. Since the German parliament’s 2019 resolution equating the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement with antisemitism, the persecution of pro-Palestine speech and symbols has had profound effects on the local heavily state-subsidized art world. 

“As the genocidal campaign on Gaza continues — amounting to one of the deadliest assaults on a civilian population in our times — the German state has intensified the repression of its own Palestinian population and those who stand against Israel’s war crimes,” the petition reads. “Palestine solidarity protests are mislabeled as anti-Semitic and banned, activist spaces are raided by police, and violent arrests are frequent.”

Germany has stood by Israel nearly unconditionally since the October 7 Hamas offensive that killed at least 846 Israeli civilians, with Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the first Western leader to visit after the attack, declaring that the country had “every right to defend itself.” Since then, as Israel faces accusations of genocide at the United Nations’s top court and the death toll from its ongoing bombardment of Gaza tops 23,000, Germany’s position has shifted slightly but remained staunchly supportive.

Earlier this month, the Berlin Senate introduced a clause that would require recipients of public funds to sign a self-declaration against “any form of antisemitism” as defined by the IHRA. Over 5,600 Berlin-based cultural workers across artistic disciplines, including visual artists Jumana Manna and Jesse Darling, opposed the controversial proposal in a recent open letter; such laws, the missive says, “only serve to create an administrative basis for disinviting and canceling events with cultural workers who are critical of Israel.”

One of the graphics accompanying the Strike Germany petition features the word “Strike” overlaid on an icon of German art history: “Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer” (“The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog”) (1818) by Romanticist Caspar David Friedrich. (image via Strike Germany)

Paradoxically, Germany’s persecution of anti-Israel voices sometimes extends to members of the nation’s Jewish community. Last year, Hamburg’s first antisemitism commissioner publicly attacked South African artist and scholar Adam Broomberg, a vocal critic of Israel who is himself Jewish, because of the artist’s solidarity with the BDS movement. 

After he was hired as a visiting professor at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design this fall, the school’s rectorate told him he could no longer instruct students, according to Broomberg, who explained that he had reached a “verbal agreement” with the administration barring him from teaching, although he would remain on the school’s payroll through the end of his contract this spring.

“I think the real danger here is a closing down of academic thinking and critical thinking,” Broomerg said. “And it also puts a lot of the amazing colleagues I had there in very precarious positions, because if journalists and the Senate are going to be scouring people’s social media feeds or anything they’ve ever written, and if you see my situation as a test case, you can imagine that a lot of them feel very anxious.”

The professor was leading a seminar that centered Palestinian and Israeli experiences and histories and had planned a small student trip to Bethlehem and Hebron, although the excursion was canceled after the events of October 7. He claimed the school’s decision was due to pressure from the German government and right-wing press, which has mentioned Broomberg’s active anti-Zionist posts on social media.

A Karlsruhe University spokesperson told Hyperallergic it could not comment on the contractual details of its employees, adding that as a public university, it “must mediate between public interest and the protection of its members.” The spokesperson stated that when confronted with “controversial” social media posts from Broomberg, the school decided to “seek a conversation” with him, to involve the school’s Academic Senate, and to consult “external experts.”

“It really feels kind of McCarthyite,” Broomberg added, repeating the same phrase used in the Strike Germany petition.

Yamna El Atlassi, a Belgium-based Diversity and Inclusion consultant for the cultural sector who travels frequently to Germany, said she sees artists in the nation “facing a level of repression not seen in recent history.” 

“I’ve always seen discrimination in play in the cultural sector in all Western countries, but the difference is that Germany was presenting itself as a champion of progressive thinking,” El Atlassi told Hyperallergic. “The dissonance between this attitude and what is really going on is important.”

She specifically cited the controversy surrounding Documenta 15, during which several participating artists in the summer 2022 exhibition faced accusations of antisemitism for their pro-Palestine stance. On October 9, Documenta’s leadership released a statement decrying the curatorial collective ruangrupa, which organized the 15th edition, for its “liking” of social media posts expressing sympathy with the Palestinian cause.

Dystopic episodes of institutions stifling pro-Palestine expressions are far from absent from the United States’s cultural spaces, where just this week, the news of Indiana University canceling an exhibition of 87-year-old Palestinian artist Samia Halaby’s works — reportedly over her vocal advocacy for her country — drew outrage. Meanwhile, faculty members there penned a letter this week decrying the school’s decision to suspend their colleague Abdulkader Sinno, a Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies professor, for his alleged involvement in organizing an event with the Palestine Solidarity Committee. The missive asserts that the school’s decision comes as American universities are being pressured to “curtail free speech over the Israel-Palestine conflict.”

But in Germany, whose crimes and burden of guilt against the Jewish people are inscribed permanently in its history, the attitude taken toward Jewish figures who question the Israeli state’s actions strikes many as especially chilling. The irony was felt a month ago when the Russian-American, Jewish writer Masha Gessen received a scaled-down version of Germany’s Hannah Arendt Prize, nearly revoked altogether after they penned a New Yorker article in which they compared the humanitarian crisis in Gaza to Nazi German ghettos.

“German post-reunification ‘remembrance culture’ (Erinnerungskultur) — the state campaign to address Germany’s genocide of the Jews — acts as a repressive dogma, reinvigorating the oppression that real ‘rememberance’ should work against,” the Strike Germany petition articulates.

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