Artists, scholars pledge to resist German censorship on Palestine

A standing man reads a book

German officials attempted to pressure the Ruhrtriennale Festival to disinvite world-renowned philosopher Achille Mbembe because his work includes analysis and critique of Israeli government policies.

Matthias Balk DPA

Hundreds of prominent scholars and artists from around the world are pledging not to cooperate with bodies in Germany that censor advocates of Palestinian rights.

They say they will no longer agree to serve on prize committees or in hiring consultations if there are “convincing indicators that their decisions may be subject to ideological or political interference or litmus tests.”

Almost 400 individuals from 30 countries have signed the pledge.

They include philosophers Étienne Balibar and Judith Butler, screenwriter and producer James Schamus, Nobel laureate in Chemistry George P. Smith, linguist and critic Noam Chomsky, author Ahdaf Soueif, former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General Hans von Sponeck, Holocaust history professor Amos Goldberg and American Jewish comic artist Eli Valley.

Michael Sorkin, the renowned architect signed the pledge before he died from COVID-19 in March.

Violations of freedom of expression

The scholars and artists cite four recent violations of freedom of conscience in Germany linked to support for Palestinian rights.

Last September, the city of Dortmund and the jury of the Nelly Sachs Prize rescinded a literary honor for British-Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie over her support for BDS – the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement to pressure Israel to end its abuses of Palestinians.

Weeks later, the mayor of Aachen rescinded a prize from Walid Raad, accusing the Lebanese-American artist of supporting BDS, which the mayor falsely labeled an “anti-Semitic movement.”

As the pledge notes, the museum that administers the Aachen Art Prize went ahead with the award, but only after subjecting Raad to an “intensive” ideological investigation that turned up no “conclusive” proof of the artist’s prohibited opinions.

Around the same time, the Gasteig cultural center warned Israeli-German musician Nirit Sommerfeld that her planned concert in Munich would be canceled if she expressed any support for the BDS movement.

“Should we find out that the content mentioned above is mentioned during the event, we would have to cancel the event,” a letter from the venue to Sommerfeld, a descendant of Holocaust survivors, stated.

And this March, Stephanie Carp, the curator of the 2020 Ruhrtriennale Festival in Bochum, came under political pressure to rescind an invitation to Cameroonian philosopher of world renown Achille Mbembe to deliver the festival’s opening address.

This year’s festival has however been canceled due to the pandemic.

The officials who applied the pressure were Lorenz Deutsch, a lawmaker in the North Rhine-Westphalia state parliament, and Felix Klein, the German federal government’s point person on anti-Semitism.

The pair “falsely claimed that Mbembe’s academic work was anti-Semitic because it includes an analysis and critique of Israeli government policies,” the scholars statement says.

Dozens of Jewish scholars have already called on the German government to remove Klein from his post because of his role in the smear campaign against Mbembe.

In recent years, Palestinians have called for a boycott of the Ruhrtriennale Festival because of its history of banning artists who express support for Palestinian rights.

“These four incidents, involving four German cities and four different forms of expression, had one thing in common: in each case, the artist or intellectual in question was considered a supporter of the nonviolent boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights,” the scholars say.

They add that these instances violate “academic freedom and the rights of freedom of expression.”

The goal of the attacks by German officials are to “narrow the frame of discussion solely to anti-Semitism and its pernicious impacts” and to “draw attention away from, and to silence, any critical focus on the treatment of Palestinians,” they state.

Racist campaign

Germany’s crackdown on support for Palestinian human rights prompted five UN special rapporteurs in January to express concern that the country was imposing “undue restrictions to the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and of association.”

It is notable that many of the artists and intellectuals banned, censored and smeared in Germany because of their support for Palestinian rights are people of color, particularly from Africa or of African descent.

In addition to Shamsie and Mbembe, they include veteran South African anti-apartheid activist Farid Esack, rapper Talib Kweli, Palestinian-Canadian journalist Khaled Barakat and British band Young Fathers.

Both Mbembe and Shamsie have signed the pledge.

And last June, the director of the Jewish Museum Berlin was forced to resign following pressure from Israel and its lobby.

This came after the museum tweeted an article about the 240 Jewish and Israeli scholars who signed a petition opposing the German parliament’s motion defaming the BDS movement.

The use of false anti-Semitism smears is so common that even Auschwitz survivor Esther Bejarano says she has been called an anti-Semite for speaking out against Israel’s inhumane treatment of Palestinians.

Bejarano, who had to play music for her life in the German government death camp’s orchestra, spoke to The Electronic Intifada in 2018.

Israel lobby tool

The latest pushback comes as the European Union, its member states and institutions across the continent escalate their assault on criticism of Israel’s policies, under the guise of combating anti-Semitism and hate speech.

As a censorship tool, many official bodies have adopted the so-called IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.

This misleading and politically motivated document promoted by Israel and its lobby deliberately conflates criticism of Israel and its racist state ideology Zionism, on the one hand, with anti-Jewish bigotry on the other.

The scholars statement can be seen as evidence that the censorship effort is backfiring, as more people refuse to allow the necessary fight against anti-Jewish bigotry – resurgent particularly on the European and American far right – to be hijacked to defend Israel’s oppressive apartheid regime.

Notably, some 40 of the signers are from Germany, and they include leaders of cultural institutions.

“I hope that the fact that so many of us – and from such a variety of political persuasions – feel the need to issue this statement will alert our colleagues in Germany to the gravity of the ongoing political and ideological intervention in their arena, and move them to stand with us against it,” said novelist Ahdaf Soueif.