New Revelations of Support for Anti-Israel BDS Campaign Pile Pressure on Beleaguered German Art Festival

A banner at the Documenta art festival in Kassel, Germany, by the Indonesian artist collective Taring Padi is covered up on June 20, 2022. Photo: IMAGO/Hartenfelser via Reuters Connect

Germany’s flagship Documenta festival of contemporary art is facing the removal of its federal government funding as fresh allegations of antisemitism among its curators and exhibiting artists emerged on Wednesday.

The row over antisemitism at the festival — staged in the city of Kassel every five years and showcasing some of the world’s leading figures in modern art — has raged since January, when the first concerns were raised regarding the participation of artistic groups who support the campaign to isolate the State of Israel through a comprehensive boycott. Shortly after the festival opened last month, another scandal unfolded that centered on a mural which included ugly antisemitic stereotypes — among them the depiction of an Israeli soldier as a pig wearing a helmet emblazoned with the letters “SS,” for the Nazi paramilitary organization, and a caricature of an Orthodox Jew with a hooked nose. Although the mural was removed from display, Germany’s Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, canceled a visit to the festival in protest at the “disgusting” images it contained.

Throughout the dispute, politicians from several parties as well as the German government’s top official tasked with combating antisemitism, Felix Klein, have called for federal funding of the festival to be reviewed, and for its German organizers and Indonesian curators to be held accountable.

Those calls are likely to intensify following the revelations in the news outlet Welt showing that dozens of the exhibiting artists at Documenta have expressed support for the “boycott, divestment and sanctions” (BDS) campaign targeting Israel. The Bundestag, Germany’s federal, passed a motion in May 2019 parliament that decried the BDS campaign as antisemitic and urged the government to regard organizations advocating Israel’s elimination, or a boycott of Israel, as inligible for state funding.

Based on a review of how many of the more than 2,000 artists exhibiting at this year’s show had signed appeals to boycott Israel, Welt reported that at least 84 participants had done so, including 17 members of the festival’s organizing team.

Among the BDS initiatives supported was an “Artists Against Apartheid” appeal from 2021, which accused Israel of having “long used culture and art to cover up its attrocities against the Palestinian people.” A separate missive delivered to New York’s Museum of Modern Art in the same year described Israel as a “settler-colonial” and “apartheid” regime.

Helge Lindh, the cultural policy spokesperson for the governing SPD Party, urged a freeze on the funding of Documenta pending an investigation of the antisemitism accusations.

“Public funding of Documenta through federal funds must be stopped until a full investigation of the antisemitism scandal as well as fundamental, structural and personnel reforms have been completed,” Lindh said. “Documenta’s management must give a full account of how it can be that, in addition to several collectives, a plethora of members of the organizing team signed such [pro-BDS] calls.” She emphasized that festival officials found to be responsible in this regard should face “personal consequences.”

The center-right FDP Party, meanwhile, called on Documenta’s director, Sabine Schormann, to quit her post.

“Schormann should resign,” Linda Teuteberg, the party’s spokesperson for Jewish affairs, declared. “The devastating silence and lack of cooperation of the Documenta management do not indicate a serious will to come to terms with the situation and face the consequences.”

The call for Schormann’s resignation was echoed by Dorothee Bär, the vice chairwoman of the parliament group bringing together the CDU and CSU parties. “There is apparently a concentration of BDS supporters in the governing bodies and artistic center of Documenta,” she remarked. “The extent of anti-Israel links is both shameful and dismaying.”

Schormann, however, has remained resistant to such demands, issuing a statement on Wednesday that sought to bolster the festival’s battered reputation.

She defended the opposition of the festival’s Indonesian curators to consultations with external experts on antisemitism, claiming that they “feared censorship.” One of the experts approached, Prof. Meron Mendel of the Anne Frank Educational Center, had earlier charged the Documenta organizers with not taking the claims seriously and of “playing for time.”

Said Schormann: “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.”

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