How Germany’s Memory Culture Censors Palestinians

Palestinian artists and speakers have become increasingly unwelcome in the German public sphere. In the name of overcoming Germany’s own crimes under Nazism, its institutions cast a blanket suspicion of antisemitism against Palestinians in general.


A protest in solidarity with the Question of Funding collective in, Kassel, Germany, on June 18, 2022. (Yazan Khalili)

In November 2004, Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic The Battle of Algiers was shown on French public TV for the first time. Despite the film’s global fame and growing popularity since its release in 1966, for four decades it was hardly known in France outside of certain intellectual circles.

Yet unlike other films about the Algerian War, The Battle of Algiers was not banned, beyond the first year following its release. Nor was this the kind of censorship typical of illiberal regimes. Rather, the film didn’t fit into French public institutions’ way of dealing with their past — and so it was censored through various unofficial forms.

Historian Benjamin Stora argues that the film’s absence from French theaters partly owes to cinema owners bending to threats from war veterans’ organizations and pied-noir groups. Yet it was also subject to a more insidious kind of censorship: spectators’ unwillingness to be confronted with one of the most violent episodes in France’s colonization of Algeria, including the now-well-known torture inflicted on Algerians by the French army. Hence through a mix of sociocultural norms, press uproar, and rioters smashing the windows of independent cinemas who did dare screen it, Pontecorvo’s stunning representation of the anti-colonial war was de facto banished from public space.

This stifling of free artistic expression isn’t just a matter of the past. For it is again visible in today’s Germany. This country boasts of its record in processing and overcoming its genocidal history. Yet a scandal over the first months of 2022 has shown how it refuses to allow anti-colonial struggle to interfere with its own claimed success story.


Vandalism

On the morning of May 28, the Palestinian art collective the Question of Funding woke up to find their exhibition space at the Documenta festival in the city of Kassel had been vandalized. Graffitied across the surfaces of the exhibition space were the number 187 and the name “Peralta.” The number 187 is a Californian penal code that refers to murder. Peralta refers to Isabel Peralta, an ardently antisemitic Spanish fascist, best known for her hate speech that won her a ten-month scholarship from the neo-Nazi group “Der III Weg.” Her anti-immigrant and antisemitic positions, allied to her open support of Hamas, were used by the vandals to forge a connection between her and the Palestinian artists, despite the lack of real ties between them.

Mainstream media and political discourse in Germany has in fact increasingly located the Palestinians’ struggle within the debate on terrorism, migration, Islamism, and antisemitism that has been taken up by European nativist discourse in recent years. Among countless recent examples, the Berlin police department decided to ban demonstrations on Nakba Day, which commemorates the mass expulsion of Palestinians that followed Israel’s establishment in 1948.  The police cited the potential “immediate danger” of “inflammatory, antisemitic exclamations,” incitement, and violence. Along the way, vigils for the Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh — very likely killed by the Israeli army while on the job — were also banned, even for non-Palestinian groups such as the Jewish Voice for Just Peace in the Middle East, similarly at loggerheads with German authorities.

Such incidences of clamping down on Palestinian, Jewish, and other dissenting voices are emboldened by a legally nonbinding 2019 Bundestag motion that attempts to curtail the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Its quasi-judicial overtones have led to restrictions on the freedoms of expression and assembly. The BDS movement is declared inherently antisemitic, though this claim — in effect associating all criticism of the state of Israel with antisemitism — faces legal challenge from German, Jewish, and Palestinian figures alike. This resolution has most ominously given way to publicly funded news outlets like Deutsche Welle not only purging journalists based on their views of Israel but also dishing out explicit orders on how to report on Israeli violence.

The vandalism directed at the Question of Funding’s exhibition space fits into this context. An incessant — and baseless — monthslong campaign by mainstream newspapers such as Die Zeit, triggered by an anonymous blogger’s accusations that the Palestinian artists engaged in antisemitism and “propaganda art,” is part and parcel of authorities’ increasingly criminalizing attitude. All this in the name of Germany’s “special responsibility” to Israel.

The Question of Funding Installation, with graffiti. (Yazan Khalili)

Smear Campaign

The media smear campaign against the Question of Funding first focused on the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah, formerly run by Yazan Khalili, an artist in the collective. The poet and scholar after which it is named was accused of having been pro-Nazi during the 1930s. Yet this claim has been critically discussed and debunked by a well-known German historian of the Middle East, Jens Hanssen. And one might equally ask whether participants in the Wagner festivals in Bayreuth, Leipzig, and elsewhere would likewise be tarred by association with Richard Wagner’s antisemitic ruminations.

While the vandalism at Documenta predictably went unacknowledged in major news networks — or else trivialized as apolitical graffiti by some teenager — it did strike a fearful chord among artists, curators, and filmmakers, whether or not they were directly involved in the festival. This development became particularly worrisome when a long-planned three-part panel meant to discuss antisemitism in relation to other racisms was canceled by Documenta, without any consultation with the participants. Many panelists were already feeling anxious about their participation upon hearing that the Central Council for Jews had pressured the Documenta through press releases against hosting a supposed “platform for antisemitic discussion.”

The attempt to create a public conversation about the real and threatening effects of antisemitism and racism — and the need to establish a communicative basis to address political issues such as this — were further stigmatized in media as too pro-Palestinian or pro-BDS. For nonparticipating Palestinian and other Arab artists who work in Germany, the question is what precedent these attacks will set for future violence. As one well-known Berlin-based Palestinian filmmaker asked, “What’s next? Burning down the cinema houses I play my films in and having the authorities remain silent so as not to be accused of antisemitism for protecting a Palestinian artist?”

The filmmaker here referred to the mise-en-scène set up by official authorities. Anti-Palestinian sentiments disseminated through the accusation of antisemitism are shaping an atmosphere where even violent attacks and undue interference with the right to free expression go unremarked. Indeed, Palestinian artists’ fears were heightened upon realizing that, despite Documenta’s promises to bolster security, it would not publicly and directly acknowledge the anti-Palestinian nature of the attacks. Instead, Documenta published a broad statement against violence and called for an investigation.

This also came after an attack this April against the main headquarters of the Indonesian curatorial collective Ruangrupa, which was invited to curate Documenta 15. Its building was defaced by anti-Muslim racist stickers that declared “Freedom Instead of Islam! No Compromise with Barbarism! Fight Islam Resolutely!” as well as “Solidarity With Israel.” Faced with these grim portents, Yazan Khalili told us that the artists demanded Documenta “provide them with the psychological and mental safety needed to practice and show their work without being afraid of being subjected to smear campaigns.”

The first demand was something Documenta could fulfill. Yet the second would be a mean feat for any publicly funded German cultural institution today.


Germany’s “Memory Wars”

The infrastructure of Germany’s memory wars is in part shaped by its post–Cold War memorial culture. As Theodor W. Adorno warned already in the 1950s, this latter has contributed to a mastering of the past (Vergangenheitsbewältigung) and not a working through the past (Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung). Germany has mastered its past, by successfully exhibiting the Holocaust as a unique historical event that it perennially commemorates to conjure up a liberal ideal of itself and its democracy. But it seems that Germany has not sufficiently worked through its past. For it does not deal with the structural root causes that have contributed to the genocide of European Jewry and others.

In a recent article for Jacobin, Enzo Traverso discussed the new historians’ debate about Germany’s past, following the famous Historikerstreit of the 1980s. As he argued, the Holocaust has historically and geographically broader roots, intersecting with racial thinking and colonial conquest. This point has been stressed in the new historians’ debate by scholars such as Michael Rothberg and Jürgen Zimmerer. Spearheaded by Dirk Moses and others, this debate lays bare the pitfalls of German atonement and what Moses calls a dogmatic “catechism.” While there is a “lived multidirectionality” among the heterogeneous German population, which often thinks through and embodies multiple different histories at once, German public history and memory often remain strictly nationally defined. This seems especially pressing given the current debate about Documenta 15: artistic practices grounded in Palestinian experience cannot find any valid place in conversations in Germany but can only be understood as potentially antisemitic.

Given the way Palestinians are implicated in European history — the genocide of European Jewry accelerated Israel’s establishment in British Mandate Palestine in 1948 — such labeling is troubling. Yet from a German perspective, Palestinians are perceived as outside of this history and thus ignorant of it. Additionally, as has been pointed out before, this debate involves the fundamental question of what affects and effects Holocaust memory continues to generate in Germany’s demographically changed national context, with a diverse range of newly emerging ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities.

This became clear during ethnographic research in Berlin with educational projects combating antisemitism and Islamic extremism. Here, the history of the Holocaust was deployed to talk about antisemitism in Europe — but triggered mixed responses. For Palestinian students as well as adult professionals, the Holocaust and the refuge of Jews in the Middle East was often a key entry point for discussing their own experience of diaspora, racism, and displacement in relation to this larger history.

But what we see in Germany is a nationally guarded relation to its own genocidal past. This unevenly distributes permission to speak — and even silences others — in the name of protection. When Palestinians appear in public discourse, they are deemed disruptive toward Germany’s self-constructed image of “atonement,” in which it is so heavily invested. Through their intimate connections with the knock-on effects of German genocide, they are an unwelcome reminder that this past is not all in the past.


Germany’s Cultural Quagmire

Critics of the current infrastructure predicated upon Holocaust memory are often attacked by cultural establishment figures, who accuse them of ahistoricity and shortsightedness. In particular, intersectional and postcolonial approaches are said to fuel a relativization of German history and a misunderstanding of its special context. These assumptions reflect the logic of the recent attacks that some European — especially French — politicians and intellectuals have made on critical and postcolonial theories, which they regard as a threat to European identity and values.

Many actors in the contemporary art world today — ones on whom Germany’s public cultural institutions rely for the success of the globally connected projects they patronize — are either from the non-European global majority or emotionally and intellectually connected to it. ​​Many tend to be informed by an intellectual historical trajectory that grew out of Third World internationalism around Palestine’s struggle for freedom. Today, this trajectory has matured into a more robust, highly articulate, legally informed, and intersectional Global South solidarity.

Yet this also exposes the limits of Germany’s official anti-racism. Take the recent case around Mohammed el-Kurd, an award-winning Palestinian poet and writer who had his speaking invitation revoked by the Goethe Institute. El-Kurd — named one of the most one hundred influential people by Time for his work in the campaign to stop Israel expelling Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah — was to speak as part of the institute’s “Beyond the Lone Offender — Dynamics of the Global Right” summit in June, in which activists and artists were meant to examine the impact of far-right movements and their global entanglements. The panel in question was to be hosted by artist Moshtari Hilal and essayist Sinthujan Varatharajah. But then el-Kurd was uninvited.

In a Twitter statement explaining its decision, the Goethe Institute claimed that El-Kurd “was not an appropriate speaker for this forum” because “he had made several comments about Israel in a way the Goethe Institute does not find acceptable.” Upon hearing of the revocation of the invitation, Varantharajah and Hilal withdrew in solidarity. They protested “Goethe Institute’s attempts to intervene in [their] curatorial decisions and by way of it, enforce a climate of anti-Palestinian censorship.” This was soon followed by other participants, most notably the best-selling North American author on race issues Ijeoma Oluo, who explained that “there is no discussion on global white supremacy without the inclusion of Palestinian voices.” We see how transnationally connected anti-racist voices outside of Germany clearly clash with this country’s own dominant institutional perspective.


Documenta

The Documenta, like the Goethe Institute, emerged as a reaction to Nazi Germany and has been shaped by the experience of Nazi political violence. It has the objective of opening Germany up to a politically, historically, and culturally more pluralist world and is credited with being one of the most influential players in opening up the art world to multiple perspectives. It was one of the first major art institutions to host digital art projects (Documenta 10, 1997), a global modernism and postcolonial review (Documenta 11, 2002), and indigenous art (Documenta 14, 2017) — all revolutionary moments in the art world, with lasting effects. This year the Indonesian collective Ruangrupa was the first from Asia to ever curate Documenta, with the explicit objective of exhibiting the processes of art making by art collectives from Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

It is deplorable that for this year’s edition the usual commotion surrounding Documenta has not been about the art produced for the show but rather the different values that many non-European participants are assumed to have. This is a sign of the times. Palestinian artists have exhibited in Documenta and other leading art world institutions in Germany before. But the smear campaign based on a rumor this year reflects the official media discourse of the past few years. It has squarely placed blame on new immigrants accused of bringing with them the antisemitic (religious) traditions that Germany has worked so hard to eradicate. This racially motivated accusation continues even though police records make clear that most antisemitic hate crimes are being carried out by right-wing white nationalist groups.

Tellingly, after a monthslong smear campaign, the only legally and consequentially pursued case of antisemitism at Documenta 15 did not initially involve any Palestinian artist but an art installation exhibited by the Indonesian collective Taring Padi, which has since been removed. It had been invited with the knowledge of the Documenta leadership team, who relied on a decentralized form of curatorial organizing for this year’s show. Interestingly, the offending piece, People’s Justice, which has dominated the media landscape since the opening, had been exhibited for the past twenty years around the world and even passed the watchful eyes of the organizers and the media in Germany for three full days before someone noticed that it contains antisemitic imagery.

This imagery recalls the specific visual manifestations of hatred toward Jews historically found in Europe. On the day of the opening, Germany’s president spent time discussing antisemitism and his country’s special relation with Israel, alluding to the antisemitism controversies centering on Palestinian artists and their proximity to BDS and linking this to the lack of Israeli artists invited to this year’s Documenta. All the while, People’s Justice was already in the process of being installed not far from the site at which he spoke. This irony is telling: the German public sphere is so consumed with proving Palestinians’ antisemitism that real antisemitism appearing in an artwork by non-Palestinians can fly under the radar.

Alas, even as it became clear that the antisemitism that German media had been searching for sat in a different corner of the room, some journalists continued to forge a link between Taring Padi and the Question of Funding by insisting on these artists’ common Islamic national contexts. This time the Palestinians face attacks for having the audacity to show paintings such as those in award-winning artist Mohammad Hawajri’s series “Guernica Gaza.” Hawajri borrows classic motifs by Jean-François Millet, Eugène Delacroix, Marc Chagall, and Vincent van Gogh to draw experiential parallels between the Israeli shelling of his home town and Guernica in 1936 — an aesthetic intervention that provokes reflection on how political violence can be represented after the European grand narrative of war.

We fully acknowledge that the antisemitic images found in People’s Justice have an especially painful history in the European context. Precisely because we live in such an interconnected world, this cannot be explained away in the name of artistic freedom or cultural relativity. Yet despite the mainstream media’s consistent efforts to show that People’s Justice is part and parcel of an inherently antisemitic art show funded by public money — one that threatens the national fabric — there really is a difference between antisemitism and the artistic expression of Palestinians living under Israeli domination.

The Question of Funding’s body of works experiments with the potential for art to survive under occupation and without state patronage or even an art market. The collective’s reality is the system of legalized, institutionalized, and normalized discriminatory rule over them by the Israeli occupation, and their aesthetical production is partly shaped by that. That reality is not “alleged,” as some German reporters have indicated in their writings since the opening; rather, it is a reality acknowledged the world over.

Instead of engaging in memory wars that draw on terrorism, migration, Islam, and imported antisemitism, we as scholars, intellectuals, artists, activists, and politicians implicated in these debates must find ways to reconcile painful histories with more inclusive and productive narratives about our globally connected world. This search for a more encompassing meaning of racism must be undertaken without fear of naming-and-shaming campaigns, which only aggravate an already taut context.