A reflection in two parts on documenta fifteen.
Part Two: Anti-anti-Zionism
Despite all good intentions, ruangrupa didn’t just make friends in Kassel. Outside the art world, the initial media coverage of documenta fifteen was mainly centered around the accusation of anti-Semitism. It started even before the official opening of the event. A local blog denounced the “left-identitarian and postmodern art world” and condemned the participation of Palestinian artists who had previously supported the international movement for a political, economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel (BDS, Boycott – Divestment – Sanctions). Although this movement takes inspiration from the then widely accepted boycott of the apartheid regime in South Africa, in 2019 the Bundestag called BDS in a symbolic motion “anti-Semitic” – even though formerly boycott apartheid was generally regarded as a legitimate response to human rights violations and, moreover, as a kind of moral hallmark for people who had the best things at heart for the world.
Things got totally out of hand when at the opening it turned out that the Indonesian artist collective Taring Padi exhibited a huge canvas, stuffed with clichés about violence and oppression, and entitled People’s Justice. On it there were also two rather stupid allusions to the Israeli secret service Mossad and to an Orthodox Jewish man. In the context of the complete work however, it is blatantly clear that the target is not Jews as a religious community or even as a people, but the military apparatus called Israel, which itself oppresses a population of predominantly Muslims and is internationally one of the main suppliers of sophisticated weapons to terror regimes all over the world. Yet there was enough to immediately accuse loudly the entire organization of documenta15 with the equally stupid allegation of anti-Semitism. That the preliminary build-up of the campaign had been efficient and that there was more to it than that one work by Taring Padi soon became clear from comments in the ‘left’ newspaper taz. Under the headline ‘Das Problem ist größer’ a cultural editor wrote: “In the meantime it became known that at least 84 participants of documenta15 have signed the call for a boycott of Israel, while apparently no artists from Israel could be found among the two thousand people involved.” Against the accusation that the critics themselves are guilty of racism and Islamophobia, he argues that it’s not about the origins of the artists, but about their support for the BDS movement, which speaks out in favor of a boycott of Israeli artists and scientists. (Although the German text uses fairly well-established gender-diverse concepts such as Teilnehmer*innen or Wissenschaftlerinnen, I use in my text the general male form in its generic sense.)
Even German President Steinmeier complained at the opening ceremony that no Israeli artists had been invited as a kind of counter balance. What is that man actually interfering with? Or did he have a problem with the fact that Lara Khaldi of the artistic team presents herself as based in Jerusalem, Palestine? In line with the concepts of ruangrupa and lumbung, no or few artists have been invited from other major imperialist powers and arms manufacturers such as the United States, Russia, China or Turkey. And if there are, it is first and foremost because of their work supporting the oppressed human or non-human population of their country.
Some (Jewish) critics of BDS blame the movement not so much for criticizing the Israeli apartheid regime, but for questioning the right of the State of Israel to exist. Now you can question the right of every state to exist anyway; all states are human constructions, and so they can be questioned, deconstructed, annihilated. The fact that Israel was built on the land where another (colonial) state structure already existed, by states that at the same time wanted to solve their own internal problem with a part of their population, only confirms this premise. Moreover, it is a thorn in the side of these critics that Israel itself is now regarded as a neocolonial project, which treats the part of the Palestinian population that was not murdered or expelled in 1948 as second-class citizens and suppresses their resistance with unbridled violence.
Yet that neocolonial aspect has been recognized from the beginning by not the least among Zionists. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, founder of the Jewish legion in the British army and one of the founders of revisionist (political) Zionism, wrote the famous article ‘The Iron Wall’ (in Russian, 1923). According to wikiwand, the decision Zionists had to take was this: “Either we have to stop our Zionist colonization project altogether or we continue without caring whether the Arabs agree with us.” Jabotinsky chose the latter, and he played an active and violent role in it, but he also warned his audience. “My readers have a general idea of the history of colonization in other countries. I suggest that they go over all the cases known to them and see if there is a single case in which colonization was carried out with the consent of the domestic population. There is no such precedent. The domestic population has always stubbornly resisted the colonizer.”
And yet, when amongst the Archives des luttes des femmes en Algérie an old cartoon by Naji al-Ali is discovered, the hunt for anti-Zionists continues (although al-Ali himself has been shot in London in 1987). His cartoon shows a Palestinian woman kicking an Israeli soldier, wearing a Star of David, in the groin. The text on the left side says “Intifada in West-Jordania”, intifada referring to any large scale resistance against the Israeli occupation.
Anti-Semitism! But isn’t it the State of Israel itself that presents itself as a ‘Jewish state’ and that carries in its flag, always recognizable in its military activities, the Star of David, the symbol par excellence of Judaism. Then you have created, of course, the perfect excuse to shout afterwards that criticism of Israel is equivalent to Jew-hatred.
Almost eighty years after the end of the Nazi massacre of Jews, Roma and Sinti, the disabled, communists, homosexuals, freemasons and so on, Germany today lives in the absurd atmosphere where any criticism of Israeli occupation policy is called anti-Semitic and where the colonial aspects of Zionism and the current apartheid policy can not be discussed. On December 10, 2020 the Israeli news site Haaretz.com devoted a very extensive article to this situation. The occasion was the diatribe against the leadership of the Ruhrtriënnale, a prestigious cultural event. After all, they had dared to invite the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe and hadn’t he previously compared in a book the Israeli occupation of Palestine to apartheid? Haaretz extensively reconstructs how a small group of self-proclaimed anti-Semitism investigators, with the help of the Israeli embassy (and German shame about the past?), succeeds in creating an atmosphere of suspicion, insecurity and self-censorship around all those who are stigmatized with ‘anti-Semitism’. Stefanie Carp of the Ruhrtriënnale, who was also forced to resign, says: “People are afraid that they will get the stamp ‘anti-Semite’, even if they have nothing to do with it. It is an extreme accusation, a stamp that finishes you socially, economically and politically, a judgment that takes you out of society.”
And anyone can end up out of the blue in the anti-Semitism mill. Haaretz cites the example of Nirit Sommerfeld, who for years toured Germany with her klezmer band bringing a program of German and Yiddish texts and songs about Kristallnacht or celebrating Hanukkah in the diaspora. Suddenly, subsidy was refused and she had to submit her texts when she wanted to rent a venue. Her sin? Criticism of Israeli policy in the occupied territories. Haaretz further mentions actions against Naomi Klein, and also Jan Lauwers of Belgian Needcompany was at a certain moment requested to remove the phrase “I was in Hebron and I was shocked” from a performance. (He didn’t do it, there were no consequences.) Even Peter Schäfer, the director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, was forced to resign in 2019 because of an exhibition that showed Jerusalem from the perspective of the three monotheistic religions present there. “A historical distortion”, according to the critics, that proves the museum is “anti-Israel.” Schäfer says to Haaretz: “The accusation of anti-Semitism is a stick that allows you to deliver a very quick death blow, and no doubt there are politicians who have an interest in that, who used that means and still use it.”
All this not only led to the removal of the work People’s Justice, but even to Sabine Schormann, general manager of the umbrella company Documenta, being expelled. Meanwhile, the tragicomic hunt for ‘anti-Semitic stereotypes’ is becoming increasingly foolish. On August 16, another Zionist association had discovered that Taring Padi (them again) had covered part of a work in order to hide anti-Semitic images. The enormous painting ‘All mining is dangerous’ shows four people distributing bags of money among themselves. One of them has a big nose and an evil grin, and his headwear had been covered with black tape, no doubt in an attempt to keep his kippah, and thus the Jewish stereotype, hidden from the spectators. A reaction came quickly from ruangrupa and documenta. The painting is about exploitation in mining and it depicts, among other things, Indonesian Muslim leaders who make common cause with the mining industry. One of them does not wear a kippah, but a so-called hajj cap (eine Hajj-Mütze, a kupluk in Sundanese), the white cap that men in Indonesia wear when they have made the pilgrimage to Mecca. The figure that wears it on the head is inspired by the forms of the classic Wayang puppetry, which is recognized as World Heritage. The cap had, after the earlier incidents, been covered by Taring Padi, precisely to prevent anyone from seeing a kippah in it. Subsequently, Taring Padi and ruangrupa have spread plenty of information and images about the difference between a hajj cap and a kippah and about the tradition of Indonesian puppetry. Nice that all those anti-anti-Zionists can now learn something about the rich Indonesian culture.