In Berlin, ‘Art Is Free!’ – Unless It’s Standing for a Free Palestine

Berlin could become ‘irrelevant for global cultural and artistic discourse.’

by Jad Salfiti

8 January 2024

Berlin's senator for culture Joe Chialo
Berlin’s senator for culture Joe Chialo of the CDU party. Photo: Reuters

The Berlin senate has announced it will now require artists and culture workers to agree to a controversial definition of antisemitism as a condition of receiving state funding.

Last week, the Berlin senate department for culture held video conferences with members of all major state-funded cultural associations to inform them that they must now comply with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition, which has come under fire for its conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism. Critics have long argued the definition can be misused to shield Israel from legitimate criticism.

In an internal PowerPoint slide shared with cultural associations and seen by Novara Media, the senate addresses Israel directly, referring to it as a “Jewish collective [that] can also be the target of such [antisemitic] attacks”.

Germany has endorsed the IHRA definition of antisemitism since 2017, but it has never been imposed as a condition of funding before. The move comes amid growing concerns that the country’s attempts to atone for the Holocaust are resulting in the repression and criminalisation of immigrant communities – Arabs, and also many progressive Jews and Israelis. For artists from the Global South and their diasporas, the question of Palestine has become emblematic of wider anticolonial struggles and legacies.

Criticism of restricting arts funding to organisations that accept the IHRA definition of antisemitism includes:

  • The IHRA working definition of antisemitism was intended to serve as a guideline and is not meant to be legally binding.
  • It is too imprecise to create legal certainty and is open to abuse.
  • Its implementation could impose significant restrictions on fundamental rights – very often against Jews who criticise the policies of the current Israeli far-right government.
  • It opens up a question of freedom of expression in art and the dangers of curbing it.

Regarding the funding clause, Berlin’s senator for culture Joe Chialo, of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party – who was appointed in April last year – said: “Art is free!” In the same Instagram statement, he elaborated: “But not without rules. Cultural institutions and funding agencies are responsible for ensuring that public money does not support racist, anti-Semitic, anti-LGBTQ+ or otherwise exclusionary forms of expression.”

Artists and cultural workers, meanwhile, have slammed the decision as racist. They say the clause amounts to cultural repression, begging the question of how Palestinians and their allies (many of whom are progressive Jews) can speak out on Israeli human rights abuses without being deemed “Jew-haters”, “hate mobs” or “aggro-Arabs” (as they have been referred to in the German tabloid media in recent months).

A new artist-activist collective, Strike Germany, says the country’s silencing of dissenting voices is undemocratic. “The German media and politicians rush to blame Arab and Muslim populations in Germany for so-called ‘imported anti-semitism’. Germany is not unique – but no other state has made an unconditional alliance with Israel its ‘Staatsräson’ (raison d’état) and a prerequisite for participation in public and cultural life,” the group said. “the majority of those publically targeted have been Black, Brown, and Jewish,” it added.

The clause follows a spate of top-down cancellations of artists and culture workers advocating for Palestine over the last few years. From cancelled museum shows to suspended or rescinded book prizes, the city’s reputation as an artistic paradise and sanctuary of free expression is now under scrutiny. “The introduction of this clause severely damages Berlin’s reputation – it is the most repressive tool of state-mandated ‘neo-McCarthyism’ targeting and demonising culture to be introduced in the country so far. If it is not rescinded, it will pave the way for Berlin [to become] irrelevant for global cultural and artistic discourse,” said artist Zoë Claire Miller.

Lebanese writer Bassem Saad called the clause’s initiation a “great day of shame”. “After three months of mass extermination in Gaza and escalating calls for ethnic cleansing, a Palestinian in Berlin has to effectively recognise the legitimacy of occupation, apartheid, siege and genocide in order to access public funding in their city of residence where they pay exorbitant taxes”. But Berlin authorities have doubled down on the clause’s purpose, arguing it is to “promote diversity” by preventing antisemitism, amongst other forms of discrimination.

Over 5,000 of Berlin’s artists and culture workers (including musician Michael Stipe, photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, writer Deborah Feldman, and Turner Prize winner Jesse Darling) have signed a petition addressing the Berlin senate. A protest also took place outside Berlin’s state parliament on Monday, while a cultural committee meeting about antisemitism in the arts took place inside.

Jad Salfiti is a British-Palestinian journalist based in Berlin. 

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