Artists like me are being censored in Germany – because we support Palestinian rights

Brian Eno

JVL Introduction

For understandable historical reasons, Germany is very reluctant to see any criticism of Israel that may lead to accusations of antisemitism.

But for some, any criticism at all falls into that category.

A growing paranoia was brought into sharp focus in 2019 when a non-binding parliamentary resolution falsely equated BDS with antisemitism.

It is now leading to blatant artistic censorship in Germany as Brian Eno documents in this Comment is Free article.

Quite simply, support for the nonviolent, Palestinian-led BDS movement has been enough to cause any promoter, director or institution to quake in their boots.

But there is now a fightback.

Representatives of 32 of Germany’s leading cultural institutions, including the Goethe-Institut, have jointly spoken out about the baleful effects of parliament’s anti-BDS resolution.

This article was originally published by The Guardian on Thu 4 Feb 2021. Read the original here.

Artists like me are being censored in Germany – because we support Palestinian rights

A 2019 parliamentary resolution has had a chilling effect on critics of Israeli policy. Now the cultural sector is speaking up.

I am just one of many artists who have been affected by a new McCarthyism that has taken hold amid a rising climate of intolerance in Germany. Novelist Kamila Shamsie, poet Kae Tempest, musicians Young Fathers and rapper Talib Kwelli, visual artist Walid Raad and the philosopher Achille Mbembe are among the artists, academics, curators and others who have been caught up in a system of political interrogation, blacklisting and exclusion that is now widespread in Germany thanks to the passing of a 2019 parliamentary resolution. Ultimately this is about targeting critics of Israeli policy towards Palestinians.

Recently, an exhibition of my artwork was cancelled in its early stages because I support the nonviolent, Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The cancellation was never publicly declared, but I understand it to have been the consequence of cultural workers in Germany fearing that they and their institution would be punished for promoting someone labelled as “antisemitic”. This is the work of tyranny: create a situation where people are frightened enough to keep their mouths shut, and self-censorship will do the rest.

But as my own story is relatively minor, I’d like to tell you about my friend, musician Nirit Sommerfeld.

Nirit was born in Israel and raised in Germany, and retains her lifelong connection to both places, including to her extended family in Israel. As an artist, she has been dealing with the relationship between Germans, Israelis and Palestinians for more than 20 years in songs, texts and performances, dedicating all her shows to international and inter-religious understanding.

Yet now Nirit finds herself unable to do her cultural work freely. When considering her application for arts funding, state officials have told Nirit they needed to vet her work; when trying to book a concert venue in Munich, her hometown, she was told by the organisers that the show would be cancelled unless she confirmed in writing that it would feature no “support for the content, topic and goals” of the BDS campaign. She has repeatedly been a target of smear campaigns.

Why has this happened?

Because she has spoken about what she has seen with her own eyes: Israel’s racist laws against its own citizens who are Palestinian; Israel’s military checkpoints, house demolitions, the separation wall, the land-grabs, the incarceration of children, and Israeli soldiers humiliating and killing Palestinians of all ages. She has witnessed the illegal use of phosphorus bombs against Gaza and the indifference – at best – of many in Israeli society.

I asked Nirit how she feels about the situation: “After returning for two years to Tel Aviv, and many visits to the occupied Palestinian territories, I understood that Israel doesn’t live up to its professed high moral standards. The lesson learned from the Holocaust was ‘Never again!’ But is it intended only to protect us Jews? For me ‘Never again!’ must include ‘never again to racism, oppression, ethnic cleansing anywhere – as well as never again to antisemitism’.”

Nirit’s music celebrates her Jewish past and present through song. As an artist whose grandfather was murdered in the Nazi genocide, she finds it “profoundly disturbing” that she is subject to censorship and inquisitorial McCarthyism by German public officials and institutions.

In Nirit’s view: “When defenders of Israel insist that these occupation and apartheid policies are done in the name of all Jews worldwide, they fuel antisemitism. Fighting antisemitism should not and cannot be done by demonising the struggle for Palestinian rights.”

Nirit’s experience is an example of the Kafkaesque situation we’ve drifted into: a Jewish woman, whose work is all about history, memory, justice, peace and understanding, falsely accused of antisemitism – by German institutions. The absurdity of the accusation makes one thing clear: this isn’t actually about antisemitism at all, but about limiting our freedom to discuss the political and humanitarian situation in Israel and Palestine.

So how has this situation come about?

In 2019, a vaguely worded non-binding parliamentary resolution was passed in Germany, falsely equating the BDS movement with antisemitism. In a short space of time, this resolution has paved the way for an atmosphere of paranoia, fuelled by misinformation and political opportunism.

BDS is a peaceful movement that aims to pressure Israel to end its violations of Palestinian human rights and to respect international law. It is modelled on precedents from the US civil rights movement, and most famously the movement against apartheid in South Africa. It targets complicity with an unjust regime, and it targets institutions, not individuals or identity. BDS alerts public consciousness to an untenable and deeply unjust status quo and mobilises action to end any involvement in sustaining it.

Yet festival directors, programmers and entire publicly funded institutions are subjecting artists to political tests, checking if they have ever criticised Israeli policy. This system of surveillance and self-censorship has come about because cultural institutions find themselves under attack by anti-Palestinian groups when they invite an artist or academic who holds a view of Israel’s occupation deemed unacceptable to them.

To give one example among many, the director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum, Peter Schäfer, was forced to resign after the museum tweeted the link to an article in a German newspaper about an open letter by 240 Jewish and Israeli scholars, including leading experts on antisemitism, that was critical of the anti-BDS resolution.

But now, in an unprecedented move, representatives of 32 of Germany’s leading cultural institutions, including the Goethe-Institut, have spoken out together, expressing alarm about the repression of critical and minority voices in Germany as a result of the parliament’s anti-BDS resolution.

Their joint statement says: “By invoking this resolution, accusations of antisemitism are being misused to push aside important voices and to distort critical positions.” A few days later, more than 1,000 artists and academics signed an open letter supporting the protest by cultural institutions.

At a time when colonial legacies are increasingly being questioned, discussing this particular instance of ongoing colonialism is instead becoming taboo. But it has never been more urgent: the situation for Palestinians living under apartheid and occupation worsens by the week.

We should all be alarmed by this new McCarthyism. Artists, like all citizens, must be free to speak out and take meaningful action, including principled boycotts, against systems of injustice. If left unchallenged, the silencing of dissent and the marginalisation of minority groups will not stop with Palestinians and those who support them.

Brian Eno is a musician, artist, composer and producer

Comments (12)

  • Graeme Atkinson says:

    Good on yer, Brian. Keep up the fight.

  • Jimmy Cooper says:

    Brian Eno sums up the situation perfectly:
    “This is the work of tyranny: create a situation where people are frightened enough to keep their mouths shut, and self-censorship will do the rest.”
    We must continue the fight against censorship, apartheid, racism, ethnic cleansing and hatred everywhere.

    The current mood everywhere reminds me of the 1960s when whole groups of people throughout the world grasped the moment to challenge the status quo: Civil Rights movement in the USA. Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Anti – Apartheid Movement – particularly South Africa. Increasing support for Cuba against the American attempts to destroy the country politically and economically. Stonewall -Riots against police brutality and discrimination against gay people.

    We cant support BDS without campaigning for all oppressed peoples. An attack on the Palestinians or on the right to protest and voice dissent is an attack on us all.

    The attack on democracy in the Labour Party is the most overt and discriminatory against the left I have ever seen. We must agitate, educate and organise against the “enemy within”. Solidarity.

  • Jennifer Joy-Matthews says:

    Freedom of speech is so important, it is worth fighting for.

  • Jack T says:

    It’s about time the weaponry was evened up a bit and the antiSemitism ‘nuclear weapon’ dropped on Israel for their persecution of the Haredim.

  • Alfreda Benge says:

    …. create a situation where people are frightened enough to keep their mouths shut, and self-censorship will do the rest.”
    What I find frightening is the extent of self censorship within the PLP. Almost total. Then today I saw the new compulsory form for LP candidates to the NEC, where candidates have to confess anything the party considers a sin. This effectively will exclude anyone supporting Palestinian rights from taking part in LP decision making. It really is time for the self censorship to end. Peple MUST speak up against this totalitarian situation. What kind of a govt, would a party that behaves like this make?

  • Si says:

    Absolutely bang on, Brian. Thanks.

  • Sabine Ebert-Forbes o says:

    Everybody’s human rights need to be defended.
    We need to educate those in power so that they u derstand antisemitism correctly. I think the mistake Germany makes (and probably other countries) is to want to do things by the letter to avoid being seen as anti-semetic. There is still a lot of collective guilt about fascism, the wars, the Holocaust. But I had hoped that we had progressed further, but sadly we are still miles away from resolving it as a nation. I grew up in Germany, but left to join my partner 39 years ago.
    It is totally unacceptable to sacrifice the Palestinian people and their human rights in order of avoiding the AS accusations.
    The only way we can achieve a resolution is in my view to fight for peace and justice, equality against racism of any kind and challenge those who violate these regardless of who they are.
    To give in to pressure, look away and not stand up for the rights of oppressed people is in my view as bad as perpetrating these action.
    We need to discuss these issues and listen to those who live the experiences, they need to be free to tell the story of their people so we can learn to understand and find effective way to support them and help them achieve peace, equality and a live without war, degradation, discrimination and hate.

  • Any artist, whatever the medium, must believe in cultural freedom so the misguided stance of the German government towards BDS and towards anyone expressing any sympathy with BDS must be opposed vigorously .

  • Susan Greaves says:

    Saddened by this article…the terrible direction of travel in Germany and of course here in the UK. But thank you Brian.
    “In Nirit’s view: “When defenders of Israel insist that these occupation and apartheid policies are done in the name of all Jews worldwide, they fuel antisemitism. ”
    This sums it up exactly.

  • Machiela ward says:

    I cannot believe I had not thought of the obvious sensitive areas for fighting against oppressive regimes against the people of Palestine. Initially reading your article I immediately was taken aback that Germany was silencing the voice. But I know understand the dilemma attached to this position. It is terrible that you under this cloud, as I have always seen Germany as a progressive human rights advocate. We in the U.K. are under the same threat , not necessarily by the government . But the Labour Party under Zionist Starmer as leader , and he has gagged all the left wing and threatened them with suspension under the weaponised antisemitism flag. If we can be your voice let me know!

  • It seems that when it comes to censorship, present day Germany has learnt no lessons from its Nazi past.

    The use of the memory of the holocaust to suppress freedom of speech demonstrates that all the wrong lessons have been learnt from the past. Because Jews were victims of ethnic cleansing and worse in Germany, then in their name Israel has the right to ethnically cleanse and oppress the Palestinians.

    Thus the German ruling class expiate their historical guilt via the suffering of the Palestinians

  • Professor Emeritus Monty Jochelson says:

    What bemuses me is that critics of Israel have a penchant for whipping themselves into a frenzy about the misdeeds of the Jewish state. The gusto and delight that they derive from this is rather sad .We all know the mantra, ” Israel and its supporters are rotten to the core “.
    Surely it is possible to criticise Israel without dragging in the old tired comparisons with Apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany.
    I myself was an academic in Cape Town in the heyday of Apartheid and my father in law escaped from Nazi Germany .To liken Israel to these appalling regimes is tempting but wrong.

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