Criticism of Israel or Blatant Anti-Semitism?-BDS Movement Sets Sights on German Cultural Festivals

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By Tobias Becker, Andreas Borcholte, Georg Diez and Jurek Skrobala

The Middle East conflict has arrived in Germany in the form of boycotts against German cultural festivals. The development raises the question of where the line is crossed between criticizing Israel as a state and anti-Semitism.

The Young Fathers sound a bit like gospel singers who have long been locked up in a church — and have now been released into freedom, into a world of unlimited possibilities, but also one filled with many truths and conflicts. They sing about identity and power, violence and war, love and sex. And often about God and the devil.

It is the music of doubtful young men, one white and two black, a Scottish pop group in the digital postmodern era. Critics have dubbed them “the most interesting newish band in the English-speaking world,” and Stefanie Carp, the new artistic director of the Ruhrtriennale, an annual music and cultural festival in Germany’s Ruhr region, was proud when she succeeded in booking the Young Fathers for a concert. In a cheerful announcement, organizers of the festival, which begins in August, described the group’s music as “genre-defying.”

But it’s possible that the band member’s political views may indeed fit into a category — and not a nice one: anti-Semitism. The mere question as to whether they can be classified as such has been the subject of considerable controversy and the debate is creating problems for Carp, with some journalists and politicians demanding her resignation. Last week, The New York Times even reported on the case. The story’s tone: The criticism of the festival has little to do with the band’s music, but much to do with German history.

The Young Fathers view themselves as anti-establishment. They send out tweets against right-wing demonstrations, they appear at rallies organized by the Unite Against Fascism group, they demand that Britain rid itself of nuclear weapons and they champion the cause of taking in refugees. There haven’t been any accusations so far of the group expressing themselves in any anti-Semitic way on their records or during their live performances, but they have joined at least two campaigns of the BDS movement.

Founded in 2005 by more than 100 Palestinian civil society groups, the BDS movement advocates for the rights of Palestinians and campaigns against the Israeli state. The abbreviation BDS stands for the movement’s strategy: Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. The movement is modeled after the campaign against the apartheid state in South Africa in the 1980s. The difference, though, is that the white Boer government was a racist regime, while an altogether different dynamic is the culprit for the situation in Israel: the country’s location at the center of an Islamic world that has been hostile toward it from the very beginning as well as the historical experience of the Holocaust.

One of the most prominent representatives of the BDS movement is Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame. Waters and many other musicians, including the Young Fathers, led a campaign in 2017 aimed at getting the British rock band Radiohead to cancel a planned concert in Tel Aviv. Boycott calls like that are typical of BDS, with the movement aiming to isolate Israel culturally. Radiohead resisted and went on to play the concert, triggering a storm of controversy that even saw the band get booed onstage at the Glastonbury Festival. The band described the pressure that had been placed on it at the time as “deeply distressing.”

Trench Warfare

But some other artists, including Björk, Lorde, Elvis Costello and the Gorillaz have made different choices in recent years and canceled planned concerts in Israel. Increasingly, pop culture, which at its best is a celebration of community, is becoming entrenched in conflict.

At times, Waters resorts to blatantly biased props to convey his message — ones that have been banned for just reasons. At his concerts, he sometimes has a pig-shaped balloon wearing a Star of David fly above the crowd. Public television stations in Germany now refuse to broadcast his concert appearances as a result.

But is the BDS movement merely anti-Israeli, or does it cross the line into being anti-Semitic? Is there really a difference between being anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic? Even if there is, should German politicians and festival organizers perhaps answer that question differently than, say, British ones, for whom the movement has so far been much more prominent than it has been in Germany?

Such are the far-reaching questions facing festival director Carp since a blog entry triggered the scandal over the Young Fathers’ invitation to perform. In Germany, calls to boycott Israel are enough to ring the alarm bells. To many German ears, “Don’t buy from Israelis” sounds a lot like the line used by the Nazis: “Don’t buy from Jews!”

As pressure grew, Carp asked the Young Fathers to distance themselves from BDS, but the band refused, and Carp responded by rescinding their invitation. The three Scottish musicians then positioned themselves as victims of censorship, lamenting the “wrong and deeply unfair decision” made by the Ruhrtriennale festival on the website Artists for Palestine UK. What they did not write is that the Ruhrtriennale had coordinated the wording of the concert cancellation with the band’s manager and, at his request, used the toughly-worded phrase “revocation of the invitation.” At least according to Carp’s version of events. “The manager deceived us a bit. We were pretty naive.” Ultimately, Carp re-invited the group, but the band was no longer interested. The whole debacle turned into a PR disaster.

Carp is curating the Ruhrtriennale for the first time this year; the motto of the festival is “in-between time,” and she has said she wants to “discover provisional formats.” The problem is that good art may be as ambivalent as ever, but many people are no longer willing to put up with ambivalence outside of art. At a time in which nothing seems sure anymore, many long for certainties, even ideological ones and they demand clear positions and clear messages. Thumbs up or thumbs down.

Politically Heated Times

In the BDS debate, though, Carp wavered, not really standing behind one ideology or the other. One can see that as intellectual virtue — or as weakness. One can be sympathetic to the idea of managing a festival like one might have been able to do in days before the existence of social media campaigns, but it’s also a bit naive.

Isabel Pfeiffer-Poensgen, the cultural affairs minister for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, criticized the festival’s decision to reissue the invitation to the Young Fathers — a sentiment that was echoed by the Federal Cultural Foundation, the arm of the German government responsible for cultural subsidies. The debate has also weighed heavily on Carp’s team, whose members have had to face critical questions and accusations of anti-Semitism, even from callers to the ticket hotline.

Meanwhile, on June 26, Britain’s Guardian newspaper published an open letter criticizing the decision to expel the Young Fathers as an act of censorship. “We are disturbed by attempts in Germany to impose political conditions on artists supporting Palestinian human rights,” the letter states. Some 79 artists and intellectuals signed the letter, including feminist philosopher Judith Butler and linguist Noam Chomsky, both of Jewish descent, black civil rights activist Angela Davis, South African Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu and, of course, several musicians, including Jarvis Cocker and Roger Waters.

This isn’t the first time the BDS movement has applied pressure in Germany. Last year, the movement set its sights on Berlin and the city’s Pop-Kultur festival of pop music. As many as 150 bands and artists performed and the festival enjoyed a hefty budget of about 1.5 million euros. BDS criticism of the festival centered on a nominal 500 euros, the amount the Israeli Embassy contributed to cover travel expenses for Israeli singer Riff Cohen. The festival printed the embassy’s logo in the program along with the logos of dozens of other partners. In normal times, there would be little fuss over such a thing, but not so in politically heated times such as these.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) launched a boycott appeal through the English-language BDS website under the headline: “Pop Culture 2017, sponsored by Apartheid.” Suddenly, the Berlin organizers were accused of being a tool of Israeli cultural policy, with the aim of bolstering the image of Netanyahu’s government. Eight artists and bands canceled performances at the festival, including the Young Fathers.

Anti-Israeli Agitation’

Monika Grütters of the conservative Christian Democratic Union party, who is the highest-level German government official responsible for cultural policy, lambasted the BDS campaign as “absolutely unacceptable,” and Klaus Lederer of the Left Party, who is the city of Berlin’s top cultural policy official, described the move as “repugnant.” Berlin Mayor Michael Müller of the center-left Social Democratic Party spoke of Nazi-era tactics and said he would do everything in his power in the future to deprive BDS of “meeting space and money for its anti-Israeli agitation.”

The BDS movement is once again calling for a boycott of the festival this year, which is scheduled for Aug. 15-17. Five artists, including the British post-punk band Shopping and experimental American musician John Maus have followed the call so far.

Katja Lucker, director of Musicboard, the city government agency that organizes the Pop-Kultur festival, emphasizes that it is just five out of 150 artists who have been invited. She’s making an effort to keep things in perspective. Still, though, she says: “We asked artists from Beirut, Tunisia and Egypt in advance if they would like to be part of it and they said from the beginning that they did not want to perform for us.” The BDS campaign, it seems, is preventing Palestinian and Israeli artists from being able to meet and talk to each other on neutral ground.

Lucker refuses to be intimidated by BDS, and this year the Israeli Embassy’s cultural department is once again providing a travel stipend, this time of 1,200 euros rather than 500 since more Israeli artists are participating. “Of course, we will continue work with Israel,” she says. Among others, the festival has invited Israeli author Lizzie Doron, who spoke with former Palestinian terrorists and Israeli conscientious objectors as part of the research for her book “Sweet Occupation.” Notably, her critical subject matter did not stop the Israeli Embassy from picking up her travel costs.

“A boycott doesn’t promote dialogue,” says Lucker. “BDS isn’t calling for peace in the Middle East — the opposite is true. The movement divides people and sows hate.” She says she would love to debate with artists who back BDS, but that’s not possible in the current environment. All the overtures she made to hold discussions connected to the concerts where the bands could explain their position, led nowhere, she says.

DER SPIEGEL also sought to provide the Young Fathers with the opportunity to state their position, but the band informed the magazine they weren’t interested in doing so at the moment. BDS, on the other hand, when contacted by DER SPIEGEL, announced: “We believe Young Fathers signal the arrival of a new generation of politically-minded artists, who are unbowed by German neo-McCarthyism.” The German “establishment” seems to be quite isolated in its “dogmatic, repressive, anti-Palestinian attitude toward BDS,” wrote PACBI coordinator Stephanie Adam.

Campaigns and Counter Campaigns

The campaigns and counter-campaigns, and the hysteria and the hatred have come in waves since BDS’ founding in 2005. The movement has called for fundamental rights for the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and the right of return for the Palestinian refugees, the demolition of the wall that Israel built to protect itself against terrorist attacks and the end of the occupation.

But what country do they mean? Only of the territories occupied in 1967 or Israel in its entirety? BDS initiator Omar Barghouti has repeatedly expressed the goal of establishing a Palestinian state on the territory of present-day Israel. Is the movement focused on bringing about the end of a specific policy or the end of an entire country? Is Israel being demonized, being subjected to delegitimization or measured by special standards? And why is no other country in the world exposed to a campaign like the one being mounted by BDS?

Those are the questions at the core of the BDS debate. That is why the debate is so heated: The line between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism is, after all, often a fluid one.

It is important to look at who is speaking and what their motives are. Israeli film director Udi Aloni, who supports BDS, complains of German intellectuals turning against the movement, possibly out of a sense of guilt toward the Jews. As a leftist Israeli, Aloni views BDS as an appropriate way to fight what he sees as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s right-wing extremist government.

“I support BDS because it helps me to protect my Jewish values,” says Aloni, who has repeatedly addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in documentaries and feature films. “I’m not saying that Germans should support BDS. I would only ask that they not criticize or censor a just resistance and not tell me how I should live my Jewish life.” He says he stands in solidarity with the millions of Palestinians who live under Israeli rule and whose voices go unheard. “I say: Listen, we are the voice of the weak. BDS is a form of non-violent protest. ”

Driving a Wedge

But how non-violent can a form of protest truly be that intimidates artists or attacks academics when they work with Israeli institutions? And, most importantly, how effective is it?

The academic boycott is directed against the very university environment in which many of the moderates and liberals who would be potential allies in efforts to find a different policy toward the Palestinians work. “This serves only to strengthen the political right in Israel,” argues anthropology professor Dan Rabinowitz, who teaches in Tel Aviv. The BDS movement is driving a wedge between Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals. Since BDS came on the scene, they have, for all practical purposes, no longer been able to work together.

“The boycott of scholars is generally problematic,” says American philosopher Seyla Benhabib, who comes from a Sephardic-Turkish family. Israel is moving in the wrong direction under the Likud government, she says, and it is “the duty of a leftists who support democracy to criticize this.” But the question, she says, is “whether BDS is the best way to bring about positive change.”

Israeli institutions and scholars are being marginalized. At the same time, Jewish academics in the United States hardly dare to speak out publicly in support of BDS out of the fear that doing so could have a negative impact on their careers. It’s paradoxical: BDS is a movement that responds to exclusion by applying exclusion itself — and in the process places everyone in the political and intellectual equivalent of solitary confinement. The fear that BDS wants to fight is also an inherent part of the movement.

Its effects are palpable to all Israelis and Palestinians, and BDS opponents and supporters alike. The movement brings into science and art that which has always been the greatest enemy of science and art: moralism. But is an artist’s ideological affinity to the BDS movement alone sufficient to justify banning that artist from the stage and rescinding that person’s invitation to a festival? Isn’t that just co-opting the logic of the BDS movement and resorting to its own unfair means to fight back against it, a counter-boycott arising out of a boycott?

Festival director Carp laments that she was caught between two camps, with the BDS campaign on one side and its opponents on the other. “I want to take a third position, a differentiated one,” she says. “But nobody is interested in differentiating these days. Everyone seems to want a clear position and hate.”

A ‘Tactical’ Decision

Before Carp agrees to be interviewed, she asks about the reporter’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s a strange request: Ideological prerequisites generally aren’t part of journlistic interviews. But when the interview does take place, Carp does so sympathetically and transparently. She thinks as she talks, and sometimes she talks without thinking. This makes her all the more nervous after the interview, when she receives the verbatim quotes prior to publication, as agreed with the reporter. In the end, there are many quotes she does not permit to be used in the article. She has to be careful at the moment.

The initial decision to rescind the invitation to the Young Fathers had been a “tactical” one, she says, aimed at protecting the Ruhrtriennale festival as an institution, but also herself. “Who wants to be labeled an anti-Semite?” Carp also admits that she allowed herself to become unsettled under the pressure.

It was the many letters she received from other artists she booked for the festival program protesting the decision to disinvite the Young Fathers, she says, that led her to rethink the decision. Most of the letters came from artists in the Arab world. Carp had deliberately decided to invite a number of artists from the region. “I wanted to provide a voice to the global south because of the shameful policy of sealing itself off that Europe is once again pursuing,” she explains. But it’s a decision that would come back to haunt her.

Belgian choreographer Alain Platel and American composer Elliott Sharp also sent letters of protest. Sharp wrote that the decision to rescind the Young Fathers’ invitation had really upset him. He wrote that it has “must be possible to criticize a violent, authoritarian regime without it being labeled as anti-Semitism.” On this issue, Sharp wrote, “I speak as a Jew and son of a Holocaust survivor.”

Carp was very moved by the mails. “I had to restore my credibility with the artists,” she says. As a curator, she says, she takes the etymology of that word seriously. The Latin word curare means to care.

But as selfless as it may sound, the decision to re-invite the group was not. If she had stuck with the decision to rescind the invitation, she says she would have lost about one-third of the artists who are scheduled to participate in the festival. She says many of the artists from the Arab world would have expressed solidarity with the Scottish group and their boycott of Israel. The festival threatened to come unspun only weeks before it was set to begin. “If I had been totally convinced that the Young Fathers were anti-Semitic, I would have accepted” the withdrawal of the Arab artists, she says. But without solid proof of their anti-Semitism, she couldn’t ban them. “As long as artists don’t propagate propaganda onstage, I have no right to ban artists from the stage,” she says.

This leaves the question of what other festival organizers can learn from Carp’s mishaps. Perhaps Carp should have followed up directly with a panel discussion or, even better, by inviting another Israeli group to see how the Young Fathers would react. They probably would have canceled their performance on their own.

Of course, hindsight is always 20-20.

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