Friday, 12 Aug 2022 - 15 of Av, 5782

German anti-Semitic arts scandal continues to foment after festival director resigns

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“The devastating realization remains that in Germany in 2022, it took weeks of immense public pressure—once again almost exclusively from Jewish organizations—before the display of ‘Stürmer’ caricatures had consequences,” said Remko Leemhius, director of AJC Berlin.

By Orit Arfa, JNS

In the continued fallout of the scandal surrounding anti-Semitic works presented at the Documenta 15 art festival in Kassel, Germany, director Sabine Schormann has announced her resignation. The Jewish community, however, has called for actual consequences related to the images on display, with the American Jewish Committee Berlin leading the call for her ousting.

“The Supervisory Board expresses its deep consternation that clearly anti-Semitic motifs were to be seen on the opening weekend of Documenta 15,” read Documenta’s July 16 statement announcing the mutually agreed upon resignation of longtime director Schormann. “The presentation of the banner ‘Peopleʼs Justice’ by the artistsʼ collective Taring Padi with its anti-Semitic imagery was a clear transgression of boundaries and Documenta was thus considerably damaged.”

The statement continued: “In the opinion of the Supervisory Board, it is essential to clear up this incident promptly, to draw conclusions based on scientific findings for dealing with anti-Semitic incidents in the cultural and art context, and to avert further damage to Documenta.”

The announcement singled out the show’s most controversial work, “People’s Justice,” a large-scale mural that featured unmistakable anti-Semitic images, such as a Jew painted with vampire-like fangs, a snake tongue, bloodshot eyes and an SS insignia, and the face of a Mossad agent shaped like a pig. Other works slammed by pro-Jewish activists include “Guernica Gaza,” which compares Israeli operations in Gaza with Nazi Germany’s air raid on the Spanish city of Guernica during World War II. The anti-Jewish bias has been attributed to the anti-Israel sympathies of the Indonesian curators.

Moreover, no Israelis were represented at the festival.

Following an outcry from Jewish groups, the Israeli embassy in Berlin and pro-Israel politicians, the anti-Semitic mural was first covered up, and then after internal discussion, removed.

“Gaza Guernica” and other questionable works, however, remain on display. Warning bells about potential anti-Semitic representation were already sounded by Jewish institutions leading up to the mounting of Documenta 15, but they seemed to have gone unheeded.

‘Understood by some, but not by all’

Remko Leemhius, director of AJC Berlin, welcomed Schormann’s resignation but doesn’t believe the Documenta statement goes far enough in addressing the problem. In an op-ed published in the state-funded Jewish weekly Jüdische Allgemeine, he lamented that the Documenta board did not express remorse over the anti-Semitic images nor apologize to the Jewish community.

“Instead, the members of the supervisory board are only concerned about the reputation of the Documenta and lament the damage the art exhibition has suffered. The statement is simply shabby,” he wrote in German. The reckoning over this incident, he said, should be conducted by an independent body.

“But apart from how Documenta will continue and what follows from this scandal,” continued Leemhius, “the devastating realization remains that in Germany in the year 2022, it took weeks of immense public pressure—once again almost exclusively from Jewish organizations—before the display of Stürmer caricatures had consequences.”

Leonard Kaminski, a spokesperson for the Werte Initiative, a Jewish pro-democracy lobby that campaigned against the anti-Semitic displays, has likewise called for more to be done, sooner rather than later, now that its call for Schormann’s resignation has borne fruit.

Other anti-Semitic works also need to be removed, such as “Gaza Guernica,” which some German intelligentsia might not regard as anti-Semitic given its anti-Israel thrust.

“There are some forms of anti-Semitism that are very well understood in Germany and those that are much less understood,” Kaminski told JNS. “Israel-related anti-Semitism is a form that is understood by some, but not by all.”

To ensure that publicly funded cultural events and exhibitions are not plagued by such problems in the future, he suggests that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism, which subsumes anti-Zionism, be used as the yardstick. The role of the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media, headed by Claudia Roth, must also be investigated, he stated.

‘Ignorance is no excuse’

For Israeli-based German writer Chaim Noll, Schorrmann is simply one actor in a German cultural system that has been corrupted over the years by anti-Israeli staffers.

Additionally, he told JNS, “Claudia Roth has to step down, of course. She cannot remain in her position. She was responsible for this show and, even if she pretends not having known about the details, which I don’t believe, nevertheless she is responsible. Ignorance is no excuse.”

If an oft-fractured Jewish community mobilizes, unites and remains focused on goals representing their interests, he said, like in this instance, they can continue to hold Germany to account for their failings to keep Jew-hatred out of the country.

“German Jewry has to become more powerful, the attitude more energetic,” said Noll. “It has been too weak. Jews in Germany are treated badly because they’re known as a group that accepts being humiliated, and that has to stop. They have to show self-esteem and strength.”

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