Kunsthochschule Weißensee.
Photo: imago/Lem

BerlinIt is a universal truth that any connection, proven or just suspected, to the Israeli boycott movement BDS is increasingly likely to unleash a fiery cultural and political debate. Ever since the German government’s ruling last year that the BDS campaign’s call for boycotts against Israel are antisemitic, the frontlines of the debate have become more hardened, and the debates themselves more claustrophobic than ever before. More than 60 Jewish and Israeli academics protested the government ruling.

And now there’s a new controversy to add to the debate – and it concerns a programme of events being staged at the Berlin Weißensee Academy of Art (Kunsthochschule Weißensee). The homepage of the online art event programme “School for Unlearning Zionism” at the Kunsthalle am Hamburger Platz (KHHP) art gallery, which belongs to the academy, was recently deleted. The programme’s organisers have had their funding withdrawn. The event series, due to run to the end of October, includes talks and workshops in Hebrew and English, as well as film evenings and an exhibition.

Even after taking a fleeting look through the programme, one theme stands out: several contributors portray the state of Israel as a de facto colonial power, whose ideological principles – as the title says – have to be “unlearned”. This postcolonial perspective is also clear through the preamble announcing the lecture series. The titles of these include “Mizrachi’s struggle as part of decolonisation?” or “Zionism as settler-colonialism”.

Several people have now spoken out against the event, most prominently politician Volker Beck from Die Grüne who called it a “propagandistic outrage”. The Israeli embassy spoke of “embracing antisemitism”, stating that simply the title of the exhibition negated the basis for Israel’s existence. The American Jewish Committee (AJC) was also critical of the planned events. Fuel was added to the fire surrounding the debate by the fact that the Weißensee academy states on its website that it receives funding from the Ministry of Education.

“Then a white German comes along and says, ‘no, that’s not allowed’.”

Remarkably, the group behind the “School for Unlearning Zionism” has scarcely been mentioned amidst the criticism of the project. They are a group of Jewish Israelis who have been grappling with their own Zionist historical narrative for just over a year, using varying formats.

“Often it’s only possible to take a critical view once you’ve left the place that created that narrative,” Yehudit Yinhar, a KHHP student and the group’s spokesperson, told the Berliner Zeitung. The programme in question was meant to be about making a confrontation with one’s own history accessible and also inviting others in to get a closer look at the perspectives involved in that history – something she says is largely impossible in Israel.

Yinhar is appalled that the KHHP homepage has been deleted and that the school has bowed to pressure. It was allegedly the journalist Frederik Schindler who informed the academy that planned speakers supported the BDS campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel over its occupation of Palestinian territories. The fact that that’s been a repeated topic of discourse for some time does nothing to reduce her frustration.

“This is often the way,” she said. “A group of Jewish Israelis want to engage critically with their own history, but then a white German comes along and says, ‘No, that’s not allowed!’ As if the power to define our own history is German property. Where will that take us? Will we be sorted into the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Jews again? If German institutions seriously say they want to protect Jewish life in Germany, but then take our grants away because of suspicions of antisemitism, something is really going wrong here.”

Volker Beck: key issue is state impartiality, not BDS

The first anniversary of an antisemitic attack on a synagogue by a rightwing terrorist in Halle has only just been commemorated. Can Yinhar understand that in the country that perpetrated the Holocaust, the sensitivity surrounding antisemitism – even if it only suspected – is much higher?

“A lot needs to be said about Halle. But do I have to be careful in Germany, because antisemitism, which is part of my own family history, is a sensitive topic for Germans?” she asks. “I can understand that people are against antisemitism and racism – we are too! But using BDS as a yardstick in the debate to equate antisemitism and antizionism oversimplifies the issue. That does nothing to help fight antisemitism.”

Für Volker Beck, the artists’ BDS background is not the most important factor. “The question is whether such an event should be entitled to state support,” he told the Berliner Zeitung. He believes it makes a difference whether a project like this is taking place within the sphere of freedom of opinion and assembly, or if it’s being funded directly or indirectly by the taxpayer. “No-one is saying this event should be banned,” he added. “But that doesn’t mean the state has to support it.”

This article was adapted from the original German for the English edition by Elizabeth Rushton.