Anti-Anti-Semitism or the ‘Alt-Right’?

Following the controversial special issue of leftist art magazine Texte zur Kunst, Sarah E James asks what happens when anti-anti-Semitism meets the ‘alt-right’

Decolonize this Place 2017 solidarity action against the ‘Apartheid Wall’ near Aida Refugee Camp in Palestine

Decolonize this Place 2017 solidarity action against the ‘Apartheid Wall’ near Aida Refugee Camp in Palestine

The September issue of the up-until-now respected and widely read leftist art theory and criticism magazine Text zur Kunst, titled ‘Anti-Anti-Semitism’, purports to offer a nuanced and theoretically sophisticated critique of rising anti-Semitism. Its preface – edited by the magazine’s co-founder, Isabelle Graw, new editor-in-chief Katharina Hausladen, Nadja Abt, art historian Sabeth Buchmann and the journalist Aram Lintzel – states that the edition takes ‘a clear stand against any form of hostility toward Jewish people’ and seeks to ‘critically reflect on the massive increase in anti-Semitic discrimination but also to focus on the complexity of Jewish art and cultural practices’. Given the indisputable rise of anti-Semitic hate crimes and attacks around the world in recent years, as well as the concern that an increasing number of adults are, staggeringly, unaware of the Holocaust (a recent survey in the US showed that almost two-thirds of adults aged 18–39 had no idea that six million Jews were killed by the Nazis, almost a quarter of those surveyed stated that they believed the Holocaust was a myth and one in ten believed that Jews had caused the Holocaust), a TzK issue addressing anti-Semitism seems timely. In terms of its possible contribution, the stakes are high, in a political landscape that accommodates Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s flagrant anti-Semitism alongside his attacks on Muslims and migrants, President Donald Trump’s dangerous incitement of a race war in the US, and the international dissemination of white-nationalist propaganda by figures such as Steve Bannon. Closer to home, there are the (contested) accusations of anti-Semitism against Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, and the rampant racism and nationalism newly normalised by Boris Johnson’s Brexit-fixated Tories.

Addressing this context, the late David Graeber has written brilliantly and compellingly about the dangers of weaponising anti-Semitism, arguing on openDemocracy in September 2019 that, ‘exploiting Jewish issues in ways guaranteed to create rancour, panic, and resentment is itself a form of anti-Semitism’. Yet the editorial line proffered in TzK’s preface, Lintzel’s introductory essay and almost all the contributions contained within it make clear that the magazine was less motivated by the need to critically interrogate anti-Semitism and more by a reductive instrumentalisation of it. In fact, the issue’s primary objective is a blanket and aggressive condemnation of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Palestinian-led movement for freedom, justice and equality, which it views as anti-Semitic. Particularly under attack by TzK is the popularity of the movement within the arts, cultural and academic sectors. Indeed, the editors state that the magazine will discuss anti-Semitism in the art world ‘as well as anti-Semitic implications of the BDS movement’. But they could not have been more explicit in positioning themselves in opposition to the BDS movement and its supporters, claiming that ‘the movement has gained widespread support in recent years; its sympathisers are notably found in contexts and milieus with which we have longstanding ties’. They go on to undermine – en masse – the politics underlying such supporters’ advocacy of the movement, writing, as Lintzel argues in his contribution, that ‘what is especially striking is how often those sympathisers unquestioningly adopt ideologically problematic positions’.

Positioning themselves against the BDS movement and the politics of its supporters, the magazine’s editors take the downright inexplicable and ideologically problematic decision not to include one single pro-BDS, Palestinian, Arab or pro-Palestinian voice, nor do they incorporate any dissenting or counter-positions of any kind, including that of the radical Israeli left, for example. Doing so would have enabled them to engage in a dialogue about the BDS movement, its goals in relation to the occupation of Palestine and the complexities of the historical and present situation in the Middle East. Aware that so glaring an omission would be immediately apparent to its readers, the editorial preface pre-emptively acknowledges it and explains that several pro-BDS academics were approached to take part in the issue and a possible roundtable, but refused the invitation because they ‘thought it would be too critical of BDS’ – itself a telling revelation. The general collective statement attributed to all five editors adds that ‘some of the guest editors’ felt this a defensible position because ‘the objective was to examine BDS’s prominence in the “Western” art-world and academic settings and not to stage a miniature version of the Middle East conflict’. They then stress that the entire editorial team agreed to replace the planned roundtable with three individual contributions on BDS from Saba-Nur Cheema (head of education at Frankfurt’s Anne Frank Centre), Jörn Etzold (a theatre studies scholar at the Rhur-Universität Bochum) and Daniel Laufer (a Berlin-based artist, curator and writer) – all of whom criticise or question the BDS movement, mostly citing its anti-Semitism, and doing so largely in terms of their personal, and in the case of Laufer, highly emotive and subjective experiences. (More on these three contributions later.) The editorial preface and many of the essays contained within the issue also criticise postcolonial theory, particularly singling out the South Africa-based Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe – a vocal supporter of the BDS movement – whose work is read by several contributors as being complicit with anti-Semitism. Lintzel goes much further than the editorial preface in his attack on the BDS movement in his stilted introductory essay, ‘Why Israel/On the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Campaign’, in which he often adopts the kind of inflammatory and sensationalist tone associated with the reactionary populist press. He is unequivocal in setting out the terms and politics of the magazine’s position, opening his essay with the lines: ‘historically speaking, the “Judenboycott” helped pave the way for mass extermination. The most recent incarnation of a “boycott of the Jews” is utterly unempathetic in how it disregards the Jewish Holocaust experience.’ Thus, he happily collapses the Nazi’s boycotting of Jews in the 1930s onto the current BDS movement, which emerged due to the need for a global response to the humanitarian crisis and atrocities being committed by the Israeli government in Palestine. He goes on: ‘and that is where the boycott strategy proposed by the anti-Israel BDS campaign, which has recruited a growing number of supporters, especially in the world of art and culture, crosses a red line. It is an ethical failure with which those supporters need to be confronted.’ This ‘confrontation’ takes the form of a kind of verbal witch-hunt, calling out anyone with sympathies for the BDS movement as de facto anti-Semitic. But Lintzel also writes off the majority of pro-BDS voices in the arts and cultural fields as either ignorant and/or superficial, implying that its supporters will blindly back any pro-BDS campaign: ‘BDS has a particularly high number of supporters in the UK – “Whenever there’s a BDS petition, British artists are there to sign up to it”, the writer Sibylle Berg once stated.’

That TzK’s editorial decisions – and the resultant magazine – are a product of the peculiarities of the German context needs stressing, and I will go on to discuss these. But what is staggering is that the editorial team decided to pursue such an ideological line while declaring a knowingly self-reflexive position vis-à-vis the peculiarities of the German context – which they refer to several times in their preface. At the same time, they claim to champion a supposedly ‘multi-perspectival’ and ‘non-identitarian position’. So that the biased, inflammatory and blinkered editorial position pursued by TzK and many of the contributors is continually couched in the language of art theory – proffering even Lintzel’s crude polemic not in relation to any of the socio-political realities that define the Middle East conflict, but as proposing ‘possible ways out of an aporetic constellation’ (my italics). Such language is more than distasteful in this context, given the fact that the BDS movement was founded in response to the very real severe and violent restrictions on Palestinians’ human rights: the restriction of their movement, and the movement of goods into and out of the Gaza Strip; the limiting of educational and economic resources, medical care, clean water and electricity; the daily murder and injury of Palestinian citizens by Israeli forces during protests; the destruction of Palestinian homes; the use of airstrikes against Palestinian citizens in disproportionate numbers in comparison with the retaliations by armed Palestinian groups, alongside the transfer of Israeli citizens to settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank – deemed illegal under international humanitarian law. Not one of the contributions in the magazine engages with this context. Thus, Israel and Judaism are casually and uncritically conflated – a conflation that was once seen as anti-Semitic in itself.

Perplexingly, this has resulted in the leftist art magazine aligning itself with the policies of the German conservative parliament, the Bundestag, which last year voted to label the BDS as anti-Semitic. The magazine’s mostly critical line on Mbembe also follows recent alarming events in the German cultural world. Mbembe was disinvited to the 2020 Ruhrtriennale in Bochum, despite having had an extremely popular reception in Germany in recent decades, following criticism from the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and Felix Klein – appointed in 2018 as the first ‘Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight Against Anti-Semitism’. Klein and the FDP argued that Mbembe must be barred from participating because of his relativisation of the Holocaust and hatred of Israel, claiming that this anti-Semitism was evident in his 2016 essay ‘The Society of Enmity’ and in the foreword he wrote for the 2015 publication Apartheid Israel: The Politics of Analogy. These criticisms centred on the philosopher’s assertion that the occupation of Palestine was the greatest moral scandal of our times and that the extreme experiences of carnage, destruction and extermination levelled at the Palestinians by the Israeli government called for a strategy of global isolation. Mbembe refuted the claims of anti-Semitism as unfounded and argued that he would never trivialise the Holocaust or equate it with apartheid in South Africa. Many scholars – in Germany and beyond, Jewish and non-Jewish – have since come to Mbembe’s defence.

The Mbembe affair is one in a series of similar recent accusations and dangerous public discreditings of academics and cultural workers in Germany over supposed anti-Semitism. For example, the director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum, Peter Schaefer, a Jewish studies scholar, was subjected to a sustained attack by pro-Israel activists that resulted in his resignation last year over accusations that he personally supported BDS and was therefore anti-Semitic. Yasemin Shooman, another employee at the Museum, a historian who headed the ‘Academy’ programme, who received her PhD from Berlin’s Centre for Research on Anti-Semitism, and whose research specialises in racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Jewish–Muslim relationships and the cultures of remembrance in ‘migration societies’, was accused by Thomas Thiel – an editor at the influential newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, who has published many controversial pro-Israeli diatribes – of turning the museum into an active centre of ‘political Islam’ because of her comparison of anti-Semitic attacks in Germany with attacks on Muslim migrants. She is now director of the German Centre for Integration and Migration Research.

In her contribution to the issue, ‘Critique, and Critique of the Critique / How the BDS Debate leads to a Dead End’, Cheema addresses ‘the dis-invitation logic of cancel culture’. Speaking from personal experience, she refers to another instance at her own organisation, the Anne Frank Centre, in which the Anti-Semitism Commissioner of Hesse demanded the journalist Daniel Bax be disinvited from an event about the Middle East conflict, not because he vocally supported BDS but because he stated that it was not anti-Semitic. This event leads Cheema to the counterintuitive conclusion not that the claims of anti-Semitism have become unmoored from any stable or real meaning in Germany and instead that ‘BDS is not part of the solution to the Middle East conflict, but rather part of the problem’. Making the point that she is writing as a Muslim, she stresses that, while she rarely encounters anti-Semitism in Muslim circles, the UN Human Rights Department where she formerly worked was a hotbed of anti-Semitism due mainly to the fact that many of her colleagues saw the Israeli government’s actions as being on a par with those of the Nazis. Focusing on those Israeli academics affected by the boycott, she defends Mbembe’s disinvitation on the grounds of his own lobbying against the Israeli scholar Shifra Sagy attending a conference at his university in 2018. This leads her to conclude that BDS is a ‘totalitarian ideology in which exclusion is not an instrument but rather an inherent principle.’

The editors’ and the majority of the contributors’ equation of the BDS movement with anti-Semitism, their hostility towards postcolonial theorists such as Mbembe, alongside the adoption of strategies of bullying, silencing and exclusion, the ideological and rhetorical contents of many of the magazine’s essays and the style of their argumentation perversely brings TzK into close proximity with the ideas and strategies currently pursued by the extreme leftist Antideutsche (Anti-German) movement – which attacks Germany and nationalism but idolises Israel – as well as the extreme anti-Semitic right, such as the Alternative für Deutschland and the anti-immigration group PEGIDA, which have mounted a sustained campaign against specific German museums and galleries. This has been particularly notable in Dresden, where many curators and directors have been targeted with the accusation that they are islamifying German culture. The AfD have also used their parliamentary power in these anti-Islamic attacks on institutions, putting pressure on local organisations and figures. Thus, TzK appears to appropriate the same kind of tactics as the very factions that the left should be mobilising against. Given the current resurgence of the far right, the so-called alt-right and new fascisms (see Larne Abse Gogarty’s ‘The Art Right’ in AM405), this is an indefensible move for a supposedly leftist publication, particularly a journal that, it should be noted, has recently contained critiques of the ‘alt-right’ in the art world (Issue No. 116, 2019). This is perhaps why the issue of TzK immediately garnered praise from figures such as Ulf Poschardt – editor-in-chief of the hugely influential Welt Gruppe newspapers, a kind of German Rupert Murdoch known for his right-wing populism – who posted his congratulations on Twitter.

On one level it seems clear that TzK was hoping to exploit and benefit from a certain degree of controversy, but it is quite incredible that the editors took such a problematic ideological line under the guise of a judicious self-reflexivity. The preface makes evident to the reader whenever possible the editors’ awareness of the many blind spots and potential biases of their perspective, while also claiming to follow a supposedly multi-perspectival position. Not only are the subjects of humanitarian crisis, genocide, torture, imprisonment and dispossession repeatedly rendered invisible and replaced by the lofty rhetoric of art theory, but many of the critiques mounted against the BDS are articulated on the level of superficial commentary. For example, in his essay, Lintzel shuttles from the Holocaust to accusations of celebrity name-dropping and references to the Eurovision song contest in a manner that would leave Theodor Adorno lost for words.

Paradoxes, illogical arguments, flawed reasoning and provocative language flood the publication. In searching for BDS’s anti-Semitism, Lintzel sees tropes lurking everywhere. He writes of BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti’s claim that Israel is committing a ‘slow genocide’ in Palestine, that ‘it isn’t hard to recognise the anti-Semitic trope of Jewish insidiousness in his assertion’. Lintzel makes countless obscure arguments – such as the idea that BDS is too nebulous in its objec- tives in comparison with the anti-apartheid movement. Yet he, Cheema and many others simultaneously claim that BDS is far too particular in its constant obsession with Israel and not other global evils. In one confounding passage in Etzold’s essay ‘The Limits of Representation/The Ruhrtriennial and BDS’, he takes the peculiar line of criticising academics, philosophers, musicians and artists who support BDS for not turning their attention instead to more urgent global concerns, such as ‘the destruction of entire habitats due to global extraction, in slavery-like working conditions in Arab countries’ as opposed to ‘a democracy that, despite having for over ten years been ruled by a right-wing nationalist government has not yet, even with all its repressive rule, succeeded in eliminating the representation of Arab Israelis in the Knesset [the Israeli government’s legislative branch]’.

The issue’s provocative and inflammatory language reaches a high point in Laufer’s text ‘Pseudo-Humanism’, which describes the author’s confrontations with BDS in terms of ‘the strange and poisonous effects of this largely inexplicit anti-Semitism’. His piece is filled with bizarre generalisations and biases, such as ‘the BDS movement weakens Israeli and non-Israeli artists in equal measure. Yet the arts in Israel have traditionally served to inspire critical reflection’. Laufer perceives BDS ‘to be an omnipresent threat to my work’, and sees the campaign as bullying doubtful cultural- sector workers into supporting it – who then ‘unconsciously reproduce anti-Semitism in their thought patterns and behaviour by supporting anti-Semitic campaigns’. Accusing figures such as the American political activist and Women’s March co-organiser Linda Sarsour of anti-Semitism for arguing that oppressors should not be humanised, Laufer concludes that ‘the problem with BDS is that it enables anti-Semites to pass off their anti-Semitism as humanism’ and ends by categorising all BDS supporters as motivated by either naivety or aggression. As with the majority of essays in the issue, random images by Jewish artists – in this instance Eva Hesse – are dropped in, one presumes to help illustrate Laufer’s ‘argument’, but without any reference or explanation in the text.

Unsurprisingly, the publication was immediately met with widespread condemnation and criticism from a range of international artists, art historians and academics based in Germany and beyond. Notable voices of dissent included the artists Candice Breitz, Emily Jacir, Jumana Manna, Oreet Ashery and Dani Gal – Gal’s work is the subject of one of the essays – alongside art historians and visual culture theorists including Larne Abse Gogarty, TJ Demos and Nicholas Mirzoeff. Breitz, who lives in Berlin and teaches in Braunschweig, has produced a clear statement against the magazine: ‘Palestinian Lives Matter’, she writes, adding that ‘the very same voices on the German left who loudly con- demn conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers for rubbing shoulders with Nazis and fascists at protests against Covid-19 regulations (as well they should), appear to feel no discomfort in aligning themselves with the interests and policies of Trump and Johnson when it comes to Netanyahu’s Israel’. Demos has concurred, arguing that those who accuse BDS of anti-Semitism are ‘confusing racism with anti-colonial freedom struggles, and inadvertently creating a situation of a new kind of fascism birthed by Nazi anti-Semitism: the production of a state of military occupation that is beyond critique, which is profoundly dangerous’. Mirzoeff, another vocal critic of the issue, has also written, in his 2019 essay ‘The Jew and the Nationalists’, of the ‘Brexit-Trump nationalism which now accuses its opponents of being racist. Not the old racism that it so gleefully parades but a newly invented tradition: anti-Israel racism’.

Breitz goes on, in the same statement published on social media, to declare: ‘Not all of us who live in the contemporary art community in Germany see things as Texte zur Kunst does [...] there are many of us who believe that it is not enough for German and Jewish Lives to Matter in Germany [...] Palestinian Lives, Arab Lives and Black Lives matter every bit as much.’ If the relationship between anti-anti-Semitism and the arts appears to have a politics in Germany quite removed from the British context, a recent text in ArtReview by one of the 2019 Turner Prize-winning artists, Tai Shani, makes explicit that this is not the case. Working with her co-winners Helen Cammock, Lawrence Abu Hamdan and Oscar Murillo on a collaborative commission to produce a work in relation to the iconic Fountain (commonly but incorrectly known as Eros) in London’s Piccadilly Circus, the collective’s cursory research revealed that the fountain commemorates the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, who was instrumental in the colonisation of Palestine. The group’s proposed work, undertaken in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests and the toppling of statues symbolic of white supremacy and colonial pasts, unsurprisingly focused on Britain’s 1840 invasion of Palestine. Their emphasis on Palestine resulted in the artists being informed that their proposal might be perceived as being anti-Semitic, and they were asked therefore to generalise their focus. They subsequently pulled out of the commission.

For Gal, an Israeli video artist based in Berlin, the repercussions of the magazine’s issue are profound, entirely because, as he wrote to me: ‘The way I understand art and the art community is that we have the duty and the freedom to imagine alternative futures, talk about the difficult past and challenge governments from a position of a deep commitment to humanist values and not nationalistic ones. This needs to be protected now.’ Breitz also proposes that a recent essay by the American academic Michael Rothberg provides ‘a subtle and extensive argument that offers a counter-position’ to TzK. Rothberg was one of the academics that TzK approached but who declined to participate, because he was ‘uncomfortable with the direction that the issue seemed to be going in’. Rothberg’s essay, ‘The Spectres of Comparison’, deals with the Mbembe affair in relation to Germany’s ‘commemorative landscape’, and the fact that the Holocaust has become a unique and ‘quasi-sacred place’, effectively removing it ‘from the field of ordinary historical understanding, which necessarily relies on comparison and relative commen- surability between different events’. Rothberg proffers a solution, a concept of multidirectional memory, which develops ‘dialogically – through borrowing, appropriation, juxtaposition, and echoing of other histories and other traditions of memory’. In the only essay to follow through on the magazine’s promise to focus on the complexity of Jewish art and cultural practices, that by Noit Banai and Buchmann, Rothberg’s concept of multidirectional memory is applied in a discussion of Gal’s film trilogy Night and Fog, 2011, As from Afar, 2013, and White City, 2018, which depict, amongst other subjects, the expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948 transposed to the streets of Stuttgart (though this was not one of the stills chosen for the TzK issue). Gal’s work is presented as focusing on the blind spots of history and a kind of ‘comparative imaging’.

In response to my request for a collective editorial statement from TzK to address the outcries and condemnation that the issue has provoked – a right to reply they did not extend to the subjects of their critique – they offered first an explanation that foregrounded the journal’s conscious aim to provide ‘an active platform for controversial debate’, stressing that ‘no single issue of our magazine is intended to constitute the last word on a subject’. However, they go on to claim, yet more unconvincingly, that, ‘Even if the dispute with BDS is foregrounded on this occasion, this is not meant to suggest that BDS is a monolithic and inherently anti-Semitic movement that should therefore itself be boycotted’ – something which almost every contribution clearly asserts. Having failed to lend greater weight to an internal debate over a possible lack of inclusivity, they conclude, with a slight abrogation of responsibility: ‘We greatly regret not having given more space over to this dispute within the issue.’ The magazine has nevertheless already become emblematic of how far the leftist art world has been swayed by and has even incorporated exactly the kind of conservative and right-wing politics it should be calling out. Thus, the future credibility and relevance of TzK is undeniably in question. What is more urgent, now, is to focus on those art and cultural projects, texts and politics which oppose and reject such terms and such discourse. One good example is the current exhibition ‘Errata’ at Berlin’s HKW, organised by Ariella Azoulay and Anselm Franke, which focuses on the violence of imperial boundary-making and asserts the too-often invisible relationship between documented cultural artefacts and undocumented migrants. Another example can be found in the recent actions by the activist organisation Decolonize This Place against art institutions in the US which have sought to make the art museum ‘responsive to people rather than to the dictates of capital’ so that ‘it can foster creativity and memory rather than functioning as a tool to launder the reputations of the ultra-wealthy’ (as discussed on Hyperallergic). Unlike the anti-anti-Semitism pressgangs and their often innocent victims – many on the left or Jewish – DTP is succeeding in forcing out figures such as Warren Kanders, who was vice chair of the board of the Whitney Museum of American Art until they exposed (Artnotes AM423) his corporation as a chief producer of the tear gas and weapons being used against protesters and civilians around the world – a worthy target indeed.

Sarah E James is an art historian and writer based in Frankfurt.

First published in Art Monthly 440: October 2020.

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