Tensions Over the Israel-Hamas Conflict Erupt in Germany’s Cultural Sphere—And at Its Prized Exhibition Documenta
Amid weeks marked by canceled exhibitions and events, two members of the Documenta finding committee also resigned.
As the Israel-Hamas war continues to rattle leaders and citizens around the world, in Germany, the cultural sphere is currently facing a particularly tense battle over what should be deemed protected speech.
This week, two members of Documenta 16’s finding committee resigned, citing different but interlinked issues connected to the Middle Eastern conflict. The past few editions of Documenta—the preeminent Kassel quinquennial that rivals the Venice biennale in terms of relevance for contemporary art—have been mired in controversy, and hopes for a new start already seem dashed before the next edition, set for 2027, has even begun. At the same time, concerns over what is seen as increased censorship in the public arena, and especially in the cultural sphere, have led to a string of cancelations of events and exhibitions in the wake of October 7.
While the issue has long and deep historical roots, tensions were already simmering in the summer of 2022, when Mohammed Al Hawajri found himself suddenly thrust into the spotlight of Germany’s culture reporting. The Gazan artist was about to unveil a series of collages in the context of 2022’s Documenta 15; allegations of antisemitism in Al Hawajri’s series eventually even drew the scrutiny of German legal authorities.
The primary point of contention was its title, Guernica Gaza, a reference to Picasso’s infamous anti-war painting. Al Hawajri’s work depicted bomb blasts—which could be interpreted as Israeli airstrikes in Gaza—but it was the suspicion of a comparison between the abstract depiction of Nazi bombings in the 1937 Guernica and Israeli air raids that eventually took precedence over any other possible interpretation of the work, namely as a quasi-universal anti-war message.
Al Hawajri’s case wasn’t the only one accused of conveying antisemitism during Documenta 15. The exhibition, curated by the Indonesian collective ruangrupa, effectively became a symbol of Germany’s attempts to draw a line between suspicions of antisemitism and disdain for views that are critical of Israeli policies on the one side, and acute, indefensible antisemitism that appeared in more than one artwork—most notoriously in Taring Padi’s People’s Justice. The debate was levelled, as has often been the case in Germany in recent years, against Palestinians, artists from the “global south,” and left-wing Israelis.
As such, Documenta 15 became a flashpoint for ongoing concerns about how antisemitism manifests in contemporary German society; it also demonstrated how the nation’s aspiration to make room for pluralist discourse can collide with its staatsraison—a policy derived from well-intentioned attempts to atone for the Holocaust but one that has eventually led to placing staunch pro-Israel rhetoric above requirements for that pluralist discourse. In the art world, among the Jewish community in Germany, and among artists and curators, many felt unfairly treated during the fallout around Documenta 15. The show left a soaringly bitter aftertaste.
And while many have felt inclined to leave behind last year’s scandal as the planning for Documenta 16, got under way—the issues that arose in the last edition have caught up with the exhibit once again.
Art critic and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskoté resigned from the upcoming edition’s finding committee, which is tasked with determining Documenta 16’s curatorial team. He is the second member of the committee to resign, following Israeli artist Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger, who quit a few days earlier, on Friday, November 10. Both resignation letters were published by the Documenta press office on Monday, November 13.
Hoskoté had resigned after Süddeutsche Zeitung reported on November 9 that he had signed a petition years before, condemning an event planned by the Israeli Consulate General at the University of Mumbai in 2019 and calling on progressive forces in India to align their struggles with that of the Palestinians. The event was to discuss the relationship between right-wing Zionism and Hindu nationalism, often described as one of influence and inspiration. A representative of the Indian Bharatiya Janata Party, which holds a range of Hindu supremacist views, was scheduled to speak. This petition directly cites the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (commonly known as BDS), a Palestinian-led effort that the German government has deemed antisemitic; through a 2019 legally non-binding resolution, the government prohibits funding for projects or events associated with it.
Claudia Roth, Germany’s culture minister, denounced the 2019 statement signed by Hoskoté as “clearly antisemitic” in her comments to Süddeutsche Zeitung on November 10, condemning its depiction of Zionism as a “racist ideology” calling for a “settler-colonial-apartheid state.” At the same time, Roth threatened to withdraw state funding for Documenta 16.
In response to the report, Documenta leadership issued a statement that there was still a need for discussion, and publicly stated that Hoskoté should distance himself from his signature on the petition. The critic resigned. “These last few days have been among the most distressing days of my life,” he said in a statement.
He explained the reasoning for leaving the post. “It is clear to me that there is no room, in this toxic atmosphere, for a nuanced discussion,” he wrote. “I am being asked to accept a sweeping and untenable definition of anti-Semitism that conflates the Jewish people with the Israeli state; and that, correspondingly, misrepresents any expression of sympathy with the Palestinian people as support for Hamas.”
Hoskoté’s view is that the current circumstances negate Documenta’s mandate for openness to a diversity of positions, risk-taking, and willingness to engage in dialogue. He continued to express his condemnation of the Hamas massacre of October 7, as well has his disagreement with BDS’s methods. His reasons for signing the petition, he noted, was that the 2019 event “clearly posited an equivalence between [Zionist Theodor Herzl] and [Hindutva ideologue] Savarkar and was intended to develop intellectual respectability for an alliance between Zionism and Hindutva.”
Documenta’s managing director Andreas Hoffmann publicly thanked Hoskoté for his work and called decision to resign “logical and respectable.” A consistent distancing from any form of antisemitism [including Israel-related antisemitism] is needed, Hoffmann said, adding that this was the only way to achieve a genuine new beginning for the show.
Concurrently, the reasons for Israel-born artist Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger’s resignation from the finding committee were quite different. Her move to resign was in no way related to the debate about Hoskoté, she said. After the Hamas terror attack on Israeli civilians on October 7, the artist described her difficulties in contributing to the selection committee’s work. Due to the escalating war that followed the Hamas-led massacre, Ettinger requested an interruption to the search process, which had not been granted. After receiving Ettinger’s letter, Hoffmann wrote that he tried to contact her to explore the possibility of her rejoining the committee. “Her decisive action and reasoning have our full understanding,” Hoffmann said.
The underlying tension at Documenta mirrors a wider debate taking over Germany’s cultural sphere, and coincides with the German government’s strong and unconditional support for Israel’s current war measures in Gaza, which contrasts slightly more moderate stances taken by France and the U.K. and which stands in striking opposition to secretary-general of the United Nations António Guterres’s repeated calls this fall for a humanitarian ceasefire.
In recent weeks, cultural workers in Germany have condemned a crackdown on what they deem should be protected, free speech, a crackdown that is disproportionately affecting people of color, and particularly those of Arab or Muslim origins. A group of Jewish artists and scholars living in Berlin initiated an open letter titled “Freedom for the One Who Thinks Differently.” The letter explicitly opposes violations of civil liberties in Germany under the guise of Jewish safety and expresses concern about the disquieting undercurrent of xenophobia that is increasingly evident within criticism of antisemitism among immigrants and Muslims in Germany.
“As Jews, we reject this pretext for racist violence and express full solidarity with our Arab, Muslim, and particularly our Palestinian neighbors,” it reads. “What frightens us is the prevailing atmosphere of racism and xenophobia in Germany, hand in hand with a constraining and paternalistic philo-Semitism.”
Amid the debates, there has been a slew of cancelations. In the immediate wake of the war, the Frankfurt Book Fair called off an award ceremony for Palestinian writer Adania Shibli. Officially, the ceremony had been canceled “due to the war in Israel,” according to Litprom, the German literary association that organizes the prize. This week, an exhibition titled “We ist Future” at Museum Folkwang was canceled over pro-Palestinian Instagram posts by its curator, Anaïs Duplan. Several other events, including literary readings, theatre plays, as well as a conference on memory culture organized by Candice Breitz and Michael Rothberg [the author was invited to be a part of this conference], were cancelled.
Amid all this, Documenta 15’s scandal still casts a long shadow. In Al Hawajri’s case, the legal proceedings were ultimately dropped; however, a few months later, an expert panel responsible for reviewing Documenta 15 published a report concluding that his work Guernica Gaza did indeed convey anti-Semitism. It argued that the series portrayed a “peaceful, unarmed civilian population” in Gaza, suggesting that this was an inaccurate representation. It also criticized an absence of references to the political complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the time, few questioned the report’s parameters, which appeared to judge artworks according to a Wikipedia-style idea of political objectivity rather than an attempt to process subjective experiences, including ongoing conflict and war.
At a recent panel discussion at Schaubühne, a renowned Berlin theater, on the ongoing Israel-Hamas war—one of the 2022 Documenta report’s authors stated that Israel had “clearly and more successfully demonstrated its endeavors to fight Hamas in accordance with international humanitarian law.” The statement came as the condition of the more than 200 hostages remains all but unclear and at a point when nearly 8,000 Gazan civilians had been killed.
The questions surrounding how diverse communities and their intertwined narratives can relate to Germany’s Israel policy and redefined nationalism, particularly as they play out in the cultural sphere, are unlikely to disappear anytime soon— and certainly not in the context of Documenta.
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