Who is allowed to discuss the Jewish narrative of Zionism in Germany? Apparently, not Israelis.
Over the last decade Berlin has become home to thousands of Israelis and Palestinians who have left a cultural imprint on the city of more than 3.5 million. Among these Israeli immigrants, a small group of art radical students at Weißensee Kunsthochschule Berlin organized a month-long program in October to explore themes of how knowledge creates systems of power and envision equality between Israelis and Palestinians. They called the program the “School for Unlearning Zionism.”
The first event began as planned on October 2. Within days a series of articles ran in conservative German media. One letter to the university later, the art school pulled the funding and took the program bill offline, leaving the students to move the remaining events in the program online. In total the School for Unlearning Zionism hosted 18 events.
Today, Germany is home to the largest Palestinian community in Europe, and the Israeli embassy in Germany estimates there are at least 10,000 Israelis in Berlin. Many of these Israelis who emigrated want to unlearn nationalist narratives for themselves as well as for their adoptive home in Germany, and part of that is questioning Zionist values. One could say that Israeli-Palestinian conflict also emigrated to Berlin, and not by mistake as Germany is a key figure in the creation of the Jewish state in Israel/Palestine.
On October 7, Weißensee Kunsthochschule received an email from Frederik Schindler, a journalist with Die Welt, a conservative newspaper owned by the German media group Axel Springer. Schindler was seeking a comment from the university about the program, claiming it has ties to the BDS movement. He specifically named four Jewish-Israelis who were listed as the speakers in the program list as BDS supporters.
That next day, the story circulated online. One of the biggest critics of the project is Green Party (Die Grüne) politician Volker Beck who tweeted a furious article by Jüdische Allgemeine, a German-Jewish newspaper, which headlined coverage of the event as, “Umarmung des Antisemitismus,” which means “Embracing Antisemitism.”
In the same article, Volker Beck was quoted describing the project as a “propagandistic monstrosity.”
American Jewish Committee Berlin, a group with a four-decade long presence in Germany, tweeted that the Weißensee Kunsthochschule, a public school, is “offering rooms” to host the event at the university, decrying, “No tax money may be used for the delegitimization of Israel!”
The Israeli embassy in Berlin also released a statement over social media on October 8 referencing the International Holocaust Rememberance Alliance, or IHRA, definition of antisemitism that considers anti-Zionism a form of antisemitism:
“There should be no tolerance for the delegitimization of Israel and antisemitism in Germany today. Hosting a workshop whose title already negates Israel’s livelihood is an embrace of antisemitism.The IHRA working definition for antisemitism adopted by the federal government cites the denial of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination as an example.This series of events falls under this definition and should be recognized for what it is: anti-Zionist and antisemitic.”
Amadeu Antonio Stiftung, a leading German advocacy group committed to eliminating “neo-Nazism, right-wing extremism, anti-Semitism, racism and other forms of bigotry and hate in Germany,” condemned the event on it’s website. “Many of the speakers” the group said, without citing names, “are also known for their proximity to the anti-Israel BDS campaign.”
One day later, Weißensee Kunsthochschule shut down the webpage hosting the School for Unlearning Zionism’s program. It was was eventually put back online on October 21. The school posted a statement online on October 13, indicating the “event is not funded by public funds.”
Yehudit Yinhar, 35, is a lead organizer behind the School for Unlearning Zionism and a master’s student at the Weißensee Kunsthochschule. She told me she found out about the school pulling their funding, a nominal 100 euro honorarium per speaker, from the statement online.
In Germany, BDS is considered antisemitic. In May 2019 the German parliament passed a controversial piece of legislation equating support for the BDS movement with antisemitism. The decision itself isn’t legally binding, however, the government can choose to enforce the resolution by way of banning public funds towards groups that support the boycotts against Israel.
When the parliament adopted the resolution, it also backed the IHRA definition of antisemitism and further charged, that BDS is antisemitic. In response a wave of critics from Jewish artists and intellectuals to Palestinian activists panned the 2019 resolution as a form “McCarthyism.”
This incident is the first major public implementation of the anti-BDS resolution since it was passed. It is notable that it has been used to silence a group of Israeli artists who sought to speak freely about post-national ideas, while meeting with refugees and communities in exile, specifically Palestinians.
According to Yinhar, the event has nothing to do with BDS and the shutdown is misdirected rancor by conservative Germans seeking to squash criticism of Israel, even when the criticism comes from Israelis. To review, the allegation is that Yinhar’s program supports BDS even though the program itself does not address BDS, because a few of the speakers do endorse the movement. Even so, BDS is not a topic of discussion at any of the events, is not on any of the program literature, and none of the organizers of the School for Unlearning Zionism have endorsed it.
“They could have done five minutes of research to find out they were incorrect,” Yinhar told me of the school administrators. She calls what happened “guilt by association (to BDS)” and incident of “guilt by suspicion of association.”
Yinhar added, “I am not even sure that they know who the people in the project are?”
The website for the School for Unlearning Zionism explains the project “originated in Berlin (as a place between Tel Aviv and Ramallah), by a group of Jewish Israelis seeking to be part of a movement for equality in Palestine/Israel and of deconstruction of systems built on inequality, oppression, and exploitation.”
The project description continues, “In our desire to be partners in struggles within unequal power relations, we recognize the importance of having these discussions amongst ourselves as well as the importance of creating learning spaces in which non hegemonic knowledge can be shared and heard in broader contexts.”
I spoke to Yinhar over the phone last week from my home in Berlin. She told me she wanted the project to examine, “the hegemony of where I come from.”
“Now, two generations later, I’m being called antisemitic because I am opening questions about the complex family history?” she said.
Yinhar was born in Israel, raised in the U.S. and lived in Berlin for the last decade. She described herself as “the granddaughter of a Jewish woman who fled Berlin in 1938 because of the rise of the Nazis.”
Mati Shemoelof: Like you, most of the speakers are Jewish and Israeli. Historian Ilan Pappe gave a lecture about Zionism and settler-colonialism, and activist Iris Hefets presented on the Mizrachi struggle in decolonization. As a Jewish person, how does it feel to be accused of promoting antisemitism through creative work that explores themes of equality between Israelis and Palestinians?
Yehudit Yinhar: After Frederik Schindler, a journalist with the conservative Die Welt daily, contacted the art school, the art school distanced itself publicly by shutting down the site. Quite quickly, our project was listed in a “chronicle of antisemitic incidents” [by the German anti-discrimination group Amadeu Antonio Stiftung]. There is something really scary about that.
But by doing this, they [Amadeu Antonio Stiftung] really delegitimized themselves – at a time when we do need them. Because antisemitism is a real thing. And it is clear, when you are defaming Jewish-Israelis and Palestinians – then you are not fighting antisemitism.
What do you think this incident reveals about the limits of criticism of Israel?
YY: If this is already happening to a group of Jewish-Israelis, I can only imagine what it means to other people who are Palestinians, who are Muslim, who are doing anti-racist work in Germany today.
Initially the university took down the website for the month of events, but ultimately it was brought back online. What do you think caused this reverse course?
YY: After the school got a letter from a lawyer it had to put the website back online.
Looking at how the events unfolded, do you see a connection between the rise of the right in Germany and the anti-BDS legislation that was passed by Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, in 2019? That resolution labeled BDS as antisemitic and prohibited public funds going toward BDS events. It went to vote after an earlier and more extreme bill was introduced by the far-right group, the Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD, who sought to make BDS illegal under German law.
YY: We asked ourselves this again and again. [In planning the October program, we wondered] who is the audience we wish to create this space for? Who will applaud this in the end? And then I turned the question around and asked, who is applauding the state of Israel? At this point, who is applauding the right-wing government in Israel? If we look within Germany, it is very scary to realize who the AfD [Alternative für Deutschland, a far-right German political party] is applauding.
The whole Bundestag resolution against the BDS was initiated because of a minor inquiry, or a request by the AfD. They pushed Germany in that direction.
What do you make of the first major enforcement of this resolution being implemented on Israeli art students living in Germany?
YY: These are German institutions that are silencing Jews in the name of fighting antisemitism. They are the same German institutions that say the German police do not have a problem of internal racism.
Did any private organization offer to host the “School of unlearning Zionism” art project in the future?
YY: Not yet. But we are open to suggestions. We are happy to send material to anyone who is interested. We don’t know how we will continue after the October program.
Update Sunday November 8, 2020 10:00 p.m.: This article misstated the year Yehudit Yinhar’s grandmother fled Nazi Germany. The year is 1939, not 1938. Additionally, this article initially reported no administrator from Weißensee Kunsthochschule Berlin contacted Yinhar regarding the “School for Unlearning Zionism.” The article has been updated to reflect there was no communication with Yinhar regarding the event prior to October 9.
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