January 8th, 2024. -4 degrees is the temperature wrapped around us, a group of art and culture workers stands in front of the Abgeordnetenhaus in Berlin to express our concern about the implementation of the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance)'s “Working Definition of Anti-Semitism” as a precondition for arts and cultural funding.
The demonstration was organized by the newly-born Arts and Culture Alliance Berlin (ACAB), a collective committed to the urgent linking together of denunciation of anti-Semitism with wider anti-racist and anti-fascist struggles and the urgency of demanding a ceasefire and end of Palestinian occupation. On this occasion, a lineup of speakers, among them the activist Yasmeen Daher, was invited to voice their objection to the actions of those responsible for politically motivated selective defunding, as adopted by the Berlin Senate Department for Culture and Social Cohesion and promulgated by its Culture Senator, Joe Chialo.
"Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews that can express itself as hatred towards Jews. Anti-Semitism is directed in word and deed against Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, as well as against Jewish communal institutions and religious bodies," reads the IHRA working definition of the term “anti-Semitism”. Its vagueness may be justified because it was never intended to be a legally binding text. In 2019, the German Bundestag, as part of its BDS resolution, added a modification to the IHRA definition, which reads: "Manifestations of anti-Semitism can also be directed against the state of Israel, which is understood as a Jewish collective."
This definition has been criticized by an international community of jurists, experts, and leftist Jews due to its incompatibility with a nuanced understanding of Jewish identities, as well as its potential interpretation as permanently indemnifying the State of Israel against charges of war crimes. The clause is seen as part of a broader dilution of freedom of speech protections for those willing to consistently criticize potentially genocidal acts (at the time of writing, Israel is facing charges of genocide brought by South Africa before the International Court of Justice). An alternative, and more clearly articulated potential definition of anti-Semitism is provided by the JDA (Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism), which not only disentangles anti-Semitism from criticism of the State of Israel but also explicitly disambiguates freedom of speech from hate speech.
The demand of the group Arts and Culture Alliance Berlin is that the IHRA definition of antisemitism be dropped from arts funding prerequisites. As a reference document to recognize and protect against antisemitism, the Jerusalem Declaration on antisemitism is endorsed as it clearly distinguishes critique from discrimination. IHRA’s 2019 modification is, nonetheless, the definition Germany has chosen to adopt and impose. This decision was rather arbitrary. It took place without any prior debate or consultation, no transparent decision-making process, and no affected persons, associations, or institutions being consulted. This was pointed out in an open letter compiled in protest of the implementation of the clause and signed by thousands of artists and cultural workers.
This comes as no surprise but with a general sense of distrust for the right-leaning German government and disenfranchisement from the crucial funding system that makes Berlin the creative home for the working class, LGBTQ+, displaced, and self-empowered diasporas community of artists. Germany may be choosing to believe in a partial definition of anti-Semitism, or Israelbezogener Antisemitismus (Israel-related anti-Semitism), which ignores local expressions of anti-Jewish violence contained in its borders, including attacks on Jewish places of culture unrelated to October 7th, and for which existing prevention measures didn’t suffice. As the Jewish artist Virgil Taylor pointed out during the rally, the conflation of anti-Semitism with criticism of the State of Israel will affect in large part Jewish artists who reject the fixed image of the “Israeli Jew”. Taylor remarks that, through the generous system of German funding, varied Jewish identities could be nurtured and developed. Adopting the highly statist definition of anti-Semitism articulated by the Bundestag is a move that silences Jewish voices and self-determination.
Senator Chialo, a member of the CDU, showed up during the demo and requested to speak to the crowd, an unexpected gesture, after his refusal in the past months to provide explanations on the decision to revoke funding to the migrant-led cultural space Oyoun, and for defining “art” as “free, but not unruled”. Chialo’s remarks included the following: “the diverse parts of the city come together in this demo, and there is a necessity to talk. We will communicate it publicly and I would be happy to start to talk with others without shouting at each other and throwing opinions against each other and give others the possibility to listen and admit that they are right in some aspect… from our side in your direction and the other way around”.
His words resembled a mediatic gesture, contradicting his lack of response to the independent scene within the last six months of his tenure. Luckily, there were other, more powerful and knowledgeable addresses, such as that of Ahmed Abad, a lawyer and spokesperson for The European Legal Support Center (ELSC). The ELSC intervenes to end arbitrary restrictions and criminalization of advocacy, and it has provided substantial support and consultancy over the past weeks to the numerous activists who have been targets of the escalation of police brutality and abuses in Berlin. Additionally, Jesse Darling, invited to take the word from Arts and Culture Alliance Berlin, made us once again aware of enduring Islamophobia and anti-Semitism as a long-standing project of imposing official Christianity as the spiritual foundation of Europe’s institutions of culture and state. He noted how contradictory it is to make the world watch the contemporary crusade of children in Israel forced to fight in the IDF, and of others in Gaza to die.
The adherence to the IHRA clause is only one of the many measures opening further doors to the normalization of racial profiling in institutional structures and procedures. Islamophobia is easily embedded in this clause, building on existing hatred against the Arabic community in Germany - especially as seen in Saxony - where the IHRA clause is officially employed as a form of discrimination for those who come from Middle Eastern or Muslim countries and who are applying for residency permits. The justification for the hard line drawn by Germany is the so-called Staatsrasön, defined for the first time in 2008 by the then Chancellor Angela Merkel on the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel. Staatsrasön, the “reason of state”, claims Israel's security and existence as a reason for the German state to exist, and it creates a moral wall that seals off Germany’s unresolved relationship with the Holocaust and its history of imperialism.
Following this unconditional pledge of loyalty to the State of Israel, the German government has deployed over the past three months operations of propaganda and policing to the detriment of all voices calling for an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, and for access by Palestinian civilians to basic needs and human rights. Specifically in the city of Berlin, the government has deployed abusive measures of regimentation that allowed police to raid the BIPOC Café Bar Karanfil and target the anti-capitalist, anti-fascist women’s organizations Zora, who, according to the police press release, are accused of spreading propaganda on behalf of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and the cordoning off of the highly populated Palestinian neighborhood of NK during New Year’s Eve. Targeting specifically the vast and segregated Arabic, Palestinian, and Turkish communities, along with Jewish voices who reject narrow understandings of Jewish identity and anti-Semitism.
Stubborn groups of people in Berlin have organized weekly demonstrations (Jüdische Stimme, Global South United, and Palästina Spricht), strikes (Strike Germany), interventions (Gegen Kultur Zensur), and archives of censorship (Archive of Silence) to demand attention for Palestinians and their right to exist and to the manipulation of language and information. At the heart of this challenging multi-scalarity, it's easy to overlook that behind the rationale that distinguishes some definitions of anti-Semitism from others lie political interests. Such prompt coalition-building between groups whose existence is now threatened by the implementation of the IHRA definition demonstrates that a significant share of artists, theorists, academics, and cultural producers from all disciplines, who may already have overcome silencing, censorship, criminalization, and stigmatization due to their places of origin, sexual orientation, and normalized xenophobia, Islamophobia and Arabophobia in Germany stand ready to raise questions about their role in art and institutionality in the building of Berlin’s international prestige.
In the meantime, the next meeting of the Cultural Committee will take place on January 22nd. Until then, and always viva viva Palestina.
This text has been edited by María Inés Plaza Lazo and Elisa Fuenzalida.
- Image Credits
Header © and courtesy Veronica Shiavo
Fig. 1/2/3 © and courtesy Esra @egultekin_
All images are from the public demonstration organized by ACAB on January 8.