Think BDS is worth it


Why I signed the petition for the "GG 5.3 Open-mindedness" initiative.

At the end of 2020, many of Germany's leading cultural institutions published a statement defending openness to the world and a discourse “of polyphony, critical reflection and the recognition of difference”, with which they opposed the anti-BDS motion resolved by the Bundestag (“BDS movement resolved oppose - fight anti-Semitism ”) protest. The anti-BDS applicationAccording to the authors, the possibility of such a discourse is threatening.

In this statement, the cultural workers declare that as institutions they reject calls for boycotts against Israel, but that the dangerous and harmful logic of an anti-boycott needs to be questioned, since in this way only people loosely associated with BDS are put under general suspicion and they are given resources and public Funds could be withdrawn.

It is a carefully worded statement, you could even call it shy. Instead of a negation, the initiative formulates positively: namely for the promotion of cosmopolitanism. She rejects the Bundestag's anti-BDS motion, yes, but she also vehemently and unequivocally rejects BDS.


The undersigned do not lack credibility; Among them are directors * of Germany's most outstanding cultural institutions and people who have dedicated themselves to questions of commemoration, cultural exchange and anti-racism. All of this makes the polyphonic condemnation with which the German press took up the initiative all the more astonishing. Although the undersigned explain in detail in their statement and in subsequent interviews how the anti-BDS resolution resulted in a culture of general suspicion that is detrimental to their work, journalists expressed skepticism about the initiative.

"Anyway, [Achille Mbembe] still no performance ban in Germany ", writes Andreas Kilb in the FAZ. Anyone who accuses censorship "should name names, subjects and those responsible for censorship instead of signing declarations". Now the situation is that on the day the initiative was announced, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published a detailed report in Hebrew and English in which it documented the hunt for critics of Israel in Germany. Including numerous Jews and Israelis who simply do not want to agree to the policies of the current Israeli government.

Their offenses: their ongoing belief in a future of coexistence with their Palestinian neighbors and the accompanying determination to critically question their own ideological prejudices. One of these episodes concerns a Berlin-based group of Israeli art students who wanted to organize a series of workshops in their seminar that would illuminate and critically question the Zionist narratives in their socialization. The mere mention of BDS was enough to be accused of anti-Semitism by journalist Eldad Beck of the right-wing Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom (whose pro-Netanyahu stance is at the center of the bribery charge against the prime minister). (The same journalist wrote a comment in which he suggested that the Israeli government should reconsider its boycott of the AfD. It seems to me that some boycotts are worth more than others. Or is it that anti-Semitism is okay as long as you only have the right ones Chosen Semites?)

Under pressure from the Ministry of Education and the Israeli embassy, ​​the project website was immediately closed by the Weißensee School of Art. Such events are increasing and what I would find really remarkable, what I would expect and even hope, would be that experienced and prominent journalists like Andreas Kilb wonder why this issue is first made public in an Israeli newspaper. In fact, we should all ask ourselves why, 75 years after the end of the war, critical Israeli and Jewish voices have a hard time in the German press landscape.

Again, the signatories make it clear that they are not concerned with whether people have lost their jobs because of the anti-BDS resolution or the subsequent instrumentalisation, although this has happened several times: You only have to address the case of a press employee of the Berlin Jewish Museum think. Her only sin was retweeted an article about a petition in which 240 of Israel's best-known intellectuals and cultural workers opposed the anti-BDS resolution of the Bundestag debates.


This was not even a call for support for BDS, but rather, analogous to the GG 5.3 Opinionto criticize the Bundestag resolution. The group of signatories to this petition included no fewer than six winners of the Israel Prize, the country's highest-ranking award. A prominent diplomat and the former chairman of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization and numerous distinguished Holocaust and genocide scholars, including some who survived the Holocaust as children.

The Jewish Museum employee did not lose her job because she retweeted an esoteric conspiracy from the dark web, but rather a statement by Israel's most established thinkers and public figures, whose only misconduct was that they represent left-wing positions. And this in a Jewish museum! Logically, the boss of the boss of her boss, the museum director, also lost Peter Schäfer, his employment. And yet, representatives of the press have the nerve to demand examples from people who would have lost their jobs in the wake of the BDS decision.


I must state that the anti-BDS resolution does not say anything about whether employees should or should not lose their jobs as a result of petition retweets. In this sense, Kilb and other commentators are correct, the Bundestag resolution is not to blame. The real guilty are columnists who called for Schäfer's resignation without bothering to look at the petition of the Israeli intellectuals or even to contact one of these venerable Israelis and ask about their condition or their perspective. How would a journalist come up with doing that?

Especially not if this meant having to give up one's own authoritative viewpoint, from which unfounded accusations of anti-Semitism can be passed around or the exclusive authority to interpret what the "correct attitude towards Judaism and Israel" is, what is "Jewish". If that meant having to understand that "Israel" is not monolithic, but a complex society with different and sometimes contradicting positions. The same is true, by the way, when it comes to Jews and their attitude towards Israel. These concepts - Jews, Israel, Zionism - are far from being treated as congruent. The moral superiority with which anyone can adorn themselves who thinks they can decide on the "correct attitude towards Israel" is too important for some Germans to be able or willing to give up.

And yet Kilb's argument is all the more absurd as the GG 5.3 initiative underlines this point that not only are events canceled and people terminated, but also that many debates are not even conducted, guests are not invited, exhibitions are not opened, because institutions fear in advance - if I may use Chancellor Merkel's terminology here - of Shitstorm to be hit. Who could blame you? When even Germany's most prominent institutions are exposed to such a poisonous storm of indignation for their reluctance to express themselves, one cannot imagine what lessons the leaders of smaller and more precarious institutions draw from the debate.

But my criticism is not directed against Kilb or certain journalists. They are just part of a symptom. What is the problem then? The inability to listen, reflect on complexities and nuances, or even allow space for both and deal with a reality that is far more intricate than the bite-sized dichotomies that boycott and anti-boycott conjure up: good and bad, inclusion or exclusion. And here lies the great irony:


Both BDS and the anti-BDS movement, with their blacklists and obscure criteria, contribute to the fact that works of art are not shown, debates are not held and pieces are not staged. The contents of the works of art lose their meaning, what counts is on which side they are to be located: with us or against us?

In the event that all this sounds absurd, I have my own little story to offer that involves many of the same protagonists: an exhibition that I recently curated for several Jewish museums that dealt with exclusion and borders, of all things, and aimed at a similar one Smear campaign was. An employee of the museum who worked in the exhibition mediation took offense at a text about one of the artistic works that seeks to illustrate the plight of the Negev Beduins. Many Negev Beduins live in unrecognized villages and face systematic discrimination on a daily basis. We set up a meeting in which I tried to explain that many of the statements made here corresponded to those on the Israeli Knesset website. We even suggested to the employee that they could add their own perspective to their tours of the exhibition and highlight the complexity and controversial nature of the work. “Try to make your objections productive,” I remember telling him.

Well, I suppose he had a different idea of ​​what "productive" means. The employee decided that my text was "anti-Semitic according to the working definition of the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance)"The next day an article appeared in Israel Hayom (from the aforementioned journalist and AfD sympathizer Eldad Beck), who accused the exhibition of defamation, described me as a "radical left activist" and described the American artist as an "Afghan American". Shortly afterwards we received letters and complaints from the Jewish community in Munich (whose business address is directly opposite the museum), from the Israeli consul, from the Jewish National Fund, etc. In fact, not one of the aforementioned had seen the exhibition or the work in question.

It is not a nice feeling to be insulted as an anti-Semitic, self-hating Jew. Inevitably, I began to wonder: had I done something wrong? Am I who they say I am There were moments when I longed for my grandfather - a Holocaust survivor and longtime advocate for survivors' rights - to be alive so that I could seek advice, learn from his experience, and draw from his integrity . I've also had selfish moments wishing he could audition for my cause. Out of curiosity, I contacted Yehuda Bauer, himself a survivor and one of the most prominent Holocaust scholars. Bauer is co-author of the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism (and at the same time as my grandfather was a member of the advisory board of Yad Vashem, the world's most important memorial for the remembrance and documentation of the Nazi extermination of the Jews).

We had never met before; I described what had happened and sent him the text in question. I asked if he thought he was anti-Semitic. His answer was a great relief: “Of course not, the views expressed in the text are more moderate than those of many left-wing Israelis, and they are not anti-Semitic either (...)”.


They are used as part of an orchestrated campaign to brand legitimate criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic. Now the most surreal thing about the whole thing: the artistic work that has been accused of anti-Semitism was originally created for an exhibition in the Tel Aviv Museum and was therefore the target of protests by BDS activists when it was later shown in New York - regardless of the fact that many of the works shown in the New York exhibition dealt with the Israeli occupation and critically examined human rights violations in Israel. For some of the activists, the mere association with an Israeli institution was flawed enough. The artistic works appeared to them as a meaningless fig leaf for the ongoing human rights violations in Israel. And in this way they unite like two mutually reflecting mirror images:



Do you think I'm exaggerating? One only has to look at what happened two years ago when Israel received seldom praise from BDS activists for boycotting the Israeli film "Foxtrot" at the Paris film festival, while the Israeli right called him “ defamatory ”felt. It goes without saying that neither camp had seen the film. Perhaps we should all agree to replace exhibitions with petitions? Instead of complex works full of ambiguities and critical reflection, artists could be asked simply and in advance - a simple yes or no is sufficient - whether they agree or not ... but with what? Is that important? That way, we could also save a little bit of subsidies.

Joking aside; Confronted with the absurd excesses of this boycott competition, the simple - even shy - appeal by German cultural institutions appears prudent and far-sighted. He tries to redirect the cultural dialogue from the dizzying tug-of-war between competing, reductive worldviews, which for reasons of convenience tries to divide the world into friend or foe, for or against, towards a recognition of complexity and trust in the wealth of culture to show this complexity in their dialogues.

Many journalists reply that the anti-BDS decision does not prohibit any of that (analogous to official BDS statements, which on closer inspection exclude boycotts against Israeli individuals, only institutions should be boycotted - even if this distinction is hardly considered in practice finds). The signatories of the cosmopolitan appeal, on the other hand, emphasize that it is the culture of suspicion generated by the resolution that ultimately causes the damage. Hosting an event with a Syrian oud player or a left-wing klezmer musician may not be against regulations on its own, but the organizing institution may face the resulting persecution. All of this without any legal basis. If you're actually lucky - like me - the outcry just dies away. Its questionable legal effectiveness is not the point. It is suspicion and self-doubt, as are the legal shallows of the anti-BDS decision. Don't tell us cultural workers that we are just imagining all of this. Many of the best-known institutions in Germany - including numerous members of the anti-racism campaign The Many - are telling us all something else:

The argument often countered is that the BDS movement is inherently anti-Semitic and should therefore be silenced, even if this diminishes the critical discourse. At this point it has to be made clear: One may take offense at the strategy of BDS (as I do not only because of the reasons mentioned above); but their argument is not anti-Semitic. Yes, it opposes the vision of Israel as a Jewish state by definition and all the ethnocratic regulations deduced from it, but so do many left-wing Israelis, myself included, as well as a considerable part of the Arab citizens of Israel, who make up about a fifth of the population. make out inside the country. The challenge of reconciling the declared maxims of 'Jewish' and 'democratic' will inevitably spark internal Israeli debates in the foreseeable future.

It should also be remembered that this is not just about the Palestine-Israel conflict, but also about the kind of society we Israelis want to be part of: many secular citizens disapprove of living in a society that doesn't succeeds in separating between state and religion; others may want a Jewish state, but reject state-sanctioned religious orthodoxy. By claiming that any criticism of Israel as a Jewish state is anti-Semitic, right-wing groups in Israel have cleverly exploited the BDS controversy to smuggle their own idea of ​​Israel-Palestine through the back door.


There's a big brown elephant in the room.Far too many journalists in Germany forgot to question why the AfD observed Peter Schäfer and requested information about his meetings. The party was vocal in support of the anti-BDS motion, and even put a sharper version to the vote. What does such a party hope to gain from pouring oil into a culture war over Israel? On the one hand, she injects herself with a good dose of moral superiority: Finally, in the German press landscape, you are once on the side of the "good guys" in the fight against all bad, left-wing anti-Semites (all the better if they are Arab). It is finally up to them to decide who is anti-Semite. Clearly revisionist, if not outright denial of reality, are at work here. In addition, the anti-BDS campaign ties in seamlessly with the AfD's culture war, namely the attempt to withdraw support from a multiethnic, diverse, liberal view of society and to undermine the independence of Germany's cultural scene. Do you think such an absurd undertaking has no chance?


What is remarkable about this is that so many German journalists do not want to acknowledge such uncomfortable alliances - this is clearly evident in Benjamin Netanyahu’s alliance with Viktor Orban, his proclamation of the wildest and darkest conspiracy fantasies about George Soros and the offers made by Netanyahu's son Yair to the AfD. Journalists are unable to identify what is really behind these alliances. The murderer of Halle, however, made no distinction between this or that Semite, between Jews and Muslims.

My grandpa, Noach flight, dedicated a large part of his life to commemorating the Holocaust. His words still move me:

"The reminder [...] has no expiration date and cannot be declared as processed or ended by resolution."

They are quoted during memorial ceremonies, most recently by Chancellor Merkel a year ago. But my grandfather's commitment to remembering went hand in hand with an unwavering reverence for universal human rights. He saw it as a moral imperative to speak out against human rights violations wherever they are committed - including in Israel. He was particularly proud of educational programs that brought Palestinians, Israelis and Germans together so that they can learn from the past, about the dangers of misanthropy and othering, whether towards Muslims, Jews, the LGBTQ + community or Sinti and Roma. He made applications for refugees from Darfur and their children in Israel and did not hesitate to refer to his experience as a survivor. When German guests came to visit, he proudly showed them his adopted home with all its technological achievements and natural wonders. In recent years, however, he also showed them the wall in East Jerusalem's Abu-Dis district, which brutally severed the neighborhood and fundamentally impaired the lives and rights of the Palestinians living there. Of course, my grandfather and I did not always agree. But we agreed that the Israeli human rights violations in Israel and Palestine are neither legitimate nor sustainable and that it is our moral duty to confront them and fight them as Israelis, Jews and people.

Dealing with these issues will not be easy; A first step, however, would be, instead of sowing discord among the left, to give space to the increasingly rare - and under constant fire - initiatives of Israelis and Palestinians who advocate coexistence, reconciliation, solidarity and human rights.





  • Jan 08 2021
  • Boaz Levin
    is an artist, writer, and curator who lives and works in Berlin, Germany. Levin is the co-founder, together with Vera Tollmann and Hito Steyerl, of the Research Center for Proxy Politics, and editor of Cabinet Magazine's Kiosk platform. In 2017, he was co-curator of the Biennale für Current Photography, which is staged at exhibition venues in Heidelberg, Mannheim, and Ludwigshafen. He is currently co-curator of the 3rd Chennai Photo Biennale, taking place in Chennai, India. He is the author of "On Distance", ed. Laura Preston (Berlin: Atlas Projectos, 2020).
    Banu Cennetoğlu, BEINGSAFEISSCARY (2017), ten aluminum letters borrowed from the Fridericianum and six letters cast in brass after the existing ones. Based on a graffiti existing on a wall at the National Technical University of Athens as of April 6. Coproduced with Kunstgiesserei St. Gallen, Sitterwerk, Switzerland.
    photo: Roman März for documenta 14

    Banu Cennetoğlu, PRACTICE (2016), digital photograph.