The German anti-Semitism debate is increasingly off-key

Indian art critic Ranjit Hoskote sits on a turquoise chair, a striped curtain and a white wall bearing large red letters behind him
Indian author and art critic Ranjit Hoskote resigned from his position on the selection committee for the international art exhibition Documenta in Kassel after being criticised for signing a BDS petition (image: Vishal Bhatnagar/NurPhoto)

These days, anyone opposing both anti-Semitism and racism faces a difficult choice, as numerous recent cases show. Where must we start in order to change this?

Essay by Stefan Weidner

The German Culture Minister Claudia Roth has repeatedly said that anti-Semitism and racism must be combatted together. As sensible as that is, the theory is difficult to put into practice. A conflict between these two aims was becoming apparent even before the massacre committed by Hamas on 7 October 2023. And since that date, the dilemma has been in plain sight. 

The event cancellations and accusations of anti-Semitism discussed in the country's media increasingly affect artists and intellectuals from the global majority – People of Colour. An impression has been created that they are bringing anti-Semitism into German society, and should be excluded and reprimanded for it. 

The first prominent case was that of Cameroonian intellectual Achille Mbembe, a post-colonial theorist and historian who was supposed to give a speech to open the Ruhr Triennale. Felix Klein, the German government’s anti-Semitism czar, objected to this because Mbembe had compared Israel’s policies with the racist South African Apartheid, which according to Klein conformed to a "known pattern of anti-Semitism".

All this happened three years ago. But Mbembe’s case set coordinates by which debates are steered to this day. At that time, the skin colour of the accused didn’t seem to be important. But looking back, it is a striking feature. In the meantime, accusations of anti-Semitism against people from the global majority have become a repeating pattern. 

Headshot of curator Bonaventura Ndikung wearing a hat
The content of Facebook posts on the 2014 Gaza war almost proved disastrous for Bonaventure Ndikung, director of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin since 2003. Despite vocal criticism, the political establishment refrained from removing him immediately. But Ndikung has been warned. You hear surprisingly little about the current Middle East conflict from the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (image: Sonsbeek)

Coincidence or racism?

A similar thing happened to Bonaventure Ndikung (another Cameroonian) in 2022. He was undone – or very nearly undone – by Facebook posts about the 2014 Gaza war

Ndikung, who has lived in Berlin for decades, had just been appointed as the new head of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. Despite vocal criticism, the political establishment did not immediately remove him from the post. But this served as a warning to Ndikung. You hear surprisingly little about the current Middle East conflict from the Haus der Kulturen der Welt.

Those figures less prominent or less cautious than Ndikung have little chance of defending themselves from accusations of anti-Semitism. The ceremony for the LiBeratur Prize, which should have been awarded to Palestinian author Adania Shibli at the most recent Frankfurt Book Fair, and the speech that went with it, were cancelled without consulting the author, because a tiny minority of literary critics thought they detected anti-Semitic cliches in her novel. 

That was in mid-October 2023. Now, six weeks later, British-Ghanian author Sharon Dodua Otoo, who lives in Berlin, will not be receiving the city of Bochum’s Peter-Weiss Prize as previously announced. After her signature on a 2015 BDS petition was blown up into a scandal, she decided to forgo the prize and apologised. The opinion columnists were delighted.

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In the sights of the anti-Semitism hunters

And back in 2019, when British-Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie was awarded Dortmund’s Nelly-Sachs Preis, the decision was reversed due to BDS allegations made shortly after she was announced as the winner. As in Otoo’s case, the accusation was raised by a website notable for its anti-Muslim attitude. Three non-German Women of Colour: coincidence or racism

The Indian author and art critic Ranjit Hoskote was a more high-profile case; he was on the selection committee for Documenta, an international art exhibition in Kassel. After another accusation of signing a BDS petition, this time from the Sueddeutsche Zeitung and in an Indian context, the Documenta management demanded that he provide clarification. Hoskote, who is one of India’s most important intellectuals, did not need to be asked twice, and announced he was stepping down from the committee in a brilliant letter which is well worth reading.

After that, the remaining committee members also resigned. "In the current circumstances,” they said in a surprising declaration, "we do not believe that there is a space in Germany for an open exchange of ideas.” The once world-famous art exhibition threatens to be plunged into provinciality. The idea of subjecting Germany to a cultural boycott is already circulating

You would hear no objections from the new far-right, which would just love to see our country becoming more provincial. In 2019, the AfD were the first to set in motion a Bundestag resolution to ban the BDS boycott movement. And since then, the other parties in Germany’s national parliament (apart from the left-wing Linke) have fallen into line on this issue. 

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Jews especially impacted

But it is also Jewish players who have been subjected to cancellation and denunciation in the name of combatting anti-Semitism. The Oyoun cultural centre in the Berlin district of Neukolln, a key part of the migrant and alternative scene, has had all future public funding cut because it offered its space to "Jewish Voice for Peace”. The Berlin culture senator Joe Chialo regarded this as "hidden anti-Semitism”: Jewish Voice for Peace dared to reject Zionism.

In recent weeks, a number of prominent Jewish figures have also been branded anti-Semitic and cancelled. An exhibition by the Jewish-South African artist Candice Breitz at the Saarland Museum was called off "due to controversial statements on the Gaza war”. The Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung indefinitely postponed a seminar on commemoration culture that was due to take place at the start of December. The victims of this cancellation: Candice Breitz, Michael Rothberg and numerous other academics. 

Finally, the pianist Igor Levit deserves a mention. "His influence reaches far beyond music: he uses his public platform to speak out against racism, antisemitism and all forms of intolerance and prejudice", reads the 2021 publication announcement for his book House Concert.

On 19 November he spoke out against the Jewish American author Deborah Feldman, who lives in Berlin, calling her an "old-school anti-Semite from Brooklyn”.

Jewish South African artist Candide Breitz, with short purple tinted hair, speaks into a microphone; large letters in black are seen in the background
An exhibition by Jewish-South African artist Candice Breitz at the Saarland Museum has been cancelled "due to controversial statements on the Gaza war" (image: Matthias Reichelt/IMAGO)

How we Germans can do better

While women, people of the global majority and Jews are attracting a lot more barbs in this debate, the last prominent white man who faced serious accusations of anti-Semitism was the German politician Hubert Aiwanger. That was before 7 October, and Aiwanger did not get cancelled – quite the opposite. His "Freie Wähler” (Free Voters) party received 15.8% of the vote in the most recent state elections, the highest it had ever achieved

Aiwanger was appointed deputy prime minister of Bavaria for the second time, and is toying with the idea of putting representatives of his party up for the national elections. At the height of the German battle against anti-Semitism, the last white German man who faced these accusations has reached the pinnacle of his career. 

It should be clear that something is going wrong here. The formulas that have typically been used up until now cannot combat racism and anti-Semitism together. Instead of lamenting that fact, here is an idea that originated with Bonaventure Ndikung. As demonstrated, most accusations of anti-Semitism are founded on "BDS sympathies”. The idea now is to take a clear stance against any boycott of Israel, of course, but not to boycott the boycotters, or any "BDS sympathisers”. 

The cycle of reciprocal boycotting has to be broken. In this context, we might rehabilitate the recently much-maligned but still pragmatic "GG 5.3 Weltoffenheit Initiative”. It rejects BDS, but is also against a boycott of the boycotters.  

Of course, that would require some self-discipline from the German political establishment and its media. Pointing the finger at people who look different and think differently is a way of gaining popularity. But if combatting anti-Semitism and racism together is to be more than just an empty slogan, it is best avoided. 

Stefan Weidner 

© 2023 

Stefan Weidner’s most recent book is Ground Zero. 9/11 und die Geburt der Gegenwart (Ground Zero. 9/11 and the Birth of the Present), published by the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung.