Since October, the German cultural sector has been in turmoil. The ongoing crises in Israel and Palestine have inflamed some of Germany’s most sensitive, and urgent, political debates, sparking cancelations, defundings, boycotts, and resignations. As if overnight, cultural institutions have leapt—or been forced into—the fray of answering to the nation’s most existential questions: antisemitism and Jewish life in Germany, racism, immigration, xenophobia, and the legacy of the Holocaust.

Some of the more widely publicized cancelations of the last several months have gotten attention beyond Germany, like the fracas over Masha Gessen’s receipt of the Hannah Arendt prize, the resignation of the entire Documenta 16 finding committee, and the Frankfurt Book Fair’s cancelation of an event honoring Palestinian author Adania Shibli.

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In January, tensions skyrocketed when the Berlin government announced that it would implement a new “anti-Semitism clause” to funding applications in the cultural sector. According to Berlin cultural minister Joe Chialo, applicants would have to formally agree to conform to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which includes the points that “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” and “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavor” are antisemitic. Both are often elements of the public debate in Germany surrounding Israel and Palestine, and the war in Gaza.

Shortly thereafter, and in response to the significant protest that ensued, Chialo announced that the government would not be mandating the “antisemitism clause” after all, citing “legal concerns.”

In Berlin, local coverage centered around the defunding of Oyoun, a cultural center that lost its backing from the city government as a result of a planned “mourning and grieving” event to be co-hosted with a group whose name translates to Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East (referred to in Germany as a shortened version of its name in German, Jüdische Stimme). Jüdische Stimme is a partner, but not a satellite, of the anti-Zionist activist group Jewish Voices for Peace, and has been a vocal part of pro-Palestinian organizing in Berlin since October 2023.

Today, an Instagram account called Archive of Silence is crowdsourcing a list of cancelled events in the form of a Google sheet. As of early April, the group had logged 127 instances of “cancellation & silencing” around the country.

When brought to the international stage, these dramas have made waves as examples of Germany’s use—or abuse—of its hardline policies against antisemitism, which, in contrast to America’s free speech policies, make antisemitic words and gestures (such as the swastika and the Sieg Heil salute) grounds for arrest. The polemical antisemitism clause in particular laid bare the German state’s overtly political expectations for its sponsored artists, inciting outrage for some. For others, the “free speech” debate minimizes the very real, dramatic uptick in antisemitic incidents in Germany since the fall, as well as the increasing political power of the far-right Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) party, which has been on the ascendant since 2017.

The German government has a particularly robust network for supporting the arts: in 2020, the national government invested the equivalent of $15.5 billion (€14.5 billion) into the cultural sector, having increased its cultural spending by more than 55 percent over the course of a decade. 

“Most of our cultural scene is funded by public institutions,” art historian Julia Voss, who co-curated the 2019 exhibition “Documenta: Politics and Art”at the Deutsches Historisches Museum, said in an interview. “It comes with a maximum of freedom. And that’s, I think, what we are discussing now: whether there is a limit to this maximum.”

Last year, the German government announced that it would be dramatically slashing budgets for the cultural sector in 2024 by €254 million due to the country’s ongoing recession. While the question of how to meaningfully exhibit political artwork in the art world is perpetually fraught, the fever pitch of discourse in Germany today swirls around how to bring the political commentary central to the contemporary art world to public discussions of Israel, Palestine, and the war in Gaza. As German institutions move forward with freshly tightened belts, the ongoing debates over free speech, censorship, and accusations of bigotry expose the fissures in the country’s deeply entwined arts and political spheres.

For some in Germany’s cultural sector, this isn’t exactly their first rodeo.

In 2022, the 15th iteration of Documenta—Germany’s answer to the Venice Biennale—was the exhibition’s most geographically and racially diverse iteration to date, and was also overwhelmed by antisemitism allegations, which may be the quinquennial’s most lasting impression. Though some accusations were debated widely, with detractors focusing on issues like the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement or whether a depiction of an Israeli soldier as a robot was antisemitic, one instance of anti-Jewish bigotry was impossible to refute. During the exhibition’s opening days, a mural featuring an antisemitic caricature of an Orthodox Jewish man with payos, fangs, and a hat emblazoned with the SS insignia was unveiled in Documenta’s central green.

Then and now, one side of the documenta debate articulated a painful, pervasive narrative in Germany: the notion of “imported antisemitism,” the belief that the most dangerous threats to Jewish life in Germany are immigrants, more specifically, Muslims, Arabs, and people of color. Statistics refute the accuracy of this concept: a 2022 police report found that 83 percent of antisemitic hate crimes in Germany are perpetrated by German neo-Nazis. In 2019, that statistic was as high as 90 percent.

But what, exactly, is antisemitism? Even within Jewish communities, the answers are many. One central, international rift exposed by the ongoing crisis in Israel and Palestine is the debate around whether “anti-Zionism” can be considered anti-Jewish bigotry. In Germany, the concept of the “singularity” of the Holocaust—that no country’s actions, past or present, can be compared to the Holocaust, because it was a uniquely atrocious event—is one that is deeply embedded in the national psyche, although it is widely disputed among international historians, and has been since its inception (naturally, in a language known for neologisms, this concept has its own German word, Historikerstreit). The idea of the singularity of the Holocaust is central to the Berlin government’s proposed antisemitism clause, which explicitly prohibited comparing anything to the Nazis’ atrocities.

Contemporary German art history, including its modern cultural sphere, is imprinted with the Third Reich, from the wealth inherited by some of the country’s most influential collectors to the hundreds of thousands of artworks looted from largely Jewish families who had been sent to concentration camps. 

The same can be said of the prestigious institutions that continue to dominate Germany’s cultural sphere, though their histories can be more difficult to mine: it wasn’t until 2019 that researchers learned that influential art historian Werner Haftmann had lied about his involvement with the Nazi party. Haftmann had not, as he claimed, avoided enlistment in Hitler’s regime. In fact, he had been a registered member of the Nazi party and the SA, Hitler’s paramilitary wing, and was a wanted war criminal in Italy “known to have hunted, tortured, and executed resistance party members.” 

Hitler’s government collapsed in 1945. By 1955, Haftmann was a central cofounder of the Documenta, and by 1967, he was the founding director of the Neue Nationalgalerie, one of the country’s most renowned contemporary art museums.

Today, workers going as high up as Haus der Kulturen der Welt director Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung have described the German cultural institution as an environment in which meaningful change—change that is not superficial, but actively restructures the violent legacy of these hallowed spaces—can feel difficult, if not impossible, to manifest.

In an interview, freelance cultural worker Paul—whose name has been changed at his request—painted a picture of German cultural institutions as rigid, rules-bound places with intimidatingly hierarchical atmospheres. “Is there also this expression ‘Kafkaesque’ in America?” Paul asked, by way of explanation.

In Paul’s view, the average worker in a German cultural institution operates in a complex bureaucratic web with an atmosphere of “anxiety and fear” and “no explanation” bordering on the absurd. Paul said he often asks himself questions such as: “Who is in power? What’s going on? Am I going crazy? Is this person crazy?”

Pressure to perform is particularly high for freelancers, Paul said, “because you are in a relatively precarious situation, or you don’t have a lot of job security, and they can potentially cancel your contract.” According to Paul, involvement with German institutions can foster feelings of otherness and exclusion, even from within. “As a mixed-race German person, I’m not necessarily seen as being an integral part of this country, and of these institutions,” he said. “I’m always bringing in perspectives that are [seen as] interesting, but not maybe central to this country’s narrative.”

Emil, another pseudonymous museum employee who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, said that some of his colleagues feel comfortable talking about their political opinions on Israel, Palestine, and Gaza “behind closed doors,” and that they also feel that they can go to demonstrations without fear of professional repercussions. Emil added that higher-ups are loath to make public statements, such as on Instagram.

“There’s people from the curatorial team urging the other staff to do something,” he explained. Things often become complicated, with players like the press department and the director having to get involved. As such, Emil’s more cautious colleagues are operating with the belief “that their political position is reflected through their program.”

“Neither cultural workers nor curators nor directors are necessarily political activists,” Emil said.

Ultimately, according to Emil, German institutions “work so slowly,” making it exceedingly difficult to adequately respond to, or prepare for, political upheaval in Germany’s state-funded cultural sphere, in which “everything is [prepared], like, two years ahead.” Later, he clarified that the issue wasn’t exclusively bureaucratic, but also a matter of putting in sufficient “knowledge, awareness, and understanding … to see through such complex situations (both in Germany and in Gaza) and to formulate a response without running the risk of this stirring more destructive conflict and controversy.” And it doesn’t help that, as he concluded, “The art world is full of crazy people. Crazy people in power.”

For some, the current climate in Germany is more than an issue of bad press, programming, or aesthetics. When I spoke to Palestinian-Syrian poet Ghayath Almadhoun, whose poetry anthology launch event was canceled at the Haus für Poesie in October, he pushed back against the idea that this article will try to present multiple sides of the fraught German debate, with the “canceled” artists on one side and voices humanizing the German institutional ethos on the other. To him, the issue at hand is censorship, which deserves no justification.

“If you try to make an article to show the two voices, we are already lost,” Almadhoun told me. “There should be no discussion between me and you [about] if we should silence people or not.” Later, he added, “I lost more than 100 people from my family in Gaza. My family lost 85 [children]. I’m not allowed to say this. This is considered to be antisemitic in Germany.” 

For Almadhoun, who lived in Syria until 2008, Germany’s current climate no longer resembles a democracy. “I’m going to secret meetings,” he told me. “The last time I did that was in Syria.”

One of Almadhoun’s secret meeting groups has titled itself on Signal “the dinosaurs”: a covert group of high-ranking people in Berlin’s cultural sphere that “want to do something,” but remain anonymous because they fear that “if their bosses or the people who work under them knew” about their involvement, they could lose their jobs. From his perspective, the defunding of Oyoun, the cultural center in Berlin that partnered with a left-wing Jewish group, was a message from the German government “to threaten” cultural spaces: “If you give a stage to leftist Jews who don’t fit into the story we tell, you will be canceled.”

As Almadhoun indicated, Jewish artists and intellectuals are not invulnerable to the German state’s accusations of antisemitism, with penalties to match: the aforementioned drama over Masha Gessen’s receipt of the Hannah Arendt prize was well-covered, while Jews like Candice Breitz, Michael Rothberg, Deborah Feldman, and Bernie Sanders have had events and exhibitions canceled, or were otherwise symbolically boycotted because of statements they made about Israel, Palestine, or the war in Gaza. Jewish Israeli artists and academics Yael Ronen and Ilan Pappé have also been penalized for critiquing their home country’s government within Germany. Feldman and Sanders are descendants of victims and survivors of the Holocaust, and Pappé’s parents arrived in Israel in the 1930s after having fled Nazi persecution in Germany.

“It’s entirely appropriate that the grandchildren of the people who murdered millions of Jews would feel a deep-seated and ongoing responsibility to be vigilant against antisemitism,” artist Breitz wrote to me via email. “When that sense of responsibility translates into unthinking dogma, however—as it has in recent years in Germany—it becomes dangerous and counter-productive. Germany’s over-zealous anti-antisemitism has translated into a climate in which progressive Jews, Muslims and/or Arabs are virtually seen as antisemitic by default. This, of course, affects Palestinians most brutally.”

She continued, “Many progressive Jews in this country have come to believe that Germany’s habit of weaponizing false charges of antisemitism against intellectuals and cultural workers in the absence of credible evidence has little to do with a genuine concern for the safety of Jewish lives, and can best be understood as serving to promote Germany’s image of itself as a forward-looking country that has managed to overcome its own deeply antisemitic and genocidal past.”

The topic remains divisive within Berlin’s Jewish community, which is the largest in the country, numbering around 10,000 people, according to the World Jewish Congress. For German-Jewish author Laura Cazés, who works for the Central Welfare Board of Jews in Germany, the current debate is monopolized by some of the country’s most privileged, most recent Jewish arrivals: upper middle-class “expats” (my word, not hers) from countries like the US, South Africa, Israel, or South America who don’t understand the severity of antisemitism in Germany or the extent to which Jewish life must still be vigilantly protected by the German government. “Antisemitism didn’t leave Germany [in] 1945,” she told me, “which, I believe, is something that you can’t 100 percent grasp if you don’t speak the language.”

Regarding the German debate about Israel/Palestine and free speech, Cazés expressed frustration: the country’s largest Jewish population, immigrants with largely working-class backgrounds from the former USSR, is “completely unheard and invisible, even though telling their story would be extremely interesting and important in order to understand what’s actually going on in Germany. Or is it better to listen to people who use their very elaborate language that they’ve developed in their country of origin, and apply it now to a country that they might not really understand?”

Six months into the war in Gaza, many in Germany’s art world continue to fear the repercussions of being called an antisemite, which Almadhoun described as including “exclu[sion] from various opportunities” and “uncertain” financial futures. These penalties are particularly daunting when the charges may be exacerbated by—if not, as Almadhoun sees it, directly due to—the simple fact of one’s immutable Palestinian identity. “I am one of many individuals who find themselves in a country where an essential aspect of their identity is unjustly labeled as dangerous, deemed politically incorrect, treated as adversarial, and unwelcome in Germany,” he wrote in an email last month.

Still, he believes that “to be canceled in Germany is a golden medal.” He continued, “One of my Jewish friends called me and he was so sad. He told me, ‘I’m not canceled. What’s wrong with me?’ And I told him, ‘Take it easy. You are wonderful. It’s a question of time. They will find you; they will cancel you.’ If you are not canceled in Germany, it’s really: shame on you. 

“Who are the people who have been canceled?” he continued. “The leftist Jewish people who take a stand with people who are under occupation? The Israeli left, with the best thinkers in Israel; the best thinkers in Europe; the best thinkers in Palestine—the best people who really believe in freedom of speech.” Later on, he added: “As a Palestinian, we were not able to do anything in Germany without the help of our Jewish friends.”