Art & Entertainment

Germany Cancels Art Biennale Citing ‘Antisemitism’; Artists Across World Stand For Palestine

Following Israel's genocide in Gaza, the management of Biennale für aktuelle Fotografie cancelled its fourth edition on the grounds of antisemitism, a charge labelled at Shahidul Alam, one of the curators of the art show, for his consistent support to the cause of Palestine.

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From Germany to the US, the impact of Israel’s war on Gaza has spilled over to the art world and the university campuses as the charges of antisemitism against any voice supporting Palestine have led to the cancellation of art shows and resignation in academics. The latest in the row is the decision by the management of Biennale für aktuelle Fotografie to cancel its fourth edition on the grounds of antisemitism- a charge labelled at Shahidul Alam, one of the curators of the art show- for his consistent support to the cause of Palestine. The Biennale was scheduled to be held in Mannheim, Ludwigshafen and Heidelberg, Germany in March 2024.  

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On November 21, in a press release the management of the Biennale while cancelling it said, “Various posts by Shahidul Alam on his Facebook channel after 7 October have given a platform to content that can be read as anti-Semitic and anti-Semitic content. This includes an uncommented interview by Shahidul Alam with the Palestinian ambassador to Bangladesh, a comparison of the current war with the Holocaust and accusations of genocide by the state of Israel against the Palestinian population in Gaza.”    

Adding that the three cities where it was about to be held, had rejected Alam’s views on Palestine, they emphasized ‘Germany's special historical responsibility for the State of Israel and its right to exist’.   

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However, this is not the only instance where the pro-Palestine stance of activists and authors has been questioned. The recent incident at Harvard University where President Claudine Gay had to resign for allegedly declining to “say unequivocally whether calling for genocide of Jews violated Harvard’s code of conduct” shows the growing use of antisemitism charges against the people who openly stand with the people of Gaza.  

Gay who happened to be the first black president of ‘elite’ universities like Cambridge or Massachusetts, after being forced by the Jewish lobby of Harvard University to put down her papers wrote, “My character and intelligence have been impugned. My commitment to fighting antisemitism has been questioned. My inbox has been flooded with invective, including death threats. I've been called the N-word more times than I care to count.” Earlier Gay was asked to present herself in front of the US Congress following the charges that the sentiments of antisemitism have been growing in the elite university campuses since the Hamas’ strike against Israel on October 7, 2023.   

Gay’s resignation while couldn’t manage to create much ripples due to the additional charges of alleged plagiarism against her, the cancellation of the biennale has brought the art world together. More than 350 artists and curators across the world- many of them had even earlier participated in the earlier editions of the biennale- in an open letter noted their disgruntlement. Calling how the Biennale was cancelled ‘disrespectful’ the letter said, “By doing so, the Biennale has exposed its hypocrisy and dismantled its commitment towards a plurality of voices and freedom of expression.”    

In reference to the Jerusalem Declaration of 2020 which was authored by leading scholars in Jewish, Holocaust and Middle-east studies, the letter noted, “calling on the state of Israel to respect international law is not Antisemitism.” According to the Jerusalem Declaration of 2020, antisemitism is defined as “discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish)”.    

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In no uncertain terms, the letter called Israel’s attacks on Gaza an ‘apartheid’ and added, “We bear witness as our Palestinian colleagues risk and lose their lives as they document the ongoing atrocities by the Israeli state. Their images and testimonies are calls for solidarity and action that demand a permanent ceasefire, an end to Israeli apartheid, and the violent occupation of Palestinian territories.”  

The organisers of Biennale, nevertheless, while responding to Outlook, says that the cancellation was not “about a pro-Palestinian standpoint but about antisemitism transported in various ways.” They also point out that the Biennale took the decision to cancel together with the cultural representatives of the cities of Mannheim, Heidelberg and Ludwigshafen, which are the official organizers of the Biennale. 

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‘Biennale was supposed to represent inclusivity’  

The invitation to curate the biennale came to Alam around two years ago. He then reached out to two of his colleagues, Munem Wasif and Tanzim Wahab and had sent a proposal that was quickly accepted. And immediately after, they started working around the theme ‘Listening to Disquiet’ which looked into uneasiness being felt across the globe. “It also included references to the pain and the anguish in what we call the Majority World, as our voices were not being heard and our rights were being trampled upon,” says Alam.  

“We drew insights from elements such as Indian classical music, and the sparring between co-performing artists as ways through which we could unpack relationships between artists and their broader relationships with their environments,” he adds.   

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Interestingly, they were the first non-European curators of the Biennale that intended to “deal with diverse forms of collaboration, plurality of voices between the Global North and the Global South”. For almost 18 months, the curators worked with 44 artists, six partner organisations, three advisors and various colleagues to bring the Biennale to fruition.   

While preparations were going smoothly, everything changed on October 7 when Israel resumed bombing Palestine following the attacks by Hamas. Alam, as an artist and cultural activist, has always been vocal about the rights of the oppressed and in the case of Palestine, extended his support to the cause. “As a champion of human rights, my concern for the plight of people under occupation by Israel, is a long standing one. I have been wearing a Kaffiyeh in my FB profile and have been using a ‘Free Palestine’ banner in my profile for years, certainly, long before I was ever approached by the Biennale,” says Alam.    

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However, one night he received a call from the director of the Biennale expressing concerns over his Facebook posts. “I found this strange, as this had never been discussed over the many conversations we had had, or during my multiple visits to meet them and the participating institutions. However, the three of us did submit a statement and asked them to clarify their position too,” Alam laments.    

As per the statement released by the curators, they had multiple rounds of discussions with the management since October 15 on Alam’s social media posts. They also mentioned that during in-person discussions at Mannheim, several partners, including some members of the board, expressed their disagreement with the position of the director Yasmin Meinicke.   

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Even on November 14, the curators pointed out, that they had been asked to continue with the curation. Still, on November 23, the director, after she met with the mayors of three host cities, unilaterally released a press note cancelling the Biennale. Though it was earlier agreed upon that neither the curators nor the management would release any press note unilaterally, the curators accuse the management of releasing the cancellation notice without taking them on board. 

Rejecting these allegations, the biennale management says that on November 14, the other two curators Tanzim Wahab and Munem Wasif were asked whether they would curate the show without Shaidul Alam. “They were informed that due to Shahidul Alam's social media content, the realization of the Biennale would only be possible if Shahidul Alam left the curatorial team,” they note. But as both Wahab and Wasif refused to proceed without Alam, they had to cancel it.  

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In 1933, Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda in Nazi Germany published guidelines outlining the limits that artworks must adhere to if they don’t want to be ‘censored’. They called the artworks defying such guidelines as ‘entartete Kunst’ or ‘degenerate art’. In 2024, there is no demarcation of ‘degenerate art’ but the hunting goes on one name or the other, think artists and activists.  

Has antisemitism thus become a potential tool for muzzling the voices in favour of Palestine? Alam says, “Antisemitism has been weaponised to quell any criticism of Israel. The move of the US Congress to equate anti zionism with antisemitism is evidence of how far that has gone. Germany has taken it to another level.”  

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Pointing out how the Biennale itself has drifted away from its promise of upholding ‘inclusivity’, he adds, “It is ironic therefore, that in our Biennale, while we were invited to demonstrate their move towards diversity and inclusion, we were in reality expected, not to have our own point of view, but to cow down to the perverse policy of “Staatsräson”, which essentially requires German guilt to be cleansed with Palestinian blood.”  

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