Criticism of zionism at art school in berlin: dispute over accusations of anti-semitism

A project by Jewish-Israeli students is under pressure because of alleged BDS-affinity. The funds have been cut, and one professor is fighting back.

Is art still free here? Art college in Berlin-Weibensee Photo: Christian Behring/Pop-Eye/picture alliance

A group of Jewish art students in Berlin is organizing a series of events critical of Zionism. The reactions: A pro-government Israeli newspaper scandalizes the event. Volker Beck, ex-Green member of the Bundestag, posts that "an anti-Zionism spectacle is being financed with tax money" and alarms the responsible ministry. The Israeli embassy sees "a delegitimization of Israel and anti-Semitism" at work. The accusation is proximity to BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions), an international movement founded in Palestine that focuses on boycotting Israel with moderate success.

In 2019, the Bundestag decided that no events advocating a boycott of Israel would be funded with state money. Sometimes the mere suspicion of BDS-affiliation is enough to ban the use of municipal spaces. In the case of the project "School for Unlearning Zionism," organized by Jewish students at the weibensee kunsthochschule berlin, this is the case, according to Volker Beck.

The Ministry of Research hurriedly explained that they take the anti-BDS decision very seriously and that there is no financial support for the project. The weibensee kunsthochschule berlin also affirmed its adherence to the anti-BDS resolution, removed the website of the event series and art installation "School for Unlearning Zionism" and cancelled the funding.

Mathias Jud (46), a Swiss artist and currently a visiting professor at the art school, was surprised that funding for the project he was overseeing was suddenly cut off. No one had spoken to him beforehand, he said. "This is a direct interference with the freedom of teaching," Jud told the taz. The BDS argument doesn’t make sense to him. The BDS resolution of the Bundestag was directed against a boycott of "Israeli scientists and artists" – here this resolution is now being used as a pretext "to boycott a project of Jewish-Israeli students who deal with their state, religion and history," Jud said.

"We will not be muted".

In view of the blanket refusal to fund the project and the shutting down of the website, "one could speak of boycott here," Jud said. Volker Beck, on the other hand, argues that "the event should not be banned." The protest is directed against state support, he said.

According to Jud, funding for the project was assured. Now the university has withdrawn it. Jud is not willing to accept that. "It’s clear to me that this program needs to be paid for by the university." The total budget for the installation and the eleven online lectures and debates is less than 2,000 euros.

Yehudit Yinhar, an art student and activist, co-organized the School for Unlearning Zionism project and the October Program series of events, which are held in Hebrew and English. "Unlearning Zionism," Yinhar says, means "making the power and privileges of one’s own group visible and aware of one’s own hegemonic narrative." The online series features critical Jewish Israelis, including Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, Iris Hefets and Shir Hever, both on the board of Berlin-based Jewish Voice for a Just Peace.

Yinhar, who has lived in Berlin since 2010, criticizes German institutions for presuming to sanction Jewish activists as anti-Semites. The message, she says, is that "we should speak in a way that conforms to the state, otherwise we won’t get any funding. This applies not only to us, but to other marginalized groups." Identifying criticism of Zionism with anti-Semitism and making "yes or no to BDS the framework of the entire discourse," the 35-year-old believes is an attempt to silence critical voices. The event will still take place. "We will not be muted," Yinhar said.

The Amadeu Antonio Foundation, an anti-racist NGO, now lists the "School for Unlearning Zionism" project in its chronicle of anti-Semitic incidents. There it is mentioned right next to Nazi graffiti in Leipzig. Yinhar, who grew up on a kibbutz in Israel and is the granddaughter of a German Jew who fled Berlin in 1938, is stunned by this. "How can we and our work be mentioned in the same breath as neo-Nazis? Is this how German institutions want to fight racism and anti-Semitism?"

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