Exposing the Contradictions: Jewish Artists Dismantling Germany’s Nationalist Narrative

Adam Broomberg and Rafael Gonzalez, from "Anchor in the Landscape," a series of photographs of Palestinian olive trees in the Occupied Territories of Palestine, 2023. Image courtesy of the artists.

Late last year, the artist Adam Broomberg again found himself punished for speaking out in support of Palestinian liberation. Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design in Germany, where he had recently been hired as a visiting professor, forbade him from instructing students after he made several anti-Zionist social-media posts, though the school continued to keep him on its payroll. A longstanding critic of Israel and cofounder of the NGO Artists + Allies x Hebron alongside Palestinian activist Issa Amro, Broomberg can attest, from personal experience, that even leveraging white Jewish privilege to advocate for Palestine in Germany fails to shield Jewish artists from discriminatory actions. He previously faced retaliation in May 2023, when he was arrested during a public ceremony in Berlin commemorating the Nakba. Armed riot police swarmed a crowd of around four hundred demonstrators, reportedly arresting eleven others—Palestinians, Jews, and allies—for the potential crime of antisemitism. In this regard, Broomberg epitomizes the complex and contradictory predicament confronting many Jewish artists in Germany. Despite the fact that members of his family perished in the Holocaust, he finds himself accused of antisemitism and detained by German police for raising his voice against what he considers to be another genocide.

For a country that redeemed its postwar public image by promoting and investing in art—Documenta, founded in 1955, is a case in point—Germany appears to be plummeting into a state of moral bankruptcy that art cannot resuscitate. As state institutions defund, disinvite, publicly shame, and fire artists and scholars who express criticism of Israel or solidarity with Palestine, they willfully discard fundamental democratic principles of tolerance, transparency, and accountability. Underlining the issue is the German government’s 2017 acknowledgement of Israel as a “Jewish collective” and the classification of the BDS movement as antisemitic, which established two legal definitions that effectively criminalize criticism of Israel. Germany’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism further complicates the matter, since the organization’s working definition explicitly states that “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” is antisemitic.

Censorship in Germany has reached a level of hysteria that the philosopher Susan Neiman characterizes as “philosemitic McCarthyism,” wherein the state, aiming to stifle dissent and consequently curtail freedom of expression, takes punitive actions against artists and scholars suspected of antisemitism. All of this mishigas is done in the name of protecting Jews and supporting Israel. In Germany’s double-negative paradigm of anti-antisemitism, Jews are cast as the perpetual victims and white ethnic Germans as their righteous guardians. Any deviation from these imaginary roles threatens to delegitimize the country’s “reason of state,” which directly links its modern identity to the security and existence of Israel. This situation puts left-leaning Jewish and Israeli artists in Germany who publicly criticize Israel in an absurd position: they are accused of antisemitism by the descendants of actual Nazis. In response, a growing number of Jewish artists in Germany are harnessing their identities to highlight the dangers of state censorship, discrimination, surveillance, and police brutality.

In a highly publicized incident last November, the Saarlandmuseum in Saarbrücken canceled prominent Jewish artist Candice Breitz’s exhibition, which was to have featured TLDR (2017), a thirteen-channel video installation about sex workers in Cape Town. The artwork highlights the self-advocacy of this community while questioning the role of the privileged artist in representing their work. Breitz received no advanced notice of the cancellation from the institution and was instead informed of it through media channels. News outlets quoted the museum board, which characterized her online advocacy for a ceasefire in Gaza as controversial. According to the board, the museum “is not prepared to offer a platform to artists who do not clearly position themselves against the terror of Hamas.”

Candice Breitz, still from TLDR, 2017. Courtesy of Goodman Gallery, London.

Like Broomberg, Breitz experienced apartheid-era South Africa and passionately advocates for Palestinian liberation. In response to the museum’s actions, she publicized the unjust circumstances surrounding the cancellation of her exhibition in statements on social media and to the press, categorically denouncing the museum’s decision as antisemitic while emphasizing her condemnation of the Hamas attack. The museum responded by stating that it “will not provide a platform to any artist who qualifies the exercise of the right to self-defense by the State of Israel to a cowardly and brutal terrorist attack as genocide.” Because the museum did not give any legal grounds or due process for the cancellation, Breitz’s allies have requested that the Saarland minister for education and culture, Christine Streichert-Clivot, publicly release the minutes of the board meeting that led to the decision. Recently, Breitz had the opportunity to discuss her experience of state repression with residents of Saarbrücken, when two local anti-fascist organizations, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Saarland and VVN-BdA Saar, invited her to speak at a public event in Saarbrücken. The discussion was held on May 15, Nakba Day, and Breitz also spent time talking about the political dimensions of Germany’s close ties to Israel.

One of the first artists in Germany to face retaliation after October 7 was the Palestinian, Syrian, and Swedish poet Ghayath Almadhoun, who is currently based in Berlin. Less than a week later, the organization Haus für Poesie canceled the launch of the poetry anthology he edited. The collection includes thirty-four poets of Arab descent, all of whom live in Europe, and explores their complex experiences of exile, war, and belonging. Months later, voicing his frustration about the cancellation, Almadhoun pointed out the relationship between the Holocaust and the formation of the state of Israel, observing that the crimes of the Third Reich convinced international powers to support the establishment of Israel, which resulted in the mass displacement of Palestinians. His father, expelled from Palestine in 1948 and 1967, eventually fled to Syria in 1970, where Almadhoun was born in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus. As he explained: “My relation to Germany is connected to me being born as a refugee.” Acknowledging this connection, however, also threatens to dismantle key aspects of modern German identity. As does the fact that white Germans often blame Germans of migratory backgrounds for “importing” antisemitism, despite police reports repeatedly showing that the majority of crimes against Jews in Germany are committed by far-right white groups. In examining current censorship in Germany, it is crucial to hold on to this context, without losing sight of the real atrocities unfolding in Gaza and the occupied West Bank, as well the terror faced by Israeli hostages still held by Hamas.

In contrast to other colonial nations such as the United States—which still has not implemented national policies to redress legacies of slavery and Native American genocide—Germany centered the history of the Holocaust within schools, public spaces, and national museums. But the institutionalization of memory culture may paradoxically lead to a false equivalence of collective atonement with national redemption. As the German Jewish writer and curator Emily Dische-Becker has explained, “By virtue of its having committed genocide and then having reckoned with that gargantuan atrocity,” Germany imagines itself off the hook, and resists any other narrative. Thus, state apparatuses silence Jewish artists and scholars who publicly acknowledge complicated dynamics between Germany, Israel, and Palestine.

The Russian American writer Masha Gessen faced a version of this silencing after they compared the plight of Gazans to ghettoized Jews in Eastern Europe in their New Yorker essay “In the Shadow of the Holocaust.” Following the essay’s publication, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which had previously awarded Gessen the Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought, suspended the award ceremony. The contradictions are overwhelming: it is incredulous to penalize a Jewish intellectual for writing a critical analysis of violence and rescind an award created in memory of another Jewish intellectual who warned against totalitarianism and, like Gessen, lost family in the Holocaust.

While Broomberg, Breitz, and Gessen stand out as high-profile figures voicing dissent, a growing cohort of Jewish cultural workers are openly expressing their concerns about repression in Germany following October 7. This collective opposition represents an unprecedented shift in mainstream German consciousness. In late October 2023, a widely circulated open letter signed by over a hundred Jewish artists and scholars (including Broomberg and Breitz) condemned German suppression of democratic norms and expressed “full solidarity with our Arab, Muslim and particularly our Palestinian neighbors.” In a direct plea, the letter poignantly stated: “Germany’s refusal to recognize a right to grieve the loss of lives in Gaza does not make Jews safe … If this is an attempt to atone for German history, its effect is to risk repeating it.”

Following publication in the daily German newspaper Die Tageszeitung, the letter was mentioned in the New York Times, the Guardian, and Al Jazeera. More significantly, several signatories received requests for interviews within Germany, including Ben Mauk, a Berlin-based, Jewish American writer who helped craft and publish the letter. The American-born German Jewish writer Deborah Feldman, renowned for her autobiography Unorthodox, which was the basis for the Netflix miniseries of the same name, made waves in the German media after signing the letter. In a widely publicized television appearance, Feldman stated, “I am firmly convinced that there is only one legitimate lesson from the Holocaust and that is the absolute unconditional defense of human rights. Anyone who wants to exploit the Holocaust to justify violence has forfeited their own humanity.” This early media attention helped strengthen Jewish and Palestinian solidarity activism in Germany, despite the escalating repression.

Whether or not voluntarily embraced, Jewish identity in Germany is highly politicized, making it increasingly difficult for Jewish artists to navigate cultural spaces. Many Jewish artists and cultural workers with whom I spoke about this issue asked to remain anonymous in anything I wrote for fear of being “canceled” or losing state funding. While Jewish and non-Jewish artists worldwide currently face consequences for speaking out, Jewish artists find themselves in a particularly challenging situation in Germany, where virulent antisemitism originates. Additionally, the sharp divide between native-born German Jews, who are often politically conservative, and left-leaning Jewish expatriates, who include numerous Israeli immigrants, creates another troubling dynamic in Germany—categories of “good Jews” and “bad Jews” are used to suppress dissenting voices. Vocal critics of Israel, like Feldman, are frequently dismissed as “foreigners.” Either way, punishing Jewish artists for their political affiliations in Germany is not only dehumanizing; it replicates the fascist behavior that it claims to negate.

Anna Lublina, Laura Stellacci, and Jerry Lieblich (L-R) performing Undying in Yidderland by Anna Lublina, Mousonturm Künstlerhaus in March 2023.

Gry Tingskog and Laura Stellacci (R-L) performing Undying in Yidderland by Anna Lublina, Mousonturm Künstlerhaus in March 2023.

The Jewish American artist Anna Lublina encountered firsthand the complex web of state and self-censorship experienced by some Jewish artists in Germany. Just days prior to their lecture-performance, planned for Metahub, a public-programming collaboration between the Jewish Museum and the Archeological Museum in Frankfurt, a dramaturg from Metahub met with them to discuss concerns raised by the Jewish museum regarding their liking of an Instagram post. No one from Metahub would tell Lublina which particular post was found to be concerning; Lublina assumed that the situation likely involved the museum director Mirjam Wenzel. In February, Wenzel was interrupted by chanting protestors while participating in a one-hundred-hour-long reading of Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, orchestrated by the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. In an email to me, the museum claimed that Lublina had liked Instagram posts by the groups Thawra and Palestine Speaks that filmed the interruption of protestors chanting, “Israel is a terrorist state,” and “Zionism is a crime.” Lublina already felt uneasy about performing at an institution whose director was embroiled in a national controversy; however, they continued to prepare for the event, planned to coincide with the celebration of Purim. The participatory performance explores the intricate relationship between German and Jewish nationalism through the culinary tradition of making hamantaschen and recognizes the importance of artistic interventions to provoke critical conversations within the Jewish context. Unbeknownst to Lublina, the Jewish Museum decided to distance itself from the artist by removing their event from its website a day prior to the event, though the performance remained on the separate website for Metahub. In an email to me, Wenzel explained that the museum made the decision based on an Instagram story shared by Lublina that “was not only expressing empathy for the situation of Palestinian civilians but accusing Israel of committing a ‘Holocaust’ in Gaza,” which the museum found unacceptable, arguing that this “is relativizing the precedentlessness of Nazi atrocities against Jews.” Neither the museum nor Lublina can provide evidence of this post. Ultimately, the roundabout institutional maneuver left Lublina with the feeling that their performance had been canceled. Lublina chose to cancel the event themself and announced the cancellation on Metahub’s website the night before.

Under these circumstances, what role can Jewish dissent and solidarity play in shifting the German nationalist narrative? Germany sought redemption through the establishment and backing of a country that is now mirroring the genocidal violence that many of its citizens’ ancestors survived. No amount of financial, military, social, or political backing for Israel will ever whitewash the horrors of the Holocaust, especially when such support facilitates the recurrence of state violence against an entire people: Palestinians. Exposing the contradictory logic that allows Germany to justify its support for the assault on Gaza is one way Jewish artists are holding the country accountable for the unlearned lessons of history. Listening to the descendants of Holocaust survivors and other Jews advocating for justice in Palestine and fighting against repression in Germany is part of the process of healing. In this entanglement, there are no singular victims; everyone is intricately interconnected. It is the responsibility of each new generation to dismantle the nationalist narratives that separate us from one another in order to end the cycles of violence, and ultimately secure safety for all.


Correction 20/6/2024: This story has been amended to include the perspective of Mirjam Wenzel, Director of the Jewish Museum Frankfurt. It has also been amended to clarify that Metahub is a collaboration between the Jewish Museum and the Archeological Museum in Frankfurt. 

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