A Statement from Berlin Culture Workers for Palestine

24 October 2023

As we write, the Gaza Strip is under a daily rain of Israeli missiles and white phosphorus. One Israeli official has expressed a desire to transform Gaza into a “city of tents” and an Israeli TV commentator shared his dream of turning it “into Dresden.” In the first week alone, over 6000 bombs fell on the territory; the past two weeks of attacks have killed over 5000 Palestinians, nearly half of them children. The Israeli military has repeatedly targeted hospitals, civilian convoys, as well as bakeries and water pipelines. Air strikes have wiped out entire lineages; families separate to shelter in different places, so that if a bomb falls in one place, at least some members may survive.  Since Israel cut off Gaza's supply of fuel and electricity, much of the enclave's population are running out of food and water. Without access to medical supplies, medics struggle to tend to the wounded. On October 14, a doctor wrote, "When I drove from north Gaza to Shifa [hospital] last night, the stench of decaying bodies every time you drove by a destroyed building was overwhelming. No time to dig up the bodies." Israel launched this brutal offensive after Hamas’ attacks, in which at least 1300 Israelis were killed and 200 were taken hostage. As relatives of the Israeli victims say “do not use our pain to bring death,” Israel continues its campaign of displacement and bombardment, a renewed form of collective punishment that amounts to a clear-cut case of ethnic cleansing.  

This attack on the Palestinian population in Gaza, already barricaded in what Human Rights Watch calls “an open air prison,” is being cheered on, funded, and armed by much of the self-described free world, led by the governments of the USA, UK, France, and Germany.

In Germany, anyone who dares to publicly oppose this carnage—at a rally or on the internet—faces the threat of ostracism, censorship, arrest, sacking by employers, and in the case of foreigners, deportation. Every day brings a new case: banning of kuffiyeh and the Palestinian flag in protests and schools, pre-emptive policing in Arab neighborhoods, stop-and-search of Arab youths, and the doxxing by media outlets of people who dare to voice their solidarity. In the works is a citizenship reform law that allows the German state to deny visas and citizenship, and revoke residency permits, based on charges of anti-Semitism following the IHRA criteria, which deems any criticism of the Israeli state an act of anti-Semitism. Repressive tactics are always shifting. Police use their discretionary power to shut down protests and beat demonstrators. City and state authorities issue bans on specific symbols, only revoking them after riot cops have incited full-scale violence. All of this produces an ever-present atmosphere of fear, self-censorship, and suspicion—on social media and in the workplace, in institutions and on the street. 

The supposed reason for this repression is to fight bigotry, specifically, anti-Semitism. But the effect, at every level, is racism. Based on a dangerous conflation between Israel and Jewishness, the German state and civil society punish any expression of solidarity with Palestinians, a people facing another stage of ethnic cleansing. This misguided anti-anti-Semitism and the false equivalency it perpetuates are not making Jewish life any safer, according to many Jews, and is preventing Jewish voices from being heard. A recent demonstration "Against Violence in the Middle East'' was banned by the authorities for promoting both violence and anti-Semitism, in spite of the fact that the rally was organized by Jewish Berliners. Even Bernie Sanders, whose father’s family was killed by Nazis in the Shoah, was fiercely criticized by SPD leader Saskia Esken, who refused to attend a reception because of his statement about October 7th. Though Sanders fully condemned Hamas's actions, Esken could not tolerate that he also expressed concern for Gaza's more than one million children. 

National context is crucial here. German post-reunification "remembrance culture" (Erinnerungskultur)—the state campaign to address Germany's mass slaughter of the Jews—has taken a stunning contemporary form. This state-sponsored attempt to banish fascism and present Germany as a special haven for Jewish cultural life has, in a historical paradox, hardened into another form of national chauvinism. That Palestinians must be patrolled and censured for their supposed anti-Semitism by the German state testifies to the perversity that now drives this national project: having committed genocide has become a claim to moral authority. This fiercely narrow interpretation of "remembrance culture" has also produced the fantasy that anti-Semitism has been largely defeated among Germans; despite the fact that white Germans are responsible for 83% of antisemitic hate crimes, the real threat today is supposedly "imported anti-Semitism," the fault of foreigners, especially Arabs. 

Given that the cultural sector is notably international, artists, writers, and curators from abroad, especially from the Global South, are frequently and baselessly accused of bigotry for voicing solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. ​​Overwhelmingly dependent on public funds, culture itself has effectively become an arm of German foreign policy. The Frankfurt Book Fair’s announcement that it “stands with complete solidarity on the side of Israel” is only one recent, high profile example of this. The Palestinian novelist Adania Shibli has been barred from receiving an award, as the fair’s director Juergen Boos insisted that recent events require the organization  “to make Jewish and Israeli voices especially visible.” Meanwhile, the fair hosts a neonazi publisher who demanded the deportation of Afro-German writer Jasmina Kuhnke, after she withdrew from the fair as an act of protest to the presence of Nazis there. By silencing any criticisms of Israel, even self-professed progressives sound indistinguishable from Germany's growing far-right party, the Alternative für Deutschland (AFD).

We refuse this hateful, systematic silencing not simply because it threatens free speech, but because the misuse of German guilt reinvigorates precisely the oppression that real "remembrance" should work against. If cultural institutions and workers continue abiding by state policies, allowing the censoring of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, they set a frightening precedent. We must not permit the German state to consolidate further authoritarianism against other dissenting voices, especially those opposed to racism and colonialism. The German state's support for the siege on Gazans does not absolve its historical crimes, but runs the shocking risk of reproducing them. As people who live and work here, we have a duty to speak out.

This statement is more than a diagnosis or complaint: we are sounding the alarm. We are calling on Germany’s cultural institutions and workers to take a stance: oppose historical injustice and ongoing ethnic cleansing.