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Head of the Council of Jews in Germany on anti-Semitism on documenta – DW – 09/19/2022

DW: Mr. Schuster, documenta started in June with a major anti-Semitism scandal. It was about the canvas “People’s Justice” (People’s Justice) Taring Padi (Taring Padi), which were anti-Semitic images. You said then that it surpassed your worst nightmares. What did you mean?

Joseph Schuster: We have indicated and warned in advance about the possible manifestation of anti-Semitism against Israel, which could be expected at such an art exhibition. But the fact is that I did not expect anti-Semitism in its classical manifestation, such obvious anti-Semitism. That’s what I meant by my worst nightmares.

– How frankly and clearly was anti-Semitism manifested?

– The figures depicted with all the known anti-Semitic clichés were very clearly recognizable as Jews.

– As you said, specific warnings sounded in advance. For example, that the Ruangrupa team from Indonesia is close to BDS (The abbreviation BDS stands for “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions”. How could this scandal have arisen? How can you explain?

– I have no explanation for this. We made this very clear during the preparations, as well as during our talks with the Minister of State for Culture and the Media, Claudia Roth. The Central Council of Jews in Germany was assured that there would be no anti-Semitic images at the documenta exhibition. According to Claudia Roth herself, she was misled.

After the scandal: the taken down banner of Ruangrup in Kassel
After the scandal: the taken down banner of Ruangrup in KasselPhoto: dpa

– Have other images been claimed?

– The question did not sound like: “what images will be presented”, but “is it possible to guarantee that there will be no anti-Semitic images at this exhibition?” The minister was unequivocally assured of this.

– Another scandal involving anti-Semitic images followed in July. This time it was a brochure with drawings by the Syrian artist Burhan Karkoutly. It was studied, no legal clues were found, and now the brochure can be seen with a commentary. What do you think of it?

– This is not about the legal side of the issue, but about the fact of the anti-Semitic image. And even if it is not punishable by law, I do not think that anti-Semitism in any of its manifestations has a place at the international art exhibition in Germany in 2022.

– Ruangrupa’s argument was that they are from a different cultural context and that antisemitism in Indonesia is something different than in Germany. How do you evaluate this argument?

– For me, anti-Semitism is misanthropy, and it doesn’t matter where it is: in Indonesia or in Germany. Of course, there are countries where anti-Jewish, anti-Israeli stereotypes are, unfortunately, commonplace. In a country like Germany, with its history and responsibilities, this should not happen at all.

– Claudia Roth’s reaction was to announce an increase in controls at the state-funded documenta exhibition. Could this be a solution to the problem?

– I do not know if this will be a way out, but I consider such a decision to be very important and correct. Because the use of public funds, taxpayers’ money, to promote anti-Semitism at art exhibitions is unacceptable.

– How did the dialogue with the Central Council of Jews develop? Have you been contacted for advice?

– There was a conversation at the beginning of the year. The State Minister took up a new post, and although we already knew each other, this was our first conversation in this context. Since the topic was in the air, we discussed the documenta exhibition intensively. Then the conversation had to be interrupted for objective reasons: the minister had an appointment, and it was decided to continue the discussion in the near future. But short term is a loose concept.

– Have you contacted the participants Ruangrupa?

– No, we had no contact with them at all. No one approached us from their side, and we did not approach them either. I think that the responsibility in this case, in addition to the group of artists and curators, lies with manual documenta. The co-owners and the supervisory board of the exhibition are also responsible.

– In your opinion, has the reputation of documenta been damaged?

– I think so. I don’t know the exact number of visitors to the exhibition, but people who have visited documenta in the past confessed to me that they canceled their hotel reservations this year. Even the German Chancellor canceled his visit.

– A year ago, you said that most of the crimes motivated by anti-Semitism come from supporters of right-wing ideas. Has something changed?

– No, nothing has changed. I still see that most of the crimes come from the right camp. But we also see anti-Semitic sentiment, both on the political left and among the centrists. But there is a difference between attitude and crime. Similarly, there is anti-Semitism among Muslims.

– How do you explain it?

– Unfortunately, anti-Semitism in right-wing political circles is not a new phenomenon. However, one can sometimes observe strange alliances being forged here by the political right, especially with Islamic fundamentalist groups.

– How should anti-Semitism be countered?

– Crimes motivated by anti-Semitism must be consistently punished. In addition: enlightenment, education. Moreover, education in these matters should begin at the very beginning of schooling.

Shortly before the completion of the 15th exhibition of contemporary art in Germany documenta around her scandal broke out againRelated to anti-Semitism. This time the reason was the work of the Belgian-Palestinian group Subversive Film called “Tokyo Reels Film Festival”. Interview with Josef Schuster, who is the head Central Council of Jews in Germany since 2014, was recorded before the “Tokyo Reels Film Festival” scandal.

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