‘I am not an anti-Semite’: Pro-Palestine artists cancelled across Europe

A celebrated Bangladeshi photojournalist, Palestinian filmmaker, and US author warn that cultural spaces are at risk of repression.

Shahidul on assignment in Pakistan-1701336287
Shahidul Alam, a celebrated Bangladeshi photographer, says his support of Palestine should not be confused with anti-Semitism [Courtesy: Salma Hasan Ali/Drik]

In early October, when Israel began bombing Gaza, Bangladeshi photojournalist Shahidul Alam was busy co-curating a planned photography exhibition in Germany.

Feeling worried, he took a break from his work and took to social media to decry Israel’s attacks on the densely populated Palestinian enclave.

Alam is no stranger to human rights abuses and speaking his mind.

In 2018, he was celebrated in Time magazine for his decades-long career documenting political unrest in Bangladesh. That year, he was detained for more than 100 days, accused of “false” statements after criticising Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in an interview.

Since the onset of Israel’s war on Gaza, Alam has posted about the conflict dozens of times on Facebook to his 114,000 followers.

On October 8, one post read: “The news of semi-naked Israeli bodies being paraded is horrendous and cannot be justified … I feel for all Palestinians and Israelis lives destroyed.”

Another, on October 29, said: “This weekend’s horrific violence is the ugly reality of Israeli apartheid, the rotten fruit of decades of occupation of a stateless people divested of basic rights and freedoms.”

On November 21, the German Biennale for Contemporary Photography dropped the veteran shooter, accusing him of anti-Semitism.

“Various posts by Shahidul Alam on his Facebook channel after October 7 have given a platform to content that can be read as anti-Semitic and anti-Semitic content,” it said.

Alam’s two Bangladeshi co-curators, Tanzim Wahab and Munem Wasif, resigned in solidarity, prompting organisers to scrap next year’s exhibition tour of three German cities.

They said that among the allegedly anti-Semitic posts were 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”.

They also complained that Alam had not deleted “racist and other comparable comments” against Israelis from his page, ostensibly made by some of his followers.

Alam, Wahab and Wasif deny the allegations.

“We have a moral responsibility to decide which side of history we will stand on,” they said in a statement on Tuesday.

Alam told Al Jazeera: “I am an anti-Zionist which means I am against colonialism, settler colonialism, against racism, against apartheid and genocide.

“I am not an anti-Semite, and it’s most unfortunate that Germany chooses to conflate the two, [as this] serves and furthers the white supremacist agenda.”

The episode is one of many high-profile fallouts across the Western arts world in recent weeks over the Middle East war, focused on accusations of anti-Semitism.

Several tense cases are focused in Germany, which has a special responsibility to Israel given its history arising from the Holocaust. However, artists, protesters and activists say Berlin’s crackdown confuses criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Jewish racism.

‘Extremely distressing’

Israel began bombing Gaza after Hamas, which governs the densely populated Strip, attacked southern Israel, killing about 1,200 Israelis and kidnapping more than 200. To date, Israel’s strikes, officially aimed at crushing the Palestinian group, have killed more than 15,000 people, among them many children.

In the wake of the Hamas attack, the Frankfurt Book Fair “indefinitely postponed” an appearance by Palestinian author Adania Shibli, who was due to receive a prize for her novel Minor Detail on October 20.

On November 13, Haitian-born curator Anais Duplan was left “speechless” after his Afrofuturism exhibition at Germany’s Museum Folkwang was abruptly cancelled by the museum’s director Peter Gorschluter.

Gorschluter said Duplan’s social media posts “do not acknowledge the terroristic attack of the Hamas and consider the Israeli military operation in Gaza a genocide”.

Meanwhile, several artists have resigned from their posts at the renowned German modern art exhibition, Documenta, in a showdown that has dominated Europe’s cultural headlines for weeks.

On November 16, most of the exhibition’s six-member finding committee quit in solidarity with Ranjit Hoskote, who had quit days earlier after a German daily, Suddeutsche Zeitung, revealed that he had signed a 2019 letter published by the Indian arm of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

That letter prompted German accusations of anti-Semitism against Hoskote, a writer and curator.

Hamja Ahsan
Hamja Ahsan, a British artist and activist, says he has been feeling ‘extremely distressed’ amid the Documenta fallout [Courtesy: Tsering Parodi]

Earlier, the managing director of Documenta, Andreas Hoffmann, publicly condemned two Indonesian artistic directors of the last Documenta in 2022 for allegedly liking, and then unliking, an Instagram post in support of Palestine.

The pro-Palestinian post had been published by British artist and activist Hamja Ahsan, who took part in Documenta’s 2022 edition as a solo artist. Ahsan’s Instagram account username, realdocumenta, was later suspended. He alleged that Hoffmann had complained to the social media platform citing a trademark violation.

Ahsan told Al Jazeera he believes Hoffman’s complaint was a pretext to censor his pro-Palestinian content, as he described the episode as “extremely distressing”.

Hoffmann said that Ahsan’s username “infringed the trademark ‘Documenta’ … Based on its terms of use, Instagram came to the conclusion that the account had to be blocked.”

‘Propaganda against Palestinians’

Cultural sectors from the United Kingdom to the Netherlands have been impacted, too.

Earlier this month, several filmmakers withdrew from the world’s leading documentary festival, held in the Netherlands, after organisers criticised a pro-Palestinian protest on opening night during which activists raised a banner on stage reading “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”.

The artistic director of the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), Orwa Nyrabia, initially applauded the protest, but later condemned the slogan.

Palestinian filmmaker Basma Alsharif, who was among those to abandon the festival, accused Nyrabia of peddling misinformation.

“This kind of propaganda against Palestinians of being anti-Semitic is the thing that has been used widely against us for a long time,” Alsharif told Al Jazeera of the “river to the sea” slogan, which is deemed a rallying cry by pro-Palestinian protestors, but a call to destroy Israel by supporters of the Jewish state.

“There have been decades of fighting to get that [misinterpretation] cleared up and clarified but it’s very clear that it’s not working, because [accusations like this] are being used very aggressively against us right now.”

Basma Alsharif
Basma Alsharif, a Palestinian filmmaker, withdrew from one of the world’s most prominent festivals because organisers condemned a pro-Palestine protest [Courtesy: Basma Alsharif]

Nathan Thrall, an acclaimed American author based in Jerusalem, was looking forward to the London launch of his book, A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: A Palestine Story, on October 12, but the event was abruptly cancelled by police on security grounds.

The Palestine Festival of Literature, which was set to host him, announced the measure, which London’s Met Police force did not deny; “We do not comment on security advice given to individuals,” they told Al Jazeera.

Thrall’s work of narrative non-fiction details the challenges faced by Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

He told Al Jazeera that his London appearance had been the “biggest event of my book tour”.

“This was a time when the atmosphere in the UK was very [politically] hostile to expressions of sympathy for Palestinians,” said Thrall.

The writer, whose US book events were also cancelled, added, “Obviously, I wouldn’t want to hold an event if there really was an issue of safety” but questioned whether “events centred around a pro-Israel book would have had the same safety concerns”.

After almost two months of cancellations and condemnation, pro-Palestinian creatives in Europe see an uncertain future.

“Being an artist is already so precarious,” said Alsharif. “So how is it possible that someone’s personal political view on something in the cultural sector [can be] punished?

“That’s a very dangerous precedent. And if you don’t stand up then it means that anything [you say or do] can be scrutinised if it doesn’t fall under an agenda.”

Source: Al Jazeera