Earlier this year, documenta fifteen, the 15th edition of Europe’s largest exhibition of contemporary art which takes place every five years in the German town of Kassel, found itself at the centre of a heated debate on the alleged links between anti-Semitism and post-colonial thought.
It all started with Ruangrupa, the Jakarta-based artists’ collective in charge of curating this year’s event, opting to centre the 100-day-long exhibition around artists from the Global South and their works calling for equality, collectivity, sustainability and, most crucially, liberation from colonial oppression.
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The show was not in any way focused on Palestine, with only a few Palestinian collectives invited to participate in the months-long exhibition. Nevertheless, their participation, coupled with Ruangrupa’s public support for the Palestinian Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, was enough for the German media to brand this year’s show “anti-Semitic”. Several journalists framed the anti-Semitic allegations directed at documenta fifteen also as a case against postcolonialism.
One German journalist commenting on the so-called “documenta debacle”, for example, wrote, that “as long as the State of Israel is a problem for postcolonialism, postcolonialism must remain a problem for the West.” Another claimed that because Palestinian intellectual Edward Said’s book Orientalism can be categorised as a founding text of postcolonial thought, the field has “open flanks to traditional and Israel-related anti-Semitism and born with an obsession with Israel.”
The debate on the alleged anti-Semitism of post-colonial thought did not remain limited to the media sphere either. At a July meeting of the Bundestag Committee for Culture and Media on the allegations of anti-Semitism surrounding this edition of documenta, the right-wing AfD party demanded no federal funds be made available for research projects in the cultural or educational sectors “that seek to convey post-colonial ideological content” in the name of fighting anti-Semitism. And in October, Ruhr University Bochum hosted a lecture titled “Postcolonial anti-Semitism between Desmond Tutu and Documenta” which, according to its official description, attempted to “understand the peculiarities of postcolonial anti-Semitism and its argumentation using the person of Desmond Tutus as an example.”
As the mention of renowned South African racial justice activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Tutu in this context demonstrates, the debate on so-called “post-colonial antisemitism” in Germany did not start with documenta fifteen.
Indeed, in 2020, Cameroonian scholar Achile Mbembe, who is considered a vanguard in the field of post-colonial thought, was already accused of “relativising the Holocaust” and branded anti-Semitic by German media for calling Israel an Apartheid state and supporting the BDS movement.
Such accusations directed at postcolonial thinkers, artists and activists criticising Israel are a direct consequence of the German state and political establishment’s commitment to unconditionally supporting the state of Israel as a way to atone for Germany’s past crimes against the Jewish people.
Since the fall of the Third Reich and the formation of Israel, Germany has viewed protecting Israel and its interests as part of its reason of state. And today, it is not only providing political, financial and moral support to Israel but also accepting as fact the Israeli claim that any criticism of the Jewish state – or act of support for the Palestinian liberation struggle – is inherently and indisputably anti-Semitic.
In 2019, for example, the German parliament passed a resolution that labelled the BDS movement an entity that uses anti-Semitic tactics to fulfil its political goals and called on the government to “not provide premises and facilities under the administration of the Bundestag to organisations that express themselves in anti-Semitic terms or question Israel’s right to exist”.
Effectively, Germany has succeeded in making any and all support for Palestinian liberation, and speech against Israeli occupation, if not criminal, at least taboo. Those hellbent on silencing Palestinian voices in the name of “fighting anti-Semitism” banned Palestinian protests, cancelled Palestinian events, branded Palestinian intellectuals as racists and pushed Palestinian journalists out of their jobs.
Attacks on postcolonial studies were the natural next step in this false fight against anti-Semitism for several reasons.
Postcolonialism, the critical academic study of the cultural, political, and economic legacy of colonialism, threatens the German state’s perception of its national identity and that of Israel in multiple ways.
First, it interprets genocides as intrinsically connected to colonialism and thus views the Holocaust not as an exception in history – a crime unlike any other – but just as another horrific byproduct of German colonialism.
“Forty years before the Holocaust, the Germans were already guilty of another genocide – against the Herero and the Nama,” explained historian Jürgen Zimmerer in 2017. “A racial state emerged in German southwest Africa, there was an ideology, there were laws, there were military and bureaucratic structures that were adapted and subordinated to this goal. I find it downright implausible not to see any connection here to the crimes of the ‘Third Reich’ that took place later.”
This idea that previous colonial atrocities in Africa paved the way for the Holocaust puts a spotlight on Germany’s indifference to its crimes outside Europe, and calls for a reckoning the German state appears in no way ready to embark on.
Second, postcolonialism reveals similarities between violent state actors, and thus highlights some disturbing truths about Israel that Germany would rather not face.
As many colonial scholars pointed out – and faced a torrent of anti-Semitism accusations as a result – Israel has much in common with the violent, oppressive and racist settler colonies of the past: It violently segregates the Indigenous population of the land it occupies from its settlers, makes citizenship and basic rights conditional to settler status, it imposes blockades to suffocate any resistance to its rule and claims it is doing all this to control the violence and barbarity of the local population.
In recent years, postcolonial critiques of Israel gained renewed global attention in the wake of global Black Lives Matter protests that put a spotlight on not only institutionalised racism in the West but also ongoing decolonial struggles across the world.
In Germany, where defending Israel at all costs is seen as a national responsibility, this led to widespread efforts to demonise pro-Palestinian voices and caused real decolonisation efforts to be put on the back burner. Documenta fifteen was the latest – but in no way the last – victim of this sinister smear campaign.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.