Steffen Zillig’s diatribe in Das Kunstmagazin is wide of the mark

Earlier this month, a piece by artist and critic, Steffen Zillig appeared in the German Magazine, art – Das Kunstmagazine (‘The Art magazine’), where he is also editor. Zillig attacks the artists who in February signed a Pledge for Palestine. His piece contains no new charges worth refuting; however, the familiar antisemitism smear – delivered in a particularly aggressive tone – was given two further platforms, and unwarranted credibility, in the UK arts press: in Artlyst and Artnet, both of which failed to offer any analysis or counter-argument. That has been left to us. There is an English translation of the German article below our response to Zillig.

Zillig attributes various qualities to the signatories:

– They are not serious political activists: signing the Pledge is just the latest, clueless form of a fashion for art-activism. The signatories are assuming a role in a drama of their own making: David against Goliath, the dissident artist against the Leviathan state.
– They are ignorant of history, and simplify and moralise conflicts that are in reality complex and many-sided.
– They lack empathy for Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, surrounded by states which have spurned every opportunity for peace.
– Unless and until all oppressive states are boycotted, a boycott of Israel is a signifier of antisemitism. (Deplorably, Zillig does not hesitate to impute antisemitic motives to individual artists.)

Zillig has constructed his polemic without, it seems, taking the trouble to read the ways in which the artists who have signed the pledge explain why they have done so. 

He will find the artists’ statements here:

There are around 70 statements. We will quote from three of them, not because we think they are the ‘best’, but because they help to demonstrate how very limited is Zillig’s understanding of and engagement with the positions he attacks so confidently.

From the actor Miriam Margolyes:

‘…My support for the Palestinian cause is fiercer because I am Jewish and I honour the strengths of that religion and the suffering my people have experienced through the years. My visits to Palestine showed me at first hand how the people there are treated by Israeli forces. Their lack of humanity disgusts me – I want no part of it. I realise we were fed a lie about the foundation of the State of Israel, a lie forged certainly out of desperate need to help the dispossessed millions devastated by the horror of the Nazi regime. But to force people from their homes, from their ancestral lands – that is no answer. We are punishing the wrong people. Israel exists; I can never support destruction of a people. Terrorism (which comes from both sides) is the answer for thugs – not for me. We have to share the land not by creating borders and walls, but by removing them. We are all human beings …’

The artist filmmaker John Smith:

‘One of the most common criticisms of the boycott strategy I have encountered from my fellow visual artists is that it impedes discussion with those Israelis who wish to end the occupation, or are at least open to persuasion. But in my own experience the precise opposite is true. My unwillingness to visit or show my work in Israel has triggered numerous exchanges with both Israeli and British friends and colleagues, addressing awkward issues that might otherwise have been avoided by both sides. There is no doubt that boycott has generated… intense disagreements around the world, sometimes resulting in entrenched positions. But in my opinion it is absolutely necessary at this point in time – after the dismal failure of decades of reasoned argument, what other peaceful options are open to us? The existence of the cultural boycott reminds all of us of the continuing brutal oppression of the Palestinian people, pushing each of us to let others know where we stand and stopping us from pretending that cultural exchange can take place in a vacuum, outside of any political or moral context.’

The comedian Jeremy Hardy:

‘We are not attacking or condemning Israel’s writers, performers, musicians, painters or academics; we recognise that, by nature, they are likely to be among the progressive voices of Israel… But Israeli policy is clothed in respectability by the talent and creativity of the country’s artists and intellectuals, and by the willingness of those outside Israel to take part in its cultural and academic life. So a refusal on our part to co-operate is at the very least, a refusal to turn our backs on the Palestinians and a refusal to be make their plight worse by being enlisted in the Israeli government’s propaganda war.’

We do not find any lack of seriousness here, nor historical amnesia, nor a lack of empathy for Israeli citizens. Least of all do we find the antisemitism which Zillig claims to have uncovered. Instead, we read a recognition of something that is absent – shockingly absent – from Zillig’s apologetics: Israel has ethnically cleansed and occupied Palestinian land; this process continues; it continues with a terrible harshness, which appals the signatories to the Pledge but appears to be beyond Zillig’s imaginative reach.

Zillig writes of certain ‘actions’ of the Israeli army which one must deplore. He brings himself to acknowledge that ‘naturally’ there are certain cases of discrimination against the Palestinian population of Israel. He allows that one may have an empathy for Palestinians who have lost relatives and housing ‘in the conflict’. But these euphemistic turns of phrase serve less to strengthen his argument than to reveal its fundamental weakness: he does not register the duration and intensity of the misery that Palestinians have endured; he does not take the measure of Israel’s responsibility for it, nor the complicity of Western governments that enables the occupation not just to continue, but to grow.

It is these issues with which cultural workers are increasingly engaged. Initiatives like the pledge are gaining support because they begin to offer artists a means of opposing injustice through the medium of cultural work, and through their identity as cultural workers. Zellig’s caricature of motives and arguments does not even begin to capture the ethical and political concerns that engage those who are involved in this work.

Written by the APUK organising collective.

Boycott the UK

by STEFFEN ZILLIG (translated by Ofer Neiman)

1000 artists have already joined a British boycott campaign named “Artists for Palestine UK”. Among them are visual artists such as Ed Atkins and Phyllida Barlow, but also musicians such as Roger Waters and Brian Eno, as well as filmmaker Ken Loach. They have pledged to refrain from any cultural collaboration with the State of Israel.  In his commentary, our author addresses the artists and asks: Are you in your right mind?

Perhaps this has something to do with the growing number of people who feel overwhelmed by the political map of the present. The yearning for artists who will handle the political hot potatoes vicariously for the rest, or even pull the chestnuts out of the fire for them, is higher than it has ever been. One finds this yearning in the enormous, often unquestioned enthusiasm for the grand gestures of artists like Ai Weiwei and Pussy Riot. Special conventions for art-activists and political biennials are held everywhere. And not least, this yearning which is recited in the form of a nostalgic lament: “In the good old days, when [Joseph] Beuys was still planting trees” and so on and so forth, a recurring theme in the comments section following reports about the hyperventilating art market.

However, there are moments in which the current enthusiasm for activist-artists seems to turn into blind applause. This enthusiasm only conceals one’s own political cluelessness, the ease with which we skip the political section of the daily news and scroll down to the diet food column. Otherwise it’s hard to explain why the art world has received with hardly more than a shrug the news that over 1000 artists in the UK have decided to join a cultural boycott against the State of Israel: As these artists state on the accompanying website, they will not accept future Invitations or subsidies which can be traced back in any way to Israeli state institutions.

In the statement, which artists such as Phyllida Barlow or post-Internet-artist Ed Atkins have joined, the roles are assigned clearly. For themselves, they have reserved the role of a relentless David: The artist as a dissident, struggling with an all-powerful state, raising her/his voice for “freedom, justice and equality” in the face of risks. Because the “Palestinian struggle”, which is now the cause taken up by the brave artists, is about nothing other than this. On the other side stands Goliath: The all-powerful State of Israel, which simply refuses to admit that it, and no other, is the real aggressor and the cause of misery in the Middle East conflict, as well as the reason why this misery drags on. And one has to conclude that if only the evil state ceased to build walls, draw border lines and throw bombs, the conflict would be resolved.

The pattern: “One is still allowed to say that!”   

My dear British artists, is this a joke? the worldview underlying your boycott call is one-sided and simplistic at best. Worse than that, it knowingly ignores a row of historical facts, not least anti-Semitism and its role in the Middle East conflict – and unfortunately [your worldview] serves anti-Semitism itself. This begins with the assertion that those who criticize Israel can always expect “incitement campaigns” and “censorship”. This is what the initiators [of the petition] assert, along with their call, even ahead of the first reaction to it. This is a rhetorical trick, which not only renders the action itself all the more heroic, but also discredits any objections in advance. The trick functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy: Whoever criticizes the boycott campaign now, or argues that its message assists anti-Semitism, immediately becomes a part of the alleged censorship apparatus.

We know this form of conspiratorial shadow boxing too well in Germany: “One is still allowed to say that!”, so goes a classical punchline at the regulars’ table, and it doesn’t matter that from the tabloids to the broadsheets everyone agrees: One is still allowed to criticize Israel! Yes, one may, and one does, often with self-righteousness, which should make the faces of those who know history in this country blush: According to a poll, 70 percent of the Germans believe that Israel pursues its interests with no consideration for other people. Where have these people educated themselves, if not on the “Tagesschau”, “Bild” and “Spiegel Online”? There is no censorship – also in The UK – there is biased reporting at most. In what way is it biased? One can argue about that. I for one have come more than once across reports with headlines such as the following, in which the authors do not even recognize their own bias: “Israel responds to fire from Gaza in spite of ceasefire” (Spiegel Online).

Stooping to a level beneath their own art

This is the established narrative, which the British artists evidently follow uncritically: The bad Israelis with their big weapons against the poor Palestinians, who are apparently just throwing stones (for freedom and justice of course). And casualty figures are always compared, as if this says anything about proportionality, while the efforts invested by the Israeli side to protect the lives of its population are dismissed. As a rule, the conflict makes it to the local media only when the Israeli army carries out a counter-attack. An ARD correspondent has recently noted how difficult it is for journalists to avoid these narratives and propaganda images. It is almost impossible to show via images “what it means for those on the [Israeli side of the ] border, living for years with the code Red alarm and then having only 15 to 40 seconds to run to the shelter…Only in the town of Sderot, around 1000 times a year.” It is not stone throwing which is being thwarted there by the [Israeli] rocket interception system. But it doesn’t even help, writes the reporter, “to film the strung, collected rockets”, because what are these abstract photos vis-a-vis the impact of the images of wounded children and screaming mothers in Gaza?

This is not about complete support for one party to this conflict. There are actions by the Israeli army, the orthodox powers [in Israel], and even Netanyahu’s government, which one has every reason to criticize. There is nothing wrong with empathy for every Palestinian who has lost relatives or housing in the conflict. But when artists such as Ed Atkins, whose works, in fact, assume a certain sensitivity to the suggestive power of images and narratives, follow a presentation of a decades-long conflict in which the representation of heroes and villains is so suspiciously simple, such as in the British boycott call, this is dramatic evidence as to the level of differentiation of their political consciousness. Does one really want to be lectured by such artists about the political world?

Jeremy Deller has retracted his signature           

Jeremy Deller, who took part in the British pavilion at the Venice Biennial two years ago, has meanwhile retracted his signature. In response to questions, he explained that he did not agree with all the points in the statement and could see himself working in Israel or having his works exhibited there under certain circumstances. The other artists rule out this possibility for themselves. And it is not just their chosen political means (boycott) which attests to a disagreeable historical amnesia, but also the reasons they cite. For the situation in the Middle East is compared to that in apartheid South Africa, as if Israeli racism lies at the core of this conflict. Naturally, there are cases of ethnic discrimination, but there is also a rather functioning state of law which is based on the principle of equality for its citizens “regardless of their ethnic affiliation, their religion or their gender”. Clearly, one can criticize the discrimination in practice against Muslims there – but so one-sided and arrogant is the accusation coming from The UK, when it fails to mention the following fact even in one sentence: It is the current regime in the Gaza Strip which declares that “the “killing of Jews” is a duty for every Muslim, and that the “destruction of Israel” is its ultimate goal. It follows that the British artists have obviously applied double standards.

It is beyond the scope of this article to counter [the statement] with a balanced and comprehensive picture of the complicated conflict in which the artists have taken sides. Perhaps just a couple of questions to the ladies and gentlemen, the artists, instead of all the reasons which one would have to cite: How does it feel to live in the only democratic state of law in the Middle East surrounded by states which constantly call into question the right of this state to exist? How does it feel to be surrounded by countries where the Islamists always win in any reasonably free elections, people who despise your life and religion even more than they despise the rights of women and homosexuals? How does it feel to be surrounded by states which tolerate explicit anti-Semitism, of the type we can hardly imagine here? How does it feel when the all the smart alecs of the world lectures you about the two-state solution, but lets those proposals which have just been rejected by the Palestinian side slip under the table (keyword Camp David II)? And how fragile have nearly all the peace accords [involving Israel] been over the years? How does it feel When Jewish institutions all over the world are under constant police protection? When, after an event such as Auschwitz, and in the face of rising anti-Semitism in the world, one sees no land in which one may feel secure and at home as a Jew?

One last question to you, Mr. Atkins: Wouldn’t it be wise if instead of far away Israel, you started with that which is on your doorstep: The UK has one of the most inhumane asylum laws in Europe, it finances one of the most voracious secret services, takes billions from the people of the world every year with its tax havens – Yes, your country is a hotbed of neoliberalism and has discriminated against the proud Scottish people for decades! Reject exhibitions and funding that are attributable in any way to this unjust state! And please don’t forget to boycott all other unjust states, such as Germany, China, the USA, Iran, India, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Russia! [By doing so] you will convince me in no time that your moralizing index finger pointed at Israel has nothing to do with anti-Semitism.


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