Brian Eno: Artists must call out Germany’s anti-Palestinian witch-hunt

A 2019 parliamentary resolution has had a chilling effect on critics of Israeli policy. Now the cultural sector is speaking up.

  • This article was published in The Guardian under the title ‘Artists like me are being censored in Germany – because we support Palestinian rights’.

I am just one of many artists who have been affected by a new McCarthyism that has taken hold amid a rising climate of intolerance in Germany. Novelist Kamila Shamsie, poet Kae Tempest, musicians Young Fathers and rapper Talib Kwelli, visual artist Walid Raad and the philosopher Achille Mbembe are among the artists, academics, curators and others who have been caught up in a system of political interrogation, blacklisting and exclusion that is now widespread in Germany thanks to the passing of a 2019 parliamentary resolution. Ultimately this is about targeting critics of Israeli policy towards Palestinians.

Recently, an exhibition of my artwork was cancelled in its early stages because I support the nonviolent, Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The cancellation was never publicly declared, but I understand it to have been the consequence of cultural workers in Germany fearing that they and their institution would be punished for promoting someone labelled as “antisemitic”. This is the work of tyranny: create a situation where people are frightened enough to keep their mouths shut, and self-censorship will do the rest.Advertisement

But as my own story is relatively minor, I’d like to tell you about my friend, musician Nirit Sommerfeld.

Nirit was born in Israel and raised in Germany, and retains her lifelong connection to both places, including to her extended family in Israel. As an artist, she has been dealing with the relationship between Germans, Israelis and Palestinians for more than 20 years in songs, texts and performances, dedicating all her shows to international and inter-religious understanding.

Yet now Nirit finds herself unable to do her cultural work freely. When considering her application for arts funding, state officials have told Nirit they needed to vet her work; when trying to book a concert venue in Munich, her hometown, she was told by the organisers that the show would be cancelled unless she confirmed in writing that it would feature no “support for the content, topic and goals” of the BDS campaign. She has repeatedly been a target of smear campaigns. 

Why has this happened?

Because she has spoken about what she has seen with her own eyes: Israel’s racist laws against its own citizens who are Palestinian; Israel’s military checkpoints, house demolitions, the separation wall, the land-grabs, the incarceration of children, and Israeli soldiers humiliating and killing Palestinians of all ages. She has witnessed the illegal use of phosphorus bombs against Gaza and the indifference – at best – of many in Israeli society.

I asked Nirit how she feels about the situation: “After returning for two years to Tel Aviv, and many visits to the occupied Palestinian territories, I understood that Israel doesn’t live up to its professed high moral standards. The lesson learned from the Holocaust was ‘Never again!’ But is it intended only to protect us Jews? For me ‘Never again!’ must include ‘never again to racism, oppression, ethnic cleansing anywhere – as well as never again to antisemitism’.”

Nirit’s music celebrates her Jewish past and present through song. As an artist whose grandfather was murdered in the Nazi genocide, she finds it “profoundly disturbing” that she is subject to censorship and inquisitorial McCarthyism by German public officials and institutions.

In Nirit’s view: “When defenders of Israel insist that these occupation and apartheid policies are done in the name of all Jews worldwide, they fuel antisemitism. Fighting antisemitism should not and cannot be done by demonising the struggle for Palestinian rights.”

Nirit’s experience is an example of the Kafkaesque situation we’ve drifted into: a Jewish woman, whose work is all about history, memory, justice, peace and understanding, falsely accused of antisemitism – by German institutions. The absurdity of the accusation makes one thing clear: this isn’t actually about antisemitism at all, but about limiting our freedom to discuss the political and humanitarian situation in Israel and Palestine. 

So how has this situation come about?

In 2019, a vaguely worded non-binding parliamentary resolution was passed in Germany, falsely equating the BDS movement with antisemitism. In a short space of time, this resolution has paved the way for an atmosphere of paranoia, fuelled by misinformation and political opportunism.

BDS is a peaceful movement that aims to pressure Israel to end its violations of Palestinian human rights and to respect international law. It is modelled on precedents from the US civil rights movement, and most famously the movement against apartheid in South Africa. It targets complicity with an unjust regime, and it targets institutions, not individuals or identity. BDS alerts public consciousness to an untenable and deeply unjust status quo and mobilises action to end any involvement in sustaining it.

Yet festival directors, programmers and entire publicly funded institutions are subjecting artists to political tests, checking if they have ever criticised Israeli policy. This system of surveillance and self-censorship has come about because cultural institutions find themselves under attack by anti-Palestinian groups when they invite an artist or academic who holds a view of Israel’s occupation deemed unacceptable to them.

To give one example among many, the director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum, Peter Schäfer, was forced to resign after the museum tweeted the link to an article in a German newspaper about an open letter by 240 Jewish and Israeli scholars, including leading experts on antisemitism, that was critical of the anti-BDS resolution.

But now, in an unprecedented move, representatives of 32 of Germany’s leading cultural institutions, including the Goethe-Institut, have spoken out together, expressing alarm about the repression of critical and minority voices in Germany as a result of the parliament’s anti-BDS resolution.

Their joint statement says: “By invoking this resolution, accusations of antisemitism are being misused to push aside important voices and to distort critical positions.” A few days later, more than 1,000 artists and academics signed an open letter supporting the protest by cultural institutions.

At a time when colonial legacies are increasingly being questioned, discussing this particular instance of ongoing colonialism is instead becoming taboo. But it has never been more urgent: the situation for Palestinians living under apartheid and occupation worsens by the week.

We should all be alarmed by this new McCarthyism. Artists, like all citizens, must be free to speak out and take meaningful action, including principled boycotts, against systems of injustice. If left unchallenged, the silencing of dissent and the marginalisation of minority groups will not stop with Palestinians and those who support them.

  • Brian Eno is a musician, artist, composer and producer

Leading artists condemn Israeli raids on Palestinian cultural centres & call for sanctions

Photo: Edward Said National Conservatory of Music by Ahdaf Soueif for PalFest

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 

  • Massive Attack, Steve Coogan, Peter Gabriel, Maxine Peake, Philip Pullman and Benjamin Zephaniah are among 60+ cultural figures to put their names to an open letter condemning attacks on key Palestinian cultural centres.
  • The letter says the attacks are ‘part of a well-documented campaign of harassment and intimidation, arrests, home demolitions and forced evictions’ by the Israeli government. 
  • Brian Eno: ‘These raids … seem designed to break the morale of the Palestinian people, to deny them the last thing that they actually own: their culture ’
  • The artists call for ‘targeted and lawful sanctions’ against Israel.

Signatories to the letter include:

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Brian Eno: Israel must not be allowed to use Eurovision as a propaganda tool

Brian Eno’s op-ed is published in today’s Guardian, and copied below.

“Those of us who make art and culture for a living thrive on free and open communication. So what should we do when we see culture becoming part of a political agenda? “Music unites,” says UK Eurovision entrant Michael Rice. What happens when a powerful state uses art as propaganda, to distract from its immoral and illegal behaviour? Everybody involved in the Eurovision song contest this year should understand that this is what is happening.

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Artists to Lorde: individual messages of support

On 5 January 2018, more than a hundred international artists signed a letter to the Guardian in the UK in support of New Zealand singer Lorde’s decision to cancel her gig in Tel Aviv later this year.
Since then, some of those signatories have given APUK permission to publish the personal letters they’ve also written to Lorde.   We’re happy to share, amongst others, Brian Eno’s and Roger Waters’ moving expressions of solidarity and support, while Peter Gabriel’s message affirms the need for artists to stand up for human rights.  We’re also reproducing below some of the many messages artists have posted in support of Lorde on social media or via this site.

 

Brian Eno, musician

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Artists respond to Nick Cave’s comments

Nick Cave has held a press conference in Israel, in which he explained he ‘decided to play in Israel to stand up to ‘anyone who tries to censor and silence musicians’According to the NME: The musician explained that his change in attitude came about when Brian Eno asked him to a sign a list called Artists For Palestine three years ago. “On a very intuitive level, [I] did not want to sign it,” he said. “There was something that stunk to me about that list.”

“So after a lot of thought and consideration I rang up my people and said, ‘We’re doing an European tour and Israel.’ Because it suddenly became very important to me to make a stand against those people who are trying to shut down musicians, to bully musicians, to censor musicians, and to silence musicians. At the end of the day, there’s maybe two reasons why I’m here. One is that I love Israel and I love Israeli people, and two is to make a principled stand against anyone who tries to censor and silence musicians. ”’ 

Today, in addition to a statement from Artists for Palestine UK, we are publishing a number responses to Cave’s comments from individual artists.

*UPDATE Thurston Moore comment added on 25.11.2017

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Don’t play Berlin Pop-Kultur under Israeli Embassy sponsorship!

AN OPEN LETTER TO ALL UK MUSICIANS  SCHEDULED TO APPEAR IN BERLIN AUGUST 23 – 25, 2017

‘Art goes beyond a single act on a stage; it’s against all that is regressive and discriminatory in this world’
Mohammad Abu Hajar, Syrian rapper

Dear colleagues:

When you signed up to play Berlin Pop-Kultur, you possibly didn’t know that the Israeli Embassy in Germany was a sponsor.   Maybe you also don’t know that Palestinian civil society, living under Israeli military occupation or in exile, is appealing to artists not to take part in events sponsored by the state of Israel, in solidarity with the Palestinians’ long struggle for rights and freedom.

But now that you do know, will you follow the example of the musicians who have withdrawn from Pop-Kultur in the past few days?

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Italian press reports opposition to state-sponsored Israeli dance performance, citing letter from Brian Eno

Batsheva Dance Company show in Jerusalem

Batsheva dancers in rehearsal in Jerusalem.                     Credit: EPA/ABIR SULTAN

 

UPDATE 11 Sept: Il Fatto Quotidiano today printed a full page interview with Eno.

eno-interview-sept2016

Italian newspapers are reporting opposition to Israeli state sponsorship of a performance by Batsheva dance company, due to take place tomorrow (Sept 6) in Turin.

La Republica has published in full a letter sent in June to Batsheva’s artistic director Ohad Naharin by composer Brian Eno, explaining why he has withdrawn permission for his music to be used in the performance. La Stampa has quoted from it and the story has been picked up by Italian news agency ANSA.

See here a translation by Stephanie Westbrook of BDS Italia of the Republica article, plus the text of Brian Eno’s letter.

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Oscar nominees: ‘Give your Israeli swag bag to a Palestinian refugee!’

Artists for Palestine UK (APUK) on Wednesday called on actors and directors on this year’s Oscars shortlist:  ‘Give your Israeli swag bag to a Palestinian refugee!’

 

  • Mike Leigh, film director and five-times Oscar nominee said:  A five-star trip to the land of their parents and grandparents is just what exhausted Palestinians from the refugee camps could do with. I think the world would be happy to see Israeli government money used for once to make reparations to Palestinians — and I hope the stars will agree.’
  • Ken Loach, BAFTA nominee and Palme d’Or winner said: “Just think what $55,000 could do for Palestinians whose homes have been destroyed and their lands stolen.  Let’s hope that film people can see through this crude propaganda.”
  • Brian Eno, musician and composer suggested an alternative swag bag offering: “Visit Palestine! Enjoy a tear-gas filled weekend in an East Jerusalem ghetto!

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Art is the velvet glove on Israel’s iron fist – Brian Eno in Apollo magazine

International art magazine Apollo devotes its December double-page  Forum discussion to the question, “Are artists justified in boycotting Israel?”

The debate can be viewed online here. We review it below.
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Musicians Should Boycott Israel Until Palestinians Are Free

Musician Brian Eno, signatory of the UK Artists’ Pledge for Palestine, and Ohal Grietzer , a musician and activist with the Israeli group BOYCOTT! Supporting the Palestinian BDS Call from Within, made the following joint contribution to public discussion about the cultural boycott of Israel on Vice.com.

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