German Jews call for resignation of new director of Documenta art festival as anti-Semitism scandal escalates

Demonstrators protesting against the inclusion of antisemitic artwork at the Documenta festival in Kassel, Germany. Photo: Reuters/Swen Pförtner/dpa

The scandal over anti-Semitic artwork on display at Germany’s prestigious Documenta contemporary art festival continued to escalate on Friday, as Jewish activists demanded the resignation of the festival’s acting director just two weeks after he was appointed to the festival. job.

In an open letter widely reported by German media, Elio Adler – chairman of the Jewish Values ​​Initiative – said acting director Alexander Farenholtz had been “overwhelmed” by the dispute over anti-Semitism that completely overshadowed the current edition of the festival, which is held in the city of Kassel every five years.

Farenholtz was appointed in late July to replace former director Sabine Schormann, who Adler said was forced to resign because she had not “found the right answers to the ongoing anti-Semitism scandal, fueled further and again by the constant discovery of anti-Jewish exhibits.

An unmissable event in the art world, the fifteenth edition of the Documenta festival will be remembered for the quarrel over anti-Semitism rather than the works exhibited.

Initial concerns were raised during the run-up to the festival in January, about the participation of arts groups that support the campaign to isolate the State of Israel through a full boycott, including the festival’s Indonesian curators, the collective of artists known as ruangrupa.

Shortly after the festival opened in June, another scandal unfolded, centering on a mural that included horrific anti-Semitic stereotypes – including the depiction of an Israeli soldier in the form of a carrying pig a helmet bearing the word “Mossad”, for the Israeli intelligence agency, and a caricature of a hooked-nosed, traditionally hateful Orthodox Jew embossed with the letters “SS”, for the Nazi paramilitary organization. Although the mural was removed from display, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz canceled a visit to the festival to protest the “disgusting” images it contained.

Meanwhile, a new scandal emerged last week when visitors to the exhibition discovered a brochure containing anti-Semitic caricatures drawn by Syrian artist Burhan Karkoutly. The pamphlet’s appearance infuriated Jewish groups and German politicians, who attacked Farenholtz for his refusal to conduct a systematic review of the exhibit to eradicate anti-Semitic imagery.

“Alexander Farenholtz thus contributes to the normalization of anti-Semitic thought patterns in Germany,” Adler said in the letter to Angela Dorn, arts minister for the state of Hesse, where Kassel is located.

“It is this normalization, through which hatred of Jews is simply accepted, that gives us, the Jewish people in Germany, deep and real fears,” Adler continued.

Criticism of the festival’s management was also voiced this week by members of a newly created committee to look into scandals linked to anti-Semitism.

“We are irritated that Documenta management, despite its commitment to openness, appears to be defining critical questions about how to deal with anti-Semitic art at the very time the committee that is supposed to guide their work is in the process of be created,” he added. said committee members.

They added that it was “all the more regrettable that the impact of the debate on the Jewish community has so far hardly been considered in public statements about the art exhibition”. They then pledged that “as a committee, we will work to ensure that Jewish perspectives are considered and included in the treatment of events.”

Adler concluded his letter with a call for Farenholtz and ruangrupa to be relieved of their duties. “If the anti-Semitism scandal continues to have significant and lasting consequences, it is unlikely that the city of Kassel and the state of Hesse will be able to organize the art exhibition in principle and at the future,” he said.

Support for Documenta’s embattled leadership came from three German academics who argued over whether the images in the controversial mural could be considered anti-Semitic.

Referring to the stereotypical portrayal of an Orthodox Jew, the academics – led by Werner Ruf, a political scientist at the University of Kassel – asked: “Does this represent the ‘hateful and rapacious Jew’ or a shrewd broker who symbolically represents the financial capital that the wealth and natural resources of the “third world” countries have peddled on the stock market?

James R. Rhodes