BDS Versus Modern Art

BDS Versus Modern Art

Ben Cohen /

An antisemitic caricature on display at the Documenta art festival in Germany. Exhibiton organizers covered the kippa worn by the figure on the left with a piece of black adhesive tape. Photo: Screenshot

“BDS appears here as contemporary art’s foil. BDS undermines contemporaneity’s claims of autonomy and emancipatory effects, fixes its meanings in ways that might make artists bristle, and leaves it only with refusal: either refuse to be a perpetrator or refuse the request made by Palestinian civil society. At this juncture, the latter option should already be unthinkable.”

These jargon-laden sentences, taken from an article by Vijay Masharani in the art world publication X-tra, probably require some translation. Masharani’s argument is that the campaign to subject Israel to a regime of “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” (BDS) as a prelude to its eventual elimination—a campaign to which he offers full-throated support—stands in marked contradiction to the basic values of artistic production. Arguing that “art’s esteemed qualities—its ineffability, open-endedness, dialogism, tolerance, and ambiguity—make it ripe for an amatory, uninhibited relationship with hegemonic power” (in other words, the State of Israel), Masharani urges artists to junk their focus on nuance and complexity by putting politics in command. As he says, they have a choice: oppression or solidarity. To refuse the BDS campaign is to accede to the oppression of the Palestinians, an offense so great that any talk of artistic independence from political imperatives seems distasteful.

Along with college campuses and left-wing NGOs, the world of art and culture has been quite amenable to the various appeals issued by the BDS campaign over the last 20 years. As a rule of thumb, BDS is generally found on the progressive left, whose values often neatly dovetail with the concerns of contemporary artists. Whilst neo-Nazis and white supremacists have expressed support for BDS, this is largely a subsidiary demand that flows from their racially based, conspiratorially-enhanced hatred of Jews in general; by contrast, on the far left, agitation against Zionism and the Jewish state, articulated as solidarity with the oppressed Palestinians, frequently serves as a gateway to more traditional forms of antisemitism.

This reality was demonstrated almost perfectly at the Documenta festival of contemporary art in Germany earlier this year. Staged in the city of Kassel every five years, the 2022 edition of the festival was curated by an Indonesian artists collective known as ruangrupa, many of whose members are tied to the BDS campaign. During a festival in which no Israeli artist was exhibited, never mind works on Jewish or Israeli themes, visitors were confronted on a near weekly basis with crudely antisemitic works of art. Among the more offensive exhibits was a large mural that was mounted in the center of Kassel, titled “People’s Justice.” It depicted a rogues gallery of characters ostensibly associated with the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia, among them an Orthodox Jew with a hooked nose and a fedora hat embossed with the letters “SS,” and an Israeli soldier with the face of a pig and a helmet marked with the word “Mossad.” Other exhibits featured a triptych containing a figure wearing a kippah while proffering large bags filled with cash, and a brochure celebrating the solidarity of Algerian women with the Palestinians that featured nakedly antisemitic caricatures of IDF soldiers.

The toxic sledgehammer politics of BDS—the “with us or against us” choice proffered by Masharani and his ilk—mean that the route from urging Israel’s elimination to expressing hostility towards Jews, particularly when those Jews engage in support for a Jewish state where they do not themselves reside, is quite a straightforward one. The Documenta festival proved that, as does a new initiative in Finland that targets the main museum of contemporary art in Helsinki over its links with an Israeli philanthropist.

Last week, a group of 200 Finnish artists signed a statement pledging to “refuse to sell our labor and art” to the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki as long as it maintained links with the Zabludowicz Art Trust, an initiative of Chaim “Poju” Zabludowicz, a London-based billionaire who hold dual Finnish and Israeli citizenship.

“Our stance is based on the fact that organizations Chaim ‘Poju’ Zabludowicz funds support the apartheid regime imposed on Palestine and the Palestinian people by the State of Israel,” the statement declared.

Zabludowicz, who made his fortune through the Israeli defense contractor Soltan Systems, has attracted controversy in the past, particularly in the UK, where his support of the pro-Israel advocacy group BICOM led to all sorts of lurid complaints against a shadowy “Israeli arms dealer.” His background and his wealth have rendered him as an ideal target for the BDS movement, which takes the basic, incomplete facts of his biography and filters them through the lens of anti-Zionist ideology. Of course, neither the Finnish artists statement nor the UK-based “BDZ” (Boycott Divest Zabludowicz) campaign mentions the fact that their bete noir is a Jew. We are in pure dog whistle territory here, leaving us nonetheless with the overwhelming impression of a shadowy Jewish businessman with outsize wealth who rinses both his own reputation and that of the State of Israel by manipulating contemporary artists.

As Teemu Laajasalo, the Lutheran Bishop of Helsinki, told the Helsingin Sanomat news outlet in response to the artists statement, “If an individual Jew is held responsible for the actions of the state of Israel, or if an individual Jew is prohibited from supporting Israel, or if Israel as a state is required to do something more than other democratic states, we are guilty of antisemitism.” Yet as sound as this argument is, the fact that we are hearing it yet again demonstrates just how bitterly polarized this debate is. Those who sign up to Masharani’s view that rejecting the boycott is “unthinkable” close themselves off from any consideration that the position they have taken might be antisemitic.

A cogent response will not ignore the importance of good arguments, therefore, but it should also be focused practically on measures to counter the boycott. Just as BDS advocates insist that artists should boycott Israeli exhibition spaces and benefactors, its opponents should press for a ban on state funding for any exhibition or festival—Documenta being a case in point—that endorses the BDS campaign or refuses Israeli artists on the grounds of their nationality. The fight against antisemitism and the integrity of artistic independence demand nothing less.

Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.

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