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Anti-Semitism in the Arts – Art and its Conflicts

English translation of the podcast "ANTISEMITISMUS IM KUNSTFELD"

Part 1

Anti-Semitism didn’t begin with the extermination of the Jews, but rather with the cultivation of particular world views ingrained with anti-Semitism. All known manifestations of anti-Semitism preceded a cultural legitimation by resorting to the same images and projections of Jews and Jewish culture. These images have over time become woven into the cultural memory, that they naturally and unwittingly become reproduced and further cultivated. But what kinds of images are we dealing with here?

In his book, Kulturpessimismus als politische Gefahr: Eine Analyse nationaler Ideologie in Deutschland, or The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of Germanic Ideology, released in 1961, historian Fritz Stern describes how Nazism was able to gain traction culturally and become the prevailing ideology. Kulturpessimisten, or “cultural pessimists”, saw within the cultural awakening of modernity during the 19th century a danger of apocalyptic proportions. The cultivation of a society based on the principles of enlightenment-thinking and progress to them was in turn the destruction of their reputed, naturally-given identity. To them, identity meant that which Nazis later would call “blood and soil”.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger gave his inaugural address as rector at the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität in Freiburg. Before the event, Heidegger had expressly written that after his address, the “Horst-Wessel-Lied” should be sung with a raised right hand followed with the cry “Sieg Heil”.

In his address, Heidegger distinguishes his perception of identity as being something determined by blood and soil apart from a culture that undergoes change.

“The spiritual world of a Volk [people] is not its cultural superstructure,…but rather it is the power that comes from preserving at the most profound level the forces that are rooted in the soil and blood of a Volk, the power to arouse most inwardly and to shake most extensively the Volk's existence. A spiritual world alone guarantees the greatness of the people. For it compels the constant decision between the will towards greatness on the one hand, and a confirmation of decline on the other, to lend its rhythm to the march that our people have begun toward their future history.”

A look back into history shows that the Nazis’ “völkisch-antisemitische” [nationalistic anti-semitic] ideology was supported by a feeling already present and widespread in all parts of society: the desire to emancipate oneself from the complexities of the modern-age and to seek out a return to a primordial and natural order that allows for one’s complete innocence. The self-proclaimed anti-Semites of the early 20th century were convinced that the Jews were the ones who caused—and profited from—the modern-age and saw themselves as justified in their resistance which would save themselves and their culture from extermination at the hands of a Jewish “world order” [Weltordnung].

Martin Heidegger summarized these thoughts in his “black notebooks” in the following formula:

“One of the most hidden forms of the gigantic and perhaps the oldest is the hard-bitten scheming of calculation and banking and meddling, upon which the worldlessness of Judaism is founded.”

The Jews are therefore imagined as a force of disintegration, one which brings the given order of culture and peoples into disarray. Today, supporters of this ideology describe themselves as Identitarians [Identitäre] and ethnopluralists [Ethnopluralisten]. Ethnopluralism is a harmless description for Neo-racism. They suggest that one doesn’t want to exterminate those of other ethnicities, but rather wish to separate themselves from others in order to then allow all ethnicities to preserve their supposed naturally-given characteristics and particularities. Ethnopluralists also naturally believe that the German race and its culture is superior to all others. According to the historian, Rasmus Fleischer, it is implied that Jews and Roma are omitted from the ethnopluralist “world map” [Weltkarte] since, in the vision of the Identitarian “Multi-fascists”, both minorities should be set aside in order to make room for a peaceful utopia to be realized.

From this neo-racist perspective, the Jews are thus the embodiment of racism. They symbolically stand for both the commingling and extermination of culture and race. Refugees are also seen as part of the so-called “Great Replacement”, which poses that majority-white populations are to be replaced by non-white immigrants.

According to this anti-Semitic conspiracy, a Jewish world order is to be implemented in which people become mixed, more divided, and as a result, all the more prone to being oppressed. Despite the explicit connections to Nazi ideology, the Identitarian movement attempts to distance itself from racism as well as anti-Semitism.

Arising out of this is the term “anti-Semitism” as a positive description of oneself. Anti-Semites saw themselves as part of a group who believed that the world needed to be saved from “evil”—evil in this case referring to the Jews. It is through this reasoning that all forms of hate against Jews have branded themselves as an emancipatory movement, justified resistance and cultural self-defense.

The journalist and anarchist Wilhelm Marr institutionalized the hatred of Jews in the political sense with the founding of the Antisemitic League in 1879. In the league, people from different political camps came together over their commitment to anti-Semitism. The historian and publicist Heinrich von Treitschke released in the same year his article “The Jews are our misfortune” [Die Juden sind unser Unglück], which later became the slogan for the propaganda paper Der Stürmer. Marr and von Treitschke insisted that the hatred of Jews for religious reasons, called anti-judaism, was unjust, vulgar and therefore not politically progressive. They introduced a concept of a politically legitimate form of jewish hatred and called it “anti-Semitism” because they were convinced that the Jews at this point were now beginning to act like how the anti-Judaists had once argued they would.

Just as the anti-Semites among Marr and von Treitschke had begun to distance themselves from anti-Judaism, so have the anti-Semites in the present day done so from anti-Semitism.

But what does this have to do with art?

The field of art has itself long since become an important venue and subject of current debates over anti-Semitism. Yet these debates over anti-Semitism are consistently brushed off over questions about whether cases involving anti-Semitism could actually be regarded as such, and what anti-Semitism actually entails. This not only calls into question the current state of research on anti-Semitism. It also leads those affected by anti-Semitism into the paradoxical situation of having to always justify themselves over and over again regarding their own evaluation of what constitutes anti-Semitic behavior in relation to their personal experiences with it.

In the German public, the discussion of anti-Semitism is first and foremost tied to the history of the Shoah. The accepting of responsibility for it from the majority of German society has led to a debate over the societal, political and, in rarer cases, people’s personal involvements with the Nazis. What is revealed over the course of such debates is that anti-Semitism is neither just an isolated incident of the past, nor does it solely consist of calling for the death of the Jews. Anti-Semitism doesn’t begin only with the extermination of the Jews. This extermination must first be culturally legitimized. Anti-Semitism, with its negative conceptualisation of jewish culture and identity as an intrinsic evil, paved the way for the acceptance and even necessity for the extermination of the Jews. It is therefore necessary to consider anti-Semitism as a culturally-produced and reproduced phenomenon, along the lines of what is called “Kulturtechnik” (cultural technique). It is one that externalizes societal conflicts as well as individual conflicts onto a foreign threat. This is clearly expressed in the traditional prejudices that are handed-down in which Jews are perceived as profiting from conflict and thus intentionally manufacture strife around the world. The belief in this perspective on the one hand relieves oneself of one’s own involvement in conflicts. On the other hand, a societal conflict can be defused since different parties to the conflict suddenly become victims of the same enemy and thus share a victim narrative. In the process, anti-Semitism fulfills its promised identity and solidarity. One stands collectively on the side of good and against evil – all without having to recognize their own contribution in stirring up the conflict.

Let’s return to the concept of cultural pessimism. Art and culture is international; it is strongly tied to the developmental capacity within modern society which it immensely benefits from. At the same time, a perceptible loss of tradition, identity and originality is identified in art discourse as a generalized starting point for social injustice. This has led to a renaissance of cultural pessimism. The desire for clearly conceived identities and nativeness perceived as being representative of a world free from conflict has become expressed in increasingly anti-modern and essentialized exhibitions. Essential characteristics perceived as authentically German, especially from abroad, can also be seen here. An example of this phenomenon is the work by the artist Joseph Beuys.

Joseph Beuys made a foundational impact on German art in the post-war period by combining the aura of political and aesthetic new beginnings with traditional folk myths. He fetishized that which was considered “native” in his self-created myths which underscored a particular political agenda concerned with, not least of all, the sovereignty of the German people.

For Beuys, the Shoah was the “Tiefpunkt des westlichen Materialismus“, or ”the low-point of Western materialism”. For the Nazis, materialism was a product of the Jewish world order, something which only Jews benefited from. Beuys replaced the stereotypical images of the enemy so that what the Jews were accused of was instead used to emphasize their danger to society. Beuys was able to connect the cultural “bogeymen” of the Nazis with the idealistic and romantic worldview that grew out of the cultural pessimists. It was precisely this part of Beuys’s expansive artistic concept that, due to the uncritical reception of his works, was able to assert itself.

It took a long time until his personal engagements with the Nazis were put in question. Beuys reported voluntarily for duty in 1941 to the Luftwaffe, the German Airforce division. After the war, he stayed in contact with former Nazis. The former SS-Mann Karl Fastabend worked under Beuys as his speechwriter. Both of them founded the Organisation für direkte Demokratie durch Volksabstimmung, or the Organization for Direct Democracy by Referendum. Beuys’s biographer, Hans Peter Riegel, also provided evidence about how strongly influenced Beuys’s entire work, including his ideologically charged beliefs about nature, was derived from the teachings of Rudolph Steiner – works also tinged with anti-Semitism and racism.

“That which from Beuys’s ‘political’ programs and official statements appear to be ‘left’, socialist, pacifist, and egalitarian, are almost identical to those from right-extremists.”

…according to Riegel. Large contingents of the art world, however, never paid any attention to the problematic elements in Beuys’s ideology. Instead, today he is hailed as a “visionärer Befreier” (visionary emancipator), as stated in a headline in the April 2021 edition of Kunstmagazin Art.


Here comes Reagan he brings weapons and death

And he hears peace

He sees red

He says as president of the USA

Nuclear war? – Yes


Here and there

Whether Poland

Middle East


He wants the final victory

This much is obvious

But we want: sun instead of Reagan

[Note 1: Beuys uses the word “Endsieg” (final victory) a Nazi term, to describe Reagans cold war]

[Note2: Regen, which sounds similar to the name Reagan, is also the German word for rain]

For Beuys, this much was clear: Reagan wanted the “final victory”. Beuys plays around with Nazi comparisons, a common practice found today in many right-wing radical circles and Querfront-Milieus [“Red-Brown” coalition groups]. As a result of this distortion of historical facts, by assuming Reagan would actually have similar aspirations for a so-called final victory, he minimizes the German war of extermination.

Joseph Beuys’s affinity for authenticity, naturalness, and nativeness can be seen in his idealizing of the so-called “Ostmenschen” or “Eastern People”. In these people, he saw an alternative to the social and market-oriented constraints imposed by the modern Western world.

To this day, Beuys’s perspective does not come into conflict with widespread thinking in the international art scene. In order to retroactively resolve the pangs of guilt associated with the modern world, the educational and emancipatory aspects of modernity must be sacrificed.

When one perceives Beuys’s art as a one-to-one transposition of the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, as suggested by Riegel, while at the same time also considering Beuys’s anti-Americanism, his national pathos, his obsessive reverence with German-ness, and his occult-like beliefs about nature, it becomes difficult not to associate Beuys with structural anti-Semitism. For it is anti-Semitism that is the glue that binds these simplistic and essentialist modes of thought together.

It wasn’t until the publication of Martin Heidegger’s “Black Notebooks” that made it impossible for the public to deny the obvious anymore, even though his essentialist ideas about identity, which had been available for all to see, had consistently espoused anti-Semitism. The fact that people are reluctant to renounce a monumental figure can be seen in the celebration of 100th anniversary of Joseph Beuys’s birthday. The art scene has a lot of work to do when an alleged progressive reformer like Beuys, of all people, resorted to using the same hate-filled stereotypes of Jews exactly as Martin Heidegger had done. Rather than confront the thoughtless canonization of Beuys and his work, he is instead, in many places, celebrated.

Part 2

Debates and conflicts related to society are reflected in the art scene. Which is why anti-Semitism is also debated in this space. As has been made clear in studies, present-day cultivated images and racist and hate-filled depictions of Jews become politically legitimized under the expression of anti-Zionism. Rarely does one meet people who admit to being anti-Semitic, even when they say: “Israel is our misfortune”.

Israel serves as the model for conflicts and injustices of the world in all political milieus. The focus on Israel has grown tremendously in the past several decades. It has unburdened entire countries of their own societal conflicts, thereby relieving them of their own culpability in them. This process reproduces the typical characteristics of anti-Semitism societies would rather wish to conceal. With this conceptual framing, these societal conflicts of the present can ultimately only be resolved upon the resolution to the status of Israel.

In 1969, the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard held a small piece of paper with the word “Nazisrael” printed on it for a ZDF camera team to capture. The small country would become the reincarnation of the country which planned the “final solution”. Global conflicts, material and immaterial inequality and, above all else, destructive western hegemony, are constantly invoked in art using the example of Israel in order to take the complexity attributed to other conflicts and contrast those examples with the supposed clarity in the case of Israel. The ambivalence and openness of art in such instances become sacrificed as a result of the need for simple explanations for a complex world.

Oliver Marchart, who taught political theory in Vienna, wrote in his text “Criticism of Israel as Spontaneous Ideology in the Art Scene” based on several works which were shown during documenta 12 executed by way of example, how influential and identity-forming the so-called criticism of Israel appeared in the contemporary art scene.

“In the genre of political art, anti-Americanism is very widespread and, without it being welcomed, Roger M. Buergel and Ruth Noack took the liberty of showing a painting by Juan Davila with a huge swastika over the American flag. The German critics couldn’t find anything problematic in it. …the reason for this may be that the opinion of the German majority is the same as the pseudo-critical opinion of the greater part of the politicized art scene with regards to anti-American resentment.”

Marchart continues: “(…)

eventually one comes to understand that anti-Americanism follows anti-Israelism like a shadow.”

The political art in western society attaches itself to a politics made capable by a majority. It measures its own freedom and resilience according to the degree of voiced criticism of Israel. Israel as the new Nazis, Israel as the Apartheid regime, Israel as a symbol of western imperialism. Once again, according to Oliver Marchart:

“An example of a more than problematic work is Peter Friedl’s stuffed giraffe, which did not become the media darling of [documenta 12] by chance. The main reason for Friedl’s success is likely to due to the information about the work: rumors that the Israelis had driven the poor little giraffe to cardiac death. A work like this speculates about the victimization discourse on which most western media reports about Palestinians are based. It then turns out that whatever the most infamous art piece of [documenta 12] is also one of the most problematic ones, inasmuch as it metaphorically is in service of the structurally anti-semitic Israel as a criminal state narrative.

Most of the works mentioned by Marchart didn’t cause any outcry. Instead, defensiveness superseded any practical reflection on the various manifestations of anti-Semitism and their constant recurrence in the images in his art. Being named anti-Semitic is considered to be the greatest evil. Anyone who addresses anti-Semitism is accused of division. The defense against anti-Semitism and its denial is legitimized with counter-accusations. One of the most common claims is that applying anti-Semitism to instances that allegedly weren’t anti-Semitic leads to a totalitarian mode of thinking and self-censorship, which consequently endangers the freedom of expression. This scenario mobilizes broad parts of the art world, yet, at the same time, this also means that one’s own experiences with anti-Semitism are invariably subject to question.

The Bundestag resolution “Initiative GG 5.3. Cosmopolitanism”, introduced at the end of 2020, among which well-known German cultural institutions such as the Kulturstiftung des Bundes [Federal Cultural Foundation], the Berliner Festspiele [the Berlin Festival], the Bündnis Internationaler Produktionshäuser [The Alliance of International Production Houses] and the Goethe Institute belong, see their work under such a resolution as being put in danger. The resolution opposes the public promotion of the movement “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” (BDS) and derives itself from the internationally recognized working definition of anti-Semitism.

In the ruling, the Initiative sees an actual endangerment to a free and open society. With this, the Initiative is part of the tradition of the intrinsic need to see the fight against anti-Semitism and racism as fair only if the so-called “Israelkritik” is also a central part of this fight.

This is understood more clearly with the appeal of over 1,500 artists and curators who have expressed solidarity with the Initiative. Their open letter is titled: “Nothing can be changed until it is faced”. It shows how strong the ambivalent and often affirmative relationship in the art scene is to the legitimacy of the BDS Movement.

The BDS Movement offers the possibility for a certified political expression and rise of anti-Semitism. Without Israel’s politics, there wouldn’t be any need for the anti-Semitic BDS. As of right now, in Germany, demonstrations of solidarity in line with BDS are only possible when they are absolved of anti-Semitism, or if anti-Semitism is minimized as a marginal problem to a justified struggle. Many see the BDS Movement as a struggle which unites the international left. Allegations of anti-Semitism directed against BDS are disparaged as ammunition for those politically associated with the right-wing in Germany, America and the rest of the world. The rise of anti-Semitism is then simply downplayed. In the open letter from the artists:

“Over-zealous monitoring of the political views of cultural workers from the Middle East and Global South must be seen for what it is—back-door racial profiling—and immediately discontinued. The maligning of individuals by means of baseless charges of antisemitism must stop.”

In addition to an alleged restriction placed on art and the freedom of expression, the BDS resolution in the German Parliament has also been called racist through and through. This non-binding parliamentary resolution initiated a key cultural battle over freedom of expression. When a person in Germany who is for the boycott of the state of Israel isn’t able to receive any more promotion, this would then endanger the culture of democracy. The coming to terms with the Shoah is portrayed in the Initiative of GG 5.3 or the “Nothing can be changed” open letter as nothing more than a relatively small and unimportant German project, one that prevents people from looking out into the world beyond their own borders and therefore unable to process German colonial history. The path towards coming to terms with German colonial history should lead here through a newly renegotiated culture of remembrance. And, as a result of a dissolution of this hegemonic memory politics, even the issue of whether the Shoah was the only event of its kind would be put up for discussion .

Based on the dichotomous thinking of the Cold War, Resolution 3379 of the UN General Assembly was passed in 1975 with the votes of Arab-majority countries, countries from the so-called third world as well as from those which made up the Eastern Bloc. It was hailed as the “end to all forms of racial discrimination” and identified Zionism as a form of racism. The much-debated resolution was repealed in 1991. In 1998, the UN General Secretary Kofi Annan called Resolution 3379 a “low point” in the history of the United Nations. At the third “World Conference against Racism” in the South African city of Durban in 2001, the re-enactment of the resolution was demanded.

In the field of postcolonial studies, Israel is often categorized as a racist and colonial apartheid-regime. This classification is inaccurate both in regards to the history of actual Apartheid in South Africa as well as in regards to the current political reality in Israel and in the occupied territories. The one-sidedness and disproportionality in the criticism of Israel is attributed to anti-Semitism directed at Israel as an anti-Zionist double standard.

In regard to the relationship between post-colonialism and anti-Semitism, a two-fold problem arises. On the one hand, the concept of anti-Semitism gets reduced to the extermination form of anti-Semitism of the Nazis and thus declared a European problem which then, due to colonialism, gets exported to the global south. On the other hand, the process of coming to terms with the Shoah along with the clarification of the events and its remembrance is declared purely a western matter, despite Germany first becoming part of the western world only after the Allied forces’ occupation. The Shoah then became an integral part of western hegemony, as much as in what caused it as well as in the process of coming to terms with it, and thus stands in the way of a paradigm shift towards postcolonial rethinking.

The raison d’être vis-à-vis Israel that arose from German history is turned into a question of fate for coming to terms with the colonial past. One can only credibly address colonialism if one departs from the raison d’être vis-à-vis Israel. In order to assist with this, a comparison in how various crimes against humanity are remembered is vital. The comparison wouldn’t be derived from the comparisons of the ideologies of racism or anti-Semitism, but rather from the similarities in the experiences of violence.

However, the unprecedented nature of the Shoah relates specifically to the nature of anti-Semitism. The belief that the Jews brought evil into the world in order to deliberately dominate it through conflict legitimized the Final Solution. The force of evil should be crushed for good in order to achieve a conflict-free future. It is thus not true that the murder of the Jews was bereft of any purpose. The purpose and motivations behind it just differ in comparison to those associated with many other crimes against humanity. It wasn’t about obtaining more power, more possessions, or racial dominance. It was about the longing for paradise – one without the enlightenment [Aufklärung], without civilization and without its materialistic constraints. The logical consequence is a society organized in a tribe-like manner, where might makes right.

Within postcolonial studies, anti-Semitism is by no means wholly brushed aside. The resulting contradictions, however, never become the subject of any self-reflective analysis or discussion but are instead written off in a way that makes anti-Semitism out to be a sub-category of racism. The premise here goes: “whatever applies to racism in general also applies particularly to anti-Semitism”. In this perspective, anti-Semitism only begins where its similarities and overlap with racism are shown. However, it would be just as wrong and less helpful to declare racism as a form of anti-Semitism based on the similarities of the latter with the former. Yet comparing one with the other helps by building a mutual understanding of both; if there weren’t any fundamental differences in both phenomena, there wouldn’t need to be a change of perspective at all. In order to recognize anti-Semitism and racism early enough requires more than just focusing solely on the similarities and the overlap between both. One must also take into account the ideological specificities of both.

The specificity in the case of anti-Semitism also shows itself in the context of non-Jewish minorities who historically have repeatedly fallen victim to anti-Semitic stereotypes. The persecution and genocide of the Armenians was legitimized just as much with racism as it was with classic anti-Semitic tropes, such as the premeditated desire to divide, poison and destroy society. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political foster father Necmettin Erbakan founded the first political party of the Mili Görüs movement in 1970. According to him, the world has been governed by a racist-Zionist world conspiracy that exploits and enslaves mankind through capitalism and bondage. So-called minorities among the minorities are thus the constant target of attacks by Turkish nationalists and Islamists, whose figureheads in turn act as experts in racism in Germany and who debate issues about emancipation and integration on a political level. Anti-Semitism has cultivated a hatred meant specifically for Jews, but this also can be applied towards other groups attributed with Jewish-like behavior or by making them out to be secretly Jewish or Jewish henchmen and thus become more prone to violence. Anti-Semitism arose in the middle of society, in social circles and in the cultural milieus and spread out to the edges of society from there. It was in the middle of society that the anti-Semitic depictions, codes and terms were developed and transformed themselves in parallel with the cultural zeitgeist. Anti-Semitism is concealed within social utopias, among those whose people speak of a better world but avoid taking personal responsibility for themselves or avoid engaging in critical self-reflection.

The education of anti-Semitism is relevant for art in order to understand the history and the evolution of images and language associated with it. It provides exposure to cultural influences and is therefore an important compass for cultural critique. Survivors and bereaved families at home and abroad have worked towards defending this educational process. They have worked against the countless demands calling for the end of coming to terms with the past. They have worked against its trivialization by comparisons with other historical crimes against humanity, like those in Gulag Archipelago.

In the post-Nazi space, they have created the fundament for a culture of remembrance which the majority of Germans take a lot of pride in and maintain. In art, this identification with the majority of society along with the raison d’être for Israel is consistently misinterpreted as a representation of the establishment, where it is interrogated and even sometimes rejected. It is here that we need a perspective of cultural history in order to secure a more just and fairer future that isn’t shaped by cultivated stereotypes.

In order to fight anti-Semitism, one must take its cultural role seriously as a tool to relieve people within societies of their own self-responsibility. The hatred of Jews is a centuries-old, cultivated Kulturtechnik [”cultural technique”] that has relieved society from the pressures of having to come to terms with the past. Jews have been depicted as evil or as people with evil intentions for many years. Therefore it always was anti-Semitism that allowed for the externalization and projection of all conflict-laden aspects of society onto the Jewish people. This in turn allowed for one to depict themselves as inherently good.

Speakers: Jette Kupke

Sound/Music: Phillip Sollmann

The artists Fabian Bechtle and Leon Kahane head The Forum for Democratic Culture and Contemporary Art. The Forum was founded with the intention of acting as a counter to new right-wing movements’ political pressure on art and culture. In keeping with this aim, the Forum also seeks to expose and discuss the inner-conflicts within art.

“Anti-Semitism in the art scene – Art and its conflicts” is a two-part podcast by the Forum, sponsored by representatives of the German federal government for Jewish life in Germany and the fight against anti-Semitism. The Forum is a project from the Amadeu Antonio Foundation.