13.11.2023, 17 Uhr

Speech by Jeanine Meerapfel, President of the Akademie der Künste, at the plenary session of the 61st General Assembly on 10 November 2023 in Berlin

Dear members of the Akademie der Künste,

I would like to share my thoughts with you in this difficult time: After 7 October, after the Hamas pogrom against Israel, our world is a different place.

You all know the facts: The Islamist terrorist organisation Hamas killed at least 1,300 Israelis and wounded more than 3,300, raped women and abducted people in a brutal attack on 7 October. According to the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health, more than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip. Women, children... Hamas is holding more than 242 children, women, old people and foreign nationals hostage.
Israel has declared war on Hamas after ten months of the country’s worst internal policy and social crisis in decades, stemming from the far-right Netanyahu government’s judicial coup – a legislation aimed at drastically weakening Israel’s judiciary and potentially saving Netanyahu from the three corruption trials he faces. The war comes amid an escalation of violence between Palestinians in the West Bank and Israeli settlers. Those Israeli settlers are strengthened by Israel’s government.

Cut to Germany: Yesterday was the 9 November. We all know that this day marks the anniversary of the proclamation of the Weimar Republic in 1918, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but above all: the beginning of the Nazi regime’s November pogroms against Jewish fellow citizens in Germany in 1938. That was 85 years ago.

Antisemitism has persisted in Germany over the decades. It has probably never been overcome. It is unacceptable that Jews in Germany today are once again afraid to show themselves in public. It is unacceptable that their homes in Germany are once again being marked with a Star of David. It is unacceptable that Hamas’ brutal attacks on Israel are being cheered on the streets of Germany. Since the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel on 7 October, there has been a wave of antisemitic violence in Germany. Jews are being insulted and spat at, their front doors are being smeared with antisemitic slogans. In Berlin alone, the police has registered 852 offences which they classify as a reaction to the Middle East conflict. Berlin. The city from which Hitler once ruled.

The Akademie der Künste already publicly took a position on 9 October. Our press release says:

“The Akademie der Künste condemns Hamas’ war of aggression against Israel.
On this day we remember the attack on the synagogue in Halle on 9 October 2019.
The protection of Jewish institutions in Germany must be ensured – now more than ever. The Akademie der Künste supports a ban on any form of support for Hamas in Germany.”

A month has passed since then. Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel on 7 October set a spiral of violence in motion. There have been countless deaths in Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Public reactions from the cultural sector – if they exist – were rather disappointing at first. One exception was the joint statement by the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum) and the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation) on 13 October. Only the day before yesterday, the Berliner Philharmoniker (Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra), the opera houses and orchestras published an appeal against antisemitism and hatred. Yesterday, an open letter from 250 German filmmakers was published online – some members of the Film and Media Arts Section have signed it.

The German government has taken a clear position. One person has found particularly clear words, it is Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck:

“The phrase, ‘Israel’s security is part of Germany’s raison d’état’ has never been an empty phrase, and it must not become one. (...) This special relationship with Israel stems from our historical responsibility. (...) What is needed now is clarity, not a blur. And to be clear: anti-Semitism is not to be tolerated in any form – whatsoever. (...) Anti-colonialism must not lead to anti-Semitism. In this respect, this part of the political left should review its arguments and distrust the big resistance narrative. (...) Hamas is a murderous terrorist group fighting for the annihilation of the state of Israel and the death of all Jews. (...) The death and suffering that is now engulfing the people of Gaza is terrible. (...) Systematic violence against Jews, however, can still not be legitimised by this.”

He continues:

“And differentiating means to acknowledge that the murderous acts of Hamas are intended to prevent peace. Hamas does not want reconciliation with Israel, but the extermination of Israel. And this is why it is pivotal to make it clear that Israel’s right to exist must not be relativised. Israel’s security is our obligation. Germany knows this.”

One artist, Akademie member Hito Steyerl, also spoke out. The cause was a letter that was published on several influential platforms – including the website of the US magazine Artforum. Thousands from the art world signed it. Initially, it was exclusively about the suffering in Gaza, lamenting an “escalating genocide”. It was only in an “update” the week before last (on 23 October) that the massacre perpetrated by Hamas on 7 October was mentioned.

Hito Steyerl continues to criticise this letter and has instead signed a counter-letter from Israel. It states:

“There should be no contradiction between staunchly opposing the Israeli occupation and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and unequivocally condemning brutal acts of violence against innocent civilians in Israel.”

Hito Steyerl said in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel:

“At the moment there is an art market position, a progressive-universalist current and an identitarian pseudo-left. Some of them consider Hamas to be a decolonial liberation movement. Just like Erdoğan. Many opposition Israelis have themselves protested against the Israeli government, which is often forgotten... Among other things, they criticise the dismantling of democracy there, and quite rightly so. But for some people in the art world who are now taking sides against Israel, antisemitic motives do play a role. I would say it’s still a very small minority, but a very influential one.”

Don’t forget: we are constantly under attack from the media. Large-scale destruction and killings are taking place in Gaza, affecting Palestinians who were unable or did not have time to leave the areas under dispute in the northern strip. The images of this destruction in turn weaken international support for Israel, despite the memory of the horrors committed by Hamas on 7 October. The world on the internet is also a battlefield. It is a battlefield without borders and without protection – so it is easy to spread fear. The cruel videos recorded by Hamas on 7 October are also weapons to spread fear and terror.

Finally, I would like to quote the Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard, who wrote a few days ago in the newspaper Haaretz:

“Being humane is hard work. Remaining humane in the face of inhumane cruelty is far more difficult. Despite what we often think, humaneness isn’t a natural human trait. Much more natural is the desire to take revenge, to blame everyone on the other side, to drop thousands of bombs on them, to erase them from the face of the earth. Human history is full of examples, and apparently we haven’t learned a thing. These are terrible times. We have experienced a horrific trauma perpetrated by human beings who have lost their humanity, and now we’re bombing, killing and starving people, and mainly hardening our hearts to stone. Moral corruption is no less dangerous to our survival than Hamas.”