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The calm after the Documenta storm

Every Thursday, Reza Afisina and Iswanto Hartono teach at the University of Fine Arts (HFBK) in Hamburg, on the second floor of the brick building on the Kuhmühlenteich.

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The calm after the Documenta storm

Every Thursday, Reza Afisina and Iswanto Hartono teach at the University of Fine Arts (HFBK) in Hamburg, on the second floor of the brick building on the Kuhmühlenteich. Her studio allows a view of the interior through a glass wall, the door of the room is always open. On this morning in November, Hartono is standing in front of the 20 students, Afisina is sitting next to him, and together they are discussing their “idea of ​​non-hierarchical collectivity and social networking” in the group. At least that's what they tell WELT AM SONNTAG later, direct participation is not allowed. It's about society and aesthetics, about art in general.

At the beginning of the semester in October, the guest professorship triggered a public protest, because Afisina and Hartono are members of the Ruangrupa curator collective, which was responsible for this year's Documenta and exhibited works with anti-Semitic imagery, including Jews with a pig's head. The Indonesian group is also accused of being close to the BDS movement, which calls for a cultural, scientific and economic boycott of Israel. In the meantime, however, the public outcry over the fact that two suspected anti-Semites are teaching at a German university has all but died down. Why is that? A search for clues between expressed horror and the attempt to conduct a dialogue.

From the point of view of the President of the German-Israeli Society, Volker Beck, the answer to the question why is simple: "I'm afraid because anti-Israel anti-Semitism is like a fish in the water of the German cultural scene," says the long-standing member of the Bundestag for the Greens - and explains: “Be it Günter Grass or Martin Walser, Ruangrupa at the Documenta or Achille Mbembe at the Ruhrtrienale, the Munich Metropoltheater, cartoonist Dieter Hanitzsch or cabaret artist Lisa Fitz – anti-Semitism is accepted if it disguises itself as criticism of Israel or capitalism.”

The city's anti-Semitism commissioner, Stefan Hensel, describes the case of the Hamburg visiting professors as "the phenomenon of sitting out, which the management of the Academy of Fine Arts obviously has a good command of". According to Hensel, the facts have not changed. Both professors are still considered BDS-related. "It's an interesting question why nobody gets upset about it anymore," says Hensel. He believes: "Because it is about discrimination against Jews." It is also socially unclear "that anti-Semitism is nothing more than hatred of Jews".

Daniel Sheffer, a member of the Jewish community, is even clearer. "When right-wing extremists insult Jews, we call it anti-Semitism. When academics present Jews as pigs, is it chocolate cake with cream? No, it's the same anti-Semitic filth that the HFBK is now making room for,” laments Sheffer.

There, on site, one floor below Afisina's and Hartono's studio, the university management asked for an interview in the presidential office. Vice-President Bettina Uppenkamp and Professor of Art Education Nora Sternfeld have taken their places next to President Martin Köttering. At the HFBK, 900 students research the fine arts in painting, sculpture, film, media, design and stage. "What is putting us under pressure right now," Köttering describes his mood, "is a publicly formulated attitude that pillories the entire HFBK institution." The fact that the university is accused of promoting anti-Semitic ideas under the guise of artistic freedom is "extremely bizarre" - especially against the background of how critical the HFBK deals with racism, diversity and identity politics.

Köttering does not understand the horror at the presence of the two guest professors at his university. Afisina and Hartono had "convincingly demonstrated that they are not anti-Semites", which is why the HFBK is "going into a critical discussion with them about what happened at the Documenta", says Köttering, justifying the adherence to the personnel. Vice President Uppenkamp also points out that Afisina and Hartono did not sign any BDS declarations, but did sign the open letter "A letter against Apartheid". The goals formulated in the paper are very similar to those of the BDS movement.

According to Köttering, however, there is an obligation for teaching and research to also pursue explosive issues in the context of the fine arts. "Academic freedom is constitutionally protected for good reason," emphasizes the HFBK President. Art mediator Sternfeld, who will be a Documenta professor in Kassel until 2020, says: “Anti-Semitism in the field of art is a topic that doesn’t just affect the documenta. Anti-Semitism still exists, we have to take this aspect seriously.” That is why the HFBK is inviting people to a public conference in February, in which the two controversial guest professors will also take part. "We face the issue with the people, scientifically and artistically," emphasizes Sternfeld.

Afisina and Hartono also feel that the HFBK is “the right place to reflect on what happened and to contribute to clarification in a critical discourse with the students, but also with a broader public”. In an interview with WELT AM SONNTAG, they continue to emphasize: "We took the allegations very seriously, apologized publicly and stated several times that anti-Semitic ideas have no place in our thinking." They "learned from Kassel," say Afisina and Hartono, who share a W3 professorship in Hamburg and each receive 3,500 euros a month, financed by the German Academic Exchange Service.

The director of the American Jewish Committee in Berlin, Remko Leemhuis, doubts that a learning process has started: "Ruangrupa had almost three months to respond to the anti-Semitic incidents at the art exhibition for which she was responsible." Why in Hamburg what should work in Kassel had failed, do not open up to him. "The management of the university must ask itself what kind of signal it is sending to the students and employees of the university and beyond by retaining this guest professorship," says Leemhuis. He adds: "In any case, it is a fatal sign in the fight against anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel."

The anti-Semitism commissioner Hensel therefore calls for a discussion about “the fact that these visiting professors are making Jewish life in Hamburg massively more difficult”. President Köttering made it clear that his university was "not a safe place for Israelis". And Sheffer, a member of the Jewish community, asks where the outcry is. "Whether your Jewish neighbors, work colleagues or friends are insulted as Jewish pigs is the responsibility of the majority of society, then as now," says the entrepreneur. In addition, according to Sheffer, he recommends looking at the Basic Law: "Human dignity - of all people - is inviolable."

There is no criminal record against Reza Afisina and Iswanto Hartono. However, the police and public prosecutor's office in Kassel have received several dozen criminal complaints. The accusation is that several Documenta works are of an anti-Semitic or inciting character, as the public prosecutor announced on request. The criminal charges were directed against the artists responsible and the curators of the Documenta, which include Afisina and Hartono, as is well known. According to the public prosecutor's office, none of the tests for possible criminal relevance have yet been completed. A query to the public prosecutor's office in Hamburg also reveals that the judicial authority has received a submission in which the sender refers to pending proceedings in Kassel and repeats the accusation of anti-Semitic incitement to hatred.

In the debate about the HFBK guest professors, the sides are initially irreconcilable. Further conversations in the Jewish community reveal that fears of anti-Semitism are growing – backed up by a 2019 study by the World Jewish Congress, which found that 27 percent of Germans harbor anti-Semitic thoughts. Criticism of Israel, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are also often mixed up and the similarities, such as the boundaries between right-wing, left-wing and Muslim anti-Semitism, are not clearly stated.

And so some in the Jewish community are reminding of former Chancellor Angela Merkel, who declared Israel's security to be a matter of state, reinforced by the sentence: "We are not neutral about it." increasing political pressure. The opposition leader in the citizenship, Dennis Thering, sees the university management and the senate as responsible, they "must act and dismiss the visiting professors so that the university does not suffer permanent image damage".

Specifically, the Christian Democrat addresses the responsible Senator for Science, Katharina Fegebank. Striving for clarity, the Green politician explains: “As curators, the Ruangrupa members Reza Afisina and Iswanto Hartono gave the anti-Semitic depictions at the Documenta a big stage. Even though both claim not to be anti-Semites, Ruangrupa's concept of art has done a great deal of damage.” Anti-Semitic ideas are “never” covered, neither by freedom of art nor of science. Your expectation is therefore "very clear", says the second mayor, that Afisina, Hartono and the university have to clarify the allegations beyond a doubt.

Last but not least, there is a need for an explanation of what contribution the guest professorship in Hamburg is making to the processing of the Documenta - not only in the academic world behind studio doors, but also in public exchange. It is about, says Fegebank, "that we oppose anti-Semitism in every form and in every place, without exception".

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