We the undersigned writers, artists, scientists, and scholars have either been invited (many of us more than once) or occupy professional positions that make it likely that we will in future be invited to nominate candidates for literary, artistic, scientific, and scholarly honors awarded by German institutions, to serve on or report to the juries selecting the recipients for these honors, and/or to assist academic committees at German universities with hiring or promotion decisions. We were therefore dismayed to learn that on two recent occasions city authorities in Germany have intervened to overrule the decisions of prize committees on ideological and political grounds, and that for similar reasons a performer has been threatened with cancellation of an already publicized concert.
On September 14, 2019, the City of Dortmund rescinded the award—already announced—of the Nelly Sachs Prize for Literature that was to have gone to British-Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie. Sixteen days later, the City of Aachen announced that it had reversed a previous decision to award the Aachen Art Prize to the Lebanese-American artist Walid Raad. Around the same time, Israeli-German performer Nirit Sommerfeld received a warning from the municipal Gasteig cultural center in Munich that her planned concert at the center faced cancellation if she broached certain themes. This March, Stephanie Carp, curator of the 2020 Ruhrtriennale Festival in Bochum, came under pressure from two public officials (Lorenz Deutsch, a Deputy in the Nordrhein-Westfalen State Parliament, and Felix Klein, Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism) to rescind the invitation to Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe to deliver the festival’s opening address; the two falsely claimed that Mbembe’s academic work was anti-Semitic because it includes an analysis and critique of Israeli government policies.
These four incidents, involving four German cities and four different forms of expression, had one thing in common: in each case, the artist or intellectual in question was considered a supporter of the non-violent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights. In Raad’s case it was his “evasive[ness]” when asked to “distance himself from BDS” that led to the withdrawal of Aachen’s sponsorship of his prize, on the grounds that BDS is a form of anti-Semitism; and even though the Verein der Freunde des Ludwig Forums decided to award the prize to Raad without the city’s cooperation, they did so only after their “intensive” investigation turned up no “conclusive” proof that the accusations against Raad were justified. Although Sommerfeld’s concert went forward as planned, three years earlier a benefit concert in which she was scheduled to perform, in the same city, was cancelled on the same grounds. And while this year’s Ruhrtriennale has been cancelled because of Covid-19, Carp and the festival organizers remain under pressure not to invite Mbembe in the future either.
In declaring BDS a form of anti-Semitism, the authors of the attacks on Mbembe and the cities of Aachen, Dortmund, and Munich aligned themselves in direct opposition to more than forty progressive Jewish organizations around the world — including European Jews for a Just Peace, the Israeli Coalition of Women for Peace, and the German Jüdische Stimme für gerechten Frieden im Nahost e.V. — that on July 17 2018 issued a statement affirming that
“dangerously [conflating] anti-Jewish racism with opposition to Israel’s policies and system of occupation and apartheid … undermines both the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality and the global struggle against anti-Semitism. It also serves to shield Israel from being held accountable to universal standards of human rights and international law.”
The signatories of this letter hold a variety of positions on BDS, but we agree with the 40 Jewish organizations and also with the three German courts — most recently the Administrative Court of Cologne, in September 2019 — that have reaffirmed that support for BDS is a legitimate exercise of the universally recognized right of freedom of expression.
To make the awarding of a prize, or a hiring decision, contingent on a commitment to disavow BDS not only violates academic freedom and the rights of freedom of expression described above. It also makes a mockery of the very system for and purpose of awarding prizes to individuals judged to be leaders in their fields. To reverse a prize jury’s decision or to withdraw an invitation to speak on ideological grounds is an intolerable interference that we cannot condone, even by our participation in juries subject to such interference.
Accusations of the kind levelled by politicians like Deutsch, Klein, and city officials in Germany are intended to narrow the frame of discussion solely to antisemitism and its pernicious impacts. They are designed to draw attention away from, and to silence, any critical focus on the treatment of Palestinians in Israel-Palestine. We anticipate that some will seek to paint this point as an expression of or relativization of anti-Semitism; to do so would be to engage in exactly the tactics we are opposing with this statement.
While we wish to acknowledge how much we appreciate the honor of being chosen to consult on prizes and hiring decisions, we cannot continue to lend our weight to judgments of artistic, scientific, or scholarly distinction that are subject to political interference. We therefore wish to inform the German artistic and academic community and the institutions that support them, including municipal councils, that all of us undersigned will no longer agree to serve on prize committees or in hiring consultations if there are convincing indicators that their decisions may be subject to ideological or political interference or litmus tests. In such cases, we will specifically require assurance that the support for any non-violent campaign (including BDS) directed at any country that practices discrimination and violence against any population under its control will not be used as a litmus test to disqualify candidates selected for hiring, distinction, or honor.