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  • Artistic freedom and culture funding: Berlin artists sign open letter against new antisemitism clause


Artistic freedom and culture funding: Berlin artists sign open letter against new antisemitism clause

An open letter with more than 4,000 signatures argues against requiring arts funding recipients to commit to the "controversial IHRA definition of antisemitism".

Germany memory culture has become the subject of fierce debate. Photo: IMAGO / Schöning

For the last few months, Berlin cultural institutions have been the site of heated political debate over the ongoing war in Gaza, with left wing institutions such as Oyoun having their funding cut for their stance and a spate of cancellations of artists shows, talks and prizes

As I wrote in my most recent column as stage editor, it has felt impossible to live in this city – especially as a Jew – and not think about this issue.

This is why I was among more than four thousand Berlin “cultural producers” to sign an open letter for “preservation of the freedom of art and the freedom of expression” and against the new measures to which all applicants for culture funding in the city will now have to agree. 

What is the controversial new clause in arts funding? 

On January 4, Joe Chialo (CDU), the Berlin Senator for Culture and Social Cohesion, announced an “antidiscrimination clause” which must be signed by applicants for Berlin cultural funding. Ostensibly, this clause is meant to ensure that “no racist, antisemitic, queerphobic or otherwise discriminatory expressions are supported with public funds,” as the Berlin State Cultural Administration press release declares. Those of us who have signed the letter believe its impact could be much broader and more damaging to freedom of expression in the cultural scene.

Joe Chialo (CDU), Berlin senator for culture. Photo: IMAGO / IPON

IHRA vs Jerusalem 

The most politically fraught element of the new rules are that it contains a “compulsory commitment to the controversial IHRA definition of antisemitism as a prerequisite for cultural funding from the federal state of Berlin”. As the signatories of the open letter want to make clear, the IHRA definition is not a politically neutral statement, but one whose ambiguities have been exploited politically to conflate valid critique of Israel with antisemitism. 

In 2021, international scholars collaborated on the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism. This alternative definition was explicitly drafted to avoid the charge of antisemitism being politically instrumentalised. 

Furthermore, the open letter highlights how the use of IHRA as a means of determining funding legibility contravenes the IHRA’s own intended purpose. It declares, “the IHRA’s ‘non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism’ is not intended to aid criminal prosecution, but serves to improve the monitoring of antisemitic tendencies in society.”

Why is this happening now?

Some journalists have suggested that this clause is Chialo’s response to the ongoing legal battle with Oyoun over the cancellation of its funding. Oyoun had their funding cut last year after they refused to cancel an event from “Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East”. They are fighting that decision legally, and these rule changes could represent an attempt by the Berlin government to legally justify such decisions in the future.

Photo: @natgass

The writers of the open letter fear that Berlin’s new antidiscrimination clause could “create an administrative basis for disinviting and canceling events with cultural workers who are critical of Israel.” This could include Jews critical of the state of Israel as well as Palestinians who might be speaking directly of their lived experience.

What happens next?

On January 8, the Berlin Kulturausschuss (Cultural Committee) will hold a meeting on “culture and the responsibility for antisemitism.” Protests have been called for one o’clock in front of the Abgeordnetenhaus building.

  • Sanders Isaac Bernstein is the stage editor for Exberliner Magazine