Anti-Semitism in the Arts: the case of Ruangrupa

By Jurek Molnar

Political Correctness is the natural continuum of the party line. What we are seeing once again is a self appointed group of vigilantes imposing their views on others. It is a heritage of communism, but they don’t seem to see this.

Doris Lessing, On Censorship (1992)


In a recent piece, here at HP, I reported the anti-semitism scandal at the famous art festival documenta in Kassel, Germany. A group of progressive Indonesian artists, Taring Padi, and the festival management came under sharp criticism when audiences realized that Taring Padi’s wallpaper “People’s Justice”, which was exhibited as one of their big important works, contained gross anti-Semitic images of Jews with vampire teeth and soldiers depicted as pigs wearing a Mossad banner on their helmets. For a better understanding, it is important to know that Taring Padi was invited to the documenta on behalf of the Indonesian collective Ruangrupa, which has been chosen to be the main artistic curators for documenta fifteen. Ruangrupa, as a collective decides who is part of the festival, what kind of art is shown and in what direction the festival should go. The organisation behind the documenta does not interfere into the festival program and its artistic decisions, but provides logistics, finance and manages the press coverage.

The outrage in German media was remarkable and in the end, Ruangrupa as the responsible authority issued an apology, Taring Padi covered their wallpaper, hiding the anti-Semitic parts and documenta general manager Sabine Schormann resigned. I was quite certain that this was the end of the story.

But I was wrong.

Readers of my piece on Taring Padi will remember that I quoted the apology of Ruangrupa. Just for the record, I will quote it again:

“It comes as a shock not only, but specifically to the Jewish community in Kassel and in all of Germany which we consider as our allies and which still live under the trauma of the past and the continued presence of discrimination, prejudice and marginalization. It also is a shock to our friends, neighbors, and colleagues for whom the struggle against all forms of oppression and racism is an existential element of their political, social, and artistic vision.”

Keep that in mind for what comes next. A few days ago, ruangrupa was caught again. This time it was the Subversive Film collective, which is described on the documenta website as follows:

Subversive Film is a cinema research and production collective that aims to cast new light upon historic works related to Palestine and the region, to engender support for film preservation, and to investigate archival practices. Their long-term and ongoing projects explore this cine-historic field including digitally reissuing previously overlooked films, curating rare film screening cycles, subtitling rediscovered films, producing publications, and devising other forms of interventions. Formed in 2011, Subversive Film is based between Ramallah and Brussels.”

The art they exhibit is the cinematic display of archival movie footage called the “Tokyo reels”, a compilation of pro-Palestinian propaganda films from the 1960s to the 1980s which are commented on by contemporary Palestinian artists and activists. I had of course no chance to see the whole thing for myself, but according to the left wing German newspaper taz, the footage contains everything one can expect from Palestinian propaganda, including Holocaust denial, the most deranged conspiracy myths about Israel and Zionism, the depiction of Israel as a fascist state and last not least the celebration of suicide bombings and the emphatic advertisement for children to become martyrs as shahids for the Palestinian cause. It seems clear that this specific case has a much more sinister tone than any painted image on the wallpaper of Taring Padi.

For historical interest the “Tokyo Reels” deserve to be published, because they depict the strange connection between Palestinian, German and Japanese terrorists, all united by their hatred for Israel and Zionism. From the same historical perspective, it could be a very interesting experience to watch footage from this particular time and space, if the footage was just displayed to speak for itself, but this is not the case about the documenta screening. Between the single reels the contemporary commentators talk as fans of the cause, bragging what part of the crazy nonsense they like the most. They leave no doubt that they fully support the content of the propaganda. One has to realize, that this is the peak of contemporary art, displayed and celebrated by the most progressive elites. It does not come as a surprise, that one of the founders of the Subversive Film group is Masao Adachi, a member of the Japanese Red Army, a terrorist group recruited by the PFLP, which was responsible for a massacre at the Tel Aviv Lod airport in 1972, killing 26 people.

It should also be noted that all German speaking mainstream media, German, Austrian or Swiss unequivocally condemned the anti-Semitic nature of the material. What then happened reveals nevertheless, how weak and tactically inept the front against anti-semitism actually is.
When German media started to campaign against this anti-semitic incident, Ruangrupa as the responsible authority refused to take the films out of the documenta program. Their reaction contains some very interesting insights into their ideological framework. I would recommend reading the whole piece, but I will quote the most important lines here. Declaring in the title “We are angry, we are sad, we are tired, we are united.”, they start as follows:

“We have tried our best to stay above the chaos, hostility, racism and censorship that have engulfed this edition of documenta. We have tried our best to stay focused and committed to our work and the promises and hopes of the lumbung. We have been resilient and in solidarity with our communities, friends, supporters, hosts and guests.”

As one could have expected they decided to play the victim card. Criticism is an opportunity for a call to arms and so they have plenty of grievances to address.

“For months we have continuously faced smearing attacks, humiliations, vandalism, and threats in major media outlets, as well as in the streets and in our spaces.”

And who wouldn’t have guessed, that the allegations themselves seem to be part of a conspiracy?

“In this hostile environment, actors with a coordinated agenda have been determined to find any indication of pre-assumed “guilt,” twisting any critical detail into a simplistic anti-Semitic reading and repeating the same accusation again and again until it became accepted as fact. It is obvious to us that the same mechanism of passing the ball from cyberbullies and racist bloggers to mainstream media outlets to racist attackers on the ground to politicians and even to academics is being reproduced in each situation.”

Ruangrupa plays the game brilliantly, thereby exposing the mentality of progressive anti-Zionism. Any criticism can be dismissed as a failure to understand intersectional decolonization.

“We know what it means to be discriminated against due to color, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, origin, caste, and/or disability. We understand the ways that our different anti-colonial struggles intersect. And that these struggles are faced in everyday life in society at large. We are committed to art’s role in resisting these broader societal injustices. And in the context of documenta fifteen and the specificities of the German context we see that the targeting of Palestinian artists is the point at which our anti-colonial struggles meet, and have become a focal point for attack. Anti-Muslim, anti-Palestinian racism, anti-queer, transphobia, anti-Roma, abelism, casteism, anti-black, xenophobia and other forms of racisms are racisms that the German society must deal with in addition to anti-semitism.“

Germany is not the most popular country, but it is important to recognize that German society and media are the least anti-semitic places in the contemporary Western hemisphere. Austrians and Germans are uniformly allergic to Holocaust denial or comparisons of Israel to fascism or Apartheid. The idea that a woke society like Germany has to deal with some moral ambiguities, when Indonesia has not come to terms with its own recent genocide is preposterous. Ruangrupa nevertheless took the chance to lecture its critics. When it comes to the main reason for refusing to back down, the cards are finally on the table:

“The question is not the right of Israel to exist; the question is how it exists. Resistance to the State of Israel is resistance to settler colonialism, which uses apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and occupation, as forms of oppression.”

All the heartfelt apologies about the “trauma of the past” blush into oblivion, when it comes to Israel and Zionism. They conclude:

“We do not give permission to be defined, inspected, re-colonised by yet another institution.”

Tactically Ruangrupa played it very well. After Taring Padi was forced to cover its wallpaper, they proved to be real pros in the business of dismissing the anti-semitic nature of their own artistic program. I personally had some bad feeling, when the wallpaper of Taring Padi was covered as a reaction to the outrage. The act of censorship is backfiring, because it enabled the Ruangrupa collective to put an end to any outside interference. The wallpaper of Taring Padi is gross, but it confronts the audience with images that are open to interpretation. People should be able to decide for themselves what to make of it. The hiding of the wallpaper delivered Ruangrupa a comfortable excuse to draw a line in the sand, that any criticism from outside will not be accepted any longer. The “Tokyo reels” do not speak for themselves and are not open for interpretation. The commentators are open terrorist supporters and people who have no problems with killing Jewish or any other civilians. The reels contain speech that is outlawed in Germany and other German speaking countries, but the reaction to the Taring Padi wallpaper paradoxically opened the way for the Subversive Film collective to avoid these exact legal consequences. I am speculating here, but if Ruangrupa are actually that smart to use Taring Padi as a MacGuffin to protect the display of the “Tokyo reels”, it should worry us much more than the actual screening of such atrocities. It means that the opposition to anti-semitism and the criticism of anti-Zionist nonsense is naïve moralist rhetoric at best and completely useless at worst. The enemies of the Jewish state have certainly noticed.

So, what are the most important conclusions here?

The first one is that censorship is not the way to oppose anti-semitism. In the current environment of social media information overkill, censorship only strengthens the forces of evil, which are able to use any excuse to promote the most perverted ideological hatred. If Taring Padi had been allowed to display their wallpaper, ruangrupa would have had more difficulties to keep the “Tokyo reels” in the program, but that is of course only speculation on my part. I am very interested in the opinions of my fellow HP pundits, how they think this could have been managed more effectively.

The second conclusion is a broader argument, concerning progressive art.

I love art. It is one of the most important things in my life. In my point of view, art is neither political nor unpolitical. What art – as I understand it – does is to transcend politics. A good piece of music, a good book, a good painting, a good movie or a display of good visual art is consistent on its own terms and it stays true, no matter what political views one has. Art is a statement of universal nature, in which a particular perspective contributes to the diversity of life. It opens the possibility that others can widen their experience and see, hear or feel what they have not known before. Art is the technical name for the opportunity of single, limited individuals to be more than single, limited individuals. Aesthetic judgements are not only a matter of taste and cultural background, but also the ability to see beyond one’s own culture. This is true for different ethnic perspectives as well as cultures of the past, which belong to the repository of the historical record one is born into. Bach, Mozart, Schubert or Brahms will unequivocally move people who cherish art as a formative aesthetic relation that changes the brain chemistry or as lovers of art say: when it touches the soul. Reading Tolstoi, Lessing, Rabelais or Rilke is a chance to understand the depths of human nature. Looking at Caravaggio, Bacon, Werefkin or Hopper makes one immediately recognize the limits of his or her own imagination. When King Charles held his first speech after his mother’s death, he emphasized that he and his family serve the people. Art is a way of serving the people, who watch, listen, and experience something they had not watched, listened or experienced before. Tolkien fans who oppose the trash of Amazon’s “The Rings of Power” are expressing their discomfort with woke diversity issues, because they are aware that the show was not made to serve them as an audience. Tolkien wrote the “Lord of the Rings” to honor the people of humble origins. The hobbits in “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” are heroes, because they were forced by destiny and circumstances to become heroes, more or less against their will. “The Rings of Power” is a celebration of elites, who are convinced to be chosen by destiny and progressive politics. The show is for them and their ambitions. It has no relation to the hopes and dreams of unimportant people. Good art serves the people who decide to embrace it, which brings us to the phenomenon of progressive art.

Progressive art is an elite institution, which most of all means, that it serves elites and elites only. The political impulse is the cheap pretense to disguise the fact, that this kind of art serves nobody except the ones who make it. It is media and performance driven, pressing surplus value from its display to like-minded conformists, who hope to participate from the leaks of public attention. There is no option involved to frame it any other way, than the official ideological party line. To criticize the “Tokyo reels” for its blatant murderous contempt is of course racist. The ambiguity of art as an aesthetic relation between artist and recipient completely vanishes, when subjective perspectives do not embrace the political impulse. The goal of progressive art is to create careers for nobles, who benefit from the same injustices they are addressing. They sound like communists, because communism is an elite ideology. The most important ingredient of communist politics is the revolutionary vanguard, the fellowship of intellectuals, professors and enlightened saviors. Communism is just another name for their reign over the dumb, indifferent masses. The party knows best and so do elitist progressives, who want to erect their own architecture of communist conformism, which centralizes power for the few against the many. The objective is to guarantee and increase the status and power of those who already have status and power. They can be artists as long as these “injustices” can be performed as rhetorical utopian phrases, which enforces the inevitable rule of nobles, who meet at “Burning Man” or the Biennale. Progressive art is the art of nobles, who only communicate with other nobles in order to sustain the revenue streams of elites they belong to. The emphasis on “injustices” is a fraud, which hides (or tries at least) the conformist mediocrity that excludes the plebeians from having a wrong opinion. Ruangrupa cannot be judged by aesthetic categories. To be a part of Ruangrupa’s audience means to accept the political impulse as a given, undisputable fact and to suspend every aesthetic judgment, which makes the ambiguity of the political impulse visible. In short: progressive art is the aesthetic mode of production that celebrates diversity, equity and inclusion in order to promote uniformity, inequality and exclusion.

As a proud plebeian myself, I cannot relate to this mediocre performance of self-absorbed pseudo intellectuals. My heart is in the highlands, as Bob Dylan once wrote.


For German speaking readers: