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Is Israel interfering in German cultural policy?

Bettina Baumann
December 23, 2018

The German government has been asked in an anonymous letter to reconsider its support for NGOs such as "Brot für die Welt" (Bread for the World) and to cut funding to the Jewish Museum Berlin. What is going on?

Person wearing a kippa embroidered with the German and Israeli flags
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Rumpenhorst

"The German promotion of non-governmental organizations that intervene in Israel's internal affairs or promote anti-Israel activities is unparalleled," says the letter, which was sent without sender and signature to the German daily taz, most likely from Israel. "We would like the Federal Government to tie its further financial support to the complete halt of such activities." The author demanded that the federal government "review its funding guidelines." 

In concrete terms, the financing of a total of twelve NGOs with their partners in Israel and Palestine, is being questioned. This includes organizations such as Brot für die Welt and Misereor, as well as various political foundations such as the Green party-aligned Heinrich Böll Foundation, the Jewish Museum Berlin and the Berlinale film festival.

Read more: Jews in Europe alarmed by rising anti-Semitism

Freedoms of expression are 'fundamental rights'

Dieter Kosslick, head of the Berlinale, commented on the accusation in the Tagesspiegel that the founding idea of the Berlinale was to contribute to international understanding. This, he said, included the presentation of different perspectives on the world. "Artistic freedom and freedom of opinion are fundamental rights."

The Federal Cultural Authority announced that Minister of State for Culture Monika Grütters had taken note of the Israeli government's concerns. However, Grütters said that the autonomy of the Berlinale in artistic matters was treasured and protected. It goes without saying that "the Berlinale should not provide a stage for Israel’s declared enemies or other fundamentalist or anti-democratic movements."

A Jewish Museum Berlin exhibit
A room in the Jewish Museum Berlin's "Jerusalem" exhibitionImage: Jüdisches Museum Berlin/Y. Sucksdorff

Jewish Museum exhibit criticized

According to the letter, the background for the criticism of the Jewish Museum Berlin's exhibition "Welcome to Jerusalem," because it reflects a "Palestinian-Muslim view of Jerusalem." The exhibition, which has already been on view for a year, presents the Holy City from various perspectives as a place longed for and fought over by three monotheistic religions.

We are convinced "that an open discussion involving different, sometimes controversial points of view is indispensable in order to enable our visitors to form their own, differentiated judgement," the museum stated. And with reference to a contribution by museum director Peter Schäfer in the Tagesspiegel, it went on to say, "It goes without saying that activists of any political orientation should not be offered a forum, which applies in particular to supporters or activists of the BDS campaign (...). We observe, with concern, the increasing spread of a 'culture of suspicion'."

Read more: Israeli aid group wins German integration prize 

Germany mum on criticism

The fact that Israel is increasing the pressure on independent and critical civil society is nothing new. The Heinrich Böll Foundation has been observing this for some time and has described the developments to DW as "alarming." According to spokesperson Michael Alvarez Israel is the only stable democracy in the region, and the current government "should preserve these achievements." The accusations in the letter are "absurd" and to describe a magazine like +972, which is financially supported by the Böll Foundation, as "anti-Israeli," for example, is defamatory and an attack on journalists and freedom of the press in Israel.

The German government is reluctant to comment on the matter. So far it has neither confirmed nor denied that the document comes directly from the Israeli government.

In Friday's weekly federal press conference, deputy government spokesperson Ulrike Demmer did not want to comment directly on the question of whether she had exchanged views with Israel on the letter and pointed out that there was a close and regular exchange of views on numerous issues with the Israeli government. Germany only supports projects in Israel by institutions that are "registered in Israel according to Israeli law" and not NGOs as a whole.

According to taz the letter was also sent to the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). However, the BMZ has denied this.