How political artists do away with nations
Criticism of Israel is not as taboo in Germany as a pair of “shock” artists think it is
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There is nothing more dreary than contemporary art that sets out merely to be provocative when it is in fact conventional and reactionary. A case in point is the Danish artistic group Surrend's anti-Israel poster showing maps of the Middle East in which the state of Israel does not exist, with the term "Final Solution" at the top. Not only does this mirror the jingoistic foreign policy of the Holocaust-denying regime in Iran, but it also resonates with many Germans.
The poster, created by the Danish Jew, Jan Egesborg, and his fellow Dane, Pia Bertelsen, has in recent weeks been plastered around selected Berlin neighbourhoods.
What Egesborg and Bertelsen understood to be a form of heroic, artistic resistance to a perceived ban on any criticism of Israel in Germany, was actually just one more manifestation of a widespread hostility towards the Jewish state. This can be seen, for example, in the seizing and banning of the display of Israeli flags by the authorities in such German cities as Kessel, Duisburg, Düsseldorf, Bochum, Mainz --- and Berlin. And in September, a student in Bochum was fined 300 euros for waving an Israeli flag as a counterprotest at an anti-Israel rally where demonstrators declaimed inflammatory, hate-driven rhetoric against the Jewish state.
Initially, Egesborg called for religious cleansing in Israel. "There is no other answer but for the Jews of Israel to find a new homeland, perhaps in the USA, Germany or Denmark", he said. Faced with criticism of his poster for its potential to incite wild enthusiasm among neo-Nazis, pro-Iranian regime supporters, and German leftists, Egesborg retreated from purging rhetoric, contenting himself with describing Israel as a historical mistake.
Egesborg's anti-Zionism is the new form of conversion for European Jews, an echo of the times before the founding of Israel in 1948, when sizeable numbers of Jews across Europe converted to Christianity as a means of conforming to mainstream society.
By contrast, Egesborg seeks to use his Jewishness to rebut charges of antisemitism. This is a clumsy defence: any human being is capable of misanthropy, and a Jewish human being is certainly capable of making anti-Israel statements that appear to meet the European Union's definition of contemporary antisemitism.
The shock value of Surrend's Final Solution poster is in fact minimal, given the support so easily garnered by the Danish duo from all walks of life in Germany. The FAZ journalist Lorenz Jäger defended the poster prompting pro-Israel blogger Lizas Welt to satirise him as a Judenjäger, a play on his name (Jäger means hunter and Jude means Jew), in turn prompting Jäger to take legal action.
Surrend also received an endorsement from Wolfgang Benz, the controversial head of the publicly funded Berlin Centre for Antisemitism Research, who, commenting on the poster on German television, argued: "Antisemitism is different from anti-Zionism…but it's so practical to denounce anything one doesn't like as antisemitism." But Benz has other troubles, currently finding himself under attack for praising his Nazi academic mentor, Karl Bosl.
Sadly, Surrend's poster, aimed to shock, is not all that shocking to the Germans, and will be positively pleasing to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Benjamin Weinthal is a journalist based in Berlin and a fellow of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies