As a Jewish girl growing up in provincial England then Italy, I grew accustomed to anti-Semitism. “Don’t be Jewey!” in the playground when I wouldn’t share sweets. “Steen? Don’t you mean Stein?” when I told teachers my mother’s maiden name. And over and over: “You don’t look Jewish” though my blonde, snub-nosed looks make me a ringer for my Polish grandmother. One elderly Italian lady told me that she thought Jews struggled with Nazis because they were similar.
Such occasions are upsetting but I have never felt unsafe. This is not the experience of many Jews. If you attend synagogue and if your appearance marks you as Jewish, such badges of belonging make you a target. Since Hamas’s attack of October 7, and Israel’s retaliation, reports of anti-Semitic attacks have soared in Europe and the US.
But Islamophobia is also ever-present. A 2021 report by the UN found it is rising worldwide. The victory of anti-Islamic politician Geert Wilders in the Dutch elections mirrors the success of populist leaders such as Trump and Narendra Modi. Since October 7, that hatred has intensified.
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Equality and justice are collective operations. It is unjust to Muslims when governments and institutions fail to tackle Islamophobia with the same ferocity with which they tackle anti-Semitism. But it also endangers Jews because it suggests they deserve special treatment.
The conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is also dangerous. There is an irrationality coiled within a concept that states Israel and Jewishness are the same thing. There is an old Jewish joke about one Jew needing two synagogues: the one he goes to and the one he doesn’t. There are a myriad ways of being Jewish. Many of us identify as Jewish but also as a cornucopia of other things. To riff on the US poet Walt Whitman, Jews – like everyone else – contain multitudes.
The culture sector is cracking under the weight of this unreason. Recently international dealer Lisson Gallery cancelled a show by Ai Weiwei after a tweet which reportedly stated: “Financially, culturally, and in terms of media influence, the Jewish community has had a significant presence in the United States. The annual $3 billion aid package to Israel has, for decades, been touted as one of the most valuable investments the United States has ever made. This partnership is often described as one of shared destiny”.
Ai seemed to conflate Jewishness with Zionism. Furthermore, by implying that the Jewish community is a powerful, homogenous entity, he risked falling into anti-Semitic tropes that the Jews run Hollywood and Congress and are plotting world domination. Certainly, there are powerful Jews in the United States. There are many powerless ones too. Some support Israel. Many don’t.
But Ai deleted his tweet. Given that, couldn’t Lisson have gone ahead? One erased tweet, from an artist indubitably committed to justice, does not make a pogrom.
There are parallels to be drawn with last year’s debacle at the German contemporary arts festival Documenta when it became embroiled in accusations of anti-Semitism stoked by a government which fails to distinguish between Zionism and Judaism.
Other baffling decisions have followed. For Documenta to accuse committee member Ranjit Hoskoté, the most sensitive of thinkers, of anti-Semitism is to drive out exactly the kind of reflective, nuanced voice that culture needs. A photography biennale actually cancelled itself rather than permit curation by photojournalist, teacher and activist Shahidul Alam whom they dubbed anti-Semitic for describing the situation in Gaza as a genocide and comparing it to the Holocaust.
As someone who knows Alam well, I can verify that he is not anti-Semitic. His courage, wisdom and humanity have been proven time and again not least when he went to prison for criticising his own government in Bangladesh. If I were in danger from anti-Semitism – or anything else – it’s Alam I would want at my side.
Alam and I may debate his posts. I try to avoid comparisons between different atrocities because I believe that specificity is intrinsic to solutions. He and I will probably, as we have before, agree to differ.
Art should be a space where differences are permitted freedom. Art springs from friction. From contradiction, paradox, opposing forces birthing newness. Within that alchemy, more complex, imaginative truths emerge. For Alam and his team, the cancellation signals that voices from the Global South – the majority world, as Alam puts it – are not truly welcome beyond the region despite the lip service paid to “diversity”.
These repressions are in lockstep with a wider crackdown on expression. In the UK, Bristol’s Arnolfini Gallery has dropped Palestinian events for fear they contradict state guidance that culture venues must remain apolitical or risk funding cuts. Given the political kernel of so much contemporary culture, this demand is absurd but it is indicative of Britain’s intolerant Tory administration. In truth, Arnolfini has held many political events so why do the Palestinian ones provoke censorship?
The situation is becoming Orwellian in its mechanisms of exclusion, erasure and silence. Even Jewish artists, such as Candice Breitz, are now being ostracised for their Palestinian sympathies.
There is anti-Semitism and there is Islamophobia: real, violent ideologies that destroy lives. There are also a million ghosts, fantasies, mis-speakings and mis-perceptions of those hate crimes. We need to be able to distinguish them. We need to understand who has the power to kill us and who is expressing an opinion with which we may not agree but which does not endanger us. Otherwise, we will waste our energy fighting shadows while the real monsters thrive.
When I argued that Ai’s tweet could be construed as anti-Semitic, my non-Jewish partner didn’t get it. I explained. He got it. Or said he did. That’s ok. That’s two people having different histories. (My partner’s Argentinian and objects every time I forget to describe those islands in the South Atlantic as Las Malvinas.) That’s all of us.
The horror in Gaza is ripping faultlines through the art sector. The failure of major institutions to condemn Israel’s war crimes in Gaza as they condemned Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered outrage, protests and sit-ins. Those who disagree say that Hamas’s massacre makes such comparisons shaky.
Time and again I remember lines by the radical poet Adrienne Rich, who was Jewish on her father’s side. “Split at the root/Neither Gentile nor Jew […but] I’m a good reader of histories.”
We don’t have to be superlative historians to recognise, as António Guterres said, that October 7 didn’t happen in a vacuum. Nor did the atrocities in Gaza. The ghosts of millions in Europe and Palestine haunt those dying today.
Even as I condemn October 7, I don’t believe Palestinian people should pay for Hitler’s crimes. Art stakes itself on empathy: between artist and subject; art and viewer. It also wagers on mystery: that which bewilders us, makes us hesitate. Sometimes it makes us angry. Sometimes it redeems us. Sometimes it does both. It’s somewhere to backtrack, rethink then recomplicate. The lady who compared the Jews to Nazis had, as a young woman, hidden a Jew in her attic during the war at enormous personal risk. Humanity is as multi-faceted as a diamond. Art is a place where its strangeness can shine.
The cancellations damage the freedom and creativity they claim to protect. As James Baldwin put it: “Life is more important than art. That’s why art is so important.” If dialogue across difference is shut down in the house of culture, what hope remains elsewhere?
Rachel Spence is a poet and arts writer. Her latest book is Venice Unclocked (2022, Ivory Press). Her work has appeared in the Financial Times, Hyperallergic and The Art Newspaper.