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Culture Is on Trial in Berlin

In ‘progressive’ Berlin, daring to treat Palestinians like they are human beings can destroy your life and your work — as thousands of artists and cultural institutions are now discovering.

A protest at Oyoun against the censorship of pro-Palestine sentiment in Berlin's cultural institutions.

The date is 14 December 2023, and the venue is Oyoun. Louna Sbou needs a moment. On the stage at a hastily organised press conference, she is flanked by colleagues who look stricken as she buries her head in her hands and weeps. Above Louna’s head is a slideshow documenting events and performances at Oyoun, the Berlin cultural centre she has led since its inception in January 2020. In their seats, assembled journalists shift awkwardly. On 20 November 2023, through the medium of a Berlin Senate committee livestream, Oyoun discovered that their entire operational budget was being rescinded with immediate effect, axing more than thirty jobs and endangering at least eight visas. The supposed reason? ‘Hidden’ antisemitism.

For a European creative hub in 2023, Oyoun is uncontroversial. The branding? Various shades of pastel. The safer spaces policy? Meticulous. The curatorial angle? ‘Feminist’, ‘queer’, ‘class-critical’. The government funding for this work? €1 million a year for the period 2020–5 — for wages, for supporting international residencies, and for the general upkeep of the performance spaces, studios, bars, and cafés within the 3,200-square-metre former brewery in the southern district of Neukölln.

To understand what happened, one can begin with the street. Oyoun sits in a narrow, cobbled street running towards Hasenheide, a sprawling 50-hectare park (which was, from 1780 onwards, the city’s first Muslim burial site). Until April 2021, the street was called Wissmannstrasse, after Hermann von Wissmann, the early twentieth-century colonial administrator for German East Africa. After a community campaign, it was renamed after Lucy Lameck, a committed Pan-Africanist and the first woman to serve in the Tanzanian parliament. The official renaming ceremony took place in Oyoun’s garden, and was lauded as a win for a multicultural district and a righteous example of Germany’s ‘remembrance culture’.

With this act of street-sign penance, Berlin council had paid for its colonial misdeeds and felt great about it. But Oyoun would soon discover exactly how far the German appetite for state-endorsed decoloniality extended, and for whom. Anne, a representative of a local artists’ organisation, spoke to Tribune pseudonymously for fear of persecution. She has firm beliefs about why Oyoun has been defunded so suddenly: ‘[It is] a minority-run cultural centre — one of the only ones in Berlin. And [it is] the only cultural institution that dared to host discussions around Palestine with Palestinian groups.’

Since 7 October, Anne has seen a wave of state-endorsed cancellations and the public defunding of artists on political grounds (or on the basis of false, totally unproven antisemitism claims). Repressive legal and political actions are being taken with rapidity, while Berlin’s media and political class have been ensuring that no criticism of what is happening makes it into the political discourse. In Berlin, anti-Zionism and antisemitism have been considered identical by the establishment for decades. But fast-tracked defunding of this scale — without dialogue or the right of reply to public allegations or any other standard forms of communication — is a new low.

This is something Louna has experienced. ‘All attempts at dialogue from our side have been ignored so far,’ she claims — attempts which have included six direct requests for mediation — describing the move by the senate as ‘collectively punishing us and our community’. She says, ‘The sudden removal of funds [means] massive emotional distress, grave insecurity, and an existential threat — especially to our fellows and co-workers whose visas depend on Oyoun.’

Louna is a queer Muslim woman, the daughter of Moroccan Amazigh ‘guest workers’, and an accomplished cultural producer with an international profile. She had first taken occupancy of the brewery with her business partner in 2020; before this, she had been part of a collective running a café named Be’kech, a portmanteau of Berlin and Marrakech. Be’kech’s operations have been key to destabilising Oyoun through linking it to support for Palestine, despite being an entirely separate, long-closed business at the opposite end of town.

In emails to Oyoun seen by Tribune, which reveal the tenor and gravity of the supposed antisemitism accusations, a journalist slams Louna as ‘evasive’ for not commenting on a three-year-old WhatsApp screenshot he claimed to have seen which would confirm that she had once suggested that they might call one of their salads at Be’kech something other than ‘Israeli couscous’.

On 25 October, Udi Raz, a Haifa native, was told her contract as a tour guide at the Jewish Museum Berlin had been terminated after she was heard referring to Israel as an apartheid state. In 2019, the former director Peter Schäfer was forced to resign after the museum’s Twitter account shared an article referring to the existence of an open letter by Jewish scholars criticising a 2019 Bundestag resolution that framed the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as fundamentally antisemitic. This was given eager support from across the political spectrum. The impact of the ‘anti-BDS resolution’ on Germany’s cultural world has been less chilling effect and more Ice Age.

The phrase ‘BDS-nähe’ (meaning BDS-adjacent) is a purely vibes-based whisper allegation that sticks. It works just as well for ‘apartheid’ or ‘from the river to the sea’, Anne says. ‘Any bonkers right-wing blogger can accuse any acclaimed artist or academic of being “nähe” to any of those statements,’ she tells Tribune, ‘and then they will basically immediately be called a Jew-hating Hamas supporter.’ At Oyoun’s press conference, Louna said she had never publicly supported BDS but had previously signed a similar letter which suggested this resolution could imperil artistic freedom.

Strike One

For four years, a strategic alliance of politicians from across party lines, journalists, and what we might call ‘invested freelancers’ set about building a mosaic of suspicion around Oyoun, constructed largely of broken mirrors and the malevolent recasting of everyday incidents within a space that has hosted 2,700 public events, or else grouted as needed by outright fantasy.

In one such example, in November 2022, Tayfun Guttstadt, a local musician who bills himself as a ‘consultant and expert on the Middle East’, was asked to leave an Oyoun concert by on-site security, in line with their safer spaces policy, as he was allegedly harassing a hijab-wearing Muslim woman who had blocked him on social media. Guttstadt complied, then posted several Instagram stories contending he had actually been ‘challenging her antisemitism’ and that she shouted ‘Free Palestine!’ after him as he was leaving. The next day, he shared how many press requests and messages of support from local politicians he had already received, and that he’d been told this was part of a pattern of ‘racist things happening there under the banner of “anti-colonial”’. Finally, Guttstadt pronounced that he personally felt Oyoun’s public funding should be revoked.

On 12 November 2023, Green Party MP Susanna Kahlefeld emailed Oyoun to demand a statement for publication about why Guttstadt had been removed from an event more than a year prior. Oyoun sent over its safer spaces policy, noted the existence of five statements from staff taken on the day contradicting Guttstadt’s account, and reiterated that there was no room for antisemitism at Oyoun. Kahlefeld then published a takedown of the cultural centre in her district, directly calling for its defunding and claiming it had replied there was no room for criticism of antisemitism at Oyoun. When Kahlefeld was then served with a legal injunction due to the obviously defamatory nature of the post, it was removed, but not before being widely reported on.

Anne can’t wrap her head around Kahlefeld’s obsession with Oyoun. ‘It seems extremely irrational and inexplicable to me.’ Additionally, she mentions how some believe many politicians have conscious or unconscious relations with the activities of Alternative für Deutschland (Af), the once marginal party that holds a certain broader social influence over this tragic farce. Recent polling shows massive gains for the Af and other far-right parties, who enjoyed a Germany-wide membership increase of 37 percent in 2023.

Louna sees this as the root of the fiasco: ‘The democratic parties have collectively decided on the strategy of adopting far right positions and rhetoric.’ Since it both feeds on and feeds racism and Islamophobia, ‘[I]t stands in a reciprocal relationship to weaponised claims of antisemitism. This is overtly manifest when one sees how many claims of antisemitism are coming from bona fide antisemites.’ Swooping in to take eminently justifiable credit for the outcome, Neukölln’s AfD chairman released a triumphant statement on the day of Oyoun’s defunding: ‘AfD works!’

Strike Two

For several weeks prior to November 2023, riot police bussed in from across Germany swarmed Neukölln’s streets every night, beating and arresting residents as young as 9 years old for wearing a kuffiyeh or waving a Palestine flag. The city council twice extended the total ban on demonstrations, citing public order issues with groups of ‘emotionalised Arab men’ and ‘risk of potential antisemitism’. Palestine solidarity protests are commonly referred to in national media as ‘Jewhate marches’.

It is in this context that on 1 November 2023 Oyoun provided room for a discussion on the topic ‘State of Emergency — the New “Normal”? State Repression and Police Violence’ organised by local groups such as KOP Berlin (the Campaign for Victims of Racist Police Violence), Revolutionary Left, and Palästina Kampagne (Palestine Campaign). On 8 October, the latter had published an Instagram post which contextualised the events of the previous day, noting: ‘We unconditionally support the liberation struggle of the Palestinians against apartheid and for a life in freedom and dignity.’

On 4 November, Oyoun hosted the twentieth anniversary event of a veteran organisation — Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East. The organisation is politically diverse, but regularly collaborates on street mobilisations and media work with Palestine solidarity groups with whom it shares a critique of the apartheid state and support for the BDS call.

That week, many of their members were mourning friends who had died during the carnage of 7 October, but decided they would still gather ‘to give space to our grief and raise our Jewish voices: through music, through art, through our coexistence, for an immediate stop of violence and for just peace,’ said Nirit Sommerfeld, a German-Israeli actress and Jewish Voice member.

While Oyoun had previously bowed to insistent official warnings over event booking decisions they deemed ‘too politically charged’, Louna and her team took a fighting stance this time, refusing to cancel the event. ‘They knew that going ahead could pose an existential threat to the centre,’ said Jewish Voice president, the composer Wieland Hoban. ‘But they felt both solidarity with our cause and a determination to reject the pressure that had been effective in silencing voices like ours in the past. We admire and appreciate their courage.’

Strike Three

On 20 November 2023, picking up the gauntlet thrown by his former colleague Kahlefeld, Joe Chialo, the son of Tanzanian diplomats, and a former pop singer who switched from the Greens to the Christian Democrats and was made Berlin’s senator for culture in April that year, announced that Lucy-Lameck-Str. 32 — Oyoun’s space — would be empty again by the end of the year. Anne was in the public gallery for the hearing and noticed the inconsistency: ‘The Senator said [Oyoun’s] funding ends ‘regularly’ at the end of the year — that’s a blatant lie. [Oyoun has] projects funded by multiple funding bodies running until the end of 2025. They are just seen as disposable and unworthy of due process.’

Lisa*, a local artist, spoke to Tribune: ‘What shocked me was how quick it all was. No discussion, just a point of information for us: no more funding for Oyoun.’ Chialo also said that not only would Oyoun not be funded, but that no other state funding would go to institutions that have this ‘hidden’ antisemitism. ‘Which I guess means we will now officially have to follow the IHRA [definition of antisemitism]?’ wonders Lisa.

An open letter to support Oyoun quickly garnered 14,000 signatures. A crowdfunding campaign shared worldwide generated €85,400 in its first week. A legal appeal over a breach of contract was dismissed in a preliminary decision in an unusually expedited procedure by the Berlin Administrative Court on 21 December. Oyoun’s lawyer has since filed a complaint against this decision with the higher administrative court. Oyoun was asked to vacate their premises by midnight on 31 December. The Berlin Senate has begun to publicly dispute that the defiance over hosting the Jewish Voice vigil was the reason for the defunding.

The day of the press conference — 14 December 2023. Louna and her team have come out fighting. Visitors are met with tea, biscuits, and printouts of email exchanges with journalists from both the liberal daily Der Tagesspiegel and Jungle World, the weekly paper for the antideutsche (Germany’s hardline Zionist tendency known for its racist cartoons and support for the Iraq War on the basis that criticising America is antisemitic). Only names are redacted, and the near-identical lines of questioning between Kahlefeld and the publications leave the collusion between the media and politicians exposed.

It’s not enough, though. At one point, a video message of solidarity and friendship is played from Rabbi Armin Langer, who ran livestreamed sabbath services from Oyoun during the pandemic and sits on its board. Their specialist mandatory staff training programme and dedicated antisemitism officer are gestured towards, but everyone knows none of that is enough either. ‘I can hardly describe the psychological and emotional impact,’ says Louna. ‘This impact also goes far beyond our community: we are being made an example of in order to silence all other cultural institutions in Berlin as well.’

Anne wonders if some of this is also about clearing the playing field. Berlin has a bigger state culture budget than the entirety of Britain, making state funding highly competitive as the only game in town. She tells Tribune that much of the sector is ‘horrified’ at the ‘catastrophic’ decision, pointing out that the only institutions that aren’t are conservative-leaning bodies who will benefit from the freeing up of competition for funding. ‘A lot of people are realising the place they called home is not a safe space, and that they have the choice of either abandoning minimum standards of ethics or saying goodbye to their cultural career in Germany.’

Louna eyes the horizon.

Our hopes for the future of Oyoun hinge on our hopes for the future of Berlin, Germany, and the world: we hope to live in a place where freedom of speech and expression as protected by the German Constitution are in fact truly protected, where nuanced discussions are possible, where the emancipatory potential of art and culture is recognised as a benefit rather than a threat.

Back at the press conference, after an awkward silence, a reporter raises his hand and asks the exhausted Oyoun team one last question: ‘Do you really think, given the climate at the moment, it’s appropriate language to call this a smear campaign?’