A society that wants to arm itself against anti-Semitism must learn to rebut its arguments. Bans are counterproductive.
I hate anti-Semitism. In all its forms, no matter whether right wing or left wing, religiously motivated, state-sanctioned or coming from below. It makes no difference to me whether it is in the realm of politics, art or culture. I hate anti-Semitism.
And I hate cancel culture. In all its forms, no matter whether right wing or left wing, religiously motivated, state-sanctioned or coming from below. It makes no difference to me whether it is in the realm of politics, art or culture. I hate cancel culture.
Is it possible to be against anti-Semitism and cancel culture simultaneously? I believe it is. Contrary to the conventional view, censorship does not help to purge Jew-hatred from the world. Those who are against anti-Semitism are nowadays expected to do everything they can to supress expressions of Jew-hatred so they do not lead to anything worse. Therefore bans on anti-Semitic remarks are widely seen as an appropriate measure in the struggle against Jew-hatred.
In contrast, I take the view that anti-Semitism is best fought through an Enlightenment-based approach. That is through the debunking of spurious anti-Semitic arguments, stereotypes and scapegoating of all types. It is necessary to create a watchful, reflective, and vigilant society that is against all forms of misanthrope. One that quickly recognises anti-Semitic arguments, sees through them and rebuts them. If we have encounter difficulties in challenging such poisonous ideas we simply have to become better at tackling them.
We cannot learn how to self-confidently and vigilantly go on the offensive against anti-Semitism if we keep our eyes closed and pretend it does not exist. Banning anti-Semitic art does not make it any less anti-Semitic. The world will not become good simply because we hide hatred and evil from view. It can only become good when we look evil in the face and tackle it head on.
Criticising anti-Semitic artwork at the documenta art exhibition is both welcome and necessary. We should ask why the clear signs of anti-Semitism were not recognised but, on the contrary, ignored in these supposedly enlightened circles. The pervasive blindness to anti-Semitism is frightening; it must be countered.
Several months ago the debate about prospective anti-Semitism was already public in relation to the art of the Palestinian artists’ collective “The question of funding”. The group has long expressed support for the boycott of Israelis in cultural life. But instead of debating the question, Christian Geselle, the social democrat lord mayor of Kassel, told the Hessische Rundfunk radio station that he could “see no sign of anti-Semitism” in such practices. In this case he said “no red line” had been crossed so there was no question of any criminality.
This is exactly where the problem of dealing with expressions of anti-Semitism becomes apparent. It is reduced to a question of criminal law. As a result there is barely any public debate beyond the legality of a statement or artwork. In the case of documenta the lord mayor ended up having no choice but to deny there were any expressions of anti-Semitism. He felt he had to counter the impulse to supress the exhibition. That is a pity as it would have been much more productive to have openly discussed these controversial themes instead.
Unfortunately cancel culture is rampant in dealing with anti-Semitism. It has become increasingly common for organisations to quell controversial statements in advance in order to prevent open debate. This opposition to a debating culture is a toxic development. When we hinder the appearance of unpleasant or repulsive ideas we lose the ability to react against them in a reasoned way. If problematic views are supressed we forget what it means to be responsible for our own beliefs and to debate to win.
I have a bad feeling that, in the future, exhibitions like documenta will be put under a kind of official magnifying glass. They will have to be authorised by an official body to screen out any ‘problematic’ content. And I ask myself: where do the borders of artistic and free expression lie? And why should such a governmental body be able to decide that we see, hear or read?
Cancel culture is only superficially against incorrect or distasteful content. The real target of such restrictive measures is always the public. It is relieved of the task of assessing content itself. Those who take it upon themselves to clean up art and culture in line with the conformist spirit of the times raise themselves up above the public. Constant restrictions on what can be seen, heard or read mean that the general population is increasingly losing its capacity to make moral judgements. The public always loses under such circumstances.
It is precisely this capacity of judgment that is urgently needed to recognise and oppose fake news, conspiracy theories and racist or anti-Semitic ideas. Only in this way can society defend itself when such notions are not simply confined to fringe groups but instead become mainstream or part of government propaganda. Therefore we should be ready to critically confront such ideas even when it is painful. Tolerance, properly understood, is the opposite of indifference. It is ultimately the precondition for enhancing our ability to win arguments in open democratic debate.
The original German article appeared in Novo. This English version of the article appeared on July 20, 2022 on the website „Radicalism of fools. Rethinking Anti-Semitism“. It was translated by Daniel Ben-Ami.