Maram Stern is the executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress.
As the global Jewish community approaches the High Holy Days, the Days of Awe, we undergo several weeks of spiritual preparation, emphasizing rigorous self-reflection and making apologies to those we have wronged.
An apology must be sincere and heartfelt in order to be meaningful. A true acknowledgment and confession of guilt, expressed not only by individuals but also by governments and institutions.
The process is not easy. But for the most powerful forces in our world — nation-states, as well as prominent international and domestic bodies — to lay claim to moral authority, they must accept this responsibility.
And some do.
A quarter of a century after the end of World War II, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt genuflected before the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw. Former United States President Barack Obama referred to his apologies for the darker dimensions of American history as a “reckoning with history.” Earlier this summer, Dutch Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren offered words of apology for Dutch U.N. peacekeepers’ inaction during the Srebrenica genocide. And most recently, Pope Francis apologized both for the “evil of clergy sex abuse” and to Canada’s Indigenous peoples for the church’s role in “destroying their communities.”
Yet, in Germany right now, amid the ongoing scandal around Documenta 15 — one of the world’s biggest and most important art exhibitions — the government’s requisite apology remains withheld. And the result is tarnishing the proud reputation of both the show and its host country — and will likely continue to do so.
This year, Ruangrupa, a Jakarta-based art collective, curated the show’s 15th edition. And in the name of artistic freedom, organizers and sponsors alike gave the collective little to no supervision.
The show ended up prominently displaying a huge banner by the Indonesian collective Taring Padi, called “People’s Justice,” which was created in 2002. It depicted a man crudely identifiable as Jewish by the curls dangling at his ears, in the custom of some Orthodox men, while also bearing fangs and wearing a hat emblazoned with a Nazi emblem. The banner also featured the figure of a soldier with a pig’s head wearing a Star of David neckerchief and a helmet labeled “Mossad.”
After the initial — and wholly predictable — outcry, the exhibition’s supervisory board decided first to conceal the artwork, and then to remove it. In June, Taring Padi issued an apology to “all viewers and the team of Documenta 15, the public in Germany and especially the Jewish community.” And in July, the show’s director general, Sabine Schormann, resigned after initially protesting that she was “not responsible” for Documenta’s content.
It’s worth pausing to reflect on those two very telling words.
Taring Padi’s apology was necessary but nowhere near sufficient, especially since it neglected to point out the collective had not one but two anti-Semitic chefs d’oeuvre in the show. Just two weeks ago, an anti-Semitic caricature was literally uncovered in another one of their works on display at Kassel: The yarmulke of a hook-nosed Jew had been taped over, in an apparent attempt to mask his identity.
Schormann’s resignation, meanwhile, especially after her disavowal of responsibility, is just salt in the wound.
The Jewish community is tired of the “resignation act.” It is no longer effective; it is disparaging; and true change demands more.
Indeed, the Documenta 15 controversy is taking place at a time of surging European anti-Semitism. Last year, a study commissioned by the European Commission and conducted by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found a 13-fold increase in anti-Semitic content in German, when comparing the first two months of 2021 to the same period in 2020.
Thankfully, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier did make a decisive statement regarding the exhibition. Whereas criticism of Israeli politics is allowed, he said, “a line is crossed when criticism of Israel turns into a questioning of its right to exist,” adding that “artistic freedom is not nor can ever be absolute.”
We have publicly thanked the federal president for his words. However, big questions remain: Why was there no oversight of a €42-million art show funded by German taxpayers? How can we be sure that Documenta won’t allow yet another anti-Semitic exhibition to be displayed next year? And how can we guarantee that this won’t happen at any other exhibition in Germany or elsewhere in Europe?
In other words, who bears the ultimate responsibility?
Claudia Roth, the federal government’s commissioner for culture and the media in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government, is the one who should have apologized — and she still needs to do so. Yes, she has called for reforms, but she has yet to actually express remorse.
It shouldn’t need to be said, but the German government has a unique obligation to stand against anti-Semitism. In this instance, nothing less than a proper apology from Roth will do.