Oops! – Germany did it again: Jonas Staal – Letter to the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD)

Jonas Staal is a Dutch visual artist. His work deals with the relationship between art, democracy, and propaganda

Dear Mr Joybrato Mukherjee,

It is an honor to be nominated for the DAAD Artist residency, organized by the German Academic Exchange Service of which you are the director. Unfortunately, I must reject this nomination for several reasons.

The first is your decision in your role as the rector of Cologne University to rescind the Albertus Magnus Professorship to the Jewish-American political theorist Nancy Fraser due to her signature of a letter with over four hundred other philosophers’ names expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people and condemning the “ongoing and rapidly escalating massacre being committed in Gaza by Israel.”

I fail to imagine how you, as a representative of a German state institution, feel you are entitled to dictate to Jewish people what they are supposed to think or say about the crimes of the Israeli occupation. I am appalled by your antisemitic narrative that equates the Israeli regime with the global Jewish diaspora. And I do not comprehend how, in consideration of the brutal history and shame of the Holocaust and mass persecution which saw the killing of Jewish, Roma, and Sinti people, as well as queer people and communists, you are today actively contributing to a culture in which the oppression of speech of people faced with genocide is normalized.

What a dark state of affairs that I must remind you of Article 5 of the German constitution, drafted after the fall of the Nazi regime to avoid authoritarian tipping points such as the one that marks our present moment, which states that “Every person shall have the right freely to express and disseminate their opinions in speech, writing, and pictures, and to inform themselves without hindrance from generally accessible sources.” The article further states that “Freedom of the press and freedom of reporting by means of broadcasts and films shall be guaranteed” and “There shall be no censorship.” And finally, that “Arts and sciences, research and teaching shall be free.”

Fraser is far from the first who has been silenced by anti-constitutional state institutions like your own, as platforms such as Archive of Silence have been documenting in detail. Just last week, on April 12, 2024, German police barged into the Palestine Congress in Berlin, arresting dozens of activists and organizers. One of the prominent speakers, Ghassan Abu Sitta, a reconstructive plastic surgeon who tended to the wounded in Gaza last year, was held at the airport for questioning and not allowed entry into the country. Former Greek finance minister and leader of the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025, Yanis Varoufakis, who was scheduled to speak at the conference online, was issued a Betätigungsverbot—a ban on engaging in any political activity in Germany—by the Interior Ministry.

According to data gathered by journalist Emily Dische-Becker, 30 percent of all such examples of authoritarian censorship in Germany today is aimed against writers, academics, and artists of Jewish descent. All of this is unfolding while actual antisemitic political parties, such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD)—whose leaders have declared the Nazi era a mere “speck of bird poop” in the country’s supposedly glorious history have been given free range in the German parliament and media. While those who lead the actual fight against racism, antisemitism, and homophobia are being silenced, explicit antisemitism takes hold in the state apparatus without any obstruction. Speaking as a citizen of a country with a brutal colonial history and terrible collaboration with the Nazi regime, I must tell you: You are now part of a climate in which “never again” has become “yet again.”

I have a long relationship with German cultural institutions and fellow artists and cultural workers. I learned much from the criticality undertaken by members of the Berlin art community during these years. Thus, it pains me to feel obliged to reject collaborations with German institutions like yours, because I fear that isolating German organizations will only mean that more people like you will take control. Furthermore, I know that so many individuals working for and in those institutions fundamentally disagree with the present antisemitic and racist censorship campaign. So many are fighting you on the streets and behind the scenes, and I stand in solidarity with them.

And you must see that I am far from the only one: artists, cultural workers, academics, and public intellectuals in Germany and internationally are massively withdrawing their work from institutions like your own, in protest against the authoritarian turn you are propagating, your failure to defend meaningful artistic and academic freedom, and your unwillingness to fight real antisemitism and structural racism. For how can I, how can we take a stand, when you and your fellow institutional collaborators feel that you have the right to censor those who speak against genocide today? We will not speak in the absence of the speech of others.

In any case, the costs to our careers and livelihood are, in the end, relative. Relative compared to waking up an orphan in Gaza or having to bury your children. You are on the wrong side of history, and I imagine the terrible psychological toll to keep up a wall between yourself and the reality of the antisemitic, racist, and murderous policies you are legitimizing. But you don’t have to do that. You can be one of those who break the silence, who refuse to perpetuate this culture of genocide apologism any longer.

I must reject the nomination given to me by your institution, but the invitation to join the side of history that bends towards justice remains always open.


Jonas Staal

Athens, April 18, 2024

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