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Artist Emily Jacir: Rampant Censorship Is Part of the Genocidal Campaign to Erase Palestinians

Written by on 19/01/2024


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Samia Halaby, we want to bring in another Palestinian American artist into this discussion, the artist and filmmaker Emily Jacir. She was scheduled to speak at any event in Berlin, Germany, in October, but her appearance was canceled. She’s the recipient of prestigious awards, including a Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, a Prince Claus Award from the Prince Claus Fund in The Hague, the Hugo Boss Prize at the Guggenheim Museum, and most recently she won an American Academy of Arts and Letters prize and received an honorary doctorate from the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, Ireland. She is the founding director of Dar Yusuf Nasri Jacir for Art and Research in Bethlehem, where she was born.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Emily. It’s very good to have you with us. Can you talk about what’s happened to you, actually, not here in the United States, but in Berlin, Germany?

EMILY JACIR: Thank you, Amy, for having me on your show. It’s really a pleasure to be here. I also just would like to begin by expressing my solidarity for Samia and the loss of her show, but also for the curator, Elliot, because he was in Bethlehem last summer and spoke to me at length about this exhibition, so I was quite excited about it.

I was slated to speak in Berlin as part of a workshop at Potsdam University. And when they canceled the talk, they wrote to me and said they were going to postpone it to a more peaceful time — or, to a more peaceful point in time, which, now listening to Samia speaking about the idea of being a lightning rod, this really resonated with me. And this is one of the methodologies that is being used to actually stop us from being able to speak publicly and share our words and share our work. This is another way of doing it, is by saying, “Oh, we’ll just do this in another peaceful time.” But this is the time. This is the time when we should be speaking and having discourse, across the board, around the world. So I don’t buy that that was the real reason.

Again, we have to also take the curator into consideration and try to imagine what kind of pressure, particularly being in Germany, they must have been under. The situation in Germany, as we all know, is one of the most extreme cases of silencing Palestinians. But it’s part of a larger war effort targeting Palestinian voices and intellectuals, using various methodologies, including harassment, baseless smear campaigns, canceling shows, canceling talks. So, it’s very much part of a coordinated movement.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Emily Jacir, could you talk about some of the — there have been numerous incidents in Germany where people have been canceled, for one reason or another having to do with Gaza. If you could just go through some of those people, in particular, the Palestinian artists and writers?

EMILY JACIR: Yeah, I mean, I think one of the first incidents was Adania Shibli, who was slated to receive an award in Germany. That was within the first week of October, if I remember correctly. The list is quite extensive. My sister’s film, Annemarie Jacir, was canceled within weeks also, I think. Her film was canceled. It’s a film about a wedding, and it was deemed too controversial to show on German television. Candice Breitz, as we all know, is another person. There are so many. The list is endless.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, we want to go now to a writer, a highly acclaimed writer and author, the award-winning Masha Gessen, who was also canceled, or her award. She was to receive the Hannah Arendt Award in Bremen. We spoke to her in December, shortly after the publication of their New Yorker piece headlined “In the Shadow of the Holocaust: How the politics of memory in Europe obscures what we see in Israel and Gaza today.”

In the essay, Gessen wrote, quote, “For the last seventeen years, Gaza has been a hyperdensely populated, impoverished, walled-in compound where only a small fraction of the population had the right to leave for even a short amount of time — in other words, a ghetto. Not like the Jewish ghetto in Venice or an inner-city ghetto in America but like a Jewish ghetto in an Eastern European country occupied by Nazi Germany,” they wrote.

Gessen went on to explain why the term “ghetto” is not commonly used to describe Gaza. Gessen said, quote, “Presumably, the more fitting term ‘ghetto’ would have drawn fire for comparing the predicament of besieged Gazans to that of ghettoized Jews. It also would have given us the language to describe what is happening in Gaza now. The ghetto is being liquidated,” Gessen wrote.

They had been scheduled to receive the prestigious Hannah Arendt Prize in Germany, but the ceremony had to be postponed after one of the award’s sponsors, the left-leaning Heinrich Böll Foundation, withdrew its support.

Gessen discussed the New Yorker piece and the controversy that followed on Democracy Now! on the very day they had been originally scheduled to receive the award in Bremen.

MASHA GESSEN: A large part of the article is devoted to, in fact, memory politics in Germany and the vast anti-antisemitism machine, which largely targets people who are critical of Israel and, in fact, are often Jewish. This happens to be a description that fits me, as well. I am Jewish. I come from a family that includes Holocaust survivors. I grew up in the Soviet Union very much in the shadow of the Holocaust. That’s where the phrase in the headline came from, is from the passage in the article itself. And I am critical of Israel.

Now, the part that really offended the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the city of Bremen — and, I would imagine, some German public — is the part that you read out loud, which is where I make the comparison between the besieged Gaza, so Gaza before October 7th, and a Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe. I made that comparison intentionally. It was not what they call here a provocation. It was very much the point of the piece, because I think that the way that memory politics function now in Europe and in the United States, but particularly in Germany, is that their cornerstone is that you can’t compare the Holocaust to anything. It is a singular event that stands outside of history.

My argument is that in order to learn from history, we have to compare. Like, that actually has to be a constant exercise. We are not better people or smarter people or more educated people than the people who lived 90 years ago. The only thing that makes us different from those people is that in their imagination the Holocaust didn’t yet exist and in ours it does. We know that it’s possible. And the way to prevent it is to be vigilant, in the way that Hannah Arendt, in fact, and other Jewish thinkers who survived the Holocaust were vigilant and were — there was an entire conversation, especially in the first two decades after World War II, in which they really talked about how to recognize the signs of sliding into the darkness.

And I think that we need to — oh, and one other thing that I want to say is that our entire framework of international humanitarian law is essentially based — it all comes out of the Holocaust, as does the concept of genocide. And I argue that that framework is based on the assumption that you’re always looking at war, at conflict, at violence through the prism of the Holocaust. You always have to be asking the question of whether crimes against humanity, the definitions of which came out of the Holocaust, are occurring. And Israel has waged an incredibly successful campaign at setting — not only setting the Holocaust outside of history, but setting itself aside from the optics of international humanitarian law, in part by weaponizing the politics of memory and the politics of the Holocaust.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Masha Gessen. Masha Gessen was speaking to us from Bremen, Germany. The award ceremony went from an auditorium of hundreds — they ultimately got the award in someone’s backyard.

Meanwhile, more than 500 global artists, filmmakers and writers and cultural workers have announced a push against Germany’s stance on Israel’s war on Gaza, calling on artists to step back from collaborating with German state-funded associations. The campaign is backed by the French author, Nobel Prize for Literature winner Annie Ernaux and the Palestinian poet and activist Mohammed el-Kurd. It alleges Germany has adopted, quote, “McCarthyist policies that suppress freedom of expression, specifically expressions of solidarity with Palestine,” unquote.

We’re speaking with Emily Jacir, whose speech was just canceled in Berlin, Germany. And as we wrap up with you, Emily, I wanted to know if you could comment on what’s happening in your birthplace, in Bethlehem. The last time we went to Bethlehem, we were interviewing two pastors there, one of them who set up Christ in the rubble, a crèche scene that showed the baby Jesus in rubble, signifying Gaza. If you can talk about that and the importance of your art, as you continue?

EMILY JACIR: Yeah, I will talk about that, but just to relate back to what everyone else was talking about and how you started, I think it’s really important to consider the way this attempt at creating a culture of fear amongst the arts community globally and internationally is happening through these baseless smear campaigns and defamation, threatening people’s jobs. And I mention this just because, you know, one of the things that happened to me was that there was a letter-writing campaign in which every university I’ve ever taught at internationally, anyone that’s ever given me an award received literally a five-page PDF claiming that I was an ISIS terrorist that supports the rape of women and the killing of babies. People who signed that Artforum letter, and many, many, many of whom are Jewish and Israeli allies that I have worked with for 25 years, also received that letter. In my case, because people know me — they’ve worked with me for 25 years — the letters come off as just absolutely absurd and ridiculous. But if that is happening to me, it begs the question of what is happening to younger artists, people who don’t — people in museums don’t know receiving letters like that. And it’s very targeted and very systematic, and it’s something to consider also in relationship with the targeted destruction of culture in Gaza, art centers being bombed. Why would an art center be bombed? Because part of genocide is precisely silencing artists and silencing a culture’s cultural production. And I feel that that was very important to say that.

In Bethlehem, the situation is quite difficult — nothing compared to Gaza, of course. But we are witnessing incursions every night. It’s been — you know, Bethlehem is a town that very, very much relies on visitors and tourists for its economy, so that, economically, it’s been a disaster. As an art center, our art center in Bethlehem promotes dance and music and art practices and making and residencies of local artists and international artists. We’re doing our very best to both deal with the situation at hand but also provide a kind of way of working with the children now who live in our neighborhood who are trying to handle the situation, both on the ground in Bethlehem but also witnessing what’s happening to Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: Emily Jacir, we want to thank you for being with us, acclaimed artist and filmmaker, born in Bethlehem, goes back and forth between Bethlehem and New York, was scheduled to speak in Berlin, Germany, her talk canceled. And Samia Halaby, renowned Palestinian visual artist, activist, educator and scholar, whose first U.S. retrospective was abruptly canceled by Indiana University’s Eskenazi Museum of Art over her support for Palestinians and criticism of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.

When we come back, we’ll be joined by a German American Jewish Holocaust survivor. Samia is 87. Marione Ingram is 88. She’s been standing outside the White House for months calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. Her talks in her native Hamburg, which she fled from in the Holocaust, have been canceled. Stay with us.



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