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Berlin ditches 'anti-discrimination' clause after backlash

Berlin ditches clause tying arts funding to endorsement of IHRA anti-semitism definition
3 min read
24 January, 2024
The Berlin senate has reversed its cultural funding policy tied to an 'anti-discrimination clause', responding to strong opposition from artists.
Berlin's culture senator Joe Chialo introduced a new anti-discrimination clause last month [Getty]

The Berlin senate has abandoned a policy that tied funding for cultural institutions and projects to the signing of an "anti-discrimination clause" just over a month after its introduction, following strong backlash from artists.

Last month, Berlin's culture senator, Joe Chialo, introduced a new anti-discrimination clause which required beneficiaries of funding to explicitly express their support for a "diverse society" and to vehemently oppose "all manifestations of anti-semitism", as defined by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance [IHRA].

"I must take the legal and critical voices that saw this clause as a restriction on the freedom of art seriously," Chialo said in a statement. "Let there be no doubt: I will continue to fight for a Berlin cultural scene that is free of discrimination".

Chialo said the senate for the German capital city plans to hold talks with cultural workers and institutions in the coming months to find a "unanimous ruling".

Almost 6,000 artists, including Wolfgang Tillmans, Agnieszka Polska and Candice Breitz, had signed an open letter "for the preservation of the freedom of art and the freedom of expression".

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In the letter, they protested the senate’s use of the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism, which they said was a subject of "controversial debate", and said its inclusion in funding agreements represented "an absolute exception, a differentiation that does not exist for any other form of discrimination".

The IHRA definition - adopted by most Western countries - says that "anti-semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities."

The definition includes the targeting of Israel as an example of anti-semitism, saying the state must be conceived as "a Jewish collectivity".

In their letter, the Berlin artists and cultural workers expressed fear that subscribing to the IHRA definition would "only serve to create an administrative basis for disinviting and cancelling events with cultural workers who are critical of Israel".

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"This also affects Jewish cultural workers in Germany who show solidarity with Palestine, who advocate for dialogue and peace-oriented solutions, and who are confronted with accusations of antisemitism by non-Jewish Germans," they said, describing the situation as "shameful and absurd".

Israel's onslaught on the besieged Gaza Strip, which has killed over 25,400 Palestinians - mostly women and children - has brought to the forefront debates on freedom of expression in Germany, with several arts institutions cancelling exhibitions due to expressions made by featured artists - particularly on social media - that were deemed "anti-semitic". 

In November, the left-wing institution Oyoun saw its funding withdrawn after it refused to cancel an event involving the anti-Zionist organisation Jewish Voice. Oyoun is fighting the decision in court.