I have not had a chance to visit Documenta and thus did not get to see in person “People’s Justice,” the controversial artwork by the Indonesian collective Taring Padi that was unveiled after the festival’s preview and then taken down following a storm of protest. The massive (12×7 meter), twenty-year old banner was found to have two images that many observers considered antisemitic: a storm-trooper figure with a Star of David on his scarf and “Mossad” written on his helmet; and a crude caricature of an orthodox Jew with “SS” written on his hat.* The discovery of the “Jewish” figures on the banner led to a crisis for Documenta and for ruangrupa, the Indonesian collective that has served as the curators for the fifteenth edition of the festival, which takes place every five years in Kassel, Germany. Documenta, ruangrupa, and the Palestinian artists it had invited to Documenta, such as the collective The Question of Funding, had already been under the microscope because of accusations of antisemitism in the months leading up to the festival. These accusations involved, above all, proximity to the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS)—which has been classified as antisemitic by a consequential, but not legally binding 2019 resolution of the German Bundestag—and association with a Ramallah-based cultural center named after Khalil Sakakini, a Palestinian poet and scholar who died in 1953. Although the source of the accusations should have raised suspicions of its own—given its clearly partisan position as an uncritical cheerleader for Israel—it was given legitimacy by journalists writing for Die Zeit, Die Welt, and other papers.
The accusations leading up to the opening of Documenta revolved almost entirely around the question of Palestinian resistance. After the opening, some Palestine-related works received scrutiny, including Mohammed Al Hawajri’s “Guernica Gaza” paintings and Palestine-solidarity films associated with the Japanese Red Army. But when the most dramatic “confirmation” for the suspicion of antisemitism emerged in the form of “People’s Justice,” it did not involve a work that focused on Palestinian liberation at all. Nevertheless, and unsurprisingly, the climate of accusation escalated quickly. Those who were already on the lookout for antisemitism accelerated their campaign by calling for the resignation of key figures at Documenta and in the Ministry of Culture; the cutting of funding to the festival; and the installation of greater state oversight over artistic expression. Meanwhile, those who had been defending Documenta and ruangrupa understandably felt betrayed. Supporters of ruangrupa have struggled to respond to the turn of events: they have condemned antisemitism but also sought to prevent stigmatization of the entire exhibition, which displays the work of approximately 1,500 artists from around the world. It is already clear that the impact of the controversy will be drastic and long-lasting both for the art world and for the public sphere in Germany.
My aim here is neither to defend nor attack Documenta, ruangrupa, or Taring Padi, but to use the serious occasion of recent events to contribute to a different type of discussion. Now that Taring Padi’s work has been dismantled, I want to consider what possibility still exists for addressing the issues regarding antisemitism, art, Israel, and the public sphere that have been raised over the past months and during the recent tumultuous weeks. What can still be said, I wonder, especially by the great majority of us who have a strong interest in these issues, but were not in Kassel in the days before the veiling and dismantling of “People’s Justice”? Or by those of us who are not equally expert in German, Indonesian, and Middle Eastern history, in the history and theory of antisemitism, and in the history of art—to name just some of the relevant contexts? Our inability to make any kind of definitive statement about the case does not prevent us from reflecting on what has happened. Indeed, I’d like to argue that it is precisely because there is no possibility of having the “right” response to the scandal that we might be able to start a new dialogue about art, antisemitism, and Israel in the German context. In other words, I’m suggesting that the enforced humility of not having all of the necessary evidence for definitive judgments opens a needed space of potential dialogue and an opportunity to unlearn what we think we know. However tentative, this process of unlearning allows us to glimpse just how entangled histories of racism, colonialism, antisemitism, and genocide are—often in unexpected and contradictory ways.
As a contribution to such a dialogue I want to make some suggestions about how one might approach the work formally; bring in certain examples of historical evidence that might be relevant (but might not); and, ultimately, try to model an alternative to the scandal-mongering that has accompanied Documenta in recent months. The point is not to provide definitive answers, but also not to forgo judgment altogether. I offer contingent hypotheses that can be tested—affirmed or refuted—if more evidence emerges and can be parried by those who approach from different angles. The key point, however, is to be transparent and forthright about the presuppositions we bring to the controversy and the kinds of evidence on which judgements can be built. As a literary and cultural critic and scholar, I am interested both in questions of form and in the contexts in which we receive and debate cultural productions; all of these matters are relevant here.
Let’s start with form. At the heart of the Taring Padi controversy are formal matters: specifically, the question of what makes a representation antisemitic. All my comments on form are tentative because they are based on an imperfect and partial viewing of the work through selected photos that have circulated in the news and on social media. It is of course precisely in such imperfect conditions that almost all judgments by politicians, journalists, and others have been made about Taring Padi’s work. But these are the conditions in which we find ourselves. My point is that we should admit this partiality and work through it.
Although my comments are thus necessarily subject to revision if and when better evidence is presented, I think we still have an obligation to begin here, with Taring Padi’s work itself. The banner as a whole includes three distinct subsections: on the right is an idealized and pastoral depiction of counter-globalization protesters; in the center, under a tribunal of “people’s” judges, is a sober black-and-white depiction of the massive violence of 1965; and on the left side, where the two “Jewish” images are found, are grouped various forces of contemporary violence and exploitation, with Suharto himself looking down from a kind of throne in the top left corner.
We can start by observing, first, that in the face of the multiplicity of images depicted in “People’s Justice” most discussions have focused on the two “Jewish” images and, second, that those two images are quite different from each other. One image seems to invoke familiar antisemitic stereotypes directly (the orthodox man with fangs, sidelocks, and a cigar; the reference to a Jew as a Nazi, etc.); the other image does not obviously do so, though it includes two symbols associated with Jewishness—the Star of David and the word “Mossad”—and some have taken the figure to possess the face of a pig, an animal that is, in fact, ubiquitous in Taring Padi’s work. The star has an ambiguous reference in this context: while it is clearly linked to Jewish identity, it is also a symbol of the State of Israel, an association that is confirmed by the reference to the Mossad, which is more properly termed Israeli than Jewish.
Making sense of these individual images requires placing them in the larger visual context of the banner. In the case of the Mossad image, this is particularly striking. The Mossad figure is clearly one of a series of nearly identical military figures with largely similar faces and uniforms; the primary difference between the figures lies in the inscription on the helmet (as well as the scarf): in place of “Mossad” the other figures have inscriptions that read “007,” “KGB,” “Intel,” and the like. The insertion of the Mossad figure into this series thus seems to have little to do with singling out Jews or even to do with Jewishness at all. The series appears rather as a commentary on covert intelligence operations by a series of Western states (while the inclusion of “007” may gesture at the satirical nature of the work as a whole). Given the overall context of the work—which Taring Padi describes as a response to the three-decade long military regime in Indonesia and the way it was propped up by Western powers—it seems fair to say that the target of this particular image is Israel, not Jews, and that Israel is not treated as exceptional but rather as part of a large cohort of powers. The question of why Israel might be targeted along with these other agencies is not necessarily clear from the work itself, but we will return to this question below.
Locating the “SS” figure in the larger context of the banner is also telling: this figure’s proximity to other figures is as significant as in the Mossad case and cuts in precisely the opposite direction. Here we see the stereotypically Jewish figure juxtaposed with various monstrous and barely human creatures. His positioning just alongside three other demonic, zombie-like creatures with similar fangs in fact does a lot to suggest the antisemitic tenor of this image—even if, again, it’s not clear whether “the Jew” is being isolated as a particular form of evil or, rather, shown as part of a cohort. Yet, even if the Jewish figure is not singled out, the context is very different from the Mossad image and amounts, in the specificity of its features, to a particularly virulent antisemitic representation. In the aftermath of the scandal, Taring Padi released a statement that suggested that the work “tries to capture the complex historical circumstances [of the Suharto regime] through a visual language this is at once as disturbing as the reality of violence itself.” The visual language is disturbing, but the deployment of antisemitic imagery undermines the group’s effort. As Eyal Weizman put it in comments during the Berlin Biennial (at at 2:22:35) and as antisemitism scholar Michael Höttemann also argued in his analysis of the image—the banner uses stereotypes to simplify and give form to complex and intangible political forces, a classic antisemitic reduction.
In contrast to the Mossad figure, then, this image strikes me as fully indebted to repertoires of antisemitic iconography. But even here where we have found an unmistakable antisemitic representation, we still need to push further in reading the image. Which repertoires of antisemitic imagery have made it into the work and how? There are clear links to a European antisemitic tradition as well as direct reference to National Socialism. But it seems possible, even likely, that that European image repertoire overlaps here with more local sources. A colleague who is a historian of Indonesia remarked in a personal communication that jagged teeth, red eyes, and even pig faces, among other elements of the banner, are generalized symbols of evil that derive from Javanese shadow puppetry, which predates Nazism by centuries. Thus, it appears that the most disturbing of the images represents a mixture of imported European and “domestic” visual languages. Such an insight—if true—would not “relativize” or minimize the antisemitic dimensions of the image in the least, but would pose new questions about what such a syncretic form might tell us about the banner’s antisemitic expression and potentially about the Indonesian context from which it derives.
It is also worth remarking that the banner includes other repertoires of disturbing imagery that did not become scandalized in the controversy—a fact that is itself telling. For instance, just below the “SS” figure, we find a racist depiction of an animalistic Black American soldier holding his large penis and urinating or ejaculating on the graves of what are apparently meant to be those stigmatized by the United States as “terrorists.” The presence of quite evident anti-Black racism has not been at the forefront of the Documenta controversy and yet here we seem to have another example of how European and extra-European racist visual languages circulate and converge. As we survey the many disturbing images included on the banner we cannot avoid the conclusion that Taring Padi is deliberately working with stereotypes and the grotesque — a conclusion that is confirmed when we take into account the group’s larger oeuvre. This does not give them a free pass with respect to antisemitism or racism, but it does show the importance of locating particular images within the larger visual language of the work: a work that is dedicated, as its central panel depicting the 1965 massacres suggests, to confronting a history and legacy of mass violence. While Höttemann seems to understand the composition of the banner as a whole as structured by a binary worldview that is representative of modern antisemitism, I see the work as a flawed attempt to come to terms with a history of extreme political violence that has already unfolded in Indonesia and with a capitalist global order that continues to produce human and environmental catastrophes. Far from singling out Jews as the driving force of these events, the banner highlights multiple causal elements, including corporations, nation-states (above all the US and the United Kingdom in addition to Suharto’s dictatorship), capitalist commodification, and international institutions such as the World Bank. What the “SS” image shares with that of the Black soldier is that they both use racist visual shortcuts to grapple with complex questions of causality and political responsibility.
As important as form is, a purely formal reading of the images cannot tell us everything we need to know to make sense of “People’s Justice.” Indeed, as I read them, all of these troubling images point outwards, beyond the banner, toward global political and cultural contexts. The riddle of the syncretic form of the antisemitic iconography of the “SS” image probably has many potential solutions, but one interesting approach would be to investigate the circulation of European antisemitism in Southeast Asia. My colleague Dirk Moses drew my attention to the work of the late UC Berkeley historian of Indonesia Jeffrey Hadler who argues that the “antisemitism one encounters [in Indonesia] is entirely European in origin, brought to Indonesia in the colonial period and during the Japanese occupation.”1 As Hadler and others also note, a mixture of anti-Jewish and anti-Chinese racisms also emerges from this colonial history. Even more directly relevant to the Documenta debate, there is a direct German connection: Hadler draws attention to the active presence of German Nazis in Indonesia in the 1930s and the support they received from many Dutch colonists. The Dutch Nazi Party, founded in Indonesia in 1934 even “funneled plantation money back to pro-Nazi organisations in the Netherlands.”2 During the Japanese occupation of Indonesia in World War II, the “Gestapo was apoplectic” when it learned that Jews had been spared from being jailed with other foreign nationals “and ordered the immediate arrest of all Jews.”3 The Indonesian case thus offers an unexpected context for thinking about the overlap between the Holocaust and colonialism, a controversial proposition that has been debated in the German public sphere over the last two years.
The interest of such a history in the context of the Documenta controversy in particular is that it complicates one of the truisms of recent German discourse on antisemitism—that it’s a problem of Muslims—and that it could thus help make the discussion more reflexive. The displacement of antisemitism onto Muslims was indeed a large part of the discourse in the run-up to the festival: ruangrupa was always already suspect because they came from a Muslim country. An activist even projected images onto buildings in Kassel that associated the Indonesian collective with the Nazi persecution of Jews—a clear case of “relativization” of the Holocaust that seemed to upset exactly none of the usual German anti-antisemitism watchdogs. Without discounting the reality of antisemitism in Muslim contexts (including in Indonesia), both the syncretic formal features of the antisemitic imagery and the way they suggest a longer history of cultural and political exchange between Europe and Southeast Asia ought to inspire a more multidirectional consideration of intersecting colonial, racial, and religious ideologies. As Weizman put it in his remarks, the presence of this image at Documenta exemplifies a kind of “boomerang” effect whereby a paradigm developed in Europe circulates to a European colony and then returns—in altered form—to Europe itself. The (naturally imperfect) metaphor of the boomerang appears to be a reference to the work of Hannah Arendt and Aimé Césaire, who sought to describe how Nazi violence itself constituted a return to the continent of racist worldviews and forms of violence that Europeans had developed in or exported to the colonies.
If it seems plausible that the antisemitic imagery in “People’s Justice” has multiple sources, that still does not answer the question of why it appears in the banner. Here other contextual features need to be considered, and the “Mossad” image provides a good starting point for that because it too refers to a material historical context. As +972 Magazine reported in 2019 based on recently released Israeli classified documents, the Mossad had long standing ties to the Suharto military regime, which ruled from 1967-1998. Indeed, despite being immediately aware that Suharto was responsible for the extermination of several hundred thousand Indonesians accused of being “Communists,” the Mossad did not hesitate to cooperate with the new regime, which it preferred to Suharto’s leftist predecessor Sukarno. In other words, the reference to the Mossad in Taring Padi’s banner should not come as a shock. The history of Israeli complicity in the military regime—which had only been removed from power four years before the banner was created—does not mean the Mossad image could not still be antisemitic; yet, as I’ve suggested already, its presence in a series of similar images marked with the names of other intelligence services that also helped prop up Suharto suggests to me that that particular image does not descend into antisemitic vilification, but remains within the “acceptable” bounds of political critique and satire.
To repeat my initial point: my goal is not to provide definitive analysis of Taring Padi’s banner, which I have not had a chance to view in adequate circumstances, but rather to suggest potential avenues for a richer and more complex discussion of the issues the controversy raises. Nowhere is such discussion more urgently needed than in Germany. As a New York Times columnist recently put it in his largely positive review of the Documenta exhibition, Germany’s “national Holocaust shame” and the “sharply pro-Israel position” that derives from it may “occlude[e] legitimate Palestinian perspectives.” It also, I would add, tends to distort discussion of antisemitism and its relation to colonialism and other racisms—relations, we have seen, that also leave traces in Taring Padi’s banner.
The German context is not the “ultimate” context of the Documenta controversy; to declare it so would be to repeat German provincialism instead of trying to break out of it, which is one of the goals of fostering conversation on these issues. Yet, the contemporary German context is unavoidable and adds additional layers to the entangled histories hinted at above. That German context includes, naturally, the sensitivities to antisemitism that define the post-Holocaust Federal Republic: display of antisemitic imagery should be a problem anywhere (and it’s surely significant that that was not the case in previous showings of “People’s Justice”), but it would be absurd to say that it doesn’t have a particular explosiveness in Germany. Yet simply reaffirming a “special” German sensitivity to antisemitism is inadequate as a response to an event like the Documenta controversy. For one thing, it would miss the irony that the top German court ruled one week before Documenta that a medieval antisemitic religious sculpture—Wittenberg’s “Judensau”—could not be taken down; and that Documenta itself was organized by many former Nazis in its early years, as the German Historical Museum revealed just months ago. Germany cannot stop discussion at its self-proclaimed discursive borders or pretend that antisemitism is only the problem of others. Nor, of course, can Indonesian collectives declare themselves immune from German sensitivities either—a position that was hinted at in some of the earliest responses by Documenta and ruangrupa, but was ultimately and rightly abandoned.
Thus far, Germany’s guardians of “anti-antisemitism” have largely taken the opportunity of a disturbing image in a twenty-year old work of political art created in a radically different context to instrumentalize accusations of antisemitism and confirm their own prejudices about the Global South and “postcolonialism” (one of the vaguest and most distorted epithets in contemporary Germany). Through a critical, but brief and deliberately tentative analysis of “People’s Justice,” I have tried to suggest that the German public sphere could instead play host to an honest and open-ended discussion without borders about issues that affect everyone—about antisemitism and racism, about art and propaganda, about colonialism and genocide, about Israel and Palestine. What the “People’s Justice” controversy reveals—if one takes the time to read the images and historical traces that are registered in the artwork—is a world far more interconnected and porous than German commentators would like to assert. For me, the case of Taring Padi suggests that we need to unlearn our certainty, our moral superiority, and our presumed innocence in order to learn anew about the entangled histories that implicate us in the larger dynamics of race, antisemitism, colonialism, and genocide—histories that have made us all who we are. Perhaps those processes of learning and unlearning could represent a small, but necessary step toward a true people’s justice. As we survey the many disturbing images included on the banner we cannot avoid the conclusion that Taring Padi is deliberately working with stereotypes and the grotesque—a conclusion that is confirmed when we take into account the group’s larger oeuvre.
Michael Rothberg is Chair of the Department of Comparative Literature, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, and the 1939 Society Samuel Goetz Chair in Holocaust Studies at University of California, Los Angeles
* We have opted not to reproduce the specific images under debate. The full panel may be viewed via the following link.