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The Shitstorm Serial Part 4: Pop Kultur and other Tempests

Did Israel really sponsor the indie festival Pop-Kultur? Why did Kate Tempest cancel her Volksbühne show? Part 4 of our series on Berlin identity skirmishes deals with how the Israel-Palestine conflict is playing out on our stages.

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Young Fathers (pictured here at Melt! Festival 2015) were among the eight acts to boycott Pop-Kultur. Photo by S. Bollmann

November’s all about identity politics and with that comes a series of shitstorms, homegrown right here in Berlin. Each week we’ll look at a new controversy over race, gender, sexuality or other identity matters from over the past year. This week: How the complexities of Israel-Germany-Palestine relations have been playing out on Berlin concert stages.

As an event funded by the Berlin government, the three-year-old Pop-Kultur was always going to be under more scrutiny than other indie music festivals. Neuköllners criticised last year’s edition for putting on concerts at local venues without including enough local artists; this year’s version, featuring 70 events and a diverse lineup of 100 acts at Prenzlauer Berg’s Kulturbrauerei, planned a panel to address that complaint. But another, more powerful shitstorm overshadowed it.

The culprit: €500 from the Israeli embassy, provided to Pop-Kultur to fund the travel costs for Israeli artist Riff Cohen. Israel had offered similar funding last year, and was one of multiple countries to do so. But this time, their logo on the Pop-Kultur website caught the attention of Mohammad Abu Hajar, of Berlin-based refugee rap group Mazzaj. The group dropped out of the festival a few weeks in advance. “We made the personal decision to not participate in a festival funded by an oppressive state,” went their statement. “Our decision wasn’t against any Israeli individuals, we are simply opposed to a state we believe promotes racism and oppression.”

Abu Hajar’s statement caught the attention of BDS (Boycott. Divestment. Sanctions.), a 12-year-old international Palestinian solidarity movement. The NGO had already made headlines this year for putting pressure on Radiohead to abandon a Tel Aviv concert, with an open letter from “Artists for Palestine” signed by Roger Waters and Thurston Moore, among others. Now, they sent emails to Pop-Kultur’s participating artists, calling for more bands to drop out in solidarity.

Eight acts, out of the 100 or so booked for the festival, heeded the call – the most well-known of which, Scottish group Young Fathers, had also signed the “Artist for Palestine” letter. As the cancellations mounted, the controversy blew up online, with heated comments from activists on both sides as well as the German and Israeli media, who Abu Hajar believes “were racist towards the boycotting artists by accusing us of anti-Semitism and defined us by our Arab-ness.” Meanwhile the festival released a statement deploring the pressure put on “many artists or their agents to boycott the festival”.

No protests appeared to take place at the festival itself, which went ahead undeterred. But this wasn’t the end of the story. The pendulum swung in the other direction as cultural senator Klaus Lederer and pro-Israel groups such as the American Simon Wiesenthal Center called Berlin mayor Michael Müller out for his failure to properly condemn BDS. The latter even threatened to put Müller’s silence on their list of the year’s “10 worst cases of anti-Semitic activity” – despite the fact that many Jewish groups, such as Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East and the recently formed Jewish Antifa Berlin, had been on the boycotters’ side. Müller eventually followed Frankfurt and Munich’s mayor’s suit in “cutting funding of any pro-BDS-related projects” in response.

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Kate Tempest had planned a Berlin show in October before cancelling due to pressure from BDS. Photo by Jenny McCambridge

The atmosphere of hostility didn’t let up after that: shortly after Pop-Kultur ended, Kate Tempest – a British poet and musician of Jewish heritage who also supports BDS – cancelled her planned performance with an orchestra and choir at Berlin’s Volksbühne due to receiving online accusations of anti-Semitism and “threats of violence should the event take place”. Mordechai Lev, a Jewish Antifa member who spoke out in support of Tempest, summarised: “It is almost always artists and musicians with a migration background, Jews or guests from abroad that are confronted with the aggressive silencing campaign run by Israel supporters. There is something bizarre about Germans trying to tell Jews and Palestinians what they are allowed to say about the conflict.”