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Israel statements spark Berlinale controversy

February 26, 2024

During the Berlin film festival's awards ceremony, many filmmakers denounced Israel over the bombing of Gaza. The remarks have now prompted accusations of antisemitism from German politicians.

People wearing a sign stating 'cease-fire now' on the Berlinale red carpet.
Onstage and on the red carpet, there were several calls for a cease-fire in GazaImage: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP

The Berlin International Film Festival takes pride in its political reputation, but allowing filmmakers to state their personal stances on the Israel-Hamas war at the closing awards ceremony on Saturday has now sparked controversy among German politicians and Israeli officials.

At the event, several filmmakers criticized Israel over its ongoing offensive in Gaza, which has killed nearly 30,000 people, mostly women and children, according to the enclave's Hamas-controlled health authority.

While different people called for a cease-fire in Gaza, perhaps the speech that prompted the strongest criticism from a number of German politicians came from US filmmaker Ben Russell, who accepted his award wearing the keffiyeh, a symbol of Palestinian solidarity.

Filmmakers Ben Russell and Guillaume Cailleau on stage, the one on the left wearing the keffiyeh.
Ben Russell (left) and Guillaume Cailleau received the Encounters Jury Prize for Best Film for their documentary, 'Direct Action'Image: Nicole Kubelka/Future Image/IMAGO

"Of course we also stand for life here and we stand against genocide and for a cease-fire in solidarity with all our comrades," said Russell, supported by cheers in the audience.

The filmmakers were also criticized for not referring to the role of Hamas in the conflict and the October 7 terror attacks, in which some 1,200 Israelis were killed and more than 240 people — among them women and children — were taken hostage by the militant Islamist group. Hamas is classified as a terrorist group by Israel, Germany, the US, the European Union and a number of other governments.

Israeli-Palestinian film on West Bank occupation wins top documentary award

Jerusalem-based Israeli filmmaker Yuval Abraham and his Palestinian colleague Basel Adra also made statements that came into the spotlight amid the controversy. On Saturday, they received in the name of their Israeli-Palestinian collective the Berlinale Documentary Award 2024 for their film "No Other Land."

"No Other Land" documents how the residents of Adra's village in the occupied West Bank, Masafer Yatta, have been fighting for years against the destruction of their homes by Israeli soldiers and Jewish armed settlers.

As they picked up the award, Adra said it was hard for him to celebrate while his compatriots in Gaza were being "slaughtered and massacred," and called on Germany "to respect the UN calls and stop sending weapons to Israel."

Yuval Abraham and Basel Adra on the red capet at the Berlinale, holding an award.
'I stand behind every word,' said Israeli filmmaker Yuval Abraham (right), who has faced death threats for his remarks on SaturdayImage: Cathrin Bach/IMAGO

Israeli journalist Abraham pointed out that even though they both stood as equals on stage, they would be returning in two days to a country where his Palestinian colleague would face institutionalized discrimination, without any voting rights and restricted in his movements based on his Palestinian licence plate. Abraham then called for an end to "this apartheid, this inequality."

Abraham said on the social media platform X that an Israeli channel had aired a 30-second segment of the speech and called it "antisemitic," and that he has since been receiving death threats.

German politicians criticize statements as 'antisemitic'

The filmmakers' statements were later condemned by Berlin Mayor Kai Wegner.

"What happened yesterday at the Berlinale was an unacceptable relativization. There is no place for antisemitism in Berlin, and that also applies to the arts," he wrote on X.

Ron Prosor, Israel's ambassador to Germany, strongly criticized "the so-called 'cultural elite.'"

"Once again, the German cultural scene showcases its bias by rolling out the red carpet exclusively for artists who promote the delegitimization of Israel," he wrote on X, adding that "antisemitic and anti-Israel discourse was met with applause."

'Dahomey' wins Golden Bear at Berlinale

A lawmaker from German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's Social Democratic party, Helge Lindh, described the audience's applause on Saturday as "shocking."

"I am ashamed to see that in my country people today applaud accusations of genocide against Israel," he told the daily Die Welt.

"Agitation against Israel and Jews at German cultural events has become an alarming regularity," said Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. "I expect those responsible for politics to finally provide clear positions and consequences for the promotion of culture." 

The Berlinale is supported by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the State of Berlin.

Meanwhile, Berlin Culture Minister Joe Chialo said the awards ceremony was "characterized by self-righteous anti-Israeli propaganda."

German government to investigate Israel criticism

Claudia Roth, federal commissioner for culture and the media, said Monday there will be an investigation into the onstage criticism of Israel's offensive of Gaza during the awards ceremony.

Roth said the investigation aims to determine whether the Berlinale lived up to its claim of being a place for diversity, different perspectives and dialogue.

Claudia Roth.
Roth said in a statement that the filmmakers were 'shockingly one-sided and characterized by a deep hatred of Israel'Image: Jens Kalaene/dpa/picture alliance

Roth also said she wanted to clarify "how it can be ensured in future that the Berlinale is a place that is free from hatred, hate speech, antisemitism, racism, hostility toward Muslims and all forms of misanthropy."

But Roth and Berlin Mayor Wegner have since found themselves in hot water over the ceremony. Top tabloid Bild carried a photo it said showed the pair applauding Adra's remarks after the Palestinian filmmaker received his award for "No Other Land."

'Apartheid,' 'genocide' seen as slurs by Israel

The International Court of Justice is currently holding hearings on the legal consequences of Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories, with South Africa accusing the Israeli government of an "extreme form of apartheid." It is a separate case from the one that led the world court to order Israel in January to "take all reasonable measures within their power to prevent genocide."

Israel, however, has rejected all accusations of genocide or apartheid, and has called such allegations an antisemitic slur, arguing that accusing the Jewish state of genocide would constitute a Holocaust relativization that would — just like the term "apartheid" — "demonize" Israel.

Artists denounce state-led restrictions

Among other reasons, due to its Nazi past, Germany sees it as its historic responsibility to support Israel.

Following the October 7 attacks and Israel's military response, Germany has canceled different exhibitions and funding for cultural events that included participants showing support for Palestinians or having said statements about the war that were deemed antisemitic.

Many artists have denounced the tense atmosphere in Germany, especially after Berlin attempted to implement a so-called anti-discrimination clause that would not allow anyone deemed to have made "antisemitic statements" to receive financial support from the city.

The clause would have followed the definition of antisemitism set out by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which is often criticized for labeling what others would see as legitimate criticism of Israel as "antisemitic." IHRA's definition includes "drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis" and "denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor."

Chialo, Berlin's culture minister, reversed his decision following the outcry, with thousands of culture workers criticizing the measure as a restriction on freedom of speech. He nevertheless noted that he would "continue to work for the non-discriminatory development of Berlin culture."

Berlinale now in the hot seat

On Sunday evening, the Berlinale distanced itself from the filmmakers' statements, emphasizing that they did not reflect the festival's position — but also pointed out that expressions of opinion at cultural events could and should not be prevented as a matter of principle.

Unlike the filmmakers, Berlinale managing director Mariette Rissenbeek had also addressed the situation of the Israeli victims at the gala and avoided using controversial terms as she called on Hamas to release all hostages and asked Israel to "do anything possible to avoid victims."

This year's festival is the last for Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian as the Berlinale's directorial duo. American Tricia Tuttle, who officially starts as the film festival's new director in April, is set to face a specifically German set of challenges.

Edited by: Sarah Hofmann and Martin Kuebler

Portrait of a young woman with red hair and glasses
Elizabeth Grenier Editor and reporter for DW Culture