Unwelcome Sound on Germany’s Stages: Musicians Who Boycott Israel

BERLIN — The Scottish rappers Young Fathers have earned critical praise for their blend of hip-hop, electronica and gospel. They won Britain’s prestigious Mercury Prize for album of the year…..

BERLIN — The Scottish rappers Young Fathers have earned critical praise for their blend of hip-hop, electronica and gospel. They won Britain’s prestigious Mercury Prize for album of the year. Their sweaty, uplifting shows are in demand across Europe.

But when an arts festival in Germany decided last month to drop the band from its bill, it set off a clamor that had nothing to do with the group’s music, and everything to do with the country’s post-World War II sensibilities.

Young Fathers openly support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, also known as B.D.S., which asks companies and people to avoid doing business with Israel in protest of its treatment of Palestinians. But in Germany, where calling for a boycott against the Jewish state carries deep historical associations with the Nazis, the movement is widely viewed as anti-Semitic.

As Germany struggles with increasing attacks on Jews and Israel is under pressure for killings of protesters along its border with Gaza, a growing clash over B.D.S. is spilling over into the cultural scene. It has divided art and music festivals that aim to foster cultural dialogue, and even sparked a feud between the mayor of Munich and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, who is a revered figure here.

B.D.S. is well known for sparking confrontations on college campuses in the United States and for compelling entertainers to pick sides. Now support from British artists is raising its profile in Germany, where it has struggled to gain traction.

Omar Barghouti, one of the founders of B.D.S., said in an email that the arts festival’s decision to disinvite Young Fathers — after first asking them to distance themselves from the B.D.S. movement — amounted to “censorship.”

That decision was reversed, after reactions from other performers showed how sensitive the issue had become.

Like many cultural events, the festival, the Ruhrtriennale, in the industrial Ruhr area of western Germany, receives government funding. And governments across Germany at several levels have denounced B.D.S.

Official support for Israel is a nonnegotiable position in postwar Germany. In 2016, the center-right party of Chancellor Angela Merkel passed a resolution declaring that “B.D.S. promotes anti-Semitism as anti-Zionism; but even dressed up for the 21st century, hate against Jews remains hate against Jews.”

Klaus Lederer, Berlin’s culture minister, who is from the far-left party Die Linke, said in an emailed statement that B.D.S. leaders spread “lies and sheer hatred.”

“Whoever does this must be called anti-Semitic and be prepared to handle our determined resistance,” he said.

B.D.S. disputes the accusation that it is anti-Semitic, saying that it is protesting Israeli policies, not the Jewish people. It notes that there are Jews among its followers.

But in Germany, calls to boycott Israel conjure up parallels to the nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses beginning in 1933, when Stars of David were scrawled on Jewish shop windows, said Prof. Stefanie Schüler-Springorum, director of the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism at Berlin’s Technical University.

“In Germany, a boycott is a difficult form of protest,” Professor Schüler-Springorum said. “Historically, it has a completely different resonance, as basically the Nazis’ first step against an ethnic minority. Therefore it is simply not acceptable.”

The Ruhrtriennale’s decision to invite Young Fathers in the first place was curious, as the group’s stance on Israel has long been public.

Last year, Young Fathers withdrew from Berlin’s Pop-Kultur festival after learning that the Israeli embassy in Germany was providing financial support for artists from Israel in its lineup. Several other acts soon pulled out for the same reason, foreshadowing what would happen when the Ruhrtriennale canceled the group’s appearance this year.

The announcement, on June 13, said that the festival did not consider the band, or criticism of Israeli policy, to be anti-Semitic. “However, the Ruhrtriennale distances itself in all forms from the B.D.S. movement and wishes to have absolutely no connection with the campaign,” the statement said.

Despite the delicate wording, half a dozen acts, including Lebanese artists, backed out of the festival, citing freedom of speech grounds.

Laurie Anderson, the American musician and artist, also threatened to pull out. “I have a big problem being part of a festival that asks artists to distance themselves from their beliefs and commitments — whatever they are,” Ms. Anderson said in an email.

Faced with the risk of losing a headline act like Ms. Anderson — and possibly others — the festival’s director, Stefanie Carp, did an about-face. On June 21, she announced that she had asked the Young Fathers to rejoin the lineup, “although I do not share their attitude to the B.D.S.”

“I believe that we need to allow the different perspectives and narratives,” Ms. Carp said in a statement posted on the festival’s website.

The band immediately rejected the offer, according to their manager, James Stanson, who said in a telephone interview that they felt uncomfortable returning to an event that had rejected them. In an earlier statement, the band said it was “wrong and deeply unfair” for a festival to “ask us to distance ourselves from our human rights principles in order for the appearance to go ahead.”

The band will not play any events in Germany that receive public funds for the foreseeable future, Mr. Stanson added, because of the risk of similar problems.

Indeed, conflict over B.D.S. has already begun to spread.

A festival in the northwestern city of Osnabrück rejected calls to bar a Syrian electronic music producer, Samer Eldahr, who performs as D.J. Hello Psychaleppo, by a protest group that said Mr. Eldahr supported B.D.S. In a statement released by the festival, Mr. Eldahr denied being a member of the movement. “To equate criticism of the policy of the state of Israel with anti-Semitism is simplistic and dangerous,” the festival director added.

Munich’s mayor, Dieter Reiter, is now sparring with Mr. Waters, of Pink Floyd, a vocal B.D.S. supporter who is admired here for his “The Wall” concert shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Dismayed by Mr. Waters’s recent show in Munich, Mr. Reiter published a statement on the city’s website criticizing him for remarks he had made in recent years. The mayor accused Mr. Waters of supporting “anti-Semitic boycott campaigns against Israel, fantasizing about an ‘extraordinarily powerful Jewish lobby’ ” and “drawing a parallel between the political situation in Israel and the unparalleled Nazi crimes against European Jews.”

Christian Schertz, an attorney for Mr. Waters, wrote the mayor asking that he take down the statement. “Our client has repeatedly and critically grappled with the politics of the state of Israel and has been advocating the observance of human rights for everybody for many years,” Mr. Schertz wrote. “At no time did he speak in a derogatory manner of people of the Jewish faith and would never make statements of that nature.” The mayor’s office said last week that it stands by Mr. Reiter’s comments.

In Berlin, several performers who support B.D.S. have said they will not participate in this year’s Pop-Kultur festival in August.

But so far no German act has withdrawn. Anton Teichmann, who runs a Berlin-based record label that has an act in the festival, said that German artists found it hard to speak publicly about the issue. Mr. Teichmann, 31, said that even if he did not like Israel’s government, he personally could not boycott it because of Germany’s history.

“Music is supposed to unite people,” he said in an email. “Unfortunately now it is about picking sides.”

Melissa Eddy reported from Berlin and Alex Marshall from London.