Interview | Ranjit Hoskote - “I grieve for the direction in which Germany is going”
The poet, art curator and cultural critic on the circumstances that led to his resignation from the Finding Committee for the 16th edition of Documenta
Why did you resign from the Finding Committee for the 16th edition of Documenta?
To many of us who work as artists, curators and theorists, Documenta has been far more than an arts festival and a cultural institution. Historically speaking, it has been a forum for debate—a forum which recognizes that there are no simple answers in the world of culture and politics. I was honoured to serve on the Finding Committee precisely because of my respect for Documenta’s historic openness and plurality, and its commitment to making room for disagreement and dissent. But critical expression is not possible when people are expected to subscribe to a dogma that cannot be critically examined. I was in the situation of a mediaeval heretic falsely charged and urged to recant from holding a view that I was not guilty of holding, namely “anti-Semitism”. This was insupportable, and the only honourable thing to do was to resign. So I resigned, while also questioning the dogma on the basis of which I was being accused.
An article in the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung accused you of anti-Semitism and sympathizing with the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against the Israeli State. How did you feel when you read these allegations, especially as someone with Viennese Jewish ancestors who experienced exile?
I was baffled, hurt and upset because the accusation is absurd. My regard for the Jewish people, their historic sufferings and their glorious achievements, is deep and strong. The exilic condition entails great melancholia but exiles craft a sense of home through their relationships and commitments by re-worlding themselves. People like myself, with a diasporic background, are sustained by our family histories but also define ourselves through forms of kinship beyond the ethnicity and religion that we were born into and the country of which we are citizens. As the planet hurtles towards catastrophe that will be collectively experienced, I am greatly surprised that human beings, or more precisely, their political representatives, can still make time for wars based on exclusionary labels of identity and mutually annihilatory claims to territory and resources.
Do you regret signing a 2019 petition against a discussion co-hosted by the Consulate General of Israel in Mumbai? Your signature on this petition circulated by the Indian Cultural Forum is being cited as evidence of your sympathy with the BDS movement.
As I have mentioned in my resignation letter, which is now available on www.e-flux.com, I did not author the petition. I signed it even though I did not agree fully with each and every word mentioned in it. When an urgency arises, and a coalition is to be established, people do set aside their sharp differences temporarily. Anyone who has signed a petition knows this. I do not regret signing the petition but I recognise that, when people draft petitions to make a forceful statement, rhetorical impulses tend to take precedence over a reasonable articulation of the issues at hand.
If I could go back in time, all I would suggest to the authors of the petition is that they consider employing a more ironic tonality. For instance, by underlining the incredible surrealism of the Consulate General of Israel privileging the figure of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar as part of a discussion on Zionism and Hindutva it was co-hosting. It is well-documented that Savarkar was a great admirer of Adolf Hitler and used to openly express his admiration for Nazi ideology and the Nazi government’s treatment of the Jewish people.
In the resignation letter, you mention that an expression of sympathy with the Palestinian people should not be misconstrued as an expression of support for Hamas. Why do people equate the two? Could you please explain the distinction as you see it?
People who make this false equivalence do not think carefully. I do not conflate the Jewish people with the Israeli State. Similarly, I do not conflate the Palestinian people with Hamas. I mourn the deaths of all innocent people, regardless of their nationality and their religion. The conflation of State and society is a dangerous and totalitarian proposition. States that kill innocent people and organizations that carry out terror attacks need to be held accountable but that does not mean stigmatizing or demonising an entire society – whether that society is Israeli or Palestinian.
What makes you disagree with the BDS movement?
I do not support any cultural, intellectual or academic boycott of Israel because that will close the opportunity for dialogue. It will weaken and isolate the Israeli left and liberal Israelis who are critical-minded, progressive and inclusive in the work they do and the questions they ask.
Why is it important that writers, artists and curators take a stand against war?
The arts flower in peace, and we cannot take peace for granted. It has to be cherished, nurtured and defended. We have to denounce war. We cannot be silent spectators to ideologies that thrive on belligerence. As someone whose close relatives have served in the armed forces for several generations, I have a fairly intimate sense of what going to war entails, the abidingly tragic and stoic dimensions of war. I feel enraged when civilians who have no stake and nothing to lose, glorify war and speak, with grotesque irresponsibility, of “nuking” the enemy.
What are the costs and consequences of speaking up?
When I was a child, my father, a Germanophile, taught me a sentence attributed to the Protestant theologian Martin Luther, who had been called upon to recant and fall in line with church dogma: Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders, Gott helfe mir. “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, so help me God!” In that spirit, I hope always to attend to the voice of my conscience. I will speak up when the principle at stake is far larger than me and involves far more than my private interest. Germany has been a spiritual home to me, and I genuinely grieve for the direction in which it is going. The German collective guilt for the mass murder of the Jewish people between 1941 and 1945 is now being instrumentalized by conservative forces in the country to fight a new target, a new Other – people of Muslim heritage. This is dire and dangerous cynicism, and can only pave the way for further polarisation, further strife, and the deeply deplorable triumph of hatreds of all kinds.
What kind of solidarity have you received after the resignation?
I have been blessed with lifelong friendships in the German-speaking world. Friends and colleagues from Germany, Austria and Switzerland have reached out with phone calls, emails and messages. These are people active in the arts and literature, journalism, academia, and in cultural institutions. Their solidarity has been affirming. I have been moved to the point of tears.
In your poem Monsoon Song, which is part of Icelight, you write, “Our wrists ached, the choked sap rose/ through our numb fingers./ Write all you know, the baobab said,/ on these sheets of rain.” Where does your conviction in the power of words come from?
As the Bible says, “In the beginning was the Word.” I truly believe that words are all we have as we contemplate the fate of nations and the shape of our future, and try to make sense of it. We need to create places for respectful, coherent communication where multiple perspectives can thrive.
How does the 14th-century Kashmiri mystic poet Lal Ded speak to you in such difficult moments?
She speaks to me very strongly. My translation of her poetry into English was published way back in 2011 but my engagement with her is not done and dusted. She is one of the great anchors of my life because her poetry was not just another project. It was a 20-year apprenticeship, a transformative spiritual experience. Let’s recall that the verse form in which Lalla (another name for Lal Ded) composed was called the vaakh “utterance”. We must safeguard the amplitude of creative utterance. We must ensure an atmosphere in which creative utterance can flourish and replenish us.
Ranjit Hoskote’s resignation letter can be read here.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.