Sheikh Jarrah and the Goethe Institute

Summary: the Goethe Institute’s decision to remove the young Sheikh Jarrah poet of resistance Mohammed el-Kurd from a panel discussion raises further questions about free speech and the ways it is silenced.

The Goethe Institute is a venerable cultural icon funded by the German government. It is named after the poet and thinker Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), author of the West-East Divan, a tome that delves deeply into Persian and Islamic culture and explores the intersections between the orient and the occident.

Mohammed el-Kurd is a young Palestinian poet whose debut book Rifka explores the struggle of Palestinians against Israeli occupation. Reviewing Rifka for Middle East Eye in 2021, Rebecca Ruth Gould has this to say:

Born in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of occupied East Jerusalem, Palestinian poet Mohammed El-Kurd rose to international fame amid this year’s Israeli assault on Gaza and East Jerusalem. Although his credentials as a writer and activist have long been known to followers of Palestinian politics, his debut collection, Rifqa, introduces us for the first time to a poet of global stature.

The poems are innovative in form, sound and content. Free verse and prose poetry alternate with poems in which words are spread across the page and positioned at odd angles to each other, as if to knock readers out of their comfort zones. 

Mohammed El Kurd
Palestinian poet and activist Mohammed Al-Kurd addressing a solidarity event at the United Nations, November, 2021 [photo credit: YouTube]
Gould writes of poetry that “simmers with anger and brilliance”: el-Kurd, along with his twin sister Mouna, is fighting to save his family’s home, and the homes of other Arab families in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah from being seized by Jewish settlers aided and abetted by the state of Israel. This is from a poem titled Bulldozers Undoing God:

In Jerusalem, every footstep is over a grave.

This was only love:
her skeleton is that of the tree’s
roots stitched into land into identity
separation is like

unmaking love
ungluing names to places
undoing God.

In an ironic East-West intersection – collision might be a better word – the young Palestinian poet, the Sheikh Jarrah activist has been barred by the cultural institute that bears the great German poet’s name.

This past weekend, el-Kurd should have been part of a conference on the impact of the far right on global discourse. He was asked to participate in a discussion on strategies that states use to deflect attention away from human rights abuses. Instead, days before the conference began he was dis-invited.

The Goethe Institute said that the reason was that “in previous posts on social media, he had made several comments about Israel in a way the Goethe-Institut does not find acceptable.” The institute did not say which posts offended but the Times of Israel proved helpful in that regard, noting that el-Kurd had tweeted  “#MasaferYatta Fuck Israel and fuck the genocidal death cult that is Zionism.” The article said he had been “accused of deploying antisemitic tropes in his poetry and social media.” It did not mention Sheikh Jarrah and el-Kurd’s fight to save his family ‘s home nor that hundreds of Palestinians are being menaced by the IDF on a daily basis in the West Bank enclave of Masafer Yatta.  That comes after a Supreme Court ruling in May that allows the army to use Masafer Yatta as a military training area.

The seizure of land by the military, like the seizure of houses in East Jerusalem, is well documented and is considered by critics clear evidence that Israel is an apartheid state. (For more on how the IDF treats Palestinian farmers see this recent Haaretz article “Israeli Army Bulldozes Palestinian Wheat Fields to Make Way for Tanks.”)

A further irony that Goethe would, perhaps, have found wryly amusing is that a little more than a year and a half ago the Institute was part of a campaign against a German Parliament resolution that declared support for the BDS movement to be antisemitic. The human rights advocate and former anti-apartheid advocate Adri Nieuwhof notes:

The December (2020) Weltoffenheit GG 5.3 Initiative from the heads of Germany’s major art and academic institutions – including The Goethe Institute, the Jewish Museum Hohenems, the Humboldt Forum and the Centre for Research on Anti-Semitism at the TU Berlin – saw Germany’s cultural elite enter the fray.

Under the initiative, the institutions united to warn of a toxic climate created by the anti-BDS resolution that hampers free speech.

Weltoffenheit roughly translates as world openness and GG 5.3 is a reference to the German constitution’s section about freedom of opinion in art and academia.

On learning of the decision to disinvite el-Kurd several of the invited panelists pulled out, among them the British author Mohammed Hanif who was scheduled to speak about the dynamics of right-wing structures:

While conducting a study on these structures around the world, the Goethe Institute should perhaps question itself. Can you really have such a debate after silencing a key witness like Mohammad El-Kurd?

The Goethe Institute decided to carry on with what it called a “reduced programme in order to give the topic the attention it deserves” while remaining otherwise tight-lipped about a decision that denies free speech and undercuts the values it claims to be built on.

In denying el-Kurd the right to speak the organisers either succumbed to outside pressure or to self-censorship. Or it may be that the Institute is acutely sensitive to the charge given that Goethe in his writings expressed antisemitic sentiments. Regardless, it was a supine response, one that Goethe would surely have bridled at. In Faust Part II, Act V he wrote: “He only earns his freedom and his life/ Who takes them every day by storm.” Lines that the Goethe Institute has forgotten but that describe so emphatically the poetry of Mohammed el-Kurd.

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Access provided by the Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford