Ranjit Hoskote resigns from Documenta 16 committee over anti-Semitism claims

The art show, rocked by similar concerns in 2022, is now in jeopardy over the Indian curator, critic and poet's alleged support of an anti-Israel boycott movement—which he denies

Indian curator, critic and poet Ranjit Hoskote shared an open letter before stepping down from the 6-member selection committee of Documenta 16, over antisemitism claims (photo: DW)
Indian curator, critic and poet Ranjit Hoskote shared an open letter before stepping down from the 6-member selection committee of Documenta 16, over antisemitism claims (photo: DW)

NH Political Bureau

Mumbai-based Indian curator, art critic and poet Ranjit Hoskote has stepped down from the six-member selection committee of the current edition of the international art exhibition Documenta 16—amidst charges of anti-Semitism rooted in concerns around his support for the BDS movement.

The Palestinian-led Boycott, Divest, Sanctions campaign is a global non-violent protest movement, modelled on several successful examples worldwide, including India's Quit India movement and the boycott movement against apartheid in South Africa. BDS promotes boycotts and economic sanctions against Israel "to end international support for Israel's oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law".

Earlier this month too, BDS released an updated list of entities that consumers might wish to boycott to create pressure to stop the violence in Gaza, citing these companies as "profiting from the genocide of Palestinian people"

BDS was designated anti-Semitic by the German parliament in 2019. In the same year, it has been claimed by German media sources, Hoskote had signed a BDS campaign letter that denounced Israel as an apartheid state.

The German minister of state for culture, Claudia Roth, denounced the BDS letter allegedly signed by Hoskote as "clearly anti-Semitic", in part because of its depiction of Israel as a 'settler-colonial apartheid state'.

But what is Hoskote's precise relationship to BDS? That's where things get murky, to the point of questionable.

Hoskote was appointed to the six-member selection committee to choose the artistic director of Documenta 16, to be held in 2027.

The Kassel-based art exhibition, held every five years, also had its 2022 edition face charges of anti-Semitism. The works of Ruangrupa, the Indonesian curators of last year's Documenta, gave rise to months of debate around depictions of alleged anti–Semitic cliches.

With both German media and its government bent on pillorying him, Hoskote has resigned from the Documenta committee on 12 November, but refuses to distance himself from the statement he signed — which seems of a rather different nature to what Roth claims — as demanded by Documenta managing director, Andreas Hoffmann.

The petition Hoskote refers to signing says nothing ant-Semitic, however, as claimed by the German media or government officials, according to Raghu Karnad, chief of bureau at the Wire, which carried an early report on Hoskote's resignation too. Karnad took to X to share a thread outlining the story as he sees it.

The petition was one circulated by the Indian Cultural Forum, as part of a campaign against a discussion hosted by the Israeli consulate general in Mumbai, relating Zionism to Hindutva!

Hoskote himself remains steadfast in his claim that criticism of Israel cannot be seen as anti-Semitic in and of itself, in any case.

My conscience does not permit me to accept this sweeping definition and these strictures on human empathy
I am being asked to accept a sweeping and untenable definition of anti-Semitism that conflates the Jewish people with the Israeli state; and that, correspondingly, misrepresents any expression of sympathy with the Palestinian people as support for Hamas
Ranjit Hoskote, regarding allegations of his anti-Semitic position

He also mentions the context of his signature on the petition letter relating to Zionism and Hindutva, and clearly disavows support for BDS, indeed saying that he "disagrees with it".

In his resignation letter, reproduced in full by e-flux.com, Hoskote takes a clear stand against 'cancel culture' and writes that he had "publicly spoken out against the intellectual and cultural boycott of Israel". He also expresses his "wish to restate" his "highest regard for the Jewish people" and his "deepest empathy with their historic sufferings and admiration for their glorious cultural achievements".

German govt questions Documenta subsidies

Culture minister Claudia Roth, in her criticism of the BDS letter that Hoskote had supposedly signed, also questioned the German federal government's financial involvement in Documenta.

Subsidies for the international art exhibition in Kassel, central Germany, will only be provided "if there is a joint plan and visible reform steps towards clear responsibilities, a genuine opportunity for the federal government to participate and standards to prevent antisemitism and discrimination", Roth said.

The federal government's contribution to Documenta 15 in 2022 amounted to € 3.5 million (US$ 3.8 million), while the two main shareholders — the city of Kassel and the state of Hesse — contributed € 21.5 million together.

Israeli artist who stepped down first

If the Finding committee is to return to its original size, Documenta will not only have to find a replacement for Hoskote, but for another member who stepped off a couple of days before him.

On 10 November, Israeli artist Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger also resigned from the committee, though her decision was not related to the debate surrounding Ranjit Hoskote.

Following the Hamas attacks on Israel on 7 October, Lichtenberg Ettinger said it was not possible for her to participate in the selection of the next artistic director after a failed request for the process to be slowed down in view of the situation in the Middle East. She had not been able to personally attend a meeting of the committee a few days after the Hamas attack due to cancelled flights in the region.

In her resignation letter, the artist described a feeling of being "paralysed under rockets" while attending a meeting via video.

"During our lunch and coffee breaks, just days after the Hamas massacre that started the tragic war, the details of the Hamas massacre of Israeli civilians, women and babies and the abduction of children, babies and civilians were broadcast on my screen," wrote Lichtenberg Ettinger.

However, Documenta managing director Andreas Hoffmann told German broadcaster Hessischer Rundfunk on Tuesday, 14 November, that a four-member committee may continue the selection process.

Support from art & culture stalwarts

Several Indian stalwarts on the cultural scene have come out and commented on the absurdity of the anti-Semitism charge against Hoskote, amongst them authors Amitav Ghosh and Hari Kunzru.

Hoskote himself shared the below tweet on the worth of writers, quoting Austrian-Jewish journalist and novelist Joseph Roth, the day after his resignation:

This story includes inputs from DW.

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