This is a German phenomenon”: how the Israel-Gaza conflict ruptured Berlin’s music and art scene

Photo by Sean Gallup / Getty Images

The city’s world-renowned clubs and galleries attract liberal-minded young people from all over the world. So why are pro-Palestine artists choosing to boycott them?

From her apartment above Sonnenallee in Berlin’s Neukölln neighbourhood, Louna Sbou witnessed the suppression of several pro-Palestinian protests by the police, who claimed the demonstrations posed too high a risk of inciting antisemitic speech or acts. The police presence was intense,” says Sbou, a 37-year-old curator and mentor. It was absolutely over the top. I felt very unsafe.”

Although she hasn’t been physically harmed for showing solidarity with Palestine, Sbou’s livelihood is now at risk. Sbou, a queer Muslim and the daughter of Moroccan-Amazigh migrants, is the director of Oyoun, a radical cultural centre which produces music, art and discussion events centring queer, feminist and migrant voices. In December last year, Oyoun – which supported a staff of 32 workers and ran 600 events a year – was forced to close after the Berlin senate withdrew its funding.

According to Sbou, Oyoun’s funding was withdrawn due to a disagreement over an event in November which had been planned as the 20th anniversary celebration for Jewish Voice for Peace, an organisation critical of the Israeli’s government’s Zionist policies. Oyoun decided to turn the event into a vigil for the 7th October attacks, in which 1200 Israelis were killed and at least 240 taken hostage, as well as the escalating conflict in Gaza. Echoing the traditional Jewish mourning ritual known as shiva”, the event involved music, food and speeches. According to Sbou, Berlin’s senate advised Oyoun to cancel the event, citing hidden antisemitism”.

They said: If you host the Jewish Voice for Peace at Oyoun, you’re no longer a safe space for Jews,’” she tells me.

Oyoun went ahead with the event anyway. Sbou was motivated to create a space for diverse perspectives and discourse (she later told Resident Advisor that Jews, Palestinians, Israelis and Germans were in attendance). But less than three weeks after the vigil, Oyoun found out their state funding of €1 million per year was being cut. When the senate’s allegations of hidden antisemitism” could not be substantiated, they instead claimed that funding expires at regular intervals. Sbou disputes this, claiming that the senate offered them a legally-binding commitment of funding until December 2025, so they are in breach of contract. Oyoun is currently litigating against the senate to argue its case.

Sbou believes the senate is making an example of Oyoun, to frighten other culture workers who may offer a perspective on Gaza that challenges the German state’s unwavering support for Israel.

This is a German phenomenon,” Sbou says. Either you express loud, outspoken solidarity and unconditional support for the state of Israel – not Jewish life, but the state of Israel – or you should remain silent. These are the only two options in the arts and culture world.”

In the electronic music scene, you can talk about many subjects – racism, sexism, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights – but the Palestinian cause is not one of them… It’s an exception to Berlin’s freedom culture”

Arabian Panther

Tensions over the Israeli-Palestine conflict have been simmering in Berlin’s art and music scenes for many years, but they reached boiling point following 7th October. Communities have been torn apart and friendships shattered. The tenor of conversation on social media often resembles a vicious culture war, replete with death threats and calls for individuals and institutions to be boycotted.

In recent months, artists voicing support for Palestine have been silenced and literally cancelled, their invitations to appear in concerts and exhibitions withdrawn. Berlin’s nightlife economy is afforded a rare degree of support by the state, which treats clubbing as an art form like theatre or opera, and many artists who are financially dependent on the state are afraid to voice political opinions, fearing that they might lose their income. There are even concerns they could lose their right to live in Germany. It was very difficult to get interviewees to contribute for this article – out of the 20 people involved in the scene contacted for comment, only five agreed to speak on the record.

In most Western countries, artistic communities tend to be left-aligned and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. So why is Germany – which is believed to have the biggest Palestinian diaspora in Europe – so different?

Germany was divided after World War II. The West was allied to the USA and other western nations, while the East was allied to the Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union started to crumble, Germany began the reunification process, which culminated in 1991. United once more, the nation sought a new national identity to unify its citizens and reclaim its position on the world stage. Part of this new identity was the concept of Erinnerungskultur or memory culture”, a commitment to continuously reckoning with the history of the Holocaust, in which six millions Jews were murdered. Germany’s staunch support for Israel increased following the 2006 election of former chancellor Angela Merkel, who when addressing Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, in 2008, said that Israel’s security is part of Germany’s reason of state.” This policy continues today – one month after the 7th October attack, Reuters reported that German military exports to Israel in 2023 had increased tenfold since the previous year.

In a detailed podcast about German views on anti-semitism and Palestine, the researcher Emily Dische-Becker said that memory culture has become a way for the German state to identify itself as post-perpetrator and make that a part of its identity as a state that had dealt with its crimes.” She argues that continuing to support Israel has enabled Germany to believe that it has moved on from its violent history. Therefore any arguments that threaten this narrative – for example suggesting that Palestinian civilians are suffering disproportionately at the hands of the Israeli government, and so Germany should not give the state of Israel unconditional support – threaten one of the core ideologies underpinning the German state.

Concerns of rising antisemitism in Germany are far from baseless. Following 7th October, molotov cocktails were thrown at a synagogue in Berlin, while the Star of David was found painted on a number of buildings where Jewish people live, an intimidation tactic reminiscent of the Nazi era. The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a far-right political party whose members have repeatedly been accused of antisemitism, is currently polling in second place across Germany. Perhaps surprisingly, the AfD themselves are also vocal about fighting antisemitism. Critics argue that this is simply a veil to disguise attacks on Germany’s migrant and Muslim population, particularly in propagating a popular – and incorrect – theory in Germany that antisemitism is imported into the country by migrant communities.

With so many accusations of antisemitism being aimed at those who criticise the actions of the Israeli state or express solidarity with Gaza – where approximately 30,000 people have been killed and almost 2 million displaced by the Israeli army – a stable definition of antisemitism is needed. In Germany, however, the definition has been hotly contested.

In December 2023, the Berlin Senate discussed the introduction of a new anti-discrimination clause, which would make all state funding dependent on its recipients denouncing any form of antisemitism according to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition. This has attracted harsh criticism for being so broad that it could be used to stifle legitimate criticism of the Israeli government’s actions. Following protests, a month later, the clause was retracted for the reason that it was not legally secure”.

But the senate’s decision to drop the clause doesn’t mean that it won’t continue to shape the country’s cultural landscape. A 2019 resolution in the German parliament, which deemed the Palestinian-led boycott movement BDS antisemitic, was not legally binding but proved influential nonetheless – support for BDS has often been cited as the main reason artists have been disinvited from performing at German events in recent years.

Club spaces have, at times, provided a refuge for marginalised communities and radical thought, but most of Berlin’s clubs today do not exhibit the sympathy with the Palestinian cause that might be expected in international left-wing circles.

In the electronic music scene, you can talk about many subjects – racism, sexism, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights – but the Palestinian cause is not one of them,” argues French-Lebanese artist Arabian Panther. It’s an exception to Berlin’s freedom culture.”

In December this year, Arabian Panther was scheduled to perform his first gig at Berghain – a milestone booking for most dance music artists. But on 12th January, Arabian Panther, who always wears a keffiyeh when he performs to draw attention to the Palestinian struggle, shared a statement accusing Berghain of cancelling his booking due to his pro-Palestinian stance. He claimed that Berghain also decided to cancel the entire event so as not to seem like they were censoring one artist’s political expression. Berghain did not respond to a request to comment for this article. However, Resident Advisor has noted that the club has hosted several voices who vocally support Palestine since 7th October.

It’s such a farce that this so-called temple of freedom’ cancelled me,” Arabian Panther says over a video call. He reports receiving online harassment and death threats after publishing his statement. I don’t think I’ll ever play in Berlin again,” he added. In response to stories of pro-Palestine artists being censored in Berlin, a number of international acts have pulled out of performing in the city as an act of solidarity. A notable example was dweller, an NYC festival for Black electronic artists which hosted an event at Berghain in 2023, announcing that they will not be hosting a Berlin edition in 2024.

The fierce division in Berlin’s club scene over the Israel-Palestine conflict is partially due to an ideological clash between the different communities living in the city. On the one hand, there is the group of mostly white Germans who were taught by German schools and media about the paramount importance of memory culture and support for the Israeli state. This includes the political group known as the antideutsche, which has members involved with the prominent Berlin club :/​/​aboutblank, and is aligned with many radical left-wing values while also being virulently pro-Israel and pro-USA. On the other is a large expat community of artists, drawn to the city by the promise of cheap rent, funding for the arts and widespread passion for electronic music, who are often sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Both sides regard the other with suspicion and confusion on the subject of Palestine.

But there are many PoC artists and organisers who feel that Berlin was never a utopia – or even a safe space – for them in the first place. Jessika Khazrik is a musician, technologist and organiser who founded AATMA, an alliance whose manifesto promotes the use of club spaces as emancipatory political sites for discourse, solidarity and free association.” Khazrik moved to Berlin from Beirut due to political repression, but she says the anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab sentiment in the city’s culture had been making her reconsider whether she wanted to live in the city, even before 7th October. Now, whenever I meet friends, the question of leaving Berlin collectively comes in. Yet in this racist border regime that we need to abolish, not everyone has, yet, the freedom to move,” she says.

The level of discourse on social media around the Berlin scene’s reactions to Israel-Gaza has become particularly vicious. In November, the DJ livestream platform Hör, the city’s answer to Boiler Room, became embroiled in a controversy surrounding artists who were asked to remove clothing which, in the words of Hör, could be perceived as offensive and calling for the eradication of Israel.” This led to calls to boycott the station for their perceived censorship of artists’ solidarity with Palestine, and several musicians called for their sets to be removed from the archives. Hör apologised, stating that they strongly oppose the actions of the Israeli government, its illegal occupation, oppression and killing of innocent Palestinian people”. It was a messy situation, with some degree of nuance (explored in this wormhole of a Reddit thread), but this was largely lost in the kind of feverish, absolutist rhetoric which always performs best on social media.


There have, however, been some encouraging signs of empathetic and respectful dialogue between artists and the Berlin institutions that host them. In January, a number of artists including Kampire, Nikki Nair, Sherelle and Scratcha DVA pulled out of scheduled appearances at Berlin’s respected CTM festival in solidarity with calls from an organisation called Strike Germany, which asked international artists to cease working with German institutions due to their censorship of pro-Palestinian artists. In response to the boycott, CTM issued a statement respecting those artists’ decisions. We remain steadfast in our support of artistic freedom and dialogue,” the festival wrote. We are actively engaging in many conversations at the moment, and are committed to continuing these exchanges.”

Khazrik, who has performed at CTM before, commented that it showed that when we withdraw our labour for political reasons, it doesn’t have to be an antagonistic act for the organisers. The German state is the culprit here. Our resistance needs to conjoin multiple scales and rhythms.”

While the German media and some state officials still respond hysterically to expressions of solidarity with Palestine, such as most recently around the Berlinale film festival, there are still some causes for hope among pro-Palestine activists. Protests in support of Gaza have been generally permitted since last November – on the evening I met Sbou, there was an impromptu gathering in Hermannplatz, with around a hundred people lighting candles for killed Palestinians. A poll carried out in March showed that 69 per cent of Germans believe that Israel’s attacks on Gaza are not justified.

Some independent clubs and music venues are also creating spaces for reflection and solidarity. Several events and communities have raised funds to support Gaza, while radio station Refuge Worldwide has hosted thoughtful discussions about the conflict. Oyoun has even managed to reopen for a new exhibition about war stories from Vietnam, Korea and Japan, using specific funding agreed upon before their closure, though the core team is working without pay.

AATMA founder Jessika Khazrik told a story of a recent live performance at the Trauma Bar und Kino venue. At the end of her set, she stopped the music and asked the audience to share seven minutes of silence, to allow themselves to feel grief over the suffering of people in Gaza. She was moved to see the crowd embrace her suggestion. They decided, as one, to sit on the floor and reflect.

In the middle of a club in Berlin, you had 400 people who sat down in total silence, reflecting on their interconnected grief transmuting into political rage for Gaza,” she says. And together, we imagined a world revolution.”

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