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Abraham and Adra, an Israeli and Palestinian filmmaking team, had just won the festival’s award for best documentary for “No Other Land,” a movie about Palestinian resistance to Israeli campaigns in the occupied territories. It was “very hard,” Adra said, to celebrate the award “when there are tens of thousands of my people being slaughtered and massacred by Israel in Gaza.”

He called upon German lawmakers to “stop sending weapons to Israel,” before Abraham called for a cease-fire and an end to Israel’s occupation.

The audience, which included the culture minister of Germany, Claudia Roth, applauded loudly, and there were whistles and cheers in the hall.

In the days since, Abraham and Adra’s speeches have become the latest flashpoint in a long-running debate in Germany around whether public statements by filmmakers, musicians and other artists should be described as antisemitic if they don’t line up with Germany’s official stance on Israel.

Scores of German journalists and politicians have denounced the speeches. On Sunday, Kai Wegner, the mayor of Berlin, said in posts on X that the filmmakers’ statements were filled with “intolerable relativization,” because they left out any mention of Hamas.

Roth, the culture minister, said in an Instagram post on Monday that the “shockingly one-sided” speeches were “characterized by a deep hatred of Israel.” Her department was opening an inquiry into the matter, she said.

Germany’s arts sector has been under heightened scrutiny since 2022, when a monthslong furor erupted over antisemitic cariacatures that were displayed at the influential Documenta art exhibition. On Sunday, Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to Germany, said on X that the speeches at the film festival showed “once again” that Germany had a problem.

“Under the guise of freedom of expression and art, anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric is celebrated,” Prosor said. “You don’t need seven professors to state the obvious: this is blatant anti-Semitic discourse,” he added.

German newspapers also highlighted a speech on Saturday by Ben Russell, an American filmmaker who jointly won a prize at the festival. He appeared onstage wearing a kaffiyeh, the traditional Palestinian scarf, and decried a “genocide” in Gaza. In an interview, Russell said that the reaction in the news media “had been surprising in its intensity and jaw-dropping in its one-sidedness.”

A fierce backlash was underway in Israel too, Abraham said. He had delayed flying home to Jerusalem, he added, because he had received more than 100 death threats on social media and feared for his safety.

Abraham said that he couldn’t understand why German and Israeli media were characterizing his comments as antisemitic. Onstage, he had called for an end to “apartheid” between Israeli and Palestinian citizens, but he justified using that term by saying that Israelis and Palestinians do not have the same rights, including to vote, or to travel freely.

“If everything is antisemitic, the word loses its meaning,” Abraham said.

Because of the Holocaust, German officials have long felt a special responsibility toward Israel. In 2019, lawmakers passed a resolution urging local governments to deny funding to any group or person that “actively supports” a boycott of Israel, which it officially designated as antisemitic.

Ever since, arts administrators have shut down museum exhibitions, concerts and lectures, or pulled artists from programs if they have signed open letters supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, known as B.D.S.

Yet in the more polarized atmosphere following the Hamas terror attacks of Oct. 7 and Israel’s military operations in Gaza, many artists have complained that the criteria for shutting down exhibits and events have widened, so that they now encompass artists accusing Israel of war crimes, or of genocide.

Thorsten Benner, a political analyst and director of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, said that, as much as Germany needed to combat rising antisemitism, the uproar around the speeches at the film festival — known as the Berlinale — showed that the reaction to some artists’ views had become “overblown and unproductive.”

Benner said he didn’t agree with the filmmaker who referred to “genocide” in Gaza, but added that the accuracy of the term was currently being debated at the International Court of Justice, so it could not be banned in Germany.

“We run the risk of very liberally labeling every legitimate criticism of Israel as antisemitic,” he said.

Those accusations become particularly sensitive when they are directed toward Jewish people. Abraham, the film director, said that because he is Jewish and had family members who had been murdered during the Holocaust, he had found the discussion of his speech in Germany absurd. When German newspapers and politicians criticized his views, he said, that wasn’t just “infuriating,” but also “irresponsible.”

Germany must fight antisemitism, Abraham said. But, he added, shutting down legitimate discussion was “not the lesson to learn from the Holocaust.”


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