Against social polarization and illiberal tendencies in the cultural sector

Resolution of the General Assembly of PEN Berlin, 15 December 2023

Against social polarization and illiberal tendencies in the cultural sector

With its attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, Hamas unleashed a new, particularly bloody wave of violence in Israel and Palestine. A peaceful and just coexistence currently seems a long way off.

This conflict is polarizing people around the world, especially here in Germany. It cannot be denied that the current escalation was prompted by the unjustifiable terrorist attack by Hamas. This does not change the fact that the conflict affects different groups in our society in different ways. 

Standing up resolutely and unequivocally against anti-Semitism and for the protection of Jewish life in this country is essential and important for all of us. Protection against violence and discrimination and the protection of freedom of religion and opinion are enshrined in the Basic Law as a state mandate. It must not be formulated exclusively. In earlier decades, Jewish representatives such as Ignatz Bubis in particular always emphasized this universal commitment to the dignity of all people. Today, we are concerned about social cohesion and the well-being of all people living here. Social peace is the most effective protection against group-based hatred, including anti-Semitism.

We firmly oppose any relativization and legitimization of terror and murder. Moreover, an open society must tolerate the fact that there are different interpretations of the same events, which appear irreconcilable in the light of current events. There are not only a good 200,000 Jews living in Germany, but also roughly the same number of people of Palestinian origin and millions of people with a Muslim, Arab or Middle Eastern background. The majority of these people show solidarity with the Palestinian claim to self-determination, but only a minority of them sympathize with terrorist violence.

Just as many Jews mourn their loved ones in Israel, many Palestinians are currently mourning or worrying about their loved ones in the Gaza Strip. The expression of these feelings is legitimate. Hate speech and incitement or the glorification of violence must be condemned and rejected. Under no circumstances, however, should mourners be pitted against mourners, the angry against the angry, the desperate against the desperate.

For us writers, this means a special obligation: the greatest possible tolerance towards other opinions, points of view and perspectives. And special care in our own choice of words. This requires moderation, not wanting to immediately and harshly confront every statement that is perceived to be wrong, not every slanted formulation. It requires not turning individual words into red lines that supposedly divide good from evil. It requires the patience to listen and sometimes the self-control not to respond. Peaceful coexistence cannot succeed without the willingness to be tolerant. Democratic dialog means considering the opinions of others to be legitimate, even if you do not share them.

An open society includes a diverse art and science scene, which also allows for projects and research that do not please everyone.We therefore strongly oppose illiberal tendencies in the cultural sector. Freedom of opinion and artistic freedom do not mean a right to freedom from contradiction; civilized dialogue is not in contradiction to harsh criticism. However, there is a categorical difference between criticism and cancellation. The cancellation of plays, exhibitions and conferences, the withdrawal or suspension of literary and other prizes, harms those affected and puts an end to any debate.

In this sense, we at PEN Berlin want to continue to advocate an open, fair, tolerant and fear-free debate in this country. We want to take responsibility for maintaining social peace. That is why we writers must stand together right now and stay together, despite, or rather because of all our differences of opinion and perspective. Terror aims to divide democratic societies into hostile tribes. It is also up to us to resist this divisive force.

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