After canceling, German city reinstates Breaking the Silence exhibit

Cologne municipality plans to present show critical of Israeli soldiers ‘in an appropriate context’ next year

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

IDF soldiers seen near armored personnel carriers (APCs) by the southern Israeli border with Gaza, on the eighth day of Operation Protective Edge, July 15, 2014. (photo credit: Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
IDF soldiers seen near armored personnel carriers (APCs) by the southern Israeli border with Gaza, on the eighth day of Operation Protective Edge, July 15, 2014. (photo credit: Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The Cologne municipality this week decided to host an exhibition critical of IDF soldiers, days after it had canceled it under heavy protest from the local Jewish community and the Israeli embassy in Berlin.

The exhibition by the Israeli NGO “Breaking the Silence” will be shown, “in an appropriate context” in the spring of 2016, according to a statement released by the municipality. A group of local non-governmental groups dealing with the Middle East has been tasked with developing “a concept that will do justice with the complex situation in the region,” the statement [German] added.

The exhibit, which features testimonies of Israeli soldiers accusing the army of mistreating Palestinians, was originally planned to feature in a commemoration of 50 years of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel later this month.

But after discussions with Israeli diplomats and representatives of the Cologne Jewish community, who argued that the presentation of voices extremely critical of the IDF was one-sided and could lead to anti-Semitic sentiments, Mayor Jürgen Roters last week decided to cancel the exhibition. Roters was told that an exhibit of Israeli reservists accusing the army of serious crimes would be misplaced in the framework of a celebration of the jubilee of diplomatic ties.

“The municipality took these points from various partners seriously,” it stated, arguing that there was not enough time to place the exhibition in a more nuanced context before the June celebrations, and therefore decided to postpone it by a few months.

Israel’s ambassador in Berlin, Yakov Hadas-Handelsman, told The Times of Israel on Thursday that he rejected the Breaking the Silence exhibition not because of its content but because it was unrelated to the jubilee celebrations. “We would have said the same about an exhibition about Israel’s efforts to aid earthquake victims in Nepal — it has nothing to do with the 50-year anniversary of diplomatic relations.”

In an interview with a local Cologne newspaper, the ambassador said he would have reacted similarly in any other country. “Of course, especially in Germany they could have been a bit more sensitive,” he added.

The chairman of Cologne’s Social Democratic Party, which currently rules the city, welcomed the decision to show the Breaking the Silence exhibit next year in a more balanced context.

“It is correct that Cologne — which as a partner city of Tel Aviv and Bethlehem feels a special connection to this region — is promoting an alternative concept that puts the situation in the larger region front and center,” Jochen Ott said in a statement (German). “Critical viewpoints from both parties in this conflict should of course not be absent.”

Earlier this month, Israel complained to the Swiss government over its $16,000 in funding for a Breaking the Silence exhibition in Zurich, saying that the group’s raison d’etre was to “sully the names and reputations of IDF soldiers” in order to damage Israel’s reputation. Swiss government officials countered that they found the exhibition balanced.

JTA contributed to this report.

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