“Does the Documenta have an anti-Semitism problem?” an editor of the German weekly newspaper DIE ZEIT asked on 12 January, 2022. He went on to explain a few issues later (in the ZEIT of February 2, 2022): “Artistic freedom and freedom of expression [are] by no means the same.” In both articles he makes serious allegations against Yazan Khalili, the spokesman for the group The Question of Funding, which was invited as an artist collective to produce new work at the renowned art forum documenta fifteen which opens this summer. The ZEIT editor based his charges of anti-Semitism partly on the fact that the group of Palestinian artists was associated with the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre (KSCC) in Ramallah, and the charge that its namesake—Khalil al-Sakakini (1878-1953)—apparently was a “radical nationalist and Nazi supporter."
The Documenta has been an international quadrennial summer-long event for contemporary art since 1955. The host city, Kassel, was a Nazi stronghold and heavily destroyed during WWII. The exhibitions have played a key role in shaping postwar Germany and, more recently, opening the country up to the world. Documenta’s international reputation, second only to the Biennale in Venice, has been associated with conceptual artists like Joseph Beuys, Ai Weiwei, and Walid Raad.
Since the participation of Palestinians in the forthcoming Documenta became known this January, authors in other German newspapers have repeated similar accusations and historical falsehoods. On 14 January, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) published an article, on the alleged propaganda art—“Hetzkunst”—to be displayed at documenta fifteen. Across the political spectrum, German newspapers reacted with similar defamations against foreign artists in general and Palestinians who previously worked at KSCC in Ramallah, in particular.
It so happens that I know a bit about Khalil al-Sakakini’s remarkable biography. And it also turns out that I have met Yazan Khalili in Palestine, twice. Back in 2015, he and his fellow workers at the KSCC welcomed us with Gallic humor to a “Walter Benjamin in Palestine” conference in Ramallah, the West Bank capital surrounded by Jewish settlements. Two years later I was able to visit his monumental sculpture “Falling Stone/Flying Stone.” He had installed an artificial rock on the roof of the Palestine Museum, where it drew attention to the ambivalent burden, and gift, of cultural institutions and sacred objects.
KSCC is one of the pre-eminent art spaces in Palestine. Founded by the Palestinian government during the early Oslo years, it became an independent non-profit NGO in 1998, initially with funding from North American and European donors. The Centre is housed in one of Ramallah’s beautiful limestone buildings from the early twentieth century where it provides space for art collections, exhibitions, archives, workshops, and lectures. Yazan Khalili who was the Center’s director from 2015 until 2019, combines visual and spatial elements in his artwork. Apprenticed in Eyal Weizman’s renowned “Forensic Architecture” studio at Goldsmiths, London, Khalili’s early photo and video installations have exposed how cameras, color schemes, and cartography naturalize Israeli settlements’ control over Palestinian lives and landscapes.
A FAZ journalist has already rehabilitated Yazan Khalili and his group, and the German art magazine Monopol has argued that the scandal will backfire on the mudslingers. But what about the allegations against the historical figure Khalil Sakakini? And how did the rumor that he was a “radical nationalist and Nazi supporter” come into being? The second question can be answered quickly with a little provenance research on the internet. The second takes more time to answer, for it requires detailed historical source analysis in the eight tomes of Arabic diaries that Sakakini has written from 1907 to just before his death in 1953.
A Rumor About the Palestinians
Generally, rumors arise from the repetition of incorrect information. They spread particularly fast about people who are prevented from speaking. In this German case, the rumor about anti-Semitic Palestinians seems to be backed up by latent “epistemological nationalism.” Here the rumor is accepted out of blindness for the history of others and out of an anxiety of the lingering presence of Germany’s own Nazi past today. In highbrow newspapers and the German public sphere more generally,"Germans with Nazi Background" impose their own collective perpetrator guilt on
‘Germans with migration background ’ who often have been the victims of atrocities before escaping to Germany.
The source of the Sakakini rumor is the Islamophobe websites of two obscure anti-German groups from Kassel and Dortmund. One calls itself “Ruhrbarone” and made a name for itself in 2020 when it accused the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe of anti-Semitism for drawing the Apartheid analogy with Israel and for considering boycott, sanctions, and divestment campaigns legitimate (BDS). They even managed to cancel the Ruhrtriennale, where he was supposed to speak.
This website from Dortmund contains exactly the reference to Sakakini that serves the anti-Palestinian columnists in Die Zeit and other newspapers: “Khalil al-Sakakini (1878-1953), as can be found on Wikipedia, was 'a Palestinian educator, writer, and Arab nationalist.' He was a ‘supporter of National Socialism [...], supported the policies of Adolf Hitler and adopted the idea of ‘a Jewish world conspiracy that he propagated.’”
Allegations like these can kill. President Putin has invaded Ukraine on allegations of Nazi support there. In Palestine, the rumor against the KSCC provides cover for Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians. In Germany, it leads to anti-Palestinian racism and job prohibition.
Aside from Wikipedia, the “Ruhrbarone” also cite one book by a specialist: Tom Segev’s One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate (Hebr. 1999, Engl. 2000, Ger. 2005), a book of anecdotes that effectively illustrates the unequal triangular relationship between British colonial power, Zionists and Palestinians. The journalist Segev has long been recognized as one of Israel’s New Historians, a group that has exposed the myth of Israel’s ‘immaculate conception’ since the late 1970s when the National Archives declassified the documents pertaining to 1948.
In Segev’s One Palestine, Complete, excerpts of Sakakini’s unpublished diaries constitute the only historical source to cover the entire spectrum of Palestinians’ emotional life during the Mandate period. Palestinians were the victims of the more or less open collaboration between the British and Zionists, but they were no lambs. They organized protests, general strikes and armed resistance. Sakakini, meanwhile, never stopped debating with the occupiers and the settlers, and he recorded many of his conversations in his diaries.
The Israeli historian knows Sakakini was no anti-Semite: Rather, “Sakakini’s writings … reflected the growing rift between the Zionist and Arab national movements.” It is natural that indigenous inhabitants defend themselves against foreign settlers. As Segev notes, Vladimir Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the radical right-wing opponent of David Ben-Gurion and foundational figure for today’s Likud party of Binyamin Netanyahu, knew this well. As early as 1923 Jabotinsky recommended tolerating and bargaining with the Palestinians “only when they have resigned themselves to defeat.”
In this light, the repetition of the rumor that Palestinians like Sakakini were Nazi supporters has the effect, if not the purpose, of continuing Jabotinsky’s project in writing and image. Anna-Esther Younes, a pioneer in the study of racism inside the “war on anti-Semitism,” has observed a connection between the constant repetition of such anti-Palestinian rumors and recent German state policies on immigration and education.
An Anti-Colonial Humanist
So who was the historical Sakakini—not the racist caricature that serves the attacks on this year’s Documenta and its “foreign” curators and artists?
Khalil al-Sakakini was born in Jerusalem in 1878 into a family of artisans. He dedicated himself early on to the goals of the Nahda, a Zeitgeist which strove to harmonize the fundamental values of Islam with the challenges of modernity and had brought about social peace and cultural revival in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman empire since the 1860s. Sakakini taught at the most prestigious British and Russian missionary schools in Jerusalem. He made educational trips to England and the United States, and loved European literature and music. He wrote essays for Arabic magazines in which he impatiently evoked the spirit of Arabic modernism. The Ottoman Revolution of 1908 fueled his optimism and zest for action. He founded a non-denominational school (“al-Dusturiyya”) in honor of the new Ottoman constitution, and, as the editor of several liberal newspapers, championed the ecumenical character of Palestinian society.
When the British came to his country in late 1917, he initially placed himself in the service of the newly established education system. He saw them as honest helpers of the Hashemite army that liberated Jerusalem and Damascus. Like many Arab patriots at the time, Sakakini celebrated United States President Woodrow Wilson and welcomed the King-Crane Commission, which spent months traveling through Syria, Lebanon and Palestine accepting thousands of petitions and meeting hundreds of representatives. The result of the survey was complex but clear: the vast majority wanted an independent democratic constitutional state in a united Syria with the Hashemite King Faisal as ceremonial head of state.
In January 1919, Sakakini co-organized a congress in Jerusalem which voted that Palestine should become part of the Arab state in geographical Syria. There was also a sizable minority opinion that accepted a mandatory power, but if so, it would have to be the US. Sakakini himself, however, categorically rejected international guardianship.
But then everything turned out differently. The French invaded Syria in 1920 and replaced the fledgling constitutional democracy with a brutal and pro-Christian Mandatory regime. The British established a pro-Zionist administration in Jerusalem. Sakakini resigned in disgust. From then on, like many intellectuals under colonial rule, he struggled with how racist official representatives of a country could be the culture of which he admired so much.
Independence! Every human being and every nation must have an existence of its own. I love the English nation... but I’m not English, I love America... but I’m not American... I may get tired of my Eastern life... it may even be that I want to be freed from my Easternness, but I’m from the East.
Sakakini’s anti-Zionism clearly did not spring from any xenophobic nationalism. On the contrary, throughout his life he faced the accusation that his liberal attitudes inevitably made him an instrument of colonialism.
Khalil Sakakini in his library shortly before his expulsion from Jerusalem in 1948. Image via Jadaliyya.
Sakakini’s Arabic Diaries
In 1907 Sakakini began to keep the diary that German columnists now use as evidence for his supposed radical nationalism and Nazi sympathy. Since Segev’s book came out, KSCC has published his diaries in eight volumes (subsidized by the Prince Claus Fund and the Ford Foundation). They provide us with comprehensive insights into Sakakini’s social milieu and the life of his mind, and contain letters to his son in the United States that are full of razor-sharp reflections on quotidian events in and around Palestine. On over three thousand printed pages Germany is barely mentioned thirty times, and Hitler not even ten times.
In an early diary entry dated 2 December, 1917, he asks himself: “What is nationalism?” His answer is reflective of the Zeitgeist back then: “If nationalism means that a person is healthy, strong, energetic, clear-headed, noble and generous, then I am a nationalist. But if nationalism means being driven by ideology or rejecting a brother who is from another country or has a different ideology, then I am not a nationalist.”
It should not be a surprise then that Sakakini taught British and Jewish students until his expulsion in 1948, and sometimes inspired them lastingly. For example, Gideon Weigert, who fled Germany for Palestine the year Hitler came to power, enrolled in Sakakini’s al-Nahda College during World War II and then followed his teacher to the Arabic section of the Palestine Broadcasting Company. When Sakakini died in Cairo in 1953, this German-Jewish refugee (and later member of the leftwing Israeli Mapam party) paid tribute to his “father, adviser and friend” in an Arabic obituary: “Your decency and humanity have had a defiant influence on us. Your classes and lectures planted ideas for the future in us. You live on in our spirit.”
In the fifth volume of his published diaries, Sakakini deals with Hitler for the first time. In his letter of 23 January 1934, he warns his son about a “new religious movement in Germany, for which Christianity is a sick civilization from the senile Mediterranean basin.” So “don’t think that Hitler is the Luther of our time!” Rather, Nazism is a consequence of crises and catastrophes that will lead all of humanity down the wrong path and turn us all into beasts. At a time when humanity seems to yearn for modern prophets whose thirst for salvation destroys all that is old. He lists Lenin, Mussolini, Mustafa Kemal, and—incongruously—Gandhi by name. We should think about modernity on the foundation of our own cultural heritage, Sakakini advises his son.
Sakakini was no pacifist. In the sixth volume, he expressed solidarity with the Palestinian youths who took part in the 1936-39 uprising against British rule. But he also admitted in one of his many fatherly letters to his son in faraway America that “I feel the pain of the revolt for Arabs, Englishmen and Jews in equal measure. So you will find me sometimes on the side of the Arabs, sometimes on the side of the English, and sometimes on the side of the Jews.”
In the diary passages from the time of World War II, which the “Ruhrbarone” lift out of Segev’s context, Sakakini does not celebrate the Nazis. Rather, he grappled with the hypocrisy of the Allies and with the way Ben Gurion instrumentalized European refugees as Zionist settlers. Sakakini did sympathize with the Axis powers here and there, but in North Africa not in Europe, from the perspective of Palestine not from that of Germany. That does not make him a Nazi supporter any more than World War II turned Churchill into a Stalinist.
At one of his countless Jerusalem soirées with friends on Monday, 27 July 1942, the President of the Hebrew University, Judah Magnes, showed up. Sakakini explained to the guest that he had supported Rommel’s advance into Libya the previous year because he hoped that the British mass arrests, curfews and home demolitions in Palestine might finally stop. Magnes, who once learned Arabic from Sakakini’s school grammar, expressed understanding and discussed with him his binational solution for an undivided Palestine of two nations. Sakakini brushed it off and gloomily predicted a zero-sum scenario.
Sakakini and the Holocaust
In his 2010 book The Arabs and the Holocaust, Gilbert Achcar uncovered the "broken-telephone" effect on which anti-Palestinian opinion-making is based. His prime example is Amin al-Husseini, the young and supposedly pliant Mufti of Palestine. Appointed by the British, he turned into an actual ‘radical nationalist’ during the 1936 Arab revolt. When they expelled him from Palestine and he became politically irrelevant in exile, Amin al-Husseini arranged a meeting with Hitler in Berlin to catapult himself out of the sidelines at home.
This fleeting contact with Hitler—apparently not very cordial—does not adequately explain why Amin al-Husseini’s entry is the second-longest, ranking just behind Adolf Hitler himself, in the authoritative Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Back in 2015, PM Netanyahu even claimed that this former Palestinian leader slipped Hitler the very idea for the Final Solution.
Today, many German public opinion shapers convince themselves that atoning for the Holocaust behooves them to malign Palestinians as Nazi accomplices. Germany’s epistemological nationalists work the miracles of self-deception. For, if a Palestinian like Amin al-Husseini was even worse than Himmler, Goebbels and Goering, then Sakakini’s liberal argument that uninvolved Palestinians are unfairly being made to bear the consequences of the Germans’ own crimes against humanity, also appears suspicious. In fact, Sakakini’s liberalism seems all the more menacing for Germans who claim that their own Nazi past entitles them to judge other peoples’ complex histories.
Palestinian artists today ask much more compelling questions about Sakakini's life and his diaries than getting dragged into citation battles with epistemological nationalists. In the recent annual review Rhinoceros, Berlin-based Palestinian writer Adania Shibli imagined what Sakakini’s library might have looked like before his home was destroyed by the Haganah in 1948 and the Jewish National Library confiscated his books; how it must have felt to collect first editions on the shelves of one’s own home; and what if she could retrieve these personal treasures, now stamped “abandoned property,” from the Oriental Reading Room at the Hebrew University.
Sakakini's diaries were not among the approximately 30,000 books that disappeared in the spoils of war during the Nakba. He just managed to take them with him on his escape from Jerusalem. He had to leave his remaining works behind, however. In this way, Adania Shibli can let Sakakini have his say through the din of the German rumor mill surrounding documenta fifteen. She quotes his 11 October 1948 entry and conveys to her Rhinoceros readers what the loss of his books and the world connected with them meant to him:
Farewell, my cherished, precious, carefully chosen books. I say my books and I mean that I didn’t inherit you from my parents... And I didn’t borrow you from other people either; you were brought together by this old man standing before you... Who would have thought that doctors would come to me regularly to borrow medical works from me because they could only be found in my library? ... Now I don’t know what became of you after we left: were you plundered or burned? Have you been honorably placed in a public or private library? Or have you been carted over to the grocery stores so your pages can be used to wrap onions? ... Take care of my books! You are too precious for me to be without you.
To honor document fifteen, which opens its doors on 18 June 2022, we should take Sakakini as our model. Let us be careful with words and books, and with history—our own, others’, and their dialectical entanglement.
[This is an extended version of the German original published by Geschichte der Gegenwart on 20 April 2022.]
 Eric Bronner, Ein Gerücht über die Juden: ‘Die Protokolle der Weisen von Zion’ und der alltägliche Antisemitismus (Berlin: Propyläen, 1999).
 Tom Segev, Es war einmal ein Palästina: Juden und Araber vor der Staatsgründung Israels (München: Siedler Verlag, 2005), 505.
 Anna-Esther Younes, “Fighting Anti-semitism in Contemporary Germany,” Islamophobia Studies Journal 5 (2020), 249-66.
 Lori Allen, “Petitioning Liberals: The King-Crane Commission,” A History of False Hope: Investigative Commissions in Palestine (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020), ch. 1. Elizabeth Thompson, How the West Stole Democracy from the Arabs: The Syrian Congress of 1920 and the Destruction of its Historic Liberal-Islamic Alliance (London: Grove Press, 2021).
 Jerusalem, May 9, 1919. Khalil Sakakini, Kadha ana, ya dunya (Beirut, 1982), 182. Cited in Nadim Bawalsa, “Sakakini Defrocked,” Jerusalem Quarterly 42 (2010), 16.
 Segev, Es war einmal ein Palästina, 96.
 Gideon Weigert, “Filastin fi nisf al-awwal hadha al-qarn,“ al-Yawm 24 (1955), 34. Cited in Kamal H. Moed, “A prominent Palestinian educator’s predicament,” History of Education 48:6 (2019), 783.
 Khalil Sakakini, Yawmiyyat Khalil Sakakini. al-Kitab al-khamis: bayna al-ab wa al-ibn, 1933-1934, ed. A. Musallam (Ramallah: Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre, 2006), 225-26.
 Segev, Es war einmal ein Palästina, 406.
 Khalil Sakakini, Yawmiyyat Khalil Sakakini. al-Kitab al-thamin: Khuruj min al-Qadmun, ed. A. Musallam (Ramallah: Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre, 2010), 85-7.
 Adania Shibli, “Wörter pflanzen,” Rhinozeros: Europa im Übergang 1 (2021), 42-59. Tr. by P. Albers.
 Amit Gish, „Ownerless Objects? The story of books Palestinians left behind in 1948,” Jerusalem Quarterly 33 (2008), 7-20. Salma Jayyusi (ed.), Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992).
 Shibli, “Wörter pflanzen,” 45-6.