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Vienna Festival director Milo Rau hits back at anti-Semitism accusations

In World
May 17, 2024

One of the latest events in Europe to be hit with accusations of anti-Semitism, the Vienna Festival kicks off Friday, with its new director, Milo Rau, urging that places of culture be kept free of the “antagonism” of the Israel-Hamas war while still tackling difficult issues.

As the conflict in Gaza sharply polarises opinion, “we must be inflexible” in defending the free exchange of ideas and opinions, the acclaimed Swiss director told AFP in an interview this week.

“I’m not going to take a step aside… If we let the antagonism of the war and of our society seep into our cultural and academic institutions, we will have completely lost,” said the 47-year-old, who will inaugurate the Wiener Festwochen, a festival of theatre, concerts, opera, film and lectures that runs until June 23 in the Austrian capital and that has taken on a more political turn under his tenure.

The Swiss director has made his name as a provocateur, whether travelling to Moscow to stage a re-enactment of the trial of Russian protest punk band Pussy Riot, using children to play out the story of notorious Belgian paedophile Marc Dutroux, or trying to recruit Islamic State jihadists as actors.

– ‘Completely ridiculous’ –

The Vienna Festival has angered Austria’s conservative-led government — which is close to Israel — by inviting Greek former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis and French Nobel Prize winner for literature Annie Ernaux, both considered too critical of Israel.

A speech ahead of the festival on Judenplatz (Jews’ Square) by Israeli-German philosopher Omri Boehm — who has called for replacing Israel with a bi-national state for Arabs and Jews —  also made noise.

“Who will be left to invite?  Every day, there are around ten articles accusing us of being anti-Semitic, saying that our flag looks like the Palestinian flag, completely ridiculous things,” Rau said, as he worked from a giant bed which has been especially designed by art students and installed at the festival office.

Hamas’ bloody October 7 assault on southern Israel and the devastating Israeli response have stoked existing rancour over the Middle East conflict between two diametrically opposed camps in Europe.

In this climate, “listening to the other side is already treachery,” lamented the artistic director.

“Wars begin in this impossibility of listening, and I find it sad that we Europeans are repeating war at our level,” he said.

As head of also the NTGent theatre in the Belgian city of Ghent, he adds his time currently “is divided between a pro-Palestinian country and a pro-Israeli country,” or between “colonial guilt” in Belgium and “genocide guilt” in Austria, Adolf Hitler’s birthplace.

– ‘Institutional revolution’ –

The “Free Republic of Vienna” will be proclaimed on Friday as this year’s Vienna Festival celebrates. according to Rau, “a second modernism, democratic, open to the world” in the city of the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, and artist and symbolist master Gustav Klimt.

Some 50,000 people are expected to attend the opening ceremony on the square in front of Vienna’s majestic neo-Gothic town hall.

With Rau describing it as an “institutional revolution” and unlike any other festival in Europe, the republic has its own anthem, its own flag and a council made up of Viennese citizens, as well as honorary members, including Varoufakis and Ernaux, who will participate virtually in the debates.

The republic will also have show trials — with real lawyers, judges and politicians participating — on three weekends.

Though there won’t be any verdicts, Rau himself will be in the dock to embody “the elitist art system”, followed by the republic of Austria and finally by the anti-immigrant far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), which leads polls in the Alpine EU member ahead of September national elections.

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