More McCarthyism in Toronto: Jewish institutions distance selves from artist because of her views, not her work.

Why is artist/Yiddishist/Klezmer performer Reena Katz losing sponsorship of her community-based art installation? Reena’s big problem is that she’s smarter, more depthful, more nuanced and more devoted to bringing back the richness of nearly extinct Jewish culture, than the small-minded groups that are funding her project.

Theirs is a simplistic, narrow and ultimately pathetic form of Jewishness which primarily worships Jewish nationalism -a form of idolatry- and tries to impose a mythical monoculture on a rich, varied and argumentative tradition- which has a history of including political Zionists and non or anti-Zionists. Today, non Zionists can do no art there, regardless of the content. Tomorrow, I suppose, they won’t be allowed in the door as visitors. When will staff have to pass a loyalty test? Why are they so insecure that they can’t allow everyone, Zionists and anti-Zionists, to be part of the same Jewish community? (The same can be said of those on the left who would like to ban anyone who identifies as Zionist from their midst.)

Taking what happened at Chicago’s Spertus Museum as an example, it’s likely the Koffler curator was supportive of the project and Reena too. It’s the people with the purse strings at the Canadian United Jewish Appeal who threw a fit, and if you want to keep your job… The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports:

A leading Toronto Jewish community-funded art gallery severed its ties to an exhibit over the artist’s political associations concerning Israel.

The Koffler Centre of the Arts announced Friday that it was disassociating itself from an art installation titled “Each hand as they are called,” about life in the one-time Toronto Jewish neighborhood of Kensington Market, because of artist Reena Katz’s politics.

That’s right. Not the art project itself, which sounds extraordinary, complex, layered and beautiful. No, simply because they decided on Friday to take a peek at her public Facebook page and saw that she endorsed Israel Apartheid Week, something she had never made a secret. Of course knowing that pulling $20,000 from the project a year after it started might not look so great, they offered to let her keep the money, while pulling their name off of everything. JVoices has Reena’s entire statement, as well as the statement of project curator Kim Simon, also Jewish, also pissed off:

It is with absolute outrage and a deep sadness that we write this statement regarding our experience working with the Koffler Centre of the Arts. As a Jewish curator and Jewish artist, we were invited by the Koffler to develop a project in early 2008. Since April of last year we have been working closely on an off-site exhibition wholeheartedly approved by Koffler curator Mona Filip, Koffler Executive Director Lori Starr and the Koffler Arts Advisory Committee.

Slated to open on May 20th 2009, the project, entitled each hand as they are called, is an ambitious and considered series of ephemeral gestures reflective of life in Toronto’s historic Kensington Market. The project consists of sonic and visual performances, brings elders from Toronto’s Jewish community into conversation and play with students from Ryerson Public School, and involves a series of vivid posters designed by Cecilica Berkovic sited throughout the Kensington neighborhood. This beautiful, smart and tender project reflects a deep commitment to animating a dialogue between aspects of Toronto’s diverse Jewish/Yiddish history and its fascinating contact with other cultures. Through a queer framing of social history, this dialogue draws on the current social and economic space of Kensington Market, the trans-cultural game of Mah-Jongg, and the fusion music of the North American Yiddish song.

THE FACTS:

Late on Thursday, May 7th we received an email requesting our attendance at an urgent meeting with Lori Starr and Mona Filip, scheduled for Friday, May 8th at 9:00 AM. When we inquired about the agenda of the meeting, Filip refused to answer. The next morning, twelve days before the scheduled opening of a project involving over seventy participants, we attended the meeting. We were shocked to learn that the Koffler would be dissociating itself from Katz and our project solely on the basis of her political affiliations they said they had discovered on the Internet. Of particular concern was Katz’s participation in Israeli Apartheid Week. Starr made a verbal offer to honor the full funding of the project while removing the Koffler’s name, logo and URL from any related material. Before leaving the meeting we requested a discussion with the Koffler Board of Directors and Starr agreed to take the request under advisement. The one-hour meeting ended with many questions unanswered, and it was agreed that we would be in contact again with the Koffler on Monday, May 12th about whether and how to continue such a difficult working relationship. In less than one hour after this meeting, the Koffler and its parent organization United Jewish Appeal of Greater Toronto (UJA) issued separate public statements of dissociation from Katz.

FROM KIM SIMON, CURATOR:

Now distributed to an international network, the Koffler and UJA’s statements are a hypocritical, inaccurate account of Katz’s work for human rights in Palestine. They constitute an irresponsible, inflammatory and slanderous attempt to discredit Katz and by extension her work as an artist. After a year of dialogue with us, to be summarily dismissed by Starr and Filip without opportunity for discussion is shocking to say the least.

The Koffler had full knowledge of the work Katz has done over the course of a year to develop close relationships enabling dialogue and collaboration with numerous organizations and individuals participating in her exhibition. While verbally agreeing to continue funding for the exhibition, the Koffler’s reprehensible and uniquely unprofessional conduct has in effect placed the project in jeopardy. At this time, several key collaborators in the project have withdrawn their participation due to the discomfort directly caused by the Koffler and UJA statements.

In their public dissociation from Katz’s exhibition, not on the basis of the aesthetics and content of the work but rather on the presumed opinions of the artist, the Koffler has entered into a practice of cultural blacklisting reminiscent of the 1950s and McCarthyism. I cannot overstate my disappointment in this institution that claims its mission as strengthening “identity and community while fostering an appreciation of difference.” The Koffler’s dissociation with Katz is a complete undermining of open dialogue within the Jewish community of Toronto and a great disservice to the Toronto cultural community, and the greater community of this city. As a condition for receiving financial support, the City of Toronto requires all organizations to follow policies that clearly prohibit discrimination and harassment on the basis of political affiliation. The Koffler Centre for the Arts has unwisely chosen to follow a different course and thus effectively rendered itself an undemocratic cultural space.

Katz is a person for whom I have deep respect. It has been my honor and privilege to work with her, learn from her and debate with her. I am appalled and heartbroken over the manner in which she has been treated by the Koffler Centre for the Arts.

FROM REENA KATZ, ARTIST

I come from a family of many Holocaust Survivors. My elders’ stories of resistance and survival have deeply informed my visual and sound work. In a number of Jewish contexts, I was taught to embrace tolerance and fight racism in all its forms. It is this wisdom and ethical rooting that informs my art practice as well as my activism. My relational, sound and sculptural work have a consistent reference to oral archive, Yiddish texts, Jewish metaphor, and culturally specific imagery.

Starting at age 16, I studied Yiddish with my great-aunts, both of whom lived at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care, a participating organization in the project. I have been a student, teacher, and performer of Yiddish and Klezmer for the past 14 years. I have worked within Jewish, multi-faith, and secular forums to educate around anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, and sexism.

I bring an irreverent, creative, and queer voice to my Jewish cultural work, critiquing and transforming traditions into contemporary praxis. My projects build bridges between the diverse communities I am a part of, forming my esteemed reputation as a community-based artist. It repulses me that I have to justify my practice here, as I sit falsely accused. I am as Jewish as they come, and not the Jew the Koffler claims me to be.

Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) and its organizers do not act to delegitimize Israel, but rather, “to educate people about the nature of Israel as an apartheid system and to build Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns as part of a growing global BDS movement.” I have not stated that I advocate for the “extinction of Israel as a Jewish State” as the Koffler’s statement claims. What I do state publicly is that I am an anti-Zionist Jew. This is an ideological stance, not one that determines any specific outcome for the contemporary state of Israel. I consider the Koffler’s press release a blatant misrepresentation of my position as well as that of IAW.

I do not expect the Koffler or the UJA to agree with my political leanings. The issue here is the silence because of my political affiliations, and the stonewalling of internal dissent and debate within our cultural institutions. I am deeply committed to open discussion both within Jewish communities and with Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim communities worldwide. Dissent and discourse are crucial parts of this now global conversation; silencing and blocklisting are cowardly and toxic. At no point along the way was I asked to represent myself, my ideas, or the mandates of the groups I belong to, despite amicable, almost daily contacts with Filip for many months.

One of the first steps towards dialogue and understanding is upholding the rights of expression and free association. The arts especially, are fertile ground on which communities can come together with respect and creative vision. Cultural workers and artists must be allowed to speak honestly, stir passions, disturb – as well as kindle – justice and peace.

MOVING FORWARD

Since the release of the Koffler and UJA statements we have received overwhelming support from an international community of artists, curators, public arts organizations, educators and organizers. We greatly appreciate your attention to this matter. In further consideration we suggest you continue to question what is at stake in the Koffler’s decision. We respectfully request your support in the form of continued dialogue with each other and a critical inquiry regarding all forms of support to the Koffler Center of the Arts.

Rest assured that the presentation of each hand as they are called will go on, even if this means an amendment to the original project. We look forward to inviting you to the opening.

Please visit our blog at eachhand.org and the eachhand Facebook page which will be up and running by May 12, 2009. For any questions or comments, please contact Reena Katz at radiodress@rogers.com and Kim Simon at kimshoshanasimon@gmail.com