Berkeley, CA’s Middle East Children’s Alliance broke the news yesterday that the exhibit of children’s artwork from Gaza that they had worked on for months with Oakland’s Children’s Museum of Art was suddenly canceled by the board before the planned September 24 opening reception. The show featured drawings by children about Israel’s infamous Operation Cast Lead, the military assault of December 2008-January 2009 that led to the deaths of some 1,400 Palestinians, over 300 of them children.
(Check regularly at mecaforpeace.org for updates and planned actions- they won’t be taking this lying down.)
MECA said in a statement:
The Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland (MOCHA) has decided to cancel an exhibit of art by Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip. The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA), which was partnering with MOCHA to present the exhibit, was informed of the decision by the Museum’s board president on Thursday, September 8, 2011. For several months, MECA and the museum had been working together on the exhibit, which is titled “A Child’s View From Gaza.”
MECA has learned that there was a concerted effort by pro-Israel organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area to pressure the museum to reverse its decision to display Palestinian children’s art.
Barbara Lubin, the Executive Director of MECA, expressed her dismay that the museum decided to censor this exhibit in contradiction of its mission “to ensure that the arts are a fundamental part of the lives of all children.”
“We understand all too well the enormous pressure that the museum came under. But who wins? The museum doesn’t win. MECA doesn’t win. The people of the Bay Area don’t win. Our basic constitutional freedom of speech loses. The children in Gaza lose,” she said.
“The only winners here are those who spend millions of dollars censoring any criticism of Israel and silencing the voices of children who live every day under military siege and occupation.”
Recognizing that the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council has an established track record of targeting Palestinian cultural expression, I wrote directly to JCRC Executive Director Doug Kahn to find out if they were involved in the board’s sudden decision to cancel the show. Indeed it seems they were, though perhaps not alone. This was his response in full:
East Bay JCRC, working closely with the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, shared with the leadership of MOCHA our concerns about the inappropriateness of this exhibit given the fact that MOCHA – an important and valued community institution – serves very young children.
(MOCHA has only stated that they received complaints “from Jewish groups as well as others in the community.”)
However, it doesn’t seem likely that this is about concerns for children’s sensitivities to war imagery. As the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out in its coverage of the incident today, MOCHA has a significant track record of showing the artwork of children living under war, including WWII, without incident. These images apparently aren’t substantively different.
This is, however, about giving voice to Palestinians-in this case children- who endured a simply extraordinary attack on an illegally captive population of 1.5 million people otherwise known as Operation Cast Lead.
The Israel government and its proxies pulled out all of the stops to undermine criticism of the Operation which drew nearly universal condemnation and triggered massive protest marches around the world. An unprecedented smear campaign was launched against a respected Jewish South African jurist named Richard Goldstone who led a UN task force examining Israeli and Hamas war crimes.
The canceling of the art show should be seen in the context of the Goldstone smear campaign, as well as previous successful efforts by a handful of Bay Area Jewish communal organizations to determine what Palestinians can and cannot say. (In contrast, exhibit organizer, the Middle East Children’s Alliance, enjoys significant Jewish support, and the Bay Area chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace is one of many exhibit co-sponsors.)
In 2007, the JCRC pressured San Francisco State University to change the content of a mural dedicated to the late great Palestinian intellectual Edward Said. It’s worth looking at the mural and then reading the JCRC’s critique to understand the depth of their fear of imagery that is so essential to Palestinian memory of fleeing or being expelled from their homes to make way for the then new state. It is odd, to put it mildly, to read Jewish communal professionals so closely aligned with the Israeli Consulate offering in depth art critiques of Palestinian symbolism in a policy-making capacity.
The JCRC was also involved in a deeply messy battle, along with the Anti-Defamation League, over the content of a San Francisco mural painted by young members of the nonprofit H.O.M.E.Y. which works with at-risk kids in San Francisco’s mission district. Not surprisingly, the groups’ insistence that they represented the vast majority of Jews in the Bay Area-an area known for its commitment to independent thought and open artistic expression– triggered significant Jewish opposition. And of course the JCRC is behind the highly controversial restrictive funding guidelines that essentially bar (or should I say threaten to bar) critics of Israel , including BDS proponents, from speaking prominently on panels of institutions funded in some way by San Francisco’s Jewish Federation.
But something tells me that this cancellation of Gazan children’s art, some of which you see here, may well cross a line for a lot of fence-sitters. While I reject the argument of parity that only applies to Palestinian stories, it certainly would have been wiser to lobby the MOCHA board to either work with MECA on adapting the exhibit or to hold an exhibit-like the Israeli government and others have – of artwork by the children of the Israeli city of Sderot rather than cancel the Gazan exhibit. And to be fair, perhaps they were lobbied to do that but the board chose to wash their hands of the entire issue. We don’t know. I myself would have attended exhibits of children’s art from Gaza or Sderot, and brought my young son. But instead, we have what amounts to yet more erasure. The Israeli government has in essence locked the over 60% of Gazans who are children behind a wall and thrown away the key and forgotten entirely about them. Now the rest of us are supposed to forget about them too.
In the meantime, this must feel like deja vu all over again for MECA. Washington Report on Middle East Affairs reported about this incident in late 2005:
MECA had teamed up with the Berkeley Art Center and Alliance Graphics to present an exhibit last November and December called “Justice Matters: Artists Consider Palestine.” In their works 14 Palestinian and American artists addressed Israel’s occupation and colonization of Palestine.
The artists, MECA and the Berkeley Art Center were attacked by the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and other people who claimed to represent the mainstream Jewish community. According to Jos Sances, curator of “Justice Matters,” “there was even an effort to close the show down and have the city withdraw its annual support for the Berkeley Art Center.”
Fourteen rabbis (one for each artist?) visited Berkeley’s mayor to condemn the exhibit. The artists were charged with glorifying violence and terrorism, perpetuating anti-Semitic stereotypes and even lying about their own history.
On the other hand, there was support from the community and e-mails to the Berkeley Art Center included comments like: “A powerful, scathing experience. Thank you for it” and “It was very thought provoking to see the other side.” Even an Israeli offered ”my admiration for your courage in showing this important protest art.”
MECA’s Barbara Lubin says the mayor of Berkeley stood up to pressure and the show went on. The level of denial about Israeli human rights violations has dropped so dramatically in many Jewish communities in recent years—synagogues everywhere across the country are split — that I wonder if 6 years later most of those rabbis would have the same response to challenging art. I suppose we’re about to find out.