Artswatch Palestine: December – March 2019

*Photo: The play ‘Palestine: Year Zero’ cancelled a few days before premiere.

Our digest of news from Israel’s cultural war against the Palestinians 

A word in the mayor’s ear 

Last year, the ‘Cultural Loyalty’ Bill, which would have withdrawn funding from cultural productions deemed to be anti-Israel, failed to win the approval of the Knesset.

The Bill may have died, but its principles live on. 

Ha’aretz (9thDecember 2018) reports that Avigdor Yitzakhi, head of Israel’s state-run lottery, has successfully pressured the mayor of Kabul, a Palestinian-majority town in the north of Israel, to cancel a play whose plot involves the demolition of Palestinian homes.  Performances of ‘Palestine: Year Zero’ were cancelled a few days before its first performance.

In contrast to the sound and fury of Culture Minister Miri Regev’s customary threats against institutions which allow the Palestinian narrative to be heard, this latest cancellation was managed quite discreetly. All it took was a phone call from Yitzhaki, and a few words, from Shawki Khatib, head of the Centre for Professional Arab Local Governance in Israel, and the Mayor called off the show. 

Noting the complicity between state institutions, director Einat Weizman described the situation as ‘very troubling’. ‘Neither I nor the cast have any intention to stop making our voices heard,’ she said.

A note to the German government

The Jewish Museum in Berlin was opened in 2001. It documents the centuries of German culture that the Nazis tried to wipe out. It works to educate its millions of visitors about the consequences of antisemitism. Its current exhibition, Welcome to Jerusalem, presents the city as a centre of faith and a ‘home to extraordinary political tensions’.

The Berlin International Film Festival has taken place every year since 1978, and is known for the space it gives to the cinema of the Middle East.

B’Tselem, the Coalition of Women for Peace and Breaking the Silence are Israeli organisations which have taken a stand against the Occupation, as has the online magazine +972.

The Catholic charity Miserior works in partnership with Israeli Physicians for Human Rights. Bread for the World is the development and relief agency of German protestant churches, committed to ‘constantly working to promote reconciliation and respect for human rights for all’. 

What do all these organisations have in common? All of them have been named in a note from the Israeli government to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, reported by Jannis Hagmann in Die Tageszeitung on  5th December. 

Hagmann writes that Prime Minister Netanyahu has presented German Chancellor Angela Merkel with a letter calling on her government to end the financial support it gives to these organisations, on the grounds that they support BDS, or otherwise work against the interests of Israel. The letter complains, for instance, that the museum ‘often hosts events and discussions with the BDS movement’. Welcome to Jerusalem is said to be focused on the ‘Palestinian narrative’. 

In response, many Israeli artists signed an open letter, published in Die Tageszeitung, stating that they rejected ‘these attempts to curtail the freedom of cultural expression, which are part of a larger campaign by populist and ultra-rightwing governments worldwide to limit the scope of critical thought – and, where possible, to silence it altogether’. 

A spokesperson for the German government said that promotion of a vibrant civil society was a goal of German foreign and development policy, and that protection of human rights and freedom of expression were basic principles.  Nonetheless, noted Electronic Intifada,  the Israeli government’s escalating demands for censorship come against a background of official intolerance and repression in Germany of free expression in support of full Palestinian rights.

Conditions for a gallery’s survival

Artswatch, June 2018, reported the threats made by Culture Minister Miri Regev against the Barbur Gallery in Jerusalem. According to Regev, the Barbur Gallery had been repeatedly guilty of “subversive activity” and of promoting ‘ceaseless pro-Palestinian provocations” that “seek to subvert the state’s existence and nurture fairy tales about the Nakba’.

In August 2018, the Gallery was closed, by court order. 

The exhibition Barbarism was conceived in the wake of the continual persecution of the Barbur and other art institutions and artists in Israel. It aimed to present the “barbaric” cases which raise questions about the notion of  freedom of expression, trying to ‘establish the extremes of expression that our society is willing to bear’. The project was supported by the Culture Administration of the Jerusalem Municipality and by the lottery fund, and held in the underground spaces of the Mamuta Art and Media Centre. 

The exhibition, raising questions about censorship, was itself censored. Dareen Tatour’s poem ‘Resist, My People’ (see previous Artswatches, and below)  was meant to be shown as part of a digital platform created by Meira Asher.  But when Miri Regev asked Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon to withdraw funding from the gallery if Tatour’s poem was exhibited, the exhibition curators removed the work from open display. 

In response, reports Naama Riba in Al-Bilad, four artists, Laila Betterman, Anael Resnick, Guy Elhanan and Lee Lorian, wrote to the curators saying that they would withdraw their works from the exhibition. Though they understood the survival of the gallery and its financial suffocation were at stake, in their view the gallery had acted wrongly and failed to notice that these were the precise methods used by censors.

An offer from the judges

In June 2018, Dareen Tatour was sentenced to five months in prison by the Nazareth District court for incitement to violence and supporting terrorist organizations. The sentence was based on her social media posts, including the poem Resist, My People.  She was released from prison in September and began a process of legal appeal against her sentencing.

The Free Haifa website gives a full report of the first stage of the appeal, a hearing in the Nazareth District Court in December.  It appears that the judges hinted to Tatour’s advocate and to the State prosecutor, that they should reach a compromise agreement, outside the court. The charge against the poem would be rescinded, while Tatour’s other convictions, related to non-poetry Facebook statuses, would remain in place.

Such an agreement, comments Free Haifa, would ostensibly erase the blemish on the State of Israel and its judicial system for imprisoning a poet, and make the future prosecution of poets less likely. Dareen Tatour herself, however, would not be cleared. 

On the deaths of journalists, and the stance of the United Kingdom

At the Fortieth Session of the UN Human Rights Council (25thFebruary – 22ndMarch) an independent international committee of enquiry reported on the suppression of protests at the Gaza ‘fence’, in 2018, in which 189 people were killed and more than 6000 wounded. 

The commission found reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli snipers shot journalists intentionally, despite seeing that they were clearly marked as such. Specifically, between 30 March and 31 December 2018, the Israeli security forces ‘killed two journalists, injured 39 with live ammunition, 5 with shrapnel, 32 with tear gas canisters direct hits, and 4 with rubber-coated bullets as they covered the Great March of Return demonstrations’. 

In relation to the two journalists (Yasser Murtaja, age 30 and Ahmed Ali Hussein, age 24) the Commission found that:

‘On 6 April, Yasser, a journalist from Gaza City, was shot in the lower abdomen by Israeli forces at the Khan Younis site while he was filming the demonstrations for a documentary. He was wearing a blue helmet and a dark blue bulletproof vest clearly marked “Press”. He died the following day.

‘On 13 April, Ahmed, a journalist from the Jabaliya refugee camp was shot by an Israeli sniper in the lower abdomen at the north Gaza site while he was taking photographs of the demonstrations, approximately 300 m from the separation fence. He was wearing a blue helmet and a blue vest clearly marked “Press”. He died of his injuries 12 days later.’

The commission recommended, inter alia, that Israel ‘refrain from using lethal force against civilians, including children, journalists, health workers and persons with disabilities, who pose no imminent threat to life’. 

Writing in the Jewish Chronicle on 21st March, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced that the United Kingdom would vote against all texts, including that of the committee of enquiry, which were brought to the Human Rights Council under ‘Article 7’, which is a permanent agenda item allowing a focus on Israel’s occupation.  Hunt argued that to single out Israel in this way was reprehensible. 

So far this year, a further sixteen Palestinians – seven of them children – have been killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank and Gaza.

Postscript: a new spate of bannings

Mothers’ Day at the Institut Francais in Jerusalem.

Jewish South African anti-apartheid activist and former ANC government minister  Ronnie Kasrils at the Vienna Museum.

Palestinian former prisoner Rasmeah Odeh and poet Dareen Tatour in Berlin.



3 thoughts on “Artswatch Palestine: December – March 2019

  1. Sue Monk says:

    I despair of the way the U.K. Government back up Israel at every turn. I was dismayed to read Jeremy Hunt’s comments after the death of the journalists. Despicable.



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