The Whitworth Gallery, lobby groups, and the right to speak about Palestine

In response to pressure from lobby groups that seek to deny the basic facts of Palestinian experience, last week the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester removed a statement that formed part of ‘Cloud Studies’, an exhibition on environmental violence by Forensic Architecture.

We wholeheartedly welcome the gallery’s subsequent U-turn and the reinstatement of the group’s statement of solidarity with Palestine, within days, following public outcry and thousands of letters of protest.

We believe this case is instructive as to the modus operandi of the UK’s pro-Israel lobby groups. It also illuminates the damage done when UK institutions accept at face value the claims of some self-appointed groups to represent the view of an entire ethnic group, and are unwilling to acknowledge the political nature of complaints about Palestine-related speech.

The public reaction of one lobby group to the gallery’s U-turn (copied below) makes plain the intimidatory aims of their campaign: to deter the institution from ‘running anything similar’ on Palestine in the future. This shows why collectively standing up to bullying tactics is essential.

The precedent set by a UK university or cultural institution acceding to campaigns that aim to intimidate and chill speech though baseless accusations, could not be more serious. Lessons must be learnt. We are making public our own letter of the 17th of August to the director of the Whitworth and to the Vice Chancellor of the University of Manchester which controls the Whitworth, as a reminder of some the issues at stake.

Dear Alistair Hudson, Nancy Rothwell, Nalin Thakkar, 

We write to express our alarm at deeply concerning reports about a campaign by pro-Israel advocacy groups to censor a programme of work at the Whitworth Gallery.  We are shocked that the University of Manchester, which controls the Whitworth, apparently acquiesced to demands made by these groups. It is extraordinary that Turner Prize nominated artists Forensic Architecture learned of the removal of a statement that formed part of their exhibition, Cloud Studies, not from the gallery nor from the University, but from a blog-post by a lobby group called UK Lawyers for Israel. 

The issues exposed by this dangerous precedent could not be more critical, since they hit at the heart of the proper functioning of cultural institutions in a democracy. On the one hand, the principle of independence and curatorial integrity of cultural institutions to operate free from interference from lobby groups or vested interests, and on the other, the right of artists to bear witness, including through expressions of solidarity with marginalised peoples.

We understand that the University of Manchester has adopted the use of the ambiguously worded and indeed deeply flawed IHRA definition of antisemitism, despite warnings that it would be used to stifle speech on Israel. We fear that this shameful act of censorship will serve as a case-study in the institutional confusion the IHRA causes when perfectly legitimate critiques of Israeli policies towards Palestinians are the target of politically motivated complaints.

We note that UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI), who initiated the complaint, is a controversial group that previously hosted far-right settler group Regavim, in the UK. One of its directors, Daniel Berke, represented and has appeared in a video with disgraced anti-Islam activist Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson). Last year, UKLFI was forced to retract false claims made as part of a misinformation campaign that targeted a children’s charity, Defense of Children International – Palestine. 

We also note that the lobby group that also met with the University of Manchester, North West Friends of Israel, has sent members to participate in the annual anti-Palestinian, far-right march through the Palestinian quarter of Jerusalem where marchers routinely smash Palestinian stalls and chant “death to Arabs”. 

The University and the gallery profess concern for ‘community cohesion’. How does this square with removing a statement that contained information accepted by all reputable human rights organisations, at the behest of self-selected groups that through their actions endorse intolerance against others and contempt for human rights? 

Artists and arts professionals around the world will be aghast at this betrayal of the values which should be embodied by our cultural institutions. We urge you to reverse this wrong-headed act of political censorship.

Yours sincerely,

Artists for Palestine UK

  • photo: from Cloud Studies, Forensic Architectur

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