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

Artists must reject ‘bothsidesism’ – because it serves the powerful and entrenches injustice

Artists for Palestine UK is troubled that the British Actors Network (BAN) has chosen to host an organisation that is funded by the UK government and currently promoted by education secretary, Gavin Williamson, called ‘Solutions Not Sides’. The event is billed as an educational workshop for actors that aims to promote ‘conflict resolution’ as an approach for understanding the situation in Israel-Palestine. 

A recent report by Human Rights Watch accused Israel of “the crime of apartheid and persecution” against the Palestinian population. We are saddened that BAN, an organisation that is working to challenge abuses of power in theatre and film, does not recognise that it is inappropriate and misleading to apply a conflict resolution model while the very grave crimes of apartheid and persecution – with all the violence and trauma these entail – persist.

When BAN invited expressions of interest from the acting community in a Solutions Not Sides event, we were highly critical because the framing appeared not to centre Palestinian lives.  We were delighted that BAN responded to our criticism on social media by publicly inviting us to submit an alternative event proposal for consideration.  Since sending a proposal for an event for and by artists on anti-racism, internationalism and Israel-Palestine, we have heard nothing.  In a follow up letter to Helen Raw, the person behind BAN, we outlined our concerns.

Today we are making this letter public in the hope of shining a light on some of the issues at stake.

“Our network is very concerned that BAN is engaging an organisation that uses an ‘anti-extremism’ framework – rather than a human rights and international law framework – to discuss British responses to Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Framing the issue in this way presents a dehumanising and distorted narrative about what is taking place, about what Palestinians are asking for, and about the nature of antiracist solidarity. 

We sincerely admire your determination to challenge bullying and harassment within the industry, in a way that forces us to recognise unequal power relationships and how these work to silence victims of abuse.

We would never adopt a ‘conflict resolution’ approach to, say, the context of an abusive senior producer and young actor who has been victimised. Doing so would compound an abusive relationship because it erases the unequal power between the two sides, treating them as though they are the same.  This would benefit the powerful and silence the powerless. Instead, we would campaign to hold the powerful accountable before the law and we would amplify the voice of victims, as you are doing in your work.

By invoking a narrative of ‘extremists on both sides’, projects like Solutions Not Sides work to deny the fundamental abuses that are taking place, and seek to attribute blame to victim and perpetrator alike.  This is why SNS is promoted by the UK government and Israel advocacy organisations in the UK. Its approach is not supported any human rights organisations, and certainly no Palestinian groups or organisations. 

We appreciate your desire to make a positive intervention, and strongly feel that the Solutions Not Sides approach is one-sided and damaging. We hope you will consider a different approach, and are ready to help in any way.” 

Artists for Palestine UK urges people in theatre and film to fully engage with anti-racist, feminist and internationalist movements, and work to amplify the voices of marginalised people. They should also reject approaches that fail to hold the powerful to account – whether within our own industries, or when it comes to Israel’s military occupation of Palestine.

photo: Palestinian commuters caged as they approach an Israeli checkpoint in the occupied West bank

Celebrated film director Ken Loach wrongly condemned by Oxford students

We are alarmed that students at Wadham College and St. Peter’s College, Oxford have condemned trailblazing anti-racist film director Ken Loach by applying the discredited and discriminatory IHRA definition of antisemitism to quotations which they have taken out of context and which Loach has clarified comprehensively. 

These moves are part of a wider attempt across the UK and abroad to use the IHRA to silence discussion of Britain’s well-documented historical role in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, as well as its ongoing support for Israeli apartheid, occupation and settler-colonialism. Without openly discussing and reckoning with this history, we cannot hope to alter its course.

Ken Loach’s work has, over decades, consistently exposed inhumanity, inequality and injustice, from Cathy Come Home (1966) and Kes (1969), to I, Daniel Blake (2016). His award winning films have shone a light on the struggles against fascism in Spain, austerity in Britain, British colonial rule in Ireland and movements for justice in Latin America.

Yesterday #IStandWithKenLoach was trending on Twitter.  It is heartening to see such expressions of support for the celebrated director who has stood with so many others.

As dozens of artists wrote in a statement of support for Ken Loach on Monday:  ‘We cannot fight racism, including antisemitism, by demonising and silencing supporters of Palestinian rights.”

Artists for Palestine UK

Artists stand with Ken Loach and against McCarthyism

“We are deeply troubled to learn of a McCarthyite campaign demanding Oxford University cancel a public event with director Ken Loach discussing his distinguished career in film. The campaign to silence a world-renowned artist, which has been active behind the scenes and which became public at the last minute, is using the controversial IHRA definition of antisemitism to try to prevent a cultural event from taking place. If any further evidence were needed to demonstrate how a vaguely worded definition is being deployed to silence critics of Israeli policy towards Palestinians — then this is it. We have been warned by respected Palestinian academics, Israeli scholars, leading experts on antisemitism, dozens of progressive Jewish groups, and others that this definition is being used as a political weapon. We cannot fight racism, including antisemitism, by demonising and silencing supporters of Palestinian rights.”

Signed:

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Brian Eno: Artists must call out Germany’s anti-Palestinian witch-hunt

A 2019 parliamentary resolution has had a chilling effect on critics of Israeli policy. Now the cultural sector is speaking up.

  • This article was published in The Guardian under the title ‘Artists like me are being censored in Germany – because we support Palestinian rights’.

I am just one of many artists who have been affected by a new McCarthyism that has taken hold amid a rising climate of intolerance in Germany. Novelist Kamila Shamsie, poet Kae Tempest, musicians Young Fathers and rapper Talib Kwelli, visual artist Walid Raad and the philosopher Achille Mbembe are among the artists, academics, curators and others who have been caught up in a system of political interrogation, blacklisting and exclusion that is now widespread in Germany thanks to the passing of a 2019 parliamentary resolution. Ultimately this is about targeting critics of Israeli policy towards Palestinians.

Recently, an exhibition of my artwork was cancelled in its early stages because I support the nonviolent, Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The cancellation was never publicly declared, but I understand it to have been the consequence of cultural workers in Germany fearing that they and their institution would be punished for promoting someone labelled as “antisemitic”. This is the work of tyranny: create a situation where people are frightened enough to keep their mouths shut, and self-censorship will do the rest.Advertisement

But as my own story is relatively minor, I’d like to tell you about my friend, musician Nirit Sommerfeld.

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Leading artists condemn Israeli raids on Palestinian cultural centres & call for sanctions

Photo: Edward Said National Conservatory of Music by Ahdaf Soueif for PalFest

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 

  • Massive Attack, Steve Coogan, Peter Gabriel, Maxine Peake, Philip Pullman and Benjamin Zephaniah are among 60+ cultural figures to put their names to an open letter condemning attacks on key Palestinian cultural centres.
  • The letter says the attacks are ‘part of a well-documented campaign of harassment and intimidation, arrests, home demolitions and forced evictions’ by the Israeli government. 
  • Brian Eno: ‘These raids … seem designed to break the morale of the Palestinian people, to deny them the last thing that they actually own: their culture ’
  • The artists call for ‘targeted and lawful sanctions’ against Israel.

Signatories to the letter include:

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Calling for boycott, divestment, sanctions is a human right, rules European Court

Governments and political parties across Europe have sought to criminalise the non-violent movement for BDS. Yesterday, the European Court of Human Rights stopped that insidious tendency in its tracks. 

In September 2009, nine months after Israel’s ‘Cast Lead’ attack on Gaza, 11 campaigners in Northern France were charged with ‘incitement to discrimination’ for handing out Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) leaflets at a hypermarket. They were given suspended fines of €1,000 and required to pay €7,000 in damages. In 2015, the French Court of Cassation upheld their conviction. 

Yesterday, 11th June, the ECHR overturned the French judgment, ruling that the convictions for campaigning for a boycott of Israeli products violated the campaigners’ right to freedom of expression. Their call to boycott Israeli products, said the court, did not amount to discrimination: it was protected by the right to free speech. 

The ECHR’s ruling, says Marco Perolini of Amnesty International, ‘should send a clear message to all European states that they must stop the prosecution of peaceful activists’ and stop trying to ‘target activists campaigning against human rights violations perpetrated by Israel against Palestinians’. 

Artists for Palestine UK welcomes this judgement. As Israel prepares to dispossess Palestinians of an even greater part of their land, we know that it is more important than ever that artists’ voices are heard. We will continue to campaign for a cultural boycott of Israel, exercising our right of free speech against those who try to bully and silence all opposition. 

Threats to anti-racism charity lead to Ken Loach stepping down as competition judge

  • Show Racism the Red Card commends Loach’s ‘commitment to fighting racism’
  • Charity’s funding put at risk by unfounded allegations

Show Racism the Red Card and Ken Loach – a statement from Ken Loach’s supporters – first published at the website of Sixteen Films

Film director Ken Loach has withdrawn as a judge in the 2020 School Competition run by respected anti-racism charity Show Racism the Red Card (SRtRC).

The charity announced on February 4 that Ken Loach and author and former children’s laureate Michael Rosen were to judge this year’s competition, which involves thousands of schoolchildren in hundreds of schools producing poetry, drama, films and other forms of creative work on combating racism. Loach, Rosen and SRtRC were then subjected to an aggressive and abusive campaign both on-line and in print media, making baseless accusations of antisemitism against Ken Loach in particular.

In response to these allegations actor and comedian Steve Coogan said: “His entire career has been to shine a light on the plight of the dispossessed and the disenfranchised. His films have given a voice to the voiceless.….Ken Loach’s legacy will remain long after his critics have gone.”

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Anti-racism charity confirms Ken Loach as judge for its School Competition

For immediate release

  • Show Racism the Red Card has resisted pressure to ditch campaigning film-maker Ken Loach as a judge for its annual School Competition.
  • Sir Alex Ferguson, Sir Mark Rylance, Miriam Margolyes OBE, Dame Marina Warner, Baroness Blackstone, Steve Coogan and many other leading figures have backed Loach.
  • Eric Cantona: Everybody knows Ken Loach is a warrior against injustice. Show Racism the Red Card is right to work with him.
  • Fellow filmmaker Mike Leigh: ‘The charity has unquestionably made the right moral decision.’ 
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Artswatch Palestine: September – December 2019

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

Cádiz – and London

On December 20th the press office of the City of Cádiz announced that the Cádiz Court (Juzgado de Instrucción número 1 de Cádiz) had dismissed a case brought by the pro-Israeli organisation, ACOM against the Council’s decision to cancel a festival of Israeli films, organized in collaboration with the Israeli Embassy in Madrid and set to take place in a municipal building.

The court’s decision overturns an earlier ruling. In making it, Judge Maria del Carmen Fornell found that ‘the suppression of the Israeli film cycle does not rest on antisemitic motives or exclusion on the grounds of nationality, nor does it demonstrate contempt for elementary norms of coexistence or dignity of the person.’

Responding to the decision, the Mayor of Cádiz, José María González, said that the cancellation of the film festival was ‘not an act of hate, but an act of love and respect for Human Rights, framed in defence of the freedom of the Palestinian people, in the rejection of the illegal Israeli occupation and apartheid.’

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Aldeburgh DocFest disinvites author, invites Israel lobby CEO to discuss ‘GAZA’

On Sunday, Aldeburgh Documentary Festival will host a discussion that follows a screening of the acclaimed documentary ‘GAZA’, a film about Palestinian lives in the besieged enclave. Extraordinarily, the panel is advertised to include the CEO of the UK’s biggest pro-Israel public relations group, BICOM (British Israel Communications and Research). 

Clearly something has gone very awry with programming principles at Aldeburgh DocFest.  

Below, journalist and author Sarah Helm who has been reporting from Gaza during the ‘Great March of Return’ protests, describes how she was invited, and then disinvited, from the GAZA panel at Aldeburgh DocFest. Her statement gives an indication of the confused and troubling logic at work behind the scenes. 

It can never be appropriate or ethical for an independent cultural organisation to provide a platform for a PR company for Israel that is overtly complicit with the oppression of Palestinian people.  Filmmakers and audiences deserve better.

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Open letter: the demand that artists disavow BDS is not a legitimate request

A museum in Aachen, Germany, has defied the city’s Mayor, who had said that respected artist Walid Raad should not be awarded the €10, 000 Aachen Art Prize, because, following the city’s inquiry, the artist had apparently “not distanced himself” from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights. The Association of Friends of the Ludwig Forum for International Art must now find an alternative venue for the award ceremony due the Mayor’s intervention and effective ban.

Today, a group of artists, academics, Jewish and Palestinian human rights defenders have addressed an open letter to Marcel Philipp, Mayor of Aachen. Artists for Palestine UK is happy to reproduce the letter below, in English.

*To add your name contact: palestinianpanthers@riseup.net
*Deutscher Text folgt dem Englischen

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Artswatch Palestine: April – August 2019

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

Our findings suggest that sniper bullets manufactured by Sierra were used by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) against civilian protesters in Gaza in 2018″
Forensic Architecture, May 2019.
photo: Natchez Shooters Supplies

Art and Power

The submission of the research group Forensic Architecture to the 2019 Biennial at the Whitney Museum in New York included an extensive investigation into the use of tear gas and bullets manufactured by companies led by Warren Kanders, a Whitney vice chair.

The companies’ products had been used against migrants at the US-Mexico border wall and in other states including Bahrain, Turkey and Kuwait.

Subsequently, Forensic Architecture discovered new evidence that directly linked the weapons manufacturer to Israel’s violence on the Gaza ‘border’.  The evidence, reported HyperAllergic on 20th July, took the form of an ‘unexploded open-tip bullet in the sand surrounding the Al-Bureji protest camp near the border’The bullet was intact and matched the analysis that Forensic Architecture had conducted on ammunition manufactured by one of Kanders’ companies, Sierra Bullets.

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Boots Riley, Naomi Klein among 100+ figures demanding free speech on BDS movement for Palestinian rights

Over one hundred high-profile artists and public figures are expressing dismay at political repression against  the BDS movement for Palestinian rights, slamming “attempts in Germany to impose political conditions” on artists such as Talib Kweli (pictured).  In an open letter published in the Guardian (and copied below), a broad range of artists from all fields and genres signed but also figures  from the field of human rights including: Index on Censorship, Patrisse Cullors co-founder of Black Lives Matter, human rights lawyer and former judge Sir Stephen Sedley, and philosopher Judith Butler.

“We are shocked that Open Source Festival, Düsseldorf has disinvited black American rapper Talib Kweli, leading to the cancellation of his Germany tour, after he refused to denounce the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights.

Attempts in Germany to impose political conditions on artists who support Palestinian rights, particularly targeting black, POC and queer artists, comprise a shameful trend of censorship, anti-Palestinian repression, and attacks on freedom of conscience.

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‘UK government must end isolation of artists from Gaza’: hundreds of academics and artists speak out

The letter  below criticises the UK government’s shameful ‘hostile environment’ policy, as it impacts  on artists, and in particular artists from Gaza. Israel’s policies have brought Gaza to the brink of economic, social and ecological collapse. To refuse visas to individuals who use all their efforts to be productive and creative in the face of dire circumstances, largely brought about by Israeli policy, makes the UK an accomplice in a strategy of collective punishment.
*UK-based academics and artists can sign the letter here.*

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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.

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Artswatch Palestine: September- November 2018

  • Palestinian author Susan Abulhawa (pictured) was on her way to Palestine Literature Festival when she was denied entry to her homeland,  held in a prison cell, then flown back to the United States.

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

Dareen Tatour

Dareen Tatour, Palestinian poet and citizen of Israel, was released from prison on September 20th. She had spent almost three years in jail or under house arrest. Her ‘crime’ was to post one of her poems on Facebook –  ‘Resist my people, resist them’.  In July this year, she was finally sentenced, on grounds of incitement to violence and support for terror organisations.   (Indictments for online incitement have tripled in Israel since 2014.)

In August, Tatour entered the special wing of Damoun Prison. She was classified as a ‘security’ prisoner and denied access to her phone and the internet. Her father was at first denied permission to visit her. He and Dareen’s mother were finally allowed to see her on 5 September, after Tatour had spent almost a month in prison. She was released with a suspended sentence hanging over her, to guard against further ‘incitement’.

The Loyalty in Culture Bill

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Artswatch Palestine: June-August 2018

Gaza – the war against culture

On Thursday, 9th August, at around 17.45, Israeli drones began firing missiles at the Sa’ed al-Mishal Cultural Centre on Aydiyia Street in al-Rimal neighbourhood, west of Gaza City.  The 5-story building which housed the centre was completely destroyed.

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Patti Smith, Massive Attack, Viggo Mortensen among 70+ artists demanding free speech on Palestine

Artists for Palestine UK is publishing (below) a longer version of the open letter published in tomorrow’s print edition of the Guardian, with the full list of signatories.

The statement responds to news that the award-winning band Young Fathers were invited, disinvited and re-invited to the Ruhrtriennale arts festival in Germany, following demands that they renounce their support for the global movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) in support of Palestinian rights. The band refused, and re-affirmed their support for human rights principles. Now, 79 artists, writers and producers from all fields of the arts in the UK, the US, Germany and beyond, plus public figures including Desmond Tutu, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky and Angela Davis, speak out about what they say is an “alarming form of censorship, “blacklisting” and repression”.

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Young Fathers affirm support for Palestinian rights despite cancellation by German arts festival

Ruhrtriennale arts festival in Germany have asked Mercury Prize-winning Young Fathers to declare themselves non-supporters of the Palestinian-led BDS movement for human rights, as a condition of appearing at the festival later this summer. In a statement on June 12, the festival announced the cancellation of the UK group’s concert, saying:

Regrettably, the Young Fathers have not distanced themselves from BDS. (…) The Ruhrtriennale distances itself in all forms from the BDS movement and wishes to have absolutely no connection with the campaign. We have therefore decided to cancel the concert.

Today, Young Fathers have asked Artists for Palestine UK to publish the following statement :

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