Forward Thinking

Is This Palestinian Show 'Art' — or Propaganda?

By Mira Sucharov

  • Print
  • Share Share

An image from the “Invisible” exhibit in Ottawa, Canada / Mira Sucharov

An art exhibit in a quiet gallery inside Ottawa’s City Hall has caused an international stir. Accusing the exhibit of “glorifying terror,” the Israeli ambassador to Canada met with the mayor to express his concerns. And dubbing it a “monument to terror” and a “travesty,” the Jewish Federation of Ottawa called on the City — unsuccessfully — to remove it.

Titled “Invisible,” the exhibit, by Canadian-based and Palestinian-born artist Rehab Nazzal, is comprised of a series of multi-media experiences. One is a series of colors accompanied by audio from protestors being teargassed in the weekly demonstrations at the West Bank village of Bil’in; another is audio feed from an IDF training exercise-turned-fatal in a Negev prison, with a series of abstract-looking stills on a nearby wall. Most controversial, though, is a digital slideshow called “Target.” In it, a series of names, dates and sepia portraits flash by, each encased in a circle of light. These individuals are Palestinian activists who were assassinated by Israel.

On the day I saw the exhibit, the room was empty, before one or two others wandered in. I flipped through the comments book. The ping-pong nature of the discourse wasn’t surprising. Some thanked the City for bringing the Palestinian experience to light. Others complained of “taxpayer money” funding what surely isn’t “art.” Some pointed to the omission of the fact that those assassinated by Israel were themselves responsible for many murders, and others invoked the “glorification of terrorism” accusation. To that, some responded that surely Israel and its supporters would have no problem featuring Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Shamir in a similar exhibit.

At least three questions strike me from all this. Those who find themselves offended by the political message inherent in the artwork are demanding context, balance and objectivity. They seem to want to insert footnotes, to proclaim that there is another side to the story. But art isn’t meant to serve the same purpose as a newspaper article, a history textbook or an encyclopedia entry. By its nature, art flows from the experience of the artist. It is necessarily and inherently incomplete, a fragment of expression.

The second is whether the exhibit serves to vilify Israel, and by extension, Jews. In documenting a military raid on a prison in southern Israel presumably filled with Palestinian prisoners, the artwork casts a shadow on Israel’s claims of having “the most moral army” in the world. No country wants its image tarnished, and it’s not surprising that a diplomat would seek to stem the reputational bleeding. But Diaspora Jewish supporters of Israel have taken to internalizing publicity around Israel’s excesses in the kind of defensive way that my armchair-psychologist’s eye can only see as ultimately debilitating. It’s a topic deserving of its own post — but for now, we might ask how and whether we Diaspora Jews can best support Israelis who would pursue legal reform and robust judicial oversight, rather than seek to silence those who would call out our country for moral examination.

But there is still the issue of whether the exhibit, namely the “Target” slideshow, indeed “glorifies terrorism.” As I stood before the work, I considered how various viewers might see it. I understood that viewing those out-of-context assassinations (the artist describes the individuals benignly as writers and artists) would anger some. I can understand that it would seem bitterly ironic that the artist has chosen to render the other set of victims invisible. But curiously, I also sensed that some Israel supporters might even feel a subtle wave of nostalgia for the days where Israel’s top-notch security services were able to eliminate enemies with impunity. And even better when precision strikes took out only the target, when luck and intelligence were on their side. It’s a feeling that’s easy to recall from seeing the film “The Gatekeepers.” There, the former heads of Shin Bet sometimes visibly grinned about their victories. But they also issued a somber warning: for what, ultimately, is this game of Israeli-Palestinian cat and mouse?

Those who oppose the exhibit have been unsuccessful in demanding its removal. Instead, a disclaimer has been posted at the entrance to the gallery, reminding viewers that the artwork is selected by an “independent, professional arts jury” and the views contained within do not represent the views of the City of Ottawa. A gallery employee told me that, in light of the controversy, the disclaimer sign will remain up for future exhibits.

The question is whether future viewers will be able to take in the art for what it is: a sentence in an ongoing societal conversation. How we respond to those sentences, how we build on them to form a story of our intertwined existences, will ultimately signal where our civilization is headed.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Palestinian, Israel, Ottawa, art, Canada

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.