Nora Barrows-Friedman – Electronic Intafada September 13, 2011
Pro-Israel organizations pressured an Oakland children’s museum to cancel an upcoming exhibition of drawings made by Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip. Community leaders say the shutting down of the exhibition is the result of a disturbing — and well-funded — campaign to silence Palestinian voices across the US.
On 8 September, just two weeks before the exhibition was set to open to the public, the board of directors of the Museum of Children’s Art (MOCHA) announced that they had canceled “A Child’s View of Gaza.” The board shut down the show due to pressure from “constituents,” according to a statement made by Randolph Bell, the board’s chairman, in the San Francisco Chronicle (“Oakland museum cancels Palestinian kids’ war art,” 9 September 2011).
The show was curated in partnership with the Berkeley-based non-profit group Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA), which has been working for 23 years to advocate for Palestinian, Iraqi and Lebanese children’s rights. Barbara Lubin, MECA’s executive director, told The Electronic Intifada that it was “upsetting and infuriating” that the show was canceled, but she wasn’t surprised.
“Anybody who knows this issue knows that the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs have launched a multi-million dollar project to combat what they call the ‘delegitmization’ of Israel,” Lubin said. “They try and suffocate the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and censor Palestinian cultural initiatives. What they’re doing is financing the work of silencing and shutting down anyone who wants to talk about what’s really happening to Palestinians.”
The Chronicle also reported that the board of directors at MOCHA vaguely cited the “inappropriate nature” of the content of the children’s drawings in their decision to shut down the exhibit. Some of the Palestinian children’s illustrations show tanks, guns and explosions, but the board’s assertion that these images are “inappropriate” enough to censor is clearly selective.
In years past, MOCHA had successfully exhibited strikingly similar artwork by children in Iraq who drew from their personal experiences of war following the 2003 US-led invasion and subsequent occupation. Another exhibition several years ago showed artwork by children made during the Second World War that “featured images of Hitler, burning airplanes, sinking battleships, empty houses and a sad girl next to a Star of David,” the Chronicle added.
Lubin said that the difference in this context is simple: “The pro-Israel groups are afraid that people will start understanding what’s really going on with Israeli policy through seeing exhibits like the one we put together. They don’t want people to know that Palestinian children are suffering. They’re afraid of us hearing that other side. For 63 years we’ve heard one side in this country and around the world, and it’s time for the other side to be heard.”
Stretching Israel’s siege from Gaza to Oakland
The censored drawings were created through local children’s mental health initiatives in Gaza immediately following Israel’s attacks in the winter of 2008-09, during which approximately 1,400 Palestinians, including more than 300 children, were killed.
Ziad Abbas, associate director of MECA, told The Electronic Intifada that several art-based organizations in the Gaza Strip began working with traumatized children in an effort to help them channel their fears, anger and trauma through artistic expression. Those drawings resulted in the collection of artwork that was to be showcased at the children’s museum.
“The art projects were born out of a necessity to try to reduce the impact and effects of the attacks which killed hundreds of children in Gaza. These drawings came from that kind of therapy to express their feelings,” he said.
Abbas added that the child artists were thrilled that their work had “broken Israel’s siege on Gaza” when the drawings made their way to a museum halfway across the world.
“It was important for these children to know that their voices were going to be heard in Oakland. However, they didn’t expect the siege to stretch all the way from Gaza to California, which is essentially what happened when MOCHA canceled the exhibit due to pressure from these groups,” Abbas said.
Major donors: “Funding was not jeopardized”
Upon investigation, it emerged that those “constituents” who got the ear of MOCHA’s board chair included pro-Israel public relations institutions with extraordinarily large budgets and organized community outreach programs. In the Bay Area, these organizations include the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), a subsidiary branch of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA); and the local chapter of the Jewish Community Federation (JCF), which operates under the umbrella of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA).
The JCRC and the JCF both receive substantial funding from the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, which has also funded MOCHA.
The fund, based in San Francisco, is a major donor to arts, science, social justice and Jewish organizations around the Bay Area across the political and cultural spectrum. MOCHA received $30,000 in grants from the Haas fund in 2011 (Recent grantmaking: The Arts,” Walter & Elise Haas Fund website, accessed 9 September 2011).
However, a program coordinator with the Walter & Elise Haas Fund told The Electronic Intifada that their staff had talked to the museum about possible public concern with the exhibit, but that the art show “was their decision and their funding was not in any way jeopardized with their doing it.”
Pam David, the executive director of the Haas Fund, declined to comment for this article.
John Patchner, communications director for the East Bay Community Foundation — which has awarded tens of thousands of dollars in grants to MOCHA over the years — told The Electronic Intifada that they had “not been contacted by anyone in connection with the cancellation of the exhibit and we’re currently seeking additional information from the Museum of Children’s Art.”
But there are many other foundations that support MOCHA. And in August at least one pro-Israel online campaign encouraged the general public to directly contact MOCHA funders, and published a list of various foundations, in a bid to cancel the children’s art exhibition.