Last week, the Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland, Calif., abruptly canceled a long-planned show featuring artwork by children in Gaza. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the museum was pressured into dropping the show, titled “A Child’s View of Gaza,” in part because of lobbying from Jewish organizations.
The response in the Bay Area was quick, loud, and horrified. Bloggers decried the museum’s cowardice. (“Disgusting and horrifying,” raged Philip Weiss at Mondo Weiss.) The show’s organizer, the Middle East Children’s Alliance, issued a statement: “Our basic constitutional freedom of speech loses. The children in Gaza lose. The only winners here are those who spend millions of dollars censoring any criticism of Israel and silencing the voices of children who live every day under military siege and occupation.” Author Alice Walker wrote on her blog that the incident showed Americans’ refusal “to accept that we’ve had a hand in making a small child armless, legless, eyeless.” She drew a parallel with American slavery: “We will eventually, on this issue of freeing the Palestinians, find a Lincoln.”
I object to Walker’s parallel of Palestinians and African-American slaves—but, as they say, I’d defend to the death her right to make it. I’m a hardliner on censorship; I’ve written about my dismay with Jewish organizations in Canada attempting to get a pro-Palestinian book removed from a voluntary reading list and about my objection to a new version of Huckleberry Finn that replaces the word “nigger” with the word “slave.” But in this case, I think there’s more nuance.
I am disgusted with the museum’s justification for its board’s abrupt about-face on a show that had been in the works for months. The board chairman, Hilmon Sorey, wrote that the board decided that images of violence and bloodshed were “not appropriate for an open gallery accessible by all children.” “This wasn’t something we felt as a board that the organization could responsibly exhibit,” he told the San Jose Mercury News. But I don’t buy that. Did the museum really not see the art before committing to the show? It had already been displayed at a library in Maine, and much of it is featured on the Middle East Children’s Alliance’s web site. The larger problem with Sorey’s explanation is that the museum has shown children’s portrayals of war before. In 2004, after the United States began fighting in Iraq, it exhibited art by Iraqi children. In 2007, it displayed children’s art from World War II, including images of Hitler, sinking ships, terrified Jews.
To me, at least, it seems clear that the museum bowed to pressure from Jewish groups. “Great news! The ‘Child’s View from Gaza’ exhibit at MOCHA has been canceled thanks to some great East Bay Jewish community organizing,” the Jewish Federation of the East Bay tweeted after the museum’s cancellation announcement. It added: “Thx to @SFJCRC [the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council] & the many others who worked to make sure this extreme anti-Israel propaganda was stopped.” To attribute the cancellation to the works’ “graphically violent and sensitive” nature, as Sorey did, rather than to the lobbying of Jewish organizations strikes me as cowardly.
That said, I think the museum was idiotic to agree to host the show in the first place. The Middle East Children’s Alliance is not an unbiased organization. It is a manifestly anti-Israel group. Barbara Lubin, who founded the Berkeley-based organization in 1988, has referred to the 1948 war for Israel’s independence as “ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population.” “The concept of ‘Jewish morality’ is truly dead,” she has written. MECA does not acknowledge that there are two sides to the Israel-Palestinian conflict: To the group, Israel is evil and Palestinians are good. And the art it planned to display in Oakland reflects that perspective: An Israeli soldier shoots an unarmed man in the head. Babies bleed while Israeli soldiers watch. A combat boot bearing a Jewish star stomps on the Palestinian flag.
There’s no sense here that Israeli Jews suffer in this conflict as well. There’s no sense that this is a land in which everyone lives with the threat of violence. There is no sense of historicity, of the fact that both peoples have legitimate claims to this land, or that the Hamas charter calls for the obliteration of Israel. There is no mention of the thousands of Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks on the city of Sderot, of the Ma’alot massacre that killed 22 Jewish children, the Dolphinarium dance club suicide bombing that killed 21 Jewish teenagers, the shooting at the Mercaz HaRav yeshiva that killed seven kids, or last month’s shooting on a public bus in Eilat that killed five.
Children don’t have to be fair. They owe us nothing; they are entitled to share the version of the world they see and know. But it is the job of adults to provide context. And the Museum of Children’s Art exhibit—relying on the curatorial efforts of a political organization with a strong bias and mission—failed miserably to do that.
I wish that the museum had realized from the start that they were showing only one side of a complex political struggle and chosen to work with an organization like Seeds of Peace or Hand in Hand that would have given a broader picture of this conflict. I wish that Jewish organizations, instead of snuffing out the show, had helped the museum to find children’s art showing that Israeli Jews suffer too. And most of all, I wish the museum had chosen to mount an exhibit that showed that there are groups and individuals on both sides of this bloody conflict who are working for peace and who present a non-cartoonish view of The Other. Slamming the door on dialogue serves no one.
MECA’s Barbara Lubin doesn’t understand this. She’s correct in calling this incident an “insistence to silence the voices of Palestinian children.” What she doesn’t get is that free speech is an all-or-nothing proposition. Over a decade ago, Lubin was one of the organizers of an attempt to stifle a point of view she didn’t agree with. In December 2000, she led a group of 200 demonstrators in storming the Berkeley Community Theatre before a speech by Benjamin Netanyahu. “He has a right to free speech, but we have a right to try and stop him,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time. If Lubin believes she has the right to silence others, how can she object when others try to silence her? Free speech doesn’t work that way.
Lubin’s group is now planning a guerrilla event at the museum on September 24, the day the show had been scheduled to open. Presumably the press will be there in full force. Maybe there will be Jewish counter-demonstrators. It’s all so ugly. How ironic that MECA’s web site features a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.”