Jerusalem Gallery Shuttered After Government Demands It Cancel Anti-occupation Group Event

Israel's culture minister had asked Jerusalem's mayor to to stop the gallery from hosting Breaking the Silence; city denies politics was behind the move.

Protesters at the Barbur Gallery in Jerusalem, February 2017.
Protesters at the Barbur Gallery in Jerusalem, February 2017 Emil Salman

The Jerusalem municipality is shutting down the Barbur Gallery, a nonprofit art space in the downtown area, because it planned to host an event by Breaking the Silence, an Israeli veterans’ anti-occupation group which collects testimonies from soldiers serving in the Palestinian territories.

The decision yesterday came a day after Culture Minister Miri Regev asked Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat to prevent the event from taking place. As a condition for using a city-owned space, the gallery is barred from using it for “political activity.”

The Breaking the Silence event took place as planned on Wednesday night, as counter-protests were held outside. Some 200 left-wing demonstrators protested the gallery's closure, and a few dozen right-wing activists protested against the group. Minor incidents of violence were reported, but later police stood as a barrier separating between the sides.

Earlier, the city’s legal adviser held an expedited hearing without the presence of gallery representatives, who had asked that the hearing be delayed. The municipality said the closure order follows a hearing held a year ago, when the gallery was warned about violating the terms for using the space.

Attorney Yossi Havilio, who represents the Bar Kayama NGO that runs the gallery, submitted a letter stating that the Breaking the Silence event is protected by freedom of expression and is in keeping with the gallery’s objectives.

“The decision is an insult to one’s intelligence,” Havilio said. “They held a hearing a year and three months ago, yesterday Miri Regev writes a letter and suddenly there’s a decision to evict the gallery for other reasons. Can any reasonable person buy this? It’s clear to any sensible person that this decision is political. They don’t want these opinions heard because Nir Barkat wants to curry favor with Likud voters."

According to Noam Cruz, one of the gallery’s founders, the city’s demands were never conveyed to the gallery. “It’s too bad that the Jerusalem municipality chooses expedited procedures through the press and doesn’t update us directly. I regret that the municipality is choosing to yield to political party pressures that have no basis in fact or in law. If the municipality wants to conduct a proper procedure, we are prepared to meet with reasonable notice in city hall or in court.”

When the city’s decision was announced, Regev issued a statement saying, “I spoke with Nir Barkat this morning and backed him up. He must not be deterred by a media attack by leftist organizations because of his decision not to allocate a municipal property to the Barbur Gallery. A gallery that serves as a platform for slandering Israel Defense Force soldiers is not art that public authorities have to support.”

The municipality said" “After a hearing process that began a year ago, the Jerusalem municipality decided to order the evacuation of the structure housing the Barbur Gallery" within 90 days.

"The decision was made in light of the city legal adviser’s position that the planning and building rules to not allow use of the space as a gallery and the Bar Kayama association is not maintaining the asset properly."

Barkat issued a statement that said:  “I regret that the association chose to repeatedly violate his instructions regarding what is permitted and forbidden in a municipal structure.”