Israel’s ambassador to Canada, Rafael Barak, has launched a campaign against an exhibition by a Palestinian artist currently on display in Ottawa City Hall. Barak, who complained to Ottawa’s mayor specifically about one of the items on display, has mobilized Jewish organizations to demand the removal of the work which, in his words, “glorifies terrorists.”
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A few months ago, an Ottawan municipality program featuring works by the public decided to show the works of Palestinian artist Rehab Nazzal, in a gallery at City Hall. Nazzal is a Canadian of Palestinian origin, born in a village near Jenin in the West Bank. She studied art in Ottawa and emigrated to Canada in 1995.
Her exhibit is called “Invisible” and includes several multimedia displays. One of the key works shows photos taken during confrontations between Israeli security forces and Palestinian prisoners at Ketziot Prison in the Negev. What triggered Barak’s fury, though, was a video labeled “Target.” In explanatory notes beside the display, it is stated that participants are artists, writers and activists who “have been assassinated by Israel.”
The ambassador said in interviews to Canadian media that he came across the exhibit by chance while arriving at City Hall for a meeting. He said that upon examination of the display, he found some of the figures shown in the video were leaders of Palestinian organizations that had been responsible for terrorist attacks against Israelis in the 1970s and ’80s.
One such figure was Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad), Yasser Arafat’s deputy and the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s military arm, who planned and carried out a murderous bus attack in 1978, in which 37 Israelis were murdered (the Coastal Road massacre). The Israel Defense Forces’ elite Sayeret Matkal commando forces assassinated Jihad at his home in Tunis in 1988. Another photo in the same display shows Dalal Mughrabi, one of the female hijackers of the bus who was killed in an exchange of fire with the IDF.
Also shown is Salah Khalaf (Abu Iyad), founder of the Black September organization which massacred Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. In 1988, he announced that the PLO was ready to recognize Israel. He was killed, not by Israel but reputedly by a rival Palestinian group headed by Abu Nidal.
Another part of the exhibition, on display through June 22, features a photo of Naji al-Ali, a famous Palestinian caricaturist murdered in London in 1987 by the PLO, for publishing defamatory caricatures of Yasser Arafat. Another photo is of Khaled Nazzal, one of the heads of the military wing of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who was involved in the massacre of 22 Israeli children in the northern town of Ma’alot in May 1974. The Israeli embassy in Ottawa condemned the artist, stating that she is a relative of Khaled Nazzal.
Nazzal responded by saying the exhibition is a reflection of her memories growing up in the West Bank under Israeli occupation, but that she wishes to spread a broader message about the brutality of war. She said she included photos of Jihad and Mughrabi since they are part of Palestinians’ collective memory.
Ambassador Barak met Thursday with Ottawa mayor Jim Watson and protested the staging of the exhibition at City Hall. He said the explanatory notes accompanying the artwork are misleading, since they don’t tell viewers about the terrorist attacks in which some of the people took part.
“The exhibit enables Canadians to see where the roots of terror lie. They lie in the fact that Palestinians glorify terror and incite to violence, as well as refusing to accept the existence of Israel,” Barak said. “It’s discouraging to see a culture that promotes terrorists as its leaders.”
Barak did not explicitly call for the exhibition’s removal, but mobilized Jewish organizations in Canada to do so. Alongside the embassy’s condemnation and the ambassador’s meeting with the mayor, the Jewish Federation of Ottawa called for an immediate removal of the display.
But despite the pressure, the exhibition will not be removed. Ottawa’s deputy mayor Steve Kaneelakos said that the decision to mount the exhibition at City Hall was taken by a committee of artists. He stressed that politicians should not interfere with decisions concerning which works of art are displayed.
The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem often tries to combat attempts to boycott Israeli artists abroad based on political considerations. Last month I reported that a gallery in Scotland yielded to political pressure by anti-Israeli groups and cancelled its hosting of an exhibition by an Israeli artist which was sponsored by the Israeli embassy in London.
In the present case, even though the exhibition is controversial one could ask why the Israeli ambassador is mixing politics with art, which Israel strenuously objects to in cases in which attempted boycotts come up. In any case, the ambassador has undoubtedly given Rehab Nazzal the best public relations she could have hoped for.