Could a New Guggenheim Museum Save the Middle East?

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Visitors walk through massive steel sculpture by American artist Richard Serra during a special preview at the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, northern Spain, June 3, 2005.

The lecture delivered by Thomas Krens, director of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, at the annual conference of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya in 2016, was inspiring. After it Prof. Noam Lemelstrich Latar, Jerry Wind and Ornat Lev-Er turned to 100 artists the world over with the question: Can art solve conflicts? The answers were collected into a book.

A story that captivated me described the construction of the Guggenheim Museum in the Basque city of Bilbao in 1997 – a cultural initiative that brought economic and social revenues. But it was also a kind of declaration of independence and cultural pride by the Basques against the Spanish government.

The idea of building a branch of the Guggenheim Museum in the terror-ridden Basque region was received with skepticism, with a lack of belief that it could bring about a change there. But the idealism of Jose Ardanza, who headed the Autonomous Basque Community, the stubbornness of Krens’ Spanish advisers, and the recruitment of architect Frank Gehry led to the construction of the museum. Bilbao became an international tourism magnet, and there was a decline in the political violence that had characterized the region.

Art can expose a chaotic situation created by despotic rulers, and signal to the masses that they should rebel, but it can also bring conflicted communities closer and help to bring down the walls of fear and hatred. After years of blood, sweat and tears, entrenchment in national narratives and a failure of the mediation efforts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the time has come to seek a solution in the cultural sphere, making it possible to exercise soft power in a place where hard military power has failed.

The belief of some Palestinians, to the effect that the State of Israel is settlement colonialism that comes to replace and not only to enslave the native Palestinian population, and the belief of some Israelis, to the effect that there is no Palestinian people, Jordan is Palestine, and the Palestinians still want to destroy Israel, are beliefs that lead to seclusion and entrenchment, and prevent an understanding of the historical traumas and the existential anxiety of each side.

Israelis and Palestinians should adopt the text “The Need to Forget,” written by Prof. Yehuda Elkana, a Holocaust survivor. A nation does not forget the chapters of its past, but Elkana suggests adopting other myths, such as excellence and creativity, which are crucial for building the future of nations.

If a Guggenheim Museum is built on the border, between the Gaza Strip and the surrounding Israeli communities, it could be a twin of the one built in Bilbao. The museum would allow for the presence of the historical and cultural narratives of the Israeli people and the Palestinian people, and education for individual and national excellence, instead of victimhood and aggravation. The museum would enable two emotional communities that are very fearful and stuck in the painful past to start building emotional communities that remember the past, but grow from within it rather than becoming mired in it.

The United Arab Emirates and Morocco, which recently signed normalization agreements with Israel, can promote such a cultural unity initiative with directors of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The UAE has been working for years to promote a discussion of excellence and tolerance among nations and religions, and Morocco heads the Al-Quds Committee, and in the past was involved in bridging and reconciliation activities between Israel on the one hand, and the Palestinians and Arab countries on the other.

The leaders in Gaza and Israel will have to demonstrate patience and compassion toward their people, and to agree to turn the border region, which is suffused with feelings of anger, hatred, revenge and shame, into a therapeutic area that arouses national pride and solidarity, along with empathy, respect and welcoming behavior toward the other.

Some will see the initiative as one of Western cultural imperialism, but if the museum is built in the image of the Israeli community and the Palestinian community, and leads to the opening of a new chapter in the history of the nations, we will all be able to say “dayenu” – that’s enough for us.

Dr. Marzan studies Palestinian society and politics and is a Research Fellow at the Chaikin Chair of Geostrategy at the University of Haifa.

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