The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ruled Thursday that the nonprofit Barbur Gallery will have to vacate its premises by February 2019. Judge Amir Dahan accepted the demand of the Jerusalem municipality, which owns the property, to shut the gallery in an expedited process, although it contradicted the ruling of another judge. He also conceded that the context of the demand was political.
After the gallery hosted a lecture last year by the executive director of the Israeli veterans’ anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence, the municipality, under pressure from Culture Minister Miri Regev, has been working to shutter it. The city says it needs the building, in the downtown area, for other purposes. But during the hearing, Judge Dahan said: “It is crystal clear that the consideration at the basis of the demand is that the municipality is uncomfortable with the type of expressions there.”
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat welcomed the ruling, saying: “We will not allow squatters on municipal property and use [of that property] to insult Israel Defense Forces soldiers and the State of Israel.”
Regev said: “Barbur Gallery has given a platform to those seeking to undermine our values and symbols and I can only welcome its closure.”
In February 2017, the Barbur Gallery hosted a lecture by then-director of Breaking the Silence, Yuli Novak. Regev had asked Barkat to stop the lecture based on the municipal directive that its property be used only “for the exhibition of pictures, statues, etc. and maintenance of plants in the garden and not after gallery hours.”
The gallery also recently hosted a discussion on a joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day ceremony and the launch of a book about the Nakba, published by the Israeli NGO Zochrot.
During Thursday’s hearing, the attorney representing the gallery pro bono, Yossi Havilio, who is running for mayor, said the municipality’s conduct was politically motivated. He therefore asked the court to postpone the hearing until after the municipal elections. “A new mayor should be allowed to take office and given a chance to make a decision,” he said. “We are not talking about a danger here that must be removed, but about a gallery that has been operating in the same place for 13 years now.”
The lawyer for the municipality told the court that in 2015 a hearing had been held for the gallery, prior to eviction, in which it was noted that the gallery had never officially received the space and was never promised it could stay there long-term. “What we have here is a suit over property the right of which to use was given for free. According to property laws, the city has the right to demand the property back,” and that the building was intended for use as a kindergarten.
The gallery claimed that it had been given a commitment that it could continue to use the structure and that the process of being granted that right officially was nearing completion at the time the Breaking the Silence event was held.
The judge accepted the city’s claim and ordered the premises evacuated without discussing the gallery’s claims. In so doing, he overturned the ruling of Judge Efrat Eichenstein who had previously heard the case and had asked for a full hearing on the matter. “The court did not find that in a property dispute there is place to discuss motives of this or that nature. Ownership rights do not depend on motive but on commitments given between the sides and creating the right,” Judge Dahan wrote.
Havilio said that he intends to appeal the ruling. “This is a sad day for democracy in Israel and the city of Jerusalem and a harsh blow to freedom of expression.” Havilio said he was helping the gallery because of his believe that “various opinions should be allowed to be expressed, also in public spaces, even if I personally do not agree with them. The court said that the suit had been filed because of statements made in the gallery, but that he had based his decision on technicalities, without giving the gallery the right to present evidence and without discussion of the reason for the suit and the issue of freedom of expression.”
Before the hearing a few dozen people marched in support of the gallery from its location in the Nahlaot neighborhood to the court. In addition, some 60 museum heads, curators and lecturers at art, music and theater schools wrote Barkat to rescind the demand to close the gallery.
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