Can an Exhibition of 'Hebron Hills Artists' Be Apolitical?

Art exhibition in lobby of main library of Tel Aviv University draws fire from faculty members.

Dudu Bachar

An art exhibition in the lobby of the main library building of Tel Aviv University has drawn fire from faculty members who say it is political, aimed at portraying the Jewish settlement enterprise in the West Bank in a positive light.

The exhibition, called “Seven Branches: Artists from the Hebron Hills Facing Tel Aviv – An art exhibition that crosses borders,” features paintings and photographs created by Jewish artists from the Mt. Hebron area of the West Bank.

“The Meitarim art center in the Hebron Hills was established by the artist Nurit Gazit. Her vision was to create a platform for artists from the area and a hostel for visiting artists. As a settler of many years in the Hebron Hills region, Nurit’s vision was to bring the far sides of Israeli society together through art,” the library’s website said.

“The first question that the official in charge of the topic asked Nurit was: Do these works contain any political statement? If so, they have no place in our building. The answer arrived quickly, and the paintings were sent and warmly welcomed,” said a page on the TAU website explaining the project.

It continued: “The role of art is to melt dividers and create a bridge between different worlds. The exhibition contains various styles. In the photography field we meet artistic photography that communicates with viewers and opens a mysterious world before them. The paintings reveal a great deal of talent that comes from special souls. To gain an impression, watch the artists, and you are assured of a fascinating journey of the spirit, a journey that starts in the Hebron hills and seeks a true connection with Tel Aviv.”

The exhibition consists of paintings and photographs that are not overtly political. One photograph shows a small boy with a kippa walking in a vineyard; like most of the photographs in the exhibition, the location is not identified. Most of the photographs are of flowers, landscapes or objects such as a Hanukkah menorah. One depicts a woman at prayer. Many of the works have no specific association with the Mt. Hebron area.

(Photo by Dudu Bachar)

After an inquiry from Haaretz, a sign for the exhibition was removed from the library plaza and the quotations and exhibition subtitle were deleted from the website. Without the subtitle, the exhibition’s origin and context can no longer be identified.

One of the faculty members who was upset by the exhibition is Prof. Ishay Rosen-Zvi, who heads the university’s Talmud and Late Antiquity section of the university’s Hebrew Culture Studies Department. In a letter to library director Naama Scheftelowitz, Rosen-Zvi wrote: “I was amazed to see the new exhibition in the lobby, entitled ‘Artists from the Hebron Hills facing Tel Aviv.’ According to this title, the exhibition’s purpose is to conduct ‘a journey that starts in the Hebron Hills and seeks a real connection with Tel Aviv.’ Needless to say, the ‘Hebron Hills’ in it are Jewish only, and the ‘connection’ is nothing but a connection between settlers and their Tel Avivian backs. We have no interest in the dubious artistic quality and saccharine kitsch spread out in the line of ‘art works’ in the lobby. We are interested in the fact that the purpose of the entire exhibition, openly and explicitly, is to sanitize the occupation, and sell it (pun intended) to Tel Avivian secularism as pure pastoralism.”

In a conversation with Haaretz, Rosen-Zvi said, “There is duplicity here. On the one hand, they say free expression. All right, then: Let people say that the university mounts political exhibitions, and this is an exhibition that depicts and pastoralism and the beauty of the settlements. But then, let them mount an exhibition that shows the evil and the ugliness of the settlements in the region: the home demolitions, the expulsions of the shepherds, the plugging up of wells, the whole story. But instead of that, they show supposedly neutral art .... Nothing apolitical is growing in the southern Hebron Hills, and when they come to sell the southern Hebron Hills in Tel Aviv, that’s political. Let them not play innocent.”

Prof. Menachem Lorberbaum, chairman of the Jewish Philosophy Department, was also critical of the exhibition’s mounting. “My fundamental position is that the library’s platform should be open to a variety of Israeli art. But we need to remember that this exhibition, by its own definition, is portrayed as an overture by the artists from the settlements of the Hebron Hills to Tel Aviv. While such an overture is welcome in and of itself, it is definitely political. This overture is not being made from a neutral place. It is not neutral in the sense that the Israeli reality in the Hebron Hills is a reality of occupation, and of occupation with a firm hand.”

Gazit, the Meitarim Center founder and director who initiated the exhibition, says that she was in contact with the library directors for about three months before the exhibition was mounted. “The person in charge of the exhibitions told me that there was no problem mounting an art exhibition. It simply couldn’t include political statements. I promised that we would bring art and nothing but art. I set up the exhibition last Tuesday, and then two women from the library approached me and asked to see the paintings before I put them up. I set up the exhibition and they stood in front of it, thrilled, and that was how I left it.”

Gazit said she was unaware of TAU’s removal of the sign and explanatory texts. In response, she said: “This is purely art created by people who live in the Hebron Hills. Their whole problem is that they live in that area. We came out of a desire to bring people together, to engage in dialogue between the different sides, and this shows me that, to generalize to a certain extent, the other side doesn’t want to hear us and doesn’t want to see us if that is the response.”

In a response, TAU said, “The application to mount the exhibition contained only the artistic and location aspect without including or mentioning politics. The library lobby serves as a platform for a variety of exhibitions once the application has been properly submitted.”

(Photo by Dudu Bachar)