In a situation in which years-old institutional discrimination has turned into declared and shameless racism as government policy, it is almost unnecessary to explain the importance of the exhibit “Unrest: Housing, Language, History. A New Generation of Jewish-Arab Cities,” curated by Dr. Rona Sela.
The importance is due to the exhibit’s stand against the blindness and denial of the injustice against the Palestinian populace in Israel 1948 and Israel today, and its stand against the Palestinians’ exclusion from the debate today as the history is enslaved to Zionist thinking. The text accompanying the exhibit outlines the participation in the injustice on the part of the municipal museum establishment in mixed Jewish-Arab cities, which toes the official Zionist line at the price of distorting historic facts.
Sela relates the stories of municipal museums as collaborators in this injustice − the way they distort and avoid uncomfortable stumbling blocks in order to line up with the victorious Jewish narrative, and the way they brush aside Palestinian culture.
When the Museum of the History of Tel-Aviv-Jaffa was annexed to Beit Bialik in 2002, Sela recounts, it changed its designation. The obligation toward collating and researching historic data was canceled − particularly in regard to Jaffa, which, says Sela, “in any case did not receive any representation.” This process sped up the denial of Palestinian Joppa, which reached its peak with an exhibit titled “The city revealed to the eye,” and which dealt with “the first Jewish city.”
For this reason the extension of the exhibit at the Nahum Gutman Museum is a proclamation of independence and pluralism that is more than lip service; it is a refusal to submit to the right-wing government. It is even a declaration of willingness to reevaluate Gutman’s rich and varied legacy, not only as one-sided stories about the white city that flourished in the sand dunes.
The museum of Ramle, a city that was wholly Palestinian until 1948, “avoids with admirable dexterity any involvement with the history, culture and lifestyle of the city’s Palestinian populace or any controversial political issue,” Sela writes.
The “Treasures in the Walls: Acre Ethnographic Museum” also uses sanitized, neutral language when addressing “the lifestyles of residents of ancient Acre,” and states that “Galilean folklore drew inspiration from the various peoples that lived and traded in the area in previous generations,” while being completely devoted to love of the land, especially the Galilee. In the Haifa municipal museum − from which Sela was fired a year after she was brought in to determine its contents as head curator, and which prior to her arrival had taken a strictly Zionist perspective − the city’s three pre-1948 Palestinian mayors were not even mentioned.
The exhibit focuses on the Palestinian voice in binational cities in Israel since the ill-fated protests of 2000 and the involvement of artists, filmmakers, musicians and mainstream as well as radical social organizations in community life. The emphasis in the exhibit is on artistic and cultural activities, and presents activism in terms of language, education and historic memory. Noticeable is the presence of women, intensive activity in cyberspace, video and cinema, the use of archive materials and social activities involving the community.
For example, “Radio Free Jaffa” (2009) involves broadcasting from and for Jaffa. Also worth viewing is the collection of still photographs of the demolition of houses in Jaffa, also from 2009. A video titled “Beyond The Walls” (2005) shows a procession of white-clad women bearing household goods walking slowly toward the sea.
The painting “Wadi Salib” (2011) looks like a notice board with all the real estate initiatives in a dilapidated neighborhood alongside photographs of the original villagers. The painting creates the illusion that the painted object on the wall is real.
The short film “A Sketch of Manners: Alfred Roch’s Last Masquerade” is especially riveting. It deals with a Palestinian member of the Supreme Arab Council who used to hold masked balls in Jaffa during the 1920s. The film, based on still photographs in which the revelers can be seen dressed as the tragic clown Ferrero, creating an atmosphere of celebration before the oncoming tragedy.
“Unrest” is a historic exhibit in the middle of a chain of events, a sort of interim summary for those who are not prepared to view Israeli urbanization from an exclusively Zionist viewpoint. For this minority audience, the exhibit adds personal histories, updates and nuances that bolster this alternative perspective.
On leaving the exhibit with sadness into the synthetic, affluent and shuttered Neveh Tzedek neighborhood, it’s difficult not to think of exhibits of this kind as an alternative to an intifada.
Nahum Gutman Museum − 21 Rokach Street, Neveh Tzedek, Tel Aviv. Opening hours: Monday-Thursday: 10 A.M.-6 P.M., Friday: 10 A.M.-2 P.M., Saturday: 10 A.M.-3 P.M. Exhibition continues through August 17.