In Controversial New Exhibit '1948,' Fusing Palestinian and Jewish Narratives

A Haifa art show presents work by both Jews and Palestinians depicting the ongoing trauma of the 1948 war

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“Evil,” by Eliahou Eric Bokobza.
“Evil,” by Eliahou Eric Bokobza.Credit: Stas Kolorov
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

The festive decorations adorning Ben-Gurion Boulevard outside the Haifa City Museum stand in contrast to the deep wound at the heart of the new art exhibition within. “1948” is a display of works by 42 artists that deal with Israel’s War of Independence and this mixed Arab-Jewish city.

"My Son's Uniform with Avraham Ofek" by Ruth Kestenbaum Ben-DovCredit: Dror Miller

Every December the city’s German Colony neighborhood decks itself out for the “Holiday of Holidays” celebrations, and December 1, the opening night of the exhibition, the street was full of decorations, lights, Christmas trees, crosses alongside Hanukkah menorahs and Hebrew and Arabic intertwined.

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Working on the show, says Inbar Dror Lax, the museum’s curator, “I felt like I was handling a hot potato. I didn’t sleep nights.” Dror Lax co-curated “1948” together with Dr. Majd Hamra.

From the bustling street you enter the museum, which is situated in two landmark buildings that share a quiet inner courtyard. The exhibition fills two floors of the second building. On the ground floor, the two curators have prepared a welcome that introduces visitors into the atmosphere of the conflict: On a table lie photos from 1948, some of them by Fred Chesnick, who documented Arab refugees carrying their belongings to the port on April 1, prior to the city’s conquest by the Haganah pre-state army.

“Weathervane,” a hologram by Ashraf Puachri.Credit: Yigal Pardo

Another image shows the British departing and a third photo depicts a Haganah parade.

If one is confused by the photos, with their scenes of the victorious Jewish side and the occupied Arab side, it is by design. This confusion is sustained throughout the exhibition, which displays works by Palestinian and Jewish artists.

The works are roughly organized by chronology. On the entrance floor, there are works by the generation of artists from the period surrounding the events themselves, whereas on the upper level, there are works by members of the country’s second and third generations. The art is displayed densely, the techniques vary, the formats are both large and small. Some artists have only a single work in the show, but there are also artists with three or pieces. Navigating the who requires concentration.

A painting by Eliahou Eric Bokobza. Credit: Courtesy of the artist

Dror Laks says that she had wanted to deal with the wound that lacerated the city in 1948, from the time she arrived at the museum, eight years ago, but that it took time until the subject came together in an exhibition.

Not taking a side

The works by Jewish artists from and on the subject of the year 1948 depict a familiar, heroic narrative, with predominantly bleak coloration, showing the winning side as also having to mourn. Some of them show soldiers, for example Marcel Janco’s “The Wounded Soldier” painted in 1948, and “Jimmy’s Portrait (the Night after His Fall),” by Menachem Shemi from that same year. Miron Sima’s melancholic “Condolence Visit” from 1950 has dirge-like atmospherics, as do Ruth Schloss’s 1953 “Mother and Child” and Naftali Bezem’s 1957 “Mother at Her Son’s Grave.”

Also on the ground floor but on the other side of the pain and quite different in style is the work of artist Abed Abdi, who was born in 1942 in Haifa’s nearby Wadi Nisnas neighborhood. Abdi’s family fled to Lebanon during the war and returned to the city when he was 10 years old under the family reunification program. His works in the exhibition were produced beginning in 1967.

In an essay accompanying the show (the catalog is still in production), Dr. Housni Alkhateeb Shehada writes that, has written that Abdi was “was one of the first artists to depict the Palestinian tragedy, in graphic works published by the Arabic press of the Israeli Communist Party. Notable are his works accompanying the series of articles by Salman Natur, ‘We Have Not Forgotten.’” Shehada adds that this works are “a kind of historical archive presenting the situation experienced by the ‘interior’ Palestinians since the Nakba,” referring to the Palestinian “catastrophe” of 1948. “They constitute a visual expression of the Palestinians’ transfer, expulsion, destruction of homes, confiscation of lands, displacement, desertion, and death.”

“How I Wish” (detail) by Hamody Gannam.Credit: Courtesy of the artist

There is a certain sense that “1948” really constitutes two separate exhibitions that never really converge. Is there genuine scope for the two of them showing together?

Dror Lax notes that the common denominator for all the artists in the exhibition is their direct or indirect reference to the 1948 war and its results. “It was clear to us,” she says, “that we would start with the ‘1948 generation’ – that’s where it all began. On the entry level, we wanted to show voices of those who were there as adults and as children, whereas on the top floor, those who heard the stories from their parents or grandparents. From our perspective as curators, it is a single exhibition.”

They chose not to take sides, she emphasizes. “The attempt is to depict things the way they are and enable all the voices to be heard in the museum space. It’s important to give a platform to many artists and historical materials that are located together on the same platform.”

Isn’t that too complicated a task?

Dror Laks agrees that indeed it is. “It’s for this reason that this exhibition is so painful. However I touch that year, 1948, I will touch someone’s pain. There are facts, but everyone interprets them in a different way. There’s no agreement on anything. Even within the [separate] societies themselves everyone interprets them differently. There are Jews who think this way and there are Arabs who think another way. Haifa is the most interesting case study there is, because, from the historians’ perspective there is an argument over whether [the Arabs] fled or left, or were expelled from the city.”

Did you worry about the reactions to the exhibition?

“Haifa,” by Ido Bak.Credit: Courtesy of the artist

“I didn’t sleep nights. It was clear both to me and to the other curator, Majed Khamra, that we were dancing a very intricate dance and that each of us had to respect the other’s side. You’re constantly afraid that people aren’t going to understand this. The situation today in the country is difficult, and people are very sensitive. We aren’t in peace talks and we are angry at the Arabs and they are angry at us. I felt it was like a hot potato, and wondered how I was going to even touch it. There are works in the exhibition that I have a hard time with, that I don’t like, yet nevertheless we have chosen to show them.”

The nation-state law [passed last summer, which declared that Israel is the “nation-state of the Jewish people] and the “loyalty in culture” bill [still before the Knesset, that would give the Culture Ministry the right to withdraw funding from cultural activities that “contravene the principles of the state”] came up during the work on the exhibition.

How did you react to them?

“It was very difficult. At first, people didn’t talk about it. Later on, the artists themselves raised questions: ‘Why are we participating in an exhibition if we are fourth-rate people?’ There were Jewish artists who didn’t want to be shown alongside Arabs, and Arab artists who didn’t want to be shown alongside Jews. There were those who said that they aren’t political artists and that they didn’t want me to interpret their art as political. We always had to take the artists’ feelings into consideration.”

One person who isn’t happy with the presentation of the two narratives in parallel is Inbar Dror Lax’s curatorial partner, Majed Khamra. He did not want to be interviewed for this article, but in an essay, “Seeing Eye to Eye – Faces of Haifa,” he argues that, “The exhibition creates an illusory space based on an ideal, quantified balance between men and women belonging to different groups in terms of nationality, religion, culture and lifestyle. Thereby, a kind of correspondence emerges between the exhibition’s internal space, with all its contents, and an imaginary external reality that supposedly sustains a variety of shades, opinions, and identities.”

Hamra goes on to call for a multiplicity of voices to make themselves heard in the city, “without fear of provocation or a violation of the so-called status quo. The different voices, made audible, will enhance understanding between the two peoples. A ‘pleasant silencing,’ on the other hand, will only strengthen ignorance, and ignorance kills!”
Ben-Gurion with a donkey

The second floor displays dozens of works, each different from the others, and which it is hard to talk about as a coherent whole. Artist Jafra Abu Zoulouf, who was born in Daliat al-Carmel, shows, among other works, a series of photos of miniature olive trees, their roots exposed. These are decorative trees from the Ikea furniture chain, which she has chosen to display show on a black backdrop to disengage them, as she said, “from any sense of space and time. This is in order to underline my doubts as to the credibility of our – the Arabs’ – struggle with Israel and to emphasize my sense that an act of ‘commercialization’ has been done to this struggle.”

Actor Lamis Ammar shows two short videos jointly called “Untitled by Law.” In one of them she wanders around in the Berlin Holocaust Memorial and in the other she displays contemporary photographs of Wadi Salib – the most wounded of Haifa’s neighborhoods since 1948, which to this day hasn’t healed and recovered. Ammar’s piece on Wadi Salib is the only significant depiction of this place, which is so representative of 1948.

“Evil,” by Eliahou Eric Bokobza.Credit: Stas Kolorov

According to her, it was while she was wandering around the Berlin memorial that her grandmother’s voice welled up within her, talking about her family’s experience as Nakba refugees in Haifa. “It was distressing, wandering around the memorial to the pain of the Holocaust, which had become a universal pain, and suddenly it went back to being the national pain, my family’s and my own. I went to take pictures in Wadi Salib to look for the ruins of Grandfather’s home. It was my attempt to overcome and rise above the law that prevents me from going back to the house and rebuilding it – and even forbids me from remembering it. I borrowed the Jews’ memorial to remember our catastrophe.” She also noted that she wanted to call the piece “Nakba Steps,” but she was told not to do that [Israeli law enables Israel's Finance Minister to withhold government funding from state-funded bodies which mark the date of Israel's establishment as a day of mourning], and therefore named it “Untitled by Law.”

Next to Ammar’s work, the curators positioned the work “Evil,” by Eliahou Eric Bokobza, which is based on a well-known Holocaust-era photograph of a soldier executing a woman who holds a baby in her arms. Bokobza transforms the woman, the child and the soldier into universal figures, using bright, pop-epic colors and somewhat childish lines that magnify the absurdity. The placement of this work alongside Ammar’s transforms the traumas the two peoples experienced, and continue to experience, into universal experiences and the evil into a characteristic that exists in every individual.

Haifa-based artist and designer Ashraf Puachri, a native of the town of Mazra’a near Acre, has three printed holograms on display. One of them is kind of a weathervane made up of reproductions of the iconic photo of David Ben-Gurion standing on his head and in the middle of the weathervane – a tiny donkey. “Ben-Gurion, to my mind, is a symbol of 1948. Israel has become a power but we are stuck,” he said. Puachri’s elements are colorful and shiny and he packs them into an Oriental-style outline presented by way of contemporary graphics. This combination mingles cynicism, pain and humor.

The word that can’t be said

“The Wounded Soldier,” by Marcel Janco.Credit: Stas Korolov

Very few of the works depict coexistence per se or – by the same token – depict the conflicts simultaneously on a single canvas.One of the few works that does is by illustrator Ido Back entitled “Haifa.” Back, a native of the city, depicts the city’s urban center – the Turkish market and the lower city with Wadi Salib and Gesher Hagibborim – the Heroes’ Bridge – in the background. The whole space is depicted as a mixture of war and the everyday – rifles, pistols and the improvised War of Independence mortar known as the Davidka, side-by-side with commerce, neighborliness and doves. “I chose to depict an urban area because in my opinion this is the place that makes people encounter others and remain human,” he explained. “Compared to other cities where the commercial areas are split between Arabs and Jews, in Haifa the public spaces are mostly mixed, serving a mixture of different communities, and this mixture requires us to conduct dialogue.”

Back uses only five colors – white, green, pink, blue-grey and blue. “I’ve used a simple palette in order to flatten the opposing narratives. There aren’t any reds versus whites here or blues versus reds. When you limit the narratives, it’s easier to talk about people rather than agendas. This is also a means to emphasize the composition of the circle that combines war and everyday life.”

One work that challenges the curators’ aspiration to present the situation in a balanced way is “Buqjah 1,” by Nardeen Srouji of Nazareth and Haifa. “Buqjah” is Arabic for “bundle,” which is a common symbol of the Palestinian refugee plight. The artist does indeed create a bundle, but one made mostly of plaster painted white – like the walls here and in most other museums and galleries. Srouji describes herself as critical of the establishment that tries to whitewash everything, as was done with classical sculptures. “The Israeli institutions give a platform to the Palestinian narrative on condition that it corresponds to the Israeli narrative and speaks in the same language or aesthetic. That is, covered in white and diluted enough for Israeli taste.”

Srouji says that her criticism “is general and not necessarily about this exhibition. Indeed it also clearly exists both in the theater and in films.” She does, however, have some specific criticism of the current exhibition. “Even at this exhibition, which is showing critical works, they are afraid to use the word ‘Nakba,’ and chose to write ‘1948,’ which is a neutral title. Ultimately this exhibition too is establishment.”

Working on the show, says Inbar Dror Lax, the museum’s curator, “I felt like I was handling a hot potato. I didn’t sleep nights.”

Correction (December 16, 2018): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Nakba Law forbids discussion of the Palestinian 'catastrophe' in public institutions. Rather, the law enables Israel's Finance Minister to withhold government funding from state-funded bodies which mark the date of Israel's establishment a day of mourning.

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