Lesson From Bat Yam: A Triumph of Artistic Creation Over Politics

A debacle at an art museum is the latest in a series of cultural events that have been subjected to threats because of their ostensibly leftist leanings.

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Last September, the Bat Yam Museum of Contemporary Art opened an exhibition of works by Israeli photographer and philosopher Am Deüelle Lüski. The show featured photos taken with specially built cameras – some of the West Bank.

At the time, curator Ariella Azoulay wrote in the catalog accompanying the exhibition that, “Deüelle Lüski’s camera program was reborn shortly after the year 2000, during the first years of the second intifada which was brutally put down by the Israeli regime.”

The West Bank photos and the curator’s remarks turned the show into the target of right-wing protests aimed at pressuring the museum to end it before the scheduled date of January 10. In the end, visitors were able to see the exhibition until that day.

The debacle at the Bat Yam museum is the latest in a series of cultural or artistic events that have been subjected to threats or pressure because they were perceived as leaning left, politically.

It emerges that Likud party member and right-wing activist Shamai Glick had launched efforts to stop the show, entitled "Deüelle Lüski: Horizontal Photography," two months ago. He spoke about this with opposition members in the city – Labor’s Eli Yariv (a candidate for mayor of Bat Yam in a special election that took place Tuesday, after Shlomi Lahiani was dismissed from office due to charges of corruption), Uri Buskila from Habayit Hayehudi and Likud activist Sasson Eliyahu.

For his part, Yariv says he decided to join the protest and, although he admitted that he hadn’t seen the exhibition, he gave an interview in November to Channel 7, expressing his opposition to the Deüelle Lüski show.

At the same time, Glick also approached Bat Yam's acting mayor Yossi Bachar (who also ran in the mayoral election) and deputy mayor, Esther Piron (mother of former Education Minister Shay Piron), asking for the help in closing the museum show early.

A number of days before the show was to close, right-wing activist and musician Yoav Eliasi, known by his stage name “The Shadow,” posted a Facebook status condemning the exhibition. Eliasi called on Bat Yam residents not to vote for Bachar because of the exhibtion, which he said was critical of Israel Defense Forces soldiers.

Eliasi says he was subsequently contacted by Bachar’s publicist, who asked him to “remove the status, and we will close the exhibition.” Eliasi claims the publicist told him he “has a son serving as a combat soldier, the exhibition offends him, and asked me not to harm his chances in the election.”

In response to an inquiry from Haaretz, Bachar’s publicist said “that’s a fabrication. Those things were never said.”

Glick recalls a similar message that he himself received from Piron. “She told me on the phone ‘we’ll close the exhibition smartly and quietly.’ Last Wednesday, we spoke again and she said ‘we’ll say the museum is closed because of the weather.’”

Glick says he called the museum to ask if the show was still on, and was told that the museum was indeed closed due to the onset of inclement weather. He also received an email from the museum staff, dated four days before the show was scheduled to be closed, on Saturday, which stated that the exhibition “had already been closed.”

“I told Glick the exhibition would end on the weekend, but he demanded that it end sooner,” says Piron now, adding “I told him that beginning on Thursday, only organized groups would be allowed to visit the museum. I didn’t tell him that the municipality would close the exhibition, that's not within my purview. It may be that I told him that due to the harsh weather, no one would come and the exhibition would close.

“We spoke on the phone seven or eight times," she continues, "and he sent me lots of emails and text messages. I didn’t say anything like that ... I wasn’t behind the exhibition, that was the culture department, and I didn’t see it as something that could offend anyone.”

It turns out, in retrospect, that the Bat Yam Municipality’s preparations for last week’s storm included sending an inspector to the museum. The inspector claims to have identified water leaks that were liable to damage the building’s electric system, and thus recommended closing the museum “due to the weather.”

Because the museum had already arranged for some groups to visit the exhibition, and a gallery discussion was scheduled for last Friday, it was decided that the museum would be officially closed, but actually remain open.

The artist speaks

Thus, hundreds of people visited Deüelle Lüski’s exhibition over the weekend, including students from Tel Aviv University as well as Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The gallery discussion was held as planned, and the exhibition’s last weekend was considered a success.

Deüelle Lüski says that he spoke to Glick himself via Facebook, and suggested that he go to see the exhibition for himself, to determine if it indeed shows disrespect of IDF soldiers.

“I told him, ‘if you find there some kind of degradation or disrespect to the IDF, I’ll close the exhibition myself,” said Deüelle Lüski. “I understood that right-wing activists would protest in front of the museum if it remained open.”

Among other cultural events that have sparked right-wing protests recently were two pieces by choreographer Arkadi Zaides which, as Haaretz reported last week, were based on video clips supplied by the B'Tselem human rights group. Right-wing activists including Glick attempted to close the Jerusalem show in which Zaides' works were featured, and sought to have public funding for it taken away. Loud protests by dozens of activists were heard at a meeting on the subject in Jerusalem, and a few local city council members sought to cancel the show too.

Moreover, last month, controversy erupted surrounding an exhibition at Sapir College in the south that featured hamsas (amulets) created by artist Gal Volinez, bearing the words “I will slaughter the Jew,” in Hebrew transliterated from Arabic. A student at the college tore one of the works off the wall and broke it, in protest of what he called it offensiveness to the Jewish people.

The Culture and Sports Ministry has also contributed its part to the atmosphere of cultural intolerance in recent times. In November, after the Tel Aviv Cinematheque announced it would hold a Palestinian "Nakba Festival" for the second year in a row, funded and organized by the Zochrot organization, the ministry, headed by Limor Livnat, announced it would try to stop government funding earmarked for the film center.

Also last year, organizations that underwrote production of the film “Villa Touma” stated that director Suha Arraf should return the public funds she received to make the film after she sought to list it as a Palestinian work, rather than as an Israeli film at the Venice film festival (in the end she did not list any country of origin).

In response

In response to the debate over the Deüelle Lüski photography show, the Bat Yam Municipality stated: “Bat Yam upheld the right to freedom of expression and creative freedom, and does not involve itself in the content of artistic works that are presented, as long as they are within the boundaries of the law and democracy. Further, after examining the exhibition in question, there is no mention of IDF soldiers, and certainly no degradation of our soldiers, in contrast to the irresponsible claims made by elements who did not even bother to see the works before voicing their claims. The exhibition ended on the original planned date, after running for four months."

Acting Mayor Bachar said in response: “As the father of a combat soldier to whom the IDF is very dear, I would never offer my hand to degrading IDF soldiers. I believe in freedom of expression and art, and it is not my duty to act as a censor. It is unfortunate that individuals who never set foot in the Bat Yam museum used every advantage to defame the city and give it a bad name.”

The Bat Yam Museum of Contemporary Art stated in response that Deüelle Lüski’s exhibition “was held for four months and was visited by more than 5,000 individuals. The exhibition ended on the originally planned date. Last weekend, due to the inclement weather, we were forced to announce that the museum was closed to the general public. The museum did accommodate some 200 visitors who had made prior reservations, however. Glick’s claims about the exhibition’s nature were baseless, as are his claims about the exhibition’s closure."