Receiving Public Funds Doesn't Make Israeli Arabs Traitors

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People stand outside the Palestinian Museum in West Bank town of Birzeit, near Ramallah, May 17, 2016.
People stand outside the Palestinian Museum in West Bank town of Birzeit, near Ramallah, May 17, 2016.Credit: Abbas Momani, AFP

Over the last decade, the Arab world in general, and the West Bank in particular, have been witnessing an unprecedented flourishing in the visual arts. However, the Israeli public, including Israeli Arabs, has hardly been exposed to this.

As a member of an advisory committee to the art gallery in Umm al-Fahm, which has been supporting this important venture for over a decade, I was pleased to read Shany Littman’s story about a new art museum that opened in Birzeit. I pictured a possibility for mutual acquaintance and a cultural bridge between the only agency that presents Palestinian art in our country, the gallery in Umm al-Fahm, and the first museum for Palestinian art beyond the 1967 borders.

However, my joy was nipped in the bud upon reading a quote which appeared at the end of Littman’s story, one by Omar al-Qattan, the curator and director of the Birzeit museum.

“I believe that taking money from a state that’s responsible for the occupation is problematic” said Qattan in response to Littman’s question regarding government support for the Umm al-Fahm gallery, which is about to become a museum. “If the government gives money there will always be political intervention. If the government gives this money in order to cleanse its conscience, and if the museum becomes a public relations tool of a cynical government and the state uses it in order to say ‘look how good we are to the Palestinians,’ then that’s ridiculous.”

I can understand where Qattan’s criticism comes from, as well the argument voiced by he and others that the gallery should not accept money from the state since they consider this to be collaboration with the occupation. However, more than anything else, his criticism perpetuates the intolerable situation Israeli Arabs find themselves in. Beyond the fact that Palestinian citizens of Israel are perceived as collaborators when they come to the state with demands for suitable assistance, which they request as taxpaying citizens, Qattan’s approach serves and supports Israel’s extreme right, people who don’t see Arabs as citizens of the state and who believe that they shouldn’t receive funds for education, infrastructure and culture, in the expectation that they will leave voluntarily.

Raising funds for establishing the museum in Umm al-Fahm from private Palestinian donors in Israel and from the Palestinian diaspora failed for precisely these reasons. Ironically, this led to an absurd situation in which the first museum for Palestinian art in the Middle East, with such an impressive building, is operating so far as “walls without paintings,” whereas the first gallery for Palestinian art in the Middle East, which includes a respectable multicultural collection (including works by notable Zionist, post-Zionist and Palestinian artists beyond the 1967 borders) has been operating for 20 years as an institution consisting of “paintings without walls,” waiting for government funding for the anticipated building, with no chance of a matching contribution from some wealthy art-loving Palestinian.

So, when Qattan says: “I think that to say that Israel is an occupier and then take money from it is somewhat paradoxical,” I believe that he misses the paradox of which his criticism is a part. When he says, “I think that a cultural institution should deal with reality and the political situation, but if you limit your view to the current situation of Palestinians and Israelis, or between the state of Israel and Palestine, you impoverish your project culturally, and one should beware of that. Life after all is richer than the immediate present,” I understand that he didn’t bother to check what exactly goes on at the Umm al-Fahm gallery.

Despite Qattan’s wish to attribute a collaborationist stigma to the art gallery in Umm al-Fahm or to any Palestinian artist in Israel who is supported by public funds, reality on the ground is more powerful than the condescending and purist words of the Birzeit museum’s director. Leading artists from the West Bank and Gaza, such as Khaled Hourani, Nabil Anani and Tayseer Barakat, display their art at Said Abu Shakra’s gallery in Umm al-Fahm. The opposite is true as well – leading Israeli artists such as Ahmed Kanan, Ibrahim Noubani and Asad Ghazi display their art in leading galleries in East Jerusalem and Ramallah. After all, Omar al-Qattan surely knows that common creative endeavors and conducting an artistic discourse between two institutions can alter one’s view of the situation and the narrative of the two Palestinian populations, the one that fled or was expelled and the one that remained within the 1948 borders, struggling in different ways with its national identity issues.

Edna Fast is a founder of the Lunart Fund for promoting visual art in Israel’s Arab community.

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