LONDON – The underground artist Banksy set out this week to promote Palestine, producing a provocative poster that earned him high praise from the Palestinian tourism minister and infuriated others, sparking a social media spat with a top Israeli art collector in London who said the project was anti-Semitic.
Batia Ofer, wife of London-based Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer, is known for her left-leaning views on Israeli-Palestinian issues. The Ofers also own an important postwar and contemporary art collection. However, Banksy's latest salvo was, she says, was a step too far.
“We are very pro-peace. But having said that – I will stand up for our right to exist when people try to incite against us,” Batia Ofer told Haaretz in an email exchange.
The saga began last Friday, when Banksy – who most recently shocked the art world by having one of his prints shredded just after it had been sold for $1.4 million at Sotheby’s – announced on his Instagram account that he would be displaying a replica of the West Bank separation barrier at the World Travel Market London international trade show. This is the largest trade show in the world, with some 50,000 travel agents in attendance, conducting $4.2 billion in business deals.
“Opening my first ever stall at a trade fair next week. I’ve painted a replica separation barrier to promote the Walled Off Hotel. … We’ll be at the Palestine stand giving away free stuff,” Banksy wrote, attaching a picture of the work to be displayed: Two gray concrete slabs – mimicking the 700-kilometer (435-mile) wall that separates Israel and the West Bank – and featuring two angels representing Israel and Palestine attempting to pry the wall apart.
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This is not the first time Banksy has showed support for the Palestinian cause, or the first time he has helped Palestine with its tourism efforts. His nine-room Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, which boasts of offering “the worst view of any hotel in the world,” has attracted over 50,000 tourists since it opened last March.
Palestinian Tourism Minister Rula Maayah, who has credited Banksy for driving younger people to visit the West Bank, praised the artist’s help at the trade show this week for promoting "Palestine and [focusing] on the occupation, but at the same time … talking about the beauty of Palestine.”
The delighted World Travel Market, meanwhile, took to social media to crow about about the artist’s attention.
The Palestine stand, one of the smallest at the trade show, seemed to be the place-to-be when the event opened last Tuesday, with hundreds of travel agents and other travel professionals lining up to get a glimpse of the anonymous artist’s latest work.
Ofer said she is all for tourism to the West Bank and supports some Palestinian causes – including a yearly fellowship she and her husband set up for two Palestinian students (along with two Israeli ones) to attend the Harvard Kennedy School.
What bothered her, she said, was a limited edition poster by the artist, which the Palestinian team handed out at their booth. The poster, which Banksy also promoted on his Instagram account, shows children using a watchtower as a fairground ride. The slogan underneath reads: “Visit historic Palestine, the Israeli army liked it so much they never left!”
“You may criticize Israel for the current situation – and I’m totally for a two-state solution and fight for justice on both sides,” said Ofer, addressing Banksy on both the artist's and her own Instagram page. “BUT insinuating we don’t have a right to exist … is disgraceful. In addition – military service in Israel is mandatory! So your poster is denouncing all Israelis! Your posters resemble Nazi propaganda in the 1930s and spread antisemitism @banksy #antisemitism"
Ofer attached an image making the social media rounds to her post: A version of the Banksy poster, replacing the word “Palestine” with “Israel,” and replacing Banksy’s slogan with the tagline “All are welcome to the only democracy in the Middle East.” The children spinning around the watchtower are tagged, in Ofer’s post, with names: “Christian,” “Palestinian,” “Druze,” “Muslim,” and – one holding a rainbow flag – “LGBTQ.”
Banksy has not responded to Ofer's criticism.