The Israel-Palestine war has exposed divisions in the arts, heritage and culture community worldwide and led to accusations of inaction and censorship at cultural institutions.
In a letter this week organised by Artists for Palestine UK, more than 1,000 creative practitioners, artists and curators accused cultural institutions of “repressing, silencing and stigmatising Palestinian voices and perspectives” as the war enters its third month.
The war has caused deep suffering; approximately 1,200 Israeli civilians were killed by Hamas militants in the initial 7 October attacks and 138 hostages currently remain in Gaza. Israel’s military retaliation has killed an estimated 15,000 Palestinians in less than eight weeks, a large proportion of whom are children. In the UK, diaspora communities are reporting sharp rises in antisemitism and anti-Muslim bigotry.
The complex and sensitive nature of the conflict has left cultural institutions in Western countries struggling to respond.
The Artists for Palestine letter details a list of incidents in which it says artists have been silenced by cultural institutions for expressing pro-Palestinian views or calling for a ceasefire.
The letter accuses institutions of “targeting and threatening the livelihoods of artists and arts workers who express solidarity with Palestinians, as well as cancelling performances, screenings, talks, exhibitions and book launches”.
Incidents cited by the letter include Lisson Gallery’s cancellation of its Ai Wei Wei exhibition after the Chinese artist posted a statement on social media suggesting that the “sense of guilt around the persecution of the Jewish people” had been transferred and held against the Arab world. Wei Wei also referred to the strong influence of the Jewish community in the media, finance and culture of the US.
The gallery said there was “no place for debate that can be characterised as anti-Semitic or Islamophobic”.
Wei Wei said he had “attempted to be objective and neutral without moral judgment, accusations, or evaluation of human actions”. In a further statement, he defended free speech, saying: “If culture is a form of soft power, this represents a method of soft violence aimed at stifling voices.”
Other incidents mentioned in this week's letter include the cancellation of two Palestinian Film Festival events at Bristol’s Arnolfini arts centre. The Arnolfini said it had taken the decision to not the host the events because, as a charity, it could not “be confident that the event would not stray into political activity”, adding that it was beyond its resources to “adequately risk assess” such events at the current time.
In Germany, where there has been a strict clampdown on pro-Palestinian protests, an exhibition by the German-Jewish artist Candice Breitz was cancelled last week by the Saarlandmuseum in Saarbrucken, Germany, following the artist’s post criticising the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government for the “grotesque and inhumane bombardment of Gaza” while also expressing “deep empathy for the brutally violated and murdered civilians of Israel”.
And the future of Documenta, the art show that takes place in Kassel, central Germany, every five years, is also uncertain. The festival’s entire selection committee stepped down last month in protest at the treatment of fellow committee member Ranjit Hoskote, who resigned after being asked to distance himself from a 2019 petition supporting a boycott of Israel.
The Artists for Palestine letter continues: “We remind cultural organisations and their funders of their obligation to uphold the right to freedom of expression and to uphold their commitment to anti-discrimination. As artists and cultural workers, we stand in solidarity with those facing threats and intimidation in the workplace.”
Jewish communities in the UK are also feeling the impact of the conflict in their workplaces and public life. Many Jews have taken to concealing their religious identity in response to rising antisemitism, and there is a feeling that they are being held collectively responsible for the actions of the Israeli government. In the cultural workforce, some have expressed that they feel silenced and unable to speak about the issue.
There is also alarm among Jewish communities that the atrocities of 7 October have not been adequately acknowledged or condemned, as details continue to emerge about the extreme violence suffered by victims.
Jewish cultural workers believe that cultural institutions have a responsibility to tackle misinformation and denialism. “Our community of Holocaust survivors is bewildered by the whiff of Holocaust denial detectable in today’s denials that Hamas did not perpetrate this horrific pogrom,” Marc Cave, director of National Holocaust Centre and Memorial Museum in Nottinghamshire, told Museums Journal recently.
Museums Association conference discussion
In response to a request from Museum Detox, the network for people of colour in the sector, the Museums Association hosted a facilitated space at its annual conference in Newcastle-Gateshead last month where museum professionals could come together to discuss the role museums should play in serving communities, supporting staff, and responding to the conflict through exhibition programming and contemporary collecting.
Museums Association director Sharon Heal says: “We are appalled by the violence and loss of civilian lives in the region. The Museums Association sends solidarity to colleagues and everyone impacted in the UK and internationally and we extend our condolences to those who have lost family and friends to violence. We are opposed to all forms of antisemitism and anti-Muslim bigotry.
“We welcome the letter from Museum Detox and have used this to discuss our response with our trustees and the wider sector. We hosted a facilitated space at our recent conference to discuss the implications for museum workers and their communities, what role museums might play, and what guidance and resources delegates would find useful.
“There were a number of suggestions from the meeting and specific asks of museums. Delegates were keen that, as a minimum, museums should look after staff and provide space for focused conversations and care. Use of existing collections to open conversations about the issue and to tell the history of the region, and working with artists to foster creative responses was also discussed.
“The MA also has a role to play in providing frameworks and guidance on how to deal with the issue including guidance on wellbeing for staff; coverage on our website and in publications, and updating our decolonisation and anti-racism guidance.
“We have been in discussions with colleagues on the ground in Palestine and our trustees have committed to review our support for the sector, including our Humanitarian Support Fund.
“We also extended the online consultation on the review of the Code of Ethics and aim to include all feedback in our thinking about the new code.”