Public Comment

Oakland Children's Art Museum's Ban on Palestinian Works is Futile

By Joanna Graham
Friday September 16, 2011 - 10:32:00 AM

In summer 2005, Berkeley resident John Gertz confirmed to a Daily Planet reporter the rumors that he had indeed packed the Peace and Justice Commission with persons who could be depended on not to criticize Israel.“What I have observed is that a lot of people were sick of the commission being run by the lunatic left and some brave people came forward to put a stop to it,” he said.

Although I was at the time aware of widespread censorship activities by the Jewish lobby, I was naively shocked to learn that the same processes were at work in liberal Berkeley, the home of the Free Speech Movement, a city where people frequently and publicly debate each other over everything possibly debatable. 


As a result of my shock and upset, I wrote an op-ed to the Berkeley Daily Planet, one which proved to be the first of several I would write over the ensuing years. Because I saw the Planet as a local paper focusing on local issues, in none of these did I ever address the Israel/Palestine conflict directly nor U.S. foreign policy with respect to it. Rather, I wrote only about what I had written about that first time: local actions of the Jewish lobby to control what might or might not be said about these issues. My concern was that people might have the freedom to learn, think, speak, and take action about Israel as about anything else and I saw my commentaries as a contribution towards exposing a national, in fact international, operation to prevent this. 


As all Daily Planet readers know, three men—John Gertz, Dan Spitzer, and Jim Sinkinson—took it upon themselves to destroy the paper because it was providing in its open editorial page policy a rarely available platform for dialogue about Israel. It’s hard for me to describe the frustration and hopelessness I felt while watching them go about their business of intimidation so systematically and relentlessly, especially because I knew that their efforts were being duplicated—and similarly succeeding—in hundreds, even thousands of localities, wherever anyone, no matter how out-of-the-way, unimportant, or inadvertent, either suggested alternatives to the official Israeli narrative or provided space for someone else to do so. 


In those years in which the Planet struggle was going on, the conflict which had generated it also felt intractable. I grew used to hearing many different speakers— Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians; Jews and non-Jews; academicians, politicians, artists, soldiers, and activists—end their talks by saying “I see no way out,” expressing the same gloomy conclusion which I myself had reached. Eventually, however, I came to believe that although at that time the situation was intractable, eventually it would not be, on the grounds that in general nothing ever stays the same, and that Israel (in particular) is an inherently unstable project, based as it is on preservation of a Jewish majority, addition of land to its (undefined) territory, maintenance of regional hegemony through a combination of alliances with unpopular leaders and military threat, and reliance on unquestioning U.S. support—none of which is likely to last forever. 


This past Saturday, the San Francisco Chronicle published an article about the cancellation—due to unspecified “pressure from the community”—by the Oakland Museum of Children’s Art (MOCHA) of an exhibition of children’s art from Gaza which had been brought here by the Middle East Children’s Alliance and which was due to open in two weeks. 


This is the sort of thing that not long ago would have raised my blood pressure and even possibly generated still another letter to the Planet editor. Now, although I called the museum to protest and will do whatever else I can to urge them to reverse their decision, I found myself remarkably not upset. I felt as if whoever is behind the “community pressure" might as well not bother to stick their fingers in the dyke because the water is already pouring through. My response is a measure of all the remarkable changes that have happened during the past six-year period of (apparent) hopeless immobility. I here list five. 


(1) Israel’s own aggressions, particularly the summer 2006 attack on Lebanon, the January 2009 attack on Gaza, and the 2010 attack on the Gaza flotilla. While Israel may have had internal reasons for these undertakings, it failed to take into consideration a changed world—among other things linked together by the Internet and no longer dependent on big media—in which its justifications proved ineffectual. It should be mentioned also that Israel lost the Lebanon “war,” its first loss ever, representing an incalculable shift in power relations in the region. 


(2) The emergence of a dynamic new generation of leadership in Palestine (including many women) who are smart, media savvy, internationalist in outlook, focused on clear goals, pragmatic, and inventive. Israel is having difficulty mustering the same old outrage and disdain against nonviolent protestors marching to the wall in “Avatar” costumes, for example, or against an international college- and church-based coalition using the classic nonviolent tactics of boycott, divestment, and sanctions that it mustered successfully against Arafat in his military uniform, keffiyeh, and scraggly beard. 


(3) The battles now raging in the American Jewish community where the longtime repression of dissent re Israel has collapsed. News of this development has yet to reach Washington, from which, for example, 81 congressmembers, 1/3 of the freshmen class, visited Israel this summer because they could not afford not to. Nevertheless, this accelerating breakdown of solidarity among American Jews will, I believe, eventually release the government from its Israel commitment, from which it already would clearly love to be released. 


(4) The suddenly emergent and ongoing struggle of Arab people across the Middle East and North Africa for control of their own lives. 


(5) The rapid and stunning decline of the U.S. as a world force, economically, militarily, and morally, and the tentative emergence of other power centers. 


Thus, as the PLO plans to go forward with its bid for state recognition in the U.N. next week, the effort to keep children’s art out of a children’s art museum in Oakland looks, in context, rather more futile than similar actions undertaken a mere six years ago. 


I still can see absolutely no good way out of the impasse that is the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, at least not one that is even imaginably politically feasible, and I cannot exclude many terrible possible futures, up to and including the employment of a paranoid Israel’s nuclear arsenal. 


All I can say is that in the summer of 2005 I could not have imagined writing what I have just written now. As Bob Dylan sang, “The times they are a-changing,” and as Zhou Enlai supposedly remarked about the French Revolution, “It’s too soon to tell.”