Wall of Silence: Anna Dezeuze on Art and the Climate of Censorship That Bedevils Relations between the US, Israel and the Palestinians
Dezeuze, Anna, Art Monthly
FORMER US PRESIDENT AND NOBEL PEACE PRIZE-WINNER JIMMY CARTER IS ONE OF THE LATEST--and perhaps one of the unlikeliest--high-profile victims of the American Anti-Defamation League's attack on public figures who voice criticism of Israeli policies. Along with the lobby known as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and the Global Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, voted by Congress in 2004, the ADL has largely contributed to the climate of covert censorship and self-censorship that, for the last five years, has been plaguing American public debates over the relations between Israel and the US, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general. Last year alone, an academic article in The London Review of Books that discussed the powerful role of AIPAC in American politics sparked raging torrents of controversy, while a pamphlet by Alvin H Rosenfeld on the 'anti-semitism' of contemporary Jewish thinkers published by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) condemned even a moderate historian such as Tony Judt for suggesting a bi-national solution to the current conflict. (A lecture by Judt in New York in October 2006 was cancelled under pressure from both the AJC and the ADL.) The omnipresent pro-Israeli censorship hinges overall on the problematic notion of 'effect' according to which, as the President of Harvard University succinctly explained back in 2002, criticisms of Israeli policies were 'anti-semitic in their effect if not their intent'. In this context, culture--a sphere in which 'effects' are usually more difficult to pin down--could ideally present itself as one of the few spaces where such sensitive topics could be addressed freely. Such was my naive supposition at least when, on a trip to New York last March, I prepared to visit two exhibitions that seemed ready to venture into this fraught terrain. At David Zwirner, Francis Alys was showing his Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic, also known as The Green Line, a work that he made in Jerusalem in 2005 and that explores the historical division of the city after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. At the same time, the Jewish Museum was presenting 'Dateline Israel: New Photography and Video Art', a group exhibition purporting to present (according to the press release) 'a complicated view of Israel and its people' through lens-based artworks created since the second intifada in 2000.
My willingness to praise the Jewish Museum for its courageous foray into Israel's recent history was unfortunately short-lived. In fact, the only reason 'Dateline Israel' can be called controversial is that it so resolutely tries to eschew any polemic. While the Museum of Modern Art's 'Without Boundary: 17 Ways of Looking' last year eluded any global political issues by privileging the exclusively aesthetic elements of 'contemporary Islamic art' (see Feature by Pryle Behrman AM298), the depoliticisation at work in 'Dateline Israel' is far more subtle. The exhibition claims to address contemporary politics directly, and is indeed replete with references to contemporary Israeli society (from soldiers and checkpoints to refugees and the controversial separation wall erected across the West Bank). Moreover, none of the works promotes a triumphant image of Israel: rather, the overall mood is one of melancholy. As a wall text informs us, the 23 artists in the exhibition 'view Israel since the year 2000 as a society that has outgrown the utopian model of its settlement or statehood'. This coming-of-age narrative alerts us to the biased nature of this very melancholy: not only has Israel's utopia very much been the Palestinians' dystopia, but many intellectuals and activists in Israel itself have discussed the problematic nature of the historical 'model' mobilised in the creation of Israel as a state. Melancholy captures neither the frustration of these Israeli critics nor the stance of 'undefeated despair' that characterises, according to John Berger, most Palestinians today. …