The MOCHA board really should have read Machiavelli and or a primer on Middle Eastern politics before they naively waded into this mess.
For 22 years, the Museum of Children’s Art (MOCHA) has focused on providing art instruction and community outreach for the children of Oakland.
This month, the Old Oakland museum staff and board members found themselves embroiled in what one board member described as “the most contentious issue on the planet.”
MOCHA was set to open an exhibit called “A Child’s View from Gaza,” featuring drawings and paintings made by Palestinian children living in Gaza. Unfortunately for the museum, the exhibit was sponsored by MECA, the Middle East Children’s Alliance, an organization with a long history of using inflammatory rhetoric to advance an anti-Israel agenda.
The exhibit depicts graphic, violent scenes of war, bloody bodies, burning buildings and numerous images of soldiers identified with large Jewish stars as inhuman, evil barbarians.
The public events organized around the exhibit, including a workshop led by Khalil Bendib, a cartoonist well know for anti-Semitic images, reveal MECA’s strategy to use the museum to disseminate highly-charged propaganda and advance their political-bias.
Then on September 8, after months of planning the exhibit with sponsoring group Middle East Children’s Alliance, MOCHA cancelled the event.
Board member Randolph Belle said the decision was based on the violent nature of some of the work in the show. “Basically we got some [calls from] concerned parents, the Jewish Federation and MOCHA community members,” Belle said, “stating that they didn’t feel that children should be exposed to these images in a public space.”
Belle describes MOCHA as a small organization that was caught off-guard and overwhelmed by the emotional reaction the exhibit generated. “We probably did not diligently look at the implications of having this show,” he said. “I don’t know if it was naïveté or just a misjudgment, but there were some mistakes made, and we are paying for them right now.”
Did the museum really not see the art before committing to the show? It had already been displayed at a library in Maine, and much of it is featured on the Middle East Children’s Alliance’s web site. The larger problem with Sorey’s explanation is that the museum has shown children’s portrayals of war before. In 2004, after the United States began fighting in Iraq, it exhibited art by Iraqi children. In 2007, it displayed children’s art from World War II, including images of Hitler, sinking ships, terrified Jews.
It is true that the children of Gaza are victims – as all children are victims in war. But they are foremost victims of the Hamas leadership who provoked the war in Gaza, who use children as human shields to protect military targets, and who are indoctrinating yet another generation into a culture of terror and hate.
Before this controversy, MOCHA had no official exhibition policy, and the “Child’s View of Gaza” exhibit was accepted with a simple up-and-down vote by the board. “In retrospect,” Belle said, “we should have done things differently.”
While “no one threatened to pull [MOCHA] funding or anything else like that,” Belle said, the burden placed on the organization by a controversial exhibit was just too great a risk. “We can make a statement, or we can serve our constituencies,” he said.
Over the past weeks, MOCHA has been accused of censorship, of silencing the voices of child victims, and worse. MOCHA made the right decision; the accusations are unfounded.
The accusation of censorship is both mean-spirited and inaccurate. Educational institutions, and even movie theaters, routinely — and rightly — decide which presentations are appropriate for young children. The issue here is not whether MECA can mount its exhibit, but whether a private institution with a mission to provide a safe place for children is an appropriate venue to do so.
At a protest in front of the Childrens museum, Ziad Abbas of the Middle East Childrens alliance said that MOCHA had agreed to host this exhibit, but asked that a few changes be made. His organization refused to compromise. This revealation certainly casts MECA in a different light. This is less about their claim of “censorship” and more about MECA’s inability to compromise, and their desire to milk this controversy for all it’s worth.
MECA does not acknowledge that there are two sides to the Israel-Palestinian conflict: To the group, Israel is evil and Palestinians are good. And the art it planned to display in Oakland reflects that perspective: An Israeli soldier shoots an unarmed man in the head. Babies bleed while Israeli soldiers watch. A combat boot bearing a Jewish star stomps on the Palestinian flag.
There’s no sense here that Israeli Jews suffer in this conflict as well. There’s no sense that this is a land in which everyone lives with the threat of violence. There is no sense of historicity, of the fact that both peoples have legitimate claims to this land, or that the Hamas charter calls for the obliteration of Israel.
There is no mention of the thousands of Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks on the city of Sderot, of the Ma’alot massacre that killed 22 Jewish children, the Dolphinarium dance club suicide bombing that killed 21 Jewish teenagers, the shooting at the Mercaz HaRav yeshiva that killed seven kids, or last month’s shooting on a public bus in Eilat that killed five.
Faith Metlzer, of San Francisco Voice for Israel, said she was relieved the exhibit would not be shown at the museum. “The art has anti-Semitic, as well as anti-American, symbolism,” she said. “To me, things like this—bombs with Jewish stars on them—it’s just a way of demonizing our people and our religion.”
Metlzer said she worried about how the exhibit would have affected Jewish children in Oakland. “How would you go around with a Jewish star on a T-shirt or on a chain, when the symbol of your people and of your religion has become a hate symbol?” she asked.
Marjorie Ingall wrote for Table Magazine. “I wish that the museum had realized from the start that they were showing only one side of a complex political struggle and chosen to work with an organization like Seeds of Peace or Hand in Hand that would have given a broader picture of this conflict. I wish that Jewish organizations, instead of snuffing out the show, had helped the museum to find children’s art showing that Israeli Jews suffer too. And most of all, I wish the museum had chosen to mount an exhibit that showed that there are groups and individuals on both sides of this bloody conflict who are working for peace and who present a non-cartoonish view of The Other. Slamming the door on dialogue serves no one.”
MECA’s Barbara Lubin doesn’t understand this. She’s correct in calling this incident an “insistence to silence the voices of Palestinian children.” What she doesn’t get is that free speech is an all-or-nothing proposition. Over a decade ago, Lubin was one of the organizers of an attempt to stifle a point of view she didn’t agree with.
“In December 2000, she led a group of 200 demonstrators in storming the Berkeley Community Theatre before a speech by Benjamin Netanyahu. “He has a right to free speech, but we have a right to try and stop him,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time. If Lubin believes she has the right to silence others, how can she object when others try to silence her? Free speech doesn’t work that way.”
At a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise and the effort to delegitimize Israel is more virulent than ever, a children’s museum should not be adding to the hate filled attacks.
By the way, the art is on display in a storefront about a minute’s walk from the museum.
BBB Report on MECA: http://www.bbb.org/charity-reviews/national/children-and-youth/middle-east-childrens-alliance-in-berkeley-ca-21129
Seeds of Peace: http://www.seedsofpeace.org/
Hand in Hand: http://www.handinhandk12.org/