Art show criticising the Israeli regime’s crimes against Palestinians is shut down, but re-opens by popular demand (and common sense)
In an appalling display of cowardice Manchester University caved in to pressure from pro-Israel propagandists and closed an exhibition called “Cloud Studies” at the Whitworth Gallery (which is part of the university). The art show by the research agency Forensic Architecture formed part of the Manchester International Festival and brought together nine investigations into how states and corporations weaponise the air we breathe to suppress civilian protest and maintain and defend border regimes.
The featured studies took place in Chile, Indonesia, Louisiana, England, Beirut and Palestine. Their work in Palestine looked into human rights abuse, military action, including the use of white phosphorus, and environmental destruction through the use of herbicide by the Israeli regime. These revelations made Forensic Architecture a target for censorship by UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI) and other pro-Israel groups.
This statement of support for Palestine was written and signed by the artists and displayed at the exhibition: “For more on the remarkable visual impact of the “Cloud Studies” see, for example, [this] and [this]”
A battery of complaints, headed by UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI) and accusing the exhibition of hatred and anti-Semitism, led the university to instruct the Whitworth to remove the statement, thus silencing the artists’ criticism and censoring information about the Israeli military’s criminal behaviour towards Palestinian civilians. The UKLFI’s accusations, as usual, conflated criticism of misconduct by Israeli institutions with anti-Semitism. The University of Manchester meanwhile seemed to have forgotten that as an academic institution it is supposed to be a space for open expression and debate on complex issues and must protect the universal right to free speech and exchange of ideas.
The Palestine Solidarity Campaign immediately declared that the university’s decision to act as censor was a disservice to anti-racist campaigners, and any suggestion that accurately describing the oppression of Palestinians displays anti-Jewish prejudice demeans the fight against actual anti-Semitism. The university should have known that the pro-Israel groups lobbying them had their own deeply racist ties. “This includes UK Lawyers for Israel, who have platformed at their events the far right Israeli organisation Regavim. It also includes North-West Friends of Israel, who sent members to attend the March of Flags in Jerusalem, where far right Israelis march through the Palestinian quarters of occupied East Jerusalem chanting ‘Death to Arabs’.”
Who or what is Regavim? According to the Morning Stari, t’s a so-called charity founded in 2006 and run by and for illegal Israeli settlers. Its mission is described as “preserving Israel’s national lands” which, in reality, translates as an unrelenting campaign to demolish Palestinian homes and villages.
The extremist group [Regavim] achieves this through petitioning the Israeli state to issue and carry out demolition orders on structures built without permits by Palestinians. In Area C, which makes up 60 per cent of the West Bank, Palestinians must apply for Israeli-issued permits in order to build. But these are virtually impossible to obtain, meaning most construction has to be done “illegally”.
To throw more houses into the path of the bulldozers, the settler group also hires “fieldworkers” to spy on villages, often with drones, who identify “illegal” structures. A powerful propaganda machine underpins Regavim’s operation of ethnic cleansing. This machine peddles out a false narrative in which Palestine does not exist, and its villages are mere “illegal Arab outposts” built on “Israeli land”. But anyone with an ounce of knowledge about the situation knows that it is the Israeli settlements that are the illegal outposts built on stolen Palestinian land. Regavim’s shocking inversion of reality would be laughable if it wasn’t so effective in destroying lives.
A Haaretz article from 2016 established that, as well as being funded by public bodies in Israel,
Regavim also receives contributions from abroad, including from US non-profit organisations recognised as tax-exempt in the United States. For example, in 2013 the organisation received approximately 460,000 shekels [$142,000] from the Israel Independence Fund (Israel), which is funded by a US-based philanthropic organisation of the same name, according to a recent Haaretz investigation into organisations that funnel private US donations to the settlements. The organisation operates out of the offices of Kenneth Abramovitz, a donor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the chairman of American Friends of Likud. Regavim has also received tens of thousands of shekels in recent years from the Central Fund of Israel and the One Israel Fund, two American organisations that transfer millions of dollars annually to the settlements.
Then the climbdown
The other shameful element in this story is the university’s leadership. Take Dame Nancy Rothwell. This from Wikipedia:
In February 2021, the University of Manchester Students’ Union called a vote of no confidence in Rothwell (President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Manchester), the first time in the university’s history such a motion has been triggered. The students obtained the requisite 400 signatures to launch the referendum in hours. The campaign also called for the vice-chancellor to be elected by staff and students. In March 2021 the vote of no confidence was passed with the support of 89 per cent of voters. The vote, however, was non-binding and a spokesperson for the university said it had “full confidence” in Rothwell.
While acknowledging the lady’s brilliance as a scientist, don’t you think that any sensible person would have realised she was no longer welcome in that job and it was time to go?
UKLFI had told the university that the artists’ statement was full of inaccuracies and “seems designed to provoke racial discord” by trying to “falsely equate Israelis with white supremacists”. Just what was inaccurate isn’t disclosed, or maybe the university didn’t bother to ask. Instead, Professor Nalin Thakkar, the university’s vice-president for social responsibility, replied that he understood the concerns around the statement and “we consider it appropriate for it to be removed, which we have now done”.
Forensic Architecture responded by pulling Cloud Studies “with immediate effect” and the gallery tweeted that the exhibition was closed due to “unforeseen circumstances”.
Reaction around the country was such that the university did a swift U-turn. Alistair Hudson, the director of the Whitworth, issued a statement saying they had concluded that it was important for the exhibition to remain open in full.
The university, as a non-political organisation, has tried to balance extremely complex issues raised by the exhibition, but we believe that the worst outcome for all parties concerned would have been to close this exhibition… The exhibition expresses the views of the contributing artists, who have perspectives that come from their own experiences and the experiences of the communities and organisations who commission them… The Whitworth is mindful of artistic freedoms and the various duties which apply across the work of the gallery, including rights around freedom of speech and expression and academic freedom… Importantly, the Cloud Studies exhibition is shown in the protective and academic environment of a university gallery, and within the context of a history of art that has always encompassed provocation and challenge. Museums and galleries have traditionally been a space of experimentation and challenge, and the Whitworth is a place where we may be able to debate, discuss and disagree within a safe and empathetic environment.
The gallery would provide extra space for inclusion of other views and perspectives besides those of the artists.
Solidarity group Interfaith for Palestine UK poses the following questions:
- ïShould UK Jewish lawyers be using their legal skills to attempt to shut down free speech in the UK?
- ïShould the malicious behaviour of UKLFI be reported to the Charity Commissioners?
- ïWere these Jewish lawyers collaborating with the discredited Manchester-based NWFOI (North West Friends of Israel) entity in this attack?
- ïShould UKLFI issue an immediate and genuine apology to the Jewish Director of the Forensic Architecture organisation, Eyal Weizman, the Whitworth Art Gallery, the people of Manchester (which has a large Jewish population), the people of Palestine, undergoing the longest and best documented genocide in history, being carried out by the Jewish State?
My own two cents-worth is that frequent intimidation by UK Lawyers for Israel underlines the need for a Palestinian UK law centre to counter these moves and take on those who threaten free speech. In any event, they ought to be reported to the Law Society and the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Maybe that’s already been done. Regavim’s close involvement with the Israeli squatter movement, whose seizure of Palestinian land is a war crime, should ensure they are treated with the contempt they deserve and never invited here again.
Stuart Littlewood explains why British Prime Minister David Cameron’s unconditional support for Israel “is totally incompatible with the values we hold dear and is a stain on Britain and the British people”.24th October 2012
In “British stooges”