Everything in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to have two narratives. Even in art. Even in Pittsburgh. That’s the lesson of the exhibit of Israeli, Palestinian and American artists, which was to have opened Sunday at Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory museum but was canceled at the last minute.
“Sites of Passage: Borders, Walls & Citizenship” was to be the culmination of a joint multimedia project begun a year ago by a group of nine artists, composed of three Americans, three Israelis and three Palestinians. It was to be proof that art can be a point of creative contact between Israelis and Palestinians who want to engage with one another. As part of their own passage, the artists traveled together last year in the West Bank.
But last week, according to the show’s curator, the Palestinians began receiving threatening messages in Arabic on Facebook. The description of the exhibit used the words “collaboration” and “dialogue” — words that apparently have different meanings to artists and to Israel rejectionists — and the Facebook critics declared that the exhibit was a violation of the Arab cultural boycott of Israel, a serious offense.
To their credit, the Israelis tried to pull their Palestinian partners out of a tough spot. With magnanimity, they withdrew from the show on May 28 in an effort to remove the taint of the Palestinians being “collaborators.” Apparently that wasn’t enough. The Palestinians themselves pulled out the next day, and the project was abandoned. The museum and a related exhibition site, Filmmakers, followed up by posting an apology to “all Palestinians everywhere for the misunderstanding of this exhibition” on their websites. To Israelis and everyone else, they said nothing.
That was the first narrative. And that was bad enough.
The second narrative arose this week when one of the Palestinian artists blamed the city’s “Jewish lobby” for the cancellation of the show. He explained that after the Israelis withdrew, the Palestinians realized it wouldn’t be enough, because the “Zionist media” would “feed additional lies and stories” against the Palestinians.
As to what this artist could have been referring, we have no idea but feel it necessary to point out that until they withdrew, the image of the Palestinians was who they claimed to be: politically conscious artists whose feelings of injustice were backed by politically conscious Israelis.
In any event, regardless of the narrative, the Israeli artists showed sensitivity in trying to make the best of a bad situation. And the Palestinians, whether due to threats or otherwise, instead of letting their art tell their story, fell into the unfortunate image of hatred and bigotry, which in turn has been repeated in the media.
Everyone lost in this experiment: Pittsburgh’s philanthropic community that bankrolled the venture; the Israelis who went out on a limb only to be branded the enemy; and the Palestinian artists themselves, whose blind embrace of intolerance has undermined the very freedom of expression their artwork was meant to embrace.