Friday, September 30, 2011

Could censorship of children's art prove a turning point?

Henry Norr

If I were one of the Zionist operatives who pressured the Museum of Children's Art in Oakland to cancel the exhibit of Gaza children's drawings, I'd be kicking myself right now.

If they'd simply ignored the whole thing and let its scheduled two-month run proceed, probably no more than a few hundred people, most of them school children, would have seen the show. It's not as if MOCHA is a major attraction.

But thanks to the ham-handed censorship engineered by the Jewish establishment - and the determined fight-back of the Middle East Children's Alliance and others opposed to such bullying - thousands of people around the world have seen the kids' pictures.

Last Saturday 500 or so crowded into a makeshift storefront gallery and spilled over into the street outside at an upbeat grand opening of the show around the corner from MOCHA - see Annie's description here, video here (including the music of the Brass Liberation Orchestra, featuring my daughter Sarah on snare drum), more video and photos here and here, and a frustrated Zionist take on the event here. Thousands more have seen at least some of the images online - here at Mondoweiss, on Facebook, on YouTube, even in a slideshow posted on the online editorial pages of the two largest newspapers in the East Bay.

Lots more Bay Area residents and visitors will get a chance to see the pictures in person this fall, as they will remain on display at MECA's new gallery for the next two months at 917 Washington Street in Oakland, a block from Broadway between 9th St. and 10th St. (MECA is still trying to work out hours and staffing, so before you head for the show, check at, email, or call (510) 548-0542.)

And after the Oakland run is over, the show will very likely continue elsewhere - MECA's been swamped with requests from groups all over the world who want to show it next.

Powerful as the pictures are, another aspect of this episode may prove even more important in the long run: it has brought the power of the local Israel lobby, and their determination to use it to suppress Palestinian perspectives, out into the open, for all to see. That's partly because the Anti-Defamation League and its allies can't resist boasting about their "victory," Pyrrhic as it may be. But it's also because MECA and friends have worked hard to spell out what we all know really went down here, despite the MOCHA board's attempt at apologetic obfuscation. Outraged activists spread the story far and wide via listservs, Twitter, Facebook, etc., and MOCHA's e-mail account and Facebook page (apparently now closed down) were barraged with indignant messages. A protest rally outside MOCHA last Friday afternoon (video and photos here and here), in the run-up to Saturday's opening, wasn't huge, but it attracted representatives from some important constituencies beyond the usual Palestine-solidarity activists. Much of the organizing energy behind the event came from San Francisco's Arab Resource & Organizing Center, and dozens of Muslim Americans (including a slew of young women in hijab) turned out.

In addition, Betty Olson-Jones, president of the Oakland Education Association (the local teachers' union), read a powerful letter, approved unanimously by the OEA executive boad, condemning the museum board's decision to cancel the show. (Despite its name, MOCHA is mainly an art-in-the-schools program, so the teachers' statement carries particular weight.) And Cecilie Surasky of Jewish Voice for Peace delivered a forceful and well-received speech condemning the censorship from a Jewish perspective.

Clearly the museum board has felt the heat. One piece of evidence: During the Friday rally MECA associate director Ziad Abbas reported that a representative of the board had called just a half hour earlier and offered to have "A Child's View from Gaza" shown at MOCHA after all - provided MECA would agree to some unspecified "modifications" to the show. Appropriately, MECA director Barbara Lubin apparently told MOCHA where to stick that idea - in addition to a principled refusal to allow the childrens' expression to be censored, MECA had already that morning signed a two-month lease on the storefront around the corner, which is actually a much more visible location than the museum itself.

Even the mainstream corporate media has covered the controversy, on the whole much more fairly than they usually do when the topic involves Palestine. The San Francisco Chronicle pointedly listed several past MOCHA exhibits that included images of violence, belying the museum board's sudden reluctance to expose children to such sights. The two main East Bay papers (now owned, like nearly all newspapers in the Bay Area except the Chronicle, by one company) have been even better: In addition to the editorial Adam excerpted here, both the Oakland Tribune and the Contra Costa Times, which claims a circulation of about 168,00 in other sections of the East Bay, have carried two excellent columns by staff columnists shredding MOCHA's decision to cancel the exhibit - here and here.

I'm not sure about TV - I hardly ever watch it - but the story has also been all over the radio, and not just on Pacifica's KPFA. Predictably, National Public Radio's story on Weekend Edition Saturday gave a lot of time to Rabbi Douglas Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the East Bay, apparently one of the principal perps in this case. So did Michael Krasny during a half-hour segment on Forum, a popular interview show aired on KQED, the Bay Area's largest public radio outlet, yesterday. But both shows also gave the outspoken Barbara Lubin considerable time to lay out her perspective.

On KALW, San Francisco's alternative public radio station, Dore Stein, DJ of a wonderful Saturday evening music show called Tangents, devoted the segment he calls Gaza Corner, a weekly feature on the show since the 2010 flotilla attack, to the MOCHA case last weekend. And yesterday (as Annie noted in comments at the time) host Rose Aguilar, host of KALW's popular Your Call interview show, devoted her whole hour to discussion and call-ins with MECA associate director Abbas and Susan Greene, a clinical psychologist and artist who has worked on Palestine-themed murals in Gaza, the West Bank, Olympia, WA, and San Francisco as part of the Break the Silence Mural Project.

Obviously, none of this debate changes the facts on the ground in Palestine, and the power of the Israel lobby in national politics seems to go stronger by the week. But even though the lobby likes to show off its power on ceremonial occasions, it prefers to do its dirty work in the dark, and forcing its machinations out into the open, as I think we've done to a significant degree in this case, can only lead more Americans to question and eventually challenge it. Alice Walker, in her inspiring blog post on MOCHA's cancellation of the Gaza exhibit, compared it to the Daughters of the American Revolution's infamous 1939 refusal to allow Marian Anderson, the celebrated black contralto, to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. That decision provoked widespread outrage, and Anderson eventually sang instead on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before an integrated crowd of 75,000 and a national radio audience. The incident is now remembered as a milestone in the demise of overt racial segregation in this country.

Of course, Anderson had Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt on her side, at least in that dispute. Today, unfortunately, Barack Obama has unabashedly lined up on the side of the racists when it comes to Israel/Palestine (as has Michelle, if only by her silence). Still, the resistance that's greeted the cancellation of "A Child's View From Gaza" over the last few weeks leaves me thinking that this incident might yet go down as something of a turning point, at least in the Bay Area and perhaps beyond, in the battle against Zionist thought control.

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