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A Visual Petition

February 1, 2007 By:
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An untitled silkscreen by Israeli painter Yitzhak Livneh
Created by Israeli and Palestinian artists, the 35 silkscreen prints now on display at Haverford College vary from highly abstract works to more direct representations; from the conciliatory -- a depiction of Palestinian and Israeli flags entwined with a white dove flying overhead -- to more charged expressions of war, conflict and loss in the holy land.

While the pieces are untitled, and the exhibit offers little interpretive information, the name of this display speaks volumes: "35 Prints, 35 Years of Occupation: 35 Israeli and Palestinian Artists Against the Occupation and for a Common Tomorrow." (The prints were initially shown together in Jaffa, Israel, back in 2002, timed with the 35th anniversary of Israel's victory in the Six-Day War.)

The exhibit, which runs until Feb. 25, finds itself at the crossroads of a number of ongoing debates, not the least of which is the age-old conundrum: To what extent can artistic expression and political rhetoric meaningfully co-exist?

In addition, the installation also comes at a time of renewed ideological struggle -- owed partly to the firestorm raised by former president Jimmy Carter's latest book equating the Jewish state with apartheid-era South Africa -- over whether it is Israel's settlement of the West Bank, or the Palestinian's refusal to compromise and recognize the legitimacy of the Jews there, that fuels the hostilities.

And, of course, the hosting of the exhibit is the latest in a string of incidents that has prompted many in the pro-Israel community to openly worry that the Jewish state isn't receiving a fair shake on campuses across the country, and that students are being inculcated with only one perspective.

"The exhibit is like a visual petition. It's like signing a petition and agreeing to principles, and every artist represents a different imagery, a different world, and the expression is completely individual," said Larry Abramson, 53, an established Israeli painter with one print included in the exhibit he helped organize with 59-year-old Suleiman Mansour, a Palestinian Christian who teaches painting and sculpture at Al Quds University in eastern Jerusalem.

The two recently spent several days at the Main Line campus to participate in a series of events connected to the display.

'Full of Treachery'

The exhibition statement, which sums up 25 years of political activism on the part of the two artists, calls for an end to Israeli's presence in the West Bank, a two-state solution, a shared Jerusalem and use of nonviolent means to resolve conflict.

"I am an Israeli patriot. I say that loudly and clearly," said Abramson. "But for me, my patriotism was founded on a critical point of view. Just accepting the current policy is full of treachery."

"35 Prints" showcases the work of 17 Palestinian artists and 18 Israeli artists, including Israeli Arabs and Druze. The Jaffa-based Har-El Printers & Publishers produced and replicated the prints free of charge, allowing the works to show in venues throughout the world.

Linda Bell, a Haverford economics professor, heard about the exhibit, and last spring discussed the possibility of hosting the works at the college with the faculty-run Cantor Fitzgerald Art Gallery Committee. The group ultimately decided to bring the exhibit to the campus, and also sought college funding to bring in two of the artists.

Bell declined to comment on the exhibit, but John VanNess, a college spokesman, said that the cooperative efforts of Israeli and Palestinian artists fits perfectly with the Main Line school's Quaker heritage -- something it shares with nearby Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr colleges -- and it's commitment to peace and conflict resolution.

"The arts are a unique way to facilitate a dialogue that wouldn't happen otherwise," he explained.

Not everyone agrees with that theory.

"I think the exhibit reinforces the idea that is so prevalent in the media that the problem is the Israeli occupation. It's solidifying the notion that Israel is at fault," said Lori Lowenthal Marcus, president of the Philadelphia Chapter of the Zionist Association of America.

Marcus contrasted Haverford's decision to show the exhibit with events last spring at Penn State University, where an exhibition of paintings by a Jewish artist that depicted Palestinian terrorism was canceled. The university later apologized.

Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, said that Hillel staff members and Jewish student leaders at Haverford would use the interest generated by the exhibit to attract more students to pro-Israel programs planned for the next few months.

"It would have been nice had the exhibit created a historical context for the discussion. It's unfortunate that it did not," bemoaned Alpert. "The exhibit -- and many programs like it -- point to the strong need for Israel advocacy and education on all of our college campuses."

He added that pro-Israel programs at Haverford would be the focus of discussion at next week's meeting of the Israel on Campus Coalition, which includes Hillel, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Zionist Organization of America and the Israeli Consulate. He also added that it's possible that an Israel advocacy day already scheduled for March at the University of Pennsylvania could be moved to Haverford.

Taking a peek last Friday through Haverford's Cantor Fitzgerald Art Gallery -- named in 1994 after a financial gift to the school, years before the attacks on the World Trade Center killed more than 600 of the investment firm's employees -- the artists explained that when they began working together in the early 1980s, their joint projects were about protesting Israel's military and civilian presence in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. (Israel withdrew from Gaza in August 2005.)

However, the two said that in the 1990s, the focus of the work shifted toward encouraging reconciliation, following the signing of the Oslo peace accords.

But is it fair to say that after Israeli premier Ehud Barak proposed a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem -- an offer rejected by Palestinian Authority chief Yasser Arafat at Camp David in 2000 -- that "occupation" is the greatest obstacle to Middle East peace? Especially when the idea's considered now, after the Gaza withdrawal, the ascendancy of Hamas and a war promulgated by Hezbollah.

"It's impossible; no one Palestinian" could have accepted that deal, said Mansour, declaring that the terms would not have amounted to a functioning Palestinian state, but permanent dependency on Israel.

Abramson had a different response. "The argument that Israelis offered it all and Palestinians rejected it, so what? What are you going to do tomorrow? All we are doing is putting out a beacon, a kind of lighthouse, to show the way to two states."

On Jan. 29, more than 50 students attended a gallery talk by the two artists. Waiting for the presentation to begin, an 18-year-old freshman sporting a "Sesame Street" T-shirt checked out the work, including one that depicted an Israeli tank firing shells.

"I think it's pretty cool," said Samee Sulaiman, whose parents are Palestinian. "It's blunt, and it doesn't try to sanitize what's going on."

Another student, donning a sweatshirt with Hebrew letters, practically ran in the other direction when asked his views.

During the talk, Abramson -- who began by quoting the late professor Edward Said, a literary critic and pro-Palestinian activist -- said that while Israel and the United States are fully-functioning democracies, they both promote oppressive policies and deny civil rights to other peoples. He also argued that Israeli and Palestinian artists who had taken strong political stands had helped move support for a two-state solution from a fringe idea to one accepted by the mainstream.

The artists were largely praised by students and professors during the question-and-answer session that followed. Yet one student did inquire as to why the artists called for a two-state solution, instead of one, binational state.

Abramson said that in a perfect world, a binational state might work, though in practical terms, the two-state solution is the only idea with a chance of success.

Mansour replied that first, Israelis and Palestinians needed to prove they can live side by side in two nations. "After that, I think it will be one state."

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