In a special 3-part series, Asylum alum Abraham Kritzman, an artist and Barbur Gallery’s curator, talks about the gallery’s work, the attacks against it, and the team’s plans for the future, as they await the results of their appeal to Israel’s Supreme Court, and prepare to resume their operations in a new location here in Jerusalem.
Part 2 – Loyalty in Culture
My acquaintance with Barbur began in 2007 when I moved to Jerusalem in order to study at Bezalel’s Fine Art Department. I had rented a flat across the alley from the gallery, and began attending exhibitions and attending the different programming. I quickly got to know the gallery’s community and its team, some of whom were my lecturers at the time. Some years later, I began working as a lecturer myself at Bezalel. I started holding end-of-year gallery exhibitions with my students at Barbur, and in 2017, I joined the gallery team as a curator.
For the first two months in this role, the job seemed pretty straightforward. But things took an unexpected turn as our quiet gallery, tucked into a narrow alley far from Tel Aviv’s art scene, suddenly became the center of a political storm.
A few words on the ‘cultural climate’ that was taking shape in Israel at the time might be in order here. In 2015, Miri Regev was appointed Israel’s minister of culture. A populist Likud member, she set about advancing a legislative approach quickly dubbed ‘freedom of funding’ – a contrarian play on the Hebrew phrase for freedom of speech, or expression. According to this view, the government has the freedom to withdraw public funding from institutions that did not fit its definition of ‘national loyalty.’ And so, ‘the Loyalty in Culture Law’ was passed during her tenure. Regev’s initiative (infamously) stands in direct opposition to the guidelines and recommendations set out by Israel’s Supreme Court and the Government Law Adviser for Culture – that artistic and cultural activities should encourage a public discourse in current issues, political and social, and that cultural institutions should be a meeting place for people from different sides of the social spectrum. The Israel Democracy Institute describes the law as “an attempt to create propaganda art, to damage freedom of speech and expression, and to foster internal censorship within cultural institutions.”
Musical session in Fugue In Three Voices, Roger Ychai, Noga Farchy, and Mia Yankovich Shentser. Barbur Gallery, 2019
In February 2017, the gallery hosted a public lecture by ‘Breaking the Silence’ – an anti-occupation NGO formed by a group of former IDF soldiers, who share their experiences from their military service in the occupied territories. ‘Breaking the Silence’ has probably drawn more fire from right-wing activists and politicians in Israel/Palestine than any other group.
Ahead of the event, Regev publicly called via a Facebook post to Jerusalem’s then-mayor Nir Barkat to shut down the gathering. Barkat subsequently called on the gallery to cancel the evening. After Barbur refused to do so, the national media took an interest, and then around 100 people mostly members of Lehava, a Jewish far-right organization that was denounced by the President of Israel Reuven Rivlin as an “alt-right” movement, assembled outside the gallery to protest the event. They were met by some 300 people who came out to support the event and oppose the ultra-right presence and the Lehava flags. Israel’s three main news channels each sent reporters and TV crews, and the confrontation was broadcast live on the national evening news. The event took place with the gallery at full capacity, with an audience of 100.
According to Regev and Barkat, such a display of disloyalty to the state warranted the stripping of any and all municipal resources. And indeed, Barkat (who had at that point embarked on his semi-successful ascension of Likud party ranks) subsequently froze municipal funding of Barbur. In June 2017, the municipality petitioned the court to evict the gallery. In April and June of 2018, the municipality requested the court stop two events from happening: an open discussion on the joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Service, and the launch of the book ‘Nakba in Hebrew’ (Nakba means catastrophe in Arabic, the 1948 Palestinian exodus where more than 700,000 Palestinian fled or were expelled from their homes, during the 1948 Palestine war). The court, however, ruled in favor of the gallery both times and affirmed the legal status and necessity of such events. Both events took place as planned.
While this succession of events aroused national media interest, they were not the first attempts at censorship by the municipality. In late 2016, the city requested the gallery cancel plans to host a course on economics and governance for the Ultra-Orthodox public, by the NGO ‘Darkenu.’ This came on the heels of other events hosted by human rights groups Ta’ayush and Free Jerusalem.
Having realized that there was no legal case to be made against the gallery hosting such events, and that Barbur would not bow to such demands, the municipality changed its strategy: the space which Barbur was using, the city said, was simply needed in order to construct a new kindergarten.
An event for ‘Shekel’, Inclusion for People with Disabilities, Barbur Gallery, 2018
The scope of this piece does not nearly allow for a thorough account of the legal proceedings and its repercussions on the gallery’s operation and the community it serves. With an elementary knowledge of Jerusalem’s zoning policies and a modicum of honesty, it is clear that the municipality’s use of zoning as a new way to evict Barbur was entirely political. As such, This new line of attack runs counter to the city’s legal obligations towards its various publics. Indeed, even the judge who ultimately allowed this procedural reasoning to move forward, expressed such a view.
Beyond the direct attempts to curtail gallery activities and shut its doors, the municipality’s pressure against Barbur manifested itself in a range of ways, large and small: from the stripping of municipal funding to non-inclusion in the municipal list of art galleries. Barbur has been subject to sustained bureaucratic aggression. Thankfully, over the past several years, Barbur has been operating under the wings of Bar Kayma, a Jerusalem NGO working tirelessly to promote and strengthen the city’s cultural workers via broad assistance with bureaucratic affairs.
Due to these events and their publicity, Barbur has been turned into a household name across Israel. For many people, the gallery became synonymous with the notions of disloyalty being stoked by Netanyahu’s government. For a large (yet retreating) public that refuses to align with government censorship and insists on the need for space for open public discussion, Barbur’s ensuing, years-long struggle made it a symbol for free speech under increasingly brazen attacks. This struggle has been aided by Yossi Havilio, Jerusalem councilman, a longtime defender of free speech in the city. We were also fortunate to receive the pro-bono legal assistance of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
It is crucial to see the assault on Barbur within the larger context of government-driven censorship – a sad list of pertinent cases includes, but is not limited to the defunding of the Al-Midan Theatre in Haifa, the dismantling of the Acre Fringe Theatre Festival, and threats to the Haifa Film Festival.
The grand finale of the 2017 Barbur B&B – the gallery’s annual residency program taking place each August and hosting creatives from all disciplines for a 24 stay and culminating in an exhibition and public event.