Monday, May 26, 2008

A Tale of Two Exhibitions

The corporate media's idea of what is and isn't newsworthy never ceases to amaze.

Screaming headlines, front page reports, assorted commentary and opinion pieces, photographs, and soundbites from Kevin Rudd ("absolutely revolting") on down, all occasioned by Bill Henson's abortive NSW Police-interdicted exhibition of photographs of naked child models, have rained down on us for days now. That's the news that's fit to print.

Another abortive NSW Police-interdicted exhibition received no such media attention, apart from a May 13 report in the Sydney Morning Herald and a May 14 piece on Radio National's PM program. No, this exhibition wasn't about what could, in the eyes of some, be construed as porn, but about worse, much worse. It was about Palestine.

The Herald reported that plods from the NSW police anti-terrorism squad had paid a visit to Sydney's Leichhardt Council on the eve of an exhibition about the Palestinian Nakba set up in the library's foyer by local group Friends of Hebron. This had led to Council canning the exhibition because, in the words of the mayor, "it hadn't met the council's criteria for such projects, which include not being divisive." A police media spokesman was reported as saying that "the officers were from the community contact unit, which falls within its Counter Terrorism Operations. They had not visited the library to tell it to cancel the exhibition, but only to 'say hi' to Friends of Hebron." (We're just here to say hi: terror squad)

The mayor apparently objected to some of the photographs' captions, "including one that said Palestinian children going to school needed protection from children from Israel who were throwing stones," and was quoted as saying, "Being in a public library is different to being in an exhibition space. If you're in an exhibition space and someone knows they are going into the exhibition, they expect to be educated and confronted. But most people going into a library just want to return books."

The mayor's superb grasp of the issues, not to mention her way with words, were further aired on PM: "The sort of thing was Israeli children throwing stones at the Palestinians on the way to school and another thing was that they are destroying this house so that they can get it, the Israelis are. There was another thing about... there was the first image was a bombed down house with a how would you feel if the Israelis did this to your house."

The head librarian, apparently too traumatised to speak herself, was quoted by a FoH spokesperson, as saying that the police "had put the fear of God into her and the staff and everyone in the library felt intimidated by... the 'Men in Black'."

However, the piece de resistance (If I can use that word without exciting the attention of Men in Black who just want to drop in and say hi) was the PM reporter's hilarious exchange with Peter Dein, "Assistant Commissioner of NSW Police in charge of counter terrorism":-

PETER DEIN: Police from the Community Contact Unit have no interest in that particular exhibition and they haven't said anything to anybody about the fact, or the content of that particular exhibition. They were there simply to make contact with the people that were running that exhibition, not in relation to the exhibition itself.

EMILY BOURKE: So it's a complete coincidence that the exhibition was happening on the afternoon that the officers arrived?

DEIN: Most certainly, yes. As I said, they were there for the purpose of tracking down the people that they wanted to speak to so that they could start building this relationship and they thought it was a convenient place to attend because they were led to believe that they were actually at the library that afternoon. As it turned out they weren't and they left messages for the people to contact them and it appears as if somehow the message got twisted.

BOURKE: There's been an allegation that the actions by the police were... intimidatory... they have been described as 'Men in Black'. That they put the fear of God into the librarians, that it's a throwback to McCarthyism...

DEIN: That's outrageous. That is just incredible to even hear that. God only knows where that's coming from. It's very disappointing to find out that this has come to that. What they were trying to do was exercise a proactive, positive initiative for the purpose of making contact with people in communities that need our assistance and need us, need to become very acquainted with police for the purposes of looking after them and that's just totally outrageous that someone would even think that."

Oh dear! "... they were led to believe..." Were they now? Now who, I hear you asking, was it that alerted the 'Men in Black' to the nefarious goings on of the FoH sleeper cell in the library foyer? Search me (No, not you, Men In Black!).

Interestingly, a group(uscle?) of alert - and highly alarmed - citizens, name of Inner West Chavurah, who recently issued a press release thoughtfully summarised as "The FoH had not abided by their undertakings, and seem upset at the consequences"?

Herewith its somewhat arcane theoretical introduction, followed by my plain English translation:-

"The FoH wished to convey a narrative of suffering by the Palestinian people at the hands of Israel. The Chavurah indicated that this approach invites the competing narrative of suicide bombing in Israel and constant shelling of Israeli towns from Gaza even though Israel withdrew unilaterally from there." Palestinians don't suffer. And even if they do, it's got nothing to do with Israel. And even if it has, Israelis suffer just as much, if not more, at the hands of the Palestinians. And quite undeservedly too, seeing as how when Israel recently did them a good turn by exiting the Gaza Strip, the buggers just up and bit her on her ample (khaki-clad) bum.

"Portrayed in these terms the Middle East conflict gets replicated in Leichhardt with tensions felt in the community and tit-for-tat accusations of who is the victim, and who is the perpetrator. The reality is that everyone in the Middle East suffers, and many respond by perpetrating and the violence continues." FoH terrorists have imported this cosmic cycle of Mid-East violence into Pleasantville such that its once pleasant and placid streets are no longer... well, placid or pleasant.

"The dilemma for Council was: should Council facilities be used in activities that have the potential to cause disharmony, anxiety, and dissention [sic] in the Leichhardt community?" Because FoH terrorists are out and about scaring the bejesus out of Pleasantville's horses, Pleasantville Council has been forced to act to prevent the very Decline and Fall of Pleasantville as we know it.

"The Chavurah posed a positive way forward: why not celebrate the courageous people, on the ground, Israeli and Palestinian, who at some risk to themselves extend a hand of friendship and trust and undertake joint projects to improve each others lives and demand that a two-state solution* be enacted by their leaders." The Chutzpah, in its unrelenting search for peace (and at some considerable risk to itself) extended its trembling white hand, fairly dripping with beads and mirrors, towards the ticking bombs of the FoH, in a most generous offer: the FoH extremists would get 90% (or 95%, or 97%, or whatever) of the grassy sward out back of Pleasantville Library, while Chutzpah would keep the Library and the Council (which Abraham had long ago earmarked as Chutzpah territory anyway).

[* Deciphering Chutzpah's utterances is not always easy. I take its reference to "a two-state solution" to mean that part of the West Bank should be annexed to the state of Israel, while the rest is given over to an Israeli settler state. And the Palestinians? What Palestinians?]

"A joint effort by IWC and FoH would replicate the many peace initiatives being practiced in the Middle East." Let's play a game. We'll pee on your leg, and you pretend it's raining.

Given that this is Middle East Reality Check, it is appropriate to conclude this post by moving beyond the high farce of our NSW plodders, the ignorance and timidity of council seatwarmers, and the unctuous platitudinising of the IWC Zionists to the awful reality of Hebron under Israeli occupation - the whole point of the exhibition we weren't allowed to see:-

"It is a scene repeated, with minor variations, virtually every day: a group of Palestinian schoolgirls, huddled together with their mothers, their teachers, and a team of international volunteers, is picking its way across a rocky hillside. Behind them is the school from which they have just departed... Before them is the path along the hillside, terminating in a narrow set of stairs leading down to a paved road. In between, there is a group of Jewish settler girls, accompanied by a detachment of heavily armed Israeli soldiers... They see the Palestinian schoolchildren approaching and stand up to obstruct the path, heaping verbal abuse at the Palestinian girls and their mothers. Pushing and shoving follows... The Israeli soldiers... try to intervene, but they are under strict orders. Their duty is to protect the Jewish girls: they are not allowed to physically restrain them. The girls are emboldened because they know there's nothing the soldiers can do to stop them - and that if any Palestinian so much as lifts a hand to them, the soldiers will instantly step forward to protect them. The soldiers plead with the girls to make way for the Palestinians; at the same time they bark orders at the Palestinian mothers and daughters, 'Yalla, imshi!' (Come on, get moving!) Finally, the procession breaks through the crowd of settler girls.

"The Palestinian children's ordeal is not over, however. As they approach the top of the steps, Jewish settler boys... start pelting them with stones. The path narrows and bottlenecks as it reaches the top of the stairs. The stairs themselves are narrow and slippery: they descend along the side of a building, but there is no bannister facing the street side, no protection of any kind - an open drop to the street below. The Palestinian children and their mothers, crowded together and gingerly picking their way down the slippery steps one by one, are exposed to the stones. Some of the Jewish boys pelting them are as young as 5 or 6. There are adults - Jewish settlers - watching them. None intervenes. There is another detachment of Israeli soldiers here as well; but the boys, like their sisters on the hillside above, know that the soldiers are incapable of stopping them. The stoning continues.

"The main entrance to the [school] was sealed with razor wire by the Israeli army in 2002: this dangerous path is the only way for the Palestinian schoolchildren to get to and from their school. Because of the nature of the harrassment and intimidation the children face, there are at least 3 different international organizations providing escorts and observers to accompany them as they come and go from school, including Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) and the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), sponsored by the World Council of Churches. The escorts observe and record what happens on a daily basis, and relay their observations, pictures, and videos, but they can't physically protect the Palestinian children or their mothers. On the contrary, they must frequently practice the Christian virtue of turning the other cheek. In June 2006, Duduzile Masango, a young South African Christian volunteer with EAPPI, was assaulted by an elderly settler woman near the [school], who attempted to smother her with a towel. In April of that year, a German social worker, a Norwegian sociologist, and a Swiss lawyer, all also with EAPPI, were stoned by settlers near the school while accompanying Palestinian children. The lawyer needed several stitches for a head wound as a result.

"In November 2006, Tove Johansson, a Swedish human rights worker with TIPH, was among a group of international volunteers accompanying Palestinian schoolchildren when the group was surrounded by Jewish settlers - adults this time... The settlers closed in and started spitting on the Palestinian children and their international escorts - so much spit that one of the observers said it felt like rain. Pushing and kicking followed. Then one of the Jewish men reached forward and broke a glass bottle on Tove's face, shattering her cheekbone. As she fell to the ground, the crowd of settlers surged forward, cheering and chanting. At that point, the Israeli soldiers who had been so far standing by called for the crowd of settlers to back off. They backed off a little, but continued jeering. The Palestinian children were terrified; their young escorts, tending to Tove, were hardly less shaken. Finally, the Israeli police intervened - threatening to arrest the international human rights workers if they did not move off.

"The international observers come and go. For the Palestinian children of Hebron, however, these are scenes of everyday life. It doesn't always end in blood, but they face this ordeal twice each day, going to and from school." (Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation, Saree Makdisi, pp 209-211)

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