Tempers Flare Over Cancellation of Palestinian Youth Art Exhibit

Nearly one hundred Bay Area residents held a demonstration last Friday to speak out against what they called the censorship of the children's artwork.

By Noelle de la Paz Sep 30, 2011

Residents in Oakland staged a protest recently to oppose the decision of officials at the Museum of Children’s Art (MOCHA) to cancel a scheduled exhibit of Palestinian children’s artwork. For some local residents, the cancellation is a seemingly petty effort to stifle self expression and political dissent led by small children.

Nearly one hundred Bay Area residents held a demonstration last Friday to speak out against what they called the censorship of the children’s artwork. The protest was co-sponsored by over twenty organizations, including the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC). A spirited crowd of local youth and exhibit organizers gathered outside in front of the museum with live music by the Brass Liberation Orchestra, then made their way down the street to an alternate venue secured just the day before.

The exhibit, "A Child’s View from Gaza", was cancelled just two weeks before opening. Organizers had spent months planning with the Middle Eastern Children’s Alliance (MECA) to curate the show. The cancellation immediately sent shock waves through some who had been involved in the planning.

Lily Haskell, program director at AROC, believes it is an issue that brings different communities together. "We wanted to represent the breadth of support and solidarity with Palestinian liberation. A lot of times the organizations who censor these types of Palestinian history, culture, and expression, they often say it’s a divisive issue. For us, it’s not a divisive issue–it’s a uniting issue."

Museum officials, however, are standing by their decision to cancel the exhibit.

"Parents, caregivers and educators did not wish for their children to encounter graphically violent and sensitive works during their use of our facility," Hilmon Sorey, chair of MOCHA’s Board of Directors, said in a statement.

Depictions of violence were a major theme in many of the pieces that were set to be displayed. The young people who were part of the project had been part of "Let the Children Play and Heal," a MECA program that utilized art to help children cope with trauma.

The cancellation provoked reactions on both sides of the issue. While some leaders in the Jewish community praised the board’s decision, a much more diverse array of people spoke out against the censorship of the children’s voices and the disturbing pattern of suppressing the Palestinian perspective.

Betty Olson-Jones, speaking on behalf of the Oakland Education Association, commended MOCHA on its reputation as a wonderful resource for teachers and students, but expressed deep disappointment of their decision to cancel the exhibit.

"As past artwork has included many examples of the violence in children’s lives, the only conclusion we can draw to explain your decision to engage in such obvious censorship is the pressure being exerted by powerful organizations and individuals seeking to silence the voice of the Palestinian people," she read from OEA’s letter to MOCHA.

Cecilie Surasky of Jewish Voice for Peace rejected the notion that the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and other such organizations should be protecting their constituencies from the art of Palestinian children.

"The answer to controversial speech is never censorship," Surasky said. "It is never book burning. It is never withholding funds from people so they can’t complete their art. It is always more speech!"

Haskell later elaborated on the long track record of this kind of censorship. When the San Francisco organization Homeys Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth (HOMEY) ran a youth mural project around solidarity, the resulting mural included a symbol of Palestine. "The JCRC and other pro-Israel groups found it threatening to their mission," said Haskell. "They used their leverage to push the Arts Commission to halt payment to HOMEY."

Haskell hopes that the point doesn’t get lost. "Art has always been a tool for fighting injustice, used for healing, a cathartic act to express emotions."