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Dani Ben Simhon
1948 Haunts the Haifa Art Museum
R. RONA SELA, curator of the Haifa City Museum, is known for her public courage. As a research historian in photography, she has launched exhibits and written catalogues for museums in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Herzliya and elsewhere, as well as in many galleries. At her new post, she was working on an exhibit called "Haifa 1948," intended to arouse discussion of the various perspectives- Zionist, Palestinian and British- that had accompanied the establishment of Israel. Haifa prides itself on being the only Israeli city where Arabs and Jews live together in relative peace. It holds, for example, an annual Co-existence Festival. Yet the work on "Haifa 1948" was stopped. The city declined to renew Sela's contract, which had been in effect one year. The Director-General of the Haifa Museums, Nissim Tal, claimed she "did not fit the job or the museum." In response to an inquiry from Challenge, Tal said: "Dr. Sela's contract terminated on December 31, 2007, and she was employed for the entire period of the agreement." He denied any connection between the non-renewal and political considerations.
Sela has never kept her positions secret. She has published a book on Palestinian photography in the 1930's and 40's. She leads workshops on the development of photography in Israel during the 60 years of its existence. Here she brings out the considerations that lie behind what is chosen to be photographed and what not. She discusses the ways in which photography is mobilized to give the stamp of authenticity to a particular version of reality, making it seem like reality itself- how pictures, for instance, convey a certain image of the army and its combat norms.
Nissim Tal offered Sela the curatorship about a year ago. "When he approached me," Sela told Challenge, "I stated my aims in the clearest possible way. I sought to bring about a change in the discussion of topics that are vital to the city, even if they touch on difficult and painful matters. I wanted to open the museum, which is in the heart of an Arab neighborhood, to an Arab perspective as well. This had been neglected before I took the job."
Sela claims that the city of Haifa epitomizes many of the pains and conflicts of Israeli society, including, for instance, the expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948 and the forced exile that followed. On being appointed curator, she told Haaretz reporter Dana Gillerman that she intended to deal with "this charade that goes by the name of 'mixed city.'" Asked if she had no fear that such a focus would cost her the position, she answered, "I've come in order to do things I consider important. Two exhibits on the 1948 expulsion and the subsequent exile have already won approval, so I don't anticipate a problem" (Haaretz Cultural Supplement, September 5, 2007).
Among the first exhibits curated by Sela at the Haifa City Museum were four entitled "Crossed Histories." One of these presented historical photographs from the daily life of the Palestinians at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th, in order to show how colonial perspectives affected the region's political situation. The remaining three were individual shows, each providing a critical look at local history. For instance, in one, entitled "without," Nazareth-born Manar Zu'abi employed black hairpins, strands of wool and minimalistic drawing to create an abstract map of Haifa. By the use of such feminine materials, she brings national questions into confrontation with gender issues. She criticizes the pressure on women to sacrifice personal advancement when the nation is at stake.
Sela put a description of Zu’abi’s work in the catalogue for "Crossed Histories": Her "point of departure is the conquest of Haifa and the changes that have taken place in the city as a result of the national conflict… she deals with various maps, historical and current, transforming them into something more amorphous and diffuse. They lose their masculine, factual, historical strictness. The interplay between past and future brings out the vicissitudes of Haifa's history and preserves within it the pain of uprootedness. The very title, "without," points to the personal and collective loss. The feminine materials hint at the way in which the body remembers the trauma and responds to it. People's lives, Zu'abi holds, …are marked by the memory of the moment when they were conquered. The hairpins and the minimalistic drawing create abstract islands, recalling an EKG or a seismograph of moods. Zu'abi …breaks territorial borders and re-composes them. She builds 'a room of her own,' in the middle of which stands a history told from her point of view, very different from the reigning, official, masculine version."
Of Sela's dismissal, Manar Zu'abi has this to say: "Rona tried to present a different angle from that of the Haifa mainstream. Israeli society, it would seem, is not yet ripe for this. The museum has an obligation to treat the history of the entire population, as it appears in the eyes of the Jews and the Palestinians. It needs to deal with the blind spot... No official Israeli museum is prepared to take responsibility and do this. All the professional people who visited the exhibit remarked on the high quality of the works. I oppose this dismissal absolutely. In my view it's a political act."
Sela herself remarks: "In my estimate, the real reason for stopping my work was that the museum management did not accept the contents of the exhibits I was working on. I thought that the Haifa City Museum could serve as an example and a test for establishing a new attitude toward the Arab population in Israel. But the Director of Museums, Nissim Tal, found these contents and purposes inappropriate and unsuitable for the museum, and he said so to me quite emphatically."
In "Crossed Histories," for the first time, the catalogue included Arabic along with Hebrew and English, as did the explanations accompanying the works. "That may seem a trifling matter," Sela says, "but it was not received gladly, and the management tried to block me."
Drora Dekel, an artist and curator, told Challenge: "'Crossed Histories' is among the better exhibits to have appeared in this country. It's important to note that the curator does not take a clear-cut, unambiguous position but prefers to leave questions open for viewers to ponder." Dekel thinks right-wing factors undermined Sela. "It isn't the first time that this sort of thing has happened at the Haifa Museum. In 2002 there was a hullabaloo when a work called Line 13 by Haifa artist Ashraf Fuhacheri was shown there. [The work commemorates 13 Arab youth, 12 of them Israeli citizens, who were shot dead by Israeli police during demonstrations in October 2000.-Ed.] One of the city's Likud activists demanded that Line 13 be removed and the exhibit stopped. People from Haifa and Tel Aviv, including many artists, protested against the removal, and Tal had to let the exhibit stand." Dekel continued: "Here [in "Haifa 1948"-Ed.] there would finally have been an attempt to provide historical justice for the Arab citizens and put content into the slogan of co-existence. We must not accept the dismissal of Sela."
It is hard not to find a connection between the timing of "Haifa 1948," which was scheduled for May, and another set of plans: those for the celebration in that month of Israel's 60th Anniversary. This may be the reason the exhibit was stopped. Sela says work on it began a few months ago, but little by little obstacles were put in her path, until at last her budget was eliminated.
Veteran Haifa artist Abed Abdi also believes that politics was involved. "In Haifa there is no desire to make a place for the Arab narrative. People want to go on hiding what happened in 1948. Sela tried to correct this distortion, and because of this her employment was not renewed."
In early February, 36 artists and writers addressed a protest letter to Yona Yahav, Haifa's mayor, demanding Sela be re-instated. Here are excerpts: "We are saddened to hear that after a year of Dr. Sela's auspicious work in the museum, the municipality has decided not to renew her contract. It is hard for us to avoid the impression that the worldview at the basis of her professional activity has functioned here to her detriment. Under her leadership, the Haifa City Museum has become an artistic institution of the first order, and no less important, it has fulfilled a supremely crucial educational task in the city. From the very beginning of her work here, Dr. Sela declared her goals for administering the museum, goals with which we, the undersigned, identify and whose importance we recognize. The city's leaders pride themselves on 'co-existence,' but among the people of Haifa there are those who see the word as an empty slogan. Now, however, in the city museum under Dr. Sela's management, there is a major attempt to give substance to this term, using professional tools. In our understanding, 'co-existence' signifies, among other things, respect and attention to the historical narratives of minority communities and the provision of a suitable platform for their expression. We call on you to renew Dr. Sela's contract and to give her full support in administering the Haifa City Museum." In addition, the signers asked Mayor Yahav to meet Dr. Sela, but he refused.
Artist Sharif Waked, one of the signatories, told us: "I am not surprised. In my view the reason why they stopped her work is not the present exhibit, 'Crossed Histories,' but the exhibit on the naqba. [This is the Arabic term used by Palestinians for the catastrophe of 1948, and in this case the reference is to the planned exhibit, "Haifa 1948."—Ed.] That is the one she was working on, and she had approached me to take part. I told her that her days were numbered, because Haifa is too much of an establishment city, without openness. It would be great indeed if we could do an exhibit on the naqba in a city museum."