Saturday, 30 May 2009

Censoring Israel's critics

I was going to write something on B'nai Brith's attempt to have Queers Against Apartheid banned from this year's Pride Parade and tie it together with other recent attempts to censor opinion on Israel - namely the shameful blacklisting of artist Reena Katz by the Canadian Jewish Congress/United Jewish Appeal affiliated Koffler Centre, B'nai Brith's attempt to have Seven Jewish Children banned in Toronto, Peter Shurman's attempt to have the Ontario legislature censure Israel Apartheid Week, protests against York's upcoming conference on one and two state solutions to the Israel/Palestine conflict etc... and then I saw Antonia Zerbisias' brilliant post on her Broadside blog which expands and annotates her recent column on the QuAIA affair. I will try to write something of my own soon but at the moment I have little to add to what Antonia's said so take a look.
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Sunday, 24 May 2009

Turnout for "Walk with Israel" down again!

Anyone who doubts that support for Israel among Canadian Jews is dropping need only to look at the turnout for Toronto's annual "Walk with Israel" - the Toronto United Jewish Appeal's major fundraiser for the year. The intensification of pro-Israel advocacy efforts and mounting shrillness on Israel by the Canadian Jewish Congress has not resulted in a deepening of feeling for Israel by Jews. Rather, the horrors of the Gaza conflict has caused a growing number of Jews to question Israeli policies or at least doubt them enough not to come running when self-appointed leaders of the community come calling. This year about half as many answered the UJA/CJC's call as did four years ago.

Walk with Israel (Toronto) turnout:

2006 - 20,000

2008 - 15,000

2009 - 12,000

In a related item, the Toronto Star yesterday published an excellent piece on the 90th anniversary of the Canadian Jewish Congress - highlighting the fact that the CJC is out of touch with a large segment of the Jewish community because of it's narrow pro-Israel stance:

Has Jewish group forgotten its roots? Critics say Canadian Jewish Congress has clout in top circles, but not in community
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Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Two Jewish cultural workers, 30,000 opinions: A public statement from artist Reena Katz and curator Kim Simon

The following statement has been released by Reena Katz and her curator, Mona Filip, regarding the Koffler Centre's disgraceful decision to "dissociate" themselves from Katz not because of her art but because of her political associations:


Two Jewish cultural workers, 30,000 opinions: A public statement from artist Reena Katz and curator Kim Simon

For Immediate Release: May 10, 2009

It is with absolute outrage and a deep sadness that we write this statement regarding our experience working with the Koffler Centre of the Arts. As a Jewish curator and Jewish artist, we were invited by the Koffler to develop a project in early 2008. Since April of last year we have been working closely on an off-site exhibition wholeheartedly approved by Koffler curator Mona Filip, Koffler Executive Director Lori Starr and the Koffler Arts Advisory Committee.

Slated to open on May 20th 2009, the project, entitled each hand as they are called, is an ambitious and considered series of ephemeral gestures reflective of life in Toronto's historic Kensington Market. The project consists of sonic and visual performances, brings elders from Toronto's Jewish community into conversation and play with students from Ryerson Public School, and involves a series of vivid posters designed by Cecilica Berkovic sited throughout the Kensington neighborhood. This beautiful, smart and tender project reflects a deep commitment to animating a dialogue between aspects of Toronto's diverse Jewish/Yiddish history and its fascinating contact with other cultures. Through a queer framing of social history, this dialogue draws on the current social and economic space of Kensington Market, the trans-cultural game of Mah-Jongg, and the fusion music of the North American Yiddish song.

THE FACTS: Late on Thursday, May 7th we received an email requesting our attendance at an urgent meeting with Lori Starr and Mona Filip, scheduled for Friday, May 8th at 9:00 AM. When we inquired about the agenda of the meeting, Filip refused to answer. The next morning, twelve days before the scheduled opening of a project involving over seventy participants, we attended the meeting. We were shocked to learn that the Koffler would be dissociating itself from Katz and our project solely on the basis of her political affiliations they said they had discovered on the Internet. Of particular concern was Katz's participation in Israeli Apartheid Week. Starr made a verbal offer to honor the full funding of the project while removing the Koffler's name, logo and URL from any related material.

Before leaving the meeting we requested a discussion with the Koffler Board of Directors and Starr agreed to take the request under advisement. The one -hour meeting ended with many questions unanswered, and it was agreed that we would be in contact again with the Koffler on Monday, May 12th about whether and how to continue such a difficult working relationship. In less than one hour after this meeting, the Koffler and its parent organization United Jewish Appeal of Greater Toronto (UJA) issued separate public statements of dissociation from Katz.

FROM KIM SIMON, CURATOR: Now distributed to an international network, the Koffler and UJA's statements are a hypocritical, inaccurate account of Katz's work for human rights in Palestine. They constitute an irresponsible, inflammatory and slanderous attempt to discredit Katz and by extension her work as an artist. After a year of dialogue with us, to be summarily dismissed by Star and Filip without opportunity for discussion is shocking to say the least.

The Koffler had full knowledge of the work Katz has done over the course of a year to develop close relationships enabling dialogue and collaboration with numerous organizations and individuals participating in her exhibition.

While verbally agreeing to continue funding for the exhibition, the Koffler's reprehensible and uniquely unprofessional conduct has in effect placed the project in jeopardy. At this time, several key collaborators in the project have withdrawn their participation due to the discomfort directly caused by the Koffler and UJA statements.

In their public dissociation from Katz's exhibition, not on the basis of the aesthetics and content of the work but rather on the presumed opinions of the artist, the Koffler has entered into a practice of cultural blocklisting reminiscent of the 1950s and McCarthyism. I cannot overstate my disappointment in this institution that claims its mission as strengthening "identity and community while fostering an appreciation of difference." The Koffler's dissociation with Katz is a complete undermining of open dialogue within the Jewish community of Toronto and a great disservice to the Toronto cultural community, and the greater community of this city. As a condition for receiving financial support, the City of Toronto requires all organizations to follow policies that clearly prohibit discrimination and harassment on the basis of political affiliation. The Koffler Centre for the Arts has unwisely chosen to follow a different course and thus effectively rendered itself an undemocratic cultural space.

Katz is a person for whom I have deep respect. It has been my honor and privilege to work with her, learn from her and debate with her. I am appalled and heartbroken over the manner in which she has been treated by the Koffler Centre for the Arts.

FROM REENA KATZ, ARTIST: I come from a family of many Holocaust Survivors. My elders' stories of resistance and survival have deeply informed my visual and sound work. In a number of Jewish contexts, I was taught to embrace tolerance and fight racism in all its forms. It is this wisdom and ethical rooting that informs my art practice as well as my activism.

My relational, sound and sculptural work have a consistent reference to oral archive, Yiddish texts, Jewish 
metaphor, and culturally specific imagery.

Starting at age 16, I studied Yiddish with my great-aunts, both of whom lived at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care, a participating organization in the project. I have been a student, teacher, and performer of Yiddish and Klezmer for the past 14 years. I have worked within Jewish, multi-faith, and secular forums to educate around anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, and sexism.

I bring an irreverent, creative, and queer voice to my Jewish cultural work, critiquing and transforming traditions into contemporary praxis. My projects build bridges between the diverse communities I am a part of, forming my esteemed reputation as a community-based artist. It repulses me that I have to justify my practice here, as I sit falsely accused. I am as Jewish as they come, and not the Jew the Koffler claims me to be.

Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) and its organizers do not act to delegitimize Israel, but rather, "to educate people about the nature of Israel as an apartheid system and to build Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns as part of a growing global BDS movement." I have not stated that I advocate for the "extinction of Israel as a Jewish State" as the Koffler's statement claims. What I do state publicly is that I am an anti-Zionist Jew. This is an ideological stance, not one that determines any specific outcome for the contemporary state of Israel. I consider the Koffler's press release a blatant misrepresentation of my position as well as that of IAW.

I do not expect the Koffler or the UJA to agree with my political leanings. The issue here is the silence because of my political affiliations, and the stonewalling of internal dissent and debate within our cultural institutions. I am deeply committed to open discussion both within Jewish communities and with Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim communities worldwide. Dissent and discourse are crucial parts of this now global conversation; silencing and blocklisting are cowardly and toxic. At no point along the way was I asked to represent myself, my ideas, or the mandates of the groups I belong to, despite amicable, almost daily contacts with Filip for many months.

One of the first steps towards dialogue and understanding is upholding the rights of expression and free association. The arts especially, are fertile ground on which communities can come together with respect and creative vision. Cultural workers and artists must be allowed to speak honestly, stir passions, disturb - as well as kindle - justice and peace.

MOVING FORWARD: Since the release of the Koffler and UJA statements we have received overwhelming support from an international community of artists, curators, public arts organizations, educators and organizers. We greatly appreciate your attention to this matter. In further consideration we suggest you continue to question what is at stake in the Koffler's decision. We respectfully request your support in the form of continued dialogue with each other and a critical inquiry regarding all forms of support to the Koffler Center of the Arts.

Rest assured that the presentation of each hand as they are called will go on, even if this means an amendment to the original project. We look forward to inviting you to the opening.

Please visit our blog at eachhand.org and the eachhand Facebook page which will be up and running by May 12, 2009. For any questions or comments, please contact Reena Katz atmailto:radiodress@rogers.com and Kim Simon at mailto:kimshoshanasimon@gmail.com
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Sunday, 10 May 2009

Complain to Koffler Centre's financial backers for their blacklisting of an anti-Zionist Jewish artist

According to Koffler's website the CIBC is a major financial backer of the Koffler Centre. If Koffler is going to attack, slander and blacklist Jewish artists think it's a good idea to complain to Koffler's funders for their actions (they also receive taxpayer money) as they are inconsistent with the basic rights of artists.

Date: Sun, May 10, 2009 at 11:53 AM
Subject: To CIBC Wood Gundy re your financial support of the Koffler Centre
To: client.relations@cibc.ca
Cc: ceckert@kofflerarts.org, lstarr@kofflerarts.org


Dear CIBC,

It is my understanding that you are a major financial supporter of the Koffler Centre. While it is admirable that you are trying to contribute to the cultural and artistic community I suggest you reconsider your support of this particular institution given their blacklisting of Jewish artist Reena Katz not for her art but for her personal political views and associations. This oppressive behaviour by Koffler and their attack on the right of artists to their political beliefs and their right of free association is inconsistent with basic artistic values and renders them unworthy of support.

For more information on Koffler's discreditable conduct please see this article in Sunday's Toronto Star (pasted below):
Kensington Market exhibit stirs controversy among Jews

Yours truly,
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Koffler Centre persecutes Jewish artist



On May 8, the Koffler Centre for the Arts issued a press release announcing that they are "disassociating themselves" from an art exhibition by Toronto artist Reena Katz which is being installed at Kensington Market later this month. They are rejecting Katz not for the content of her work but because of her personal political beliefs, namely "Reena Katz’s public support for and association with Israel Apartheid Week." This is nothing less than blacklisting and the Koffler Centre should be ashamed of itself, particularly when one considers not only the number of Jewish artists and performers who suffered due to McCarthyist blacklisting in the 1950s but also the generations of Jews, in the arts as well as in the professions and various trades, who were denied employment not because of the quality or content of their work but because of their personal beliefs.

According to the Koffler Centre's press release
"As a Jewish cultural institution, an agency of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, the Koffler Centre of the Arts will not associate with an artist who publicly advocates the extinction of Israel as a Jewish state. The Koffler considers the existence and well-being of Israel as a Jewish state to be one of its core values." Katz replies in an article in today's Toronto Star saying, "I have said that I'm an anti-Zionist Jew. So they are conflating the state of Israel with Zionism. I'm speaking to an ideology when I speak about Zionism. They're speaking about a Jewish state."

Partisans of the UJA, CJC and B'nai Brith like pretend that Jewish critics of Israel are either assimilated Jews who reject their heritage and only speak out against Zionism so they can gain acceptance from the non-Jewish left or are, worse, apostates, the fact is that opposition to Zionism within the Jewish community is as old and as established as Zionism itself and that the most adamant of Zionism's Jewish opponents base their opposition on religious grounds. Others do so based on Jewish philisophical traditions of humanitarianism and universalism.

Reena Katz is one of the most Jewish people I've met. Her work is infused with Jewish sensibilities and themes. She is not only a visual and sonic artist but a musician who fronted the Klemzer band Promegranate for a number of years. She describes her upcoming exhibit as a(n) homage to my Jewish roots and the Jewish roots of Kensington Market." The Koffler Centre recognized this as well. According to their now removed write up of the event (still available online thank's to Google's cache feature):

each hand as they are called reflects on Toronto’s Kensington Market as the vibrant site of multiple public cultural histories, layered with personal stories and fragmented by the movement of time. Katz approaches the culture of the Market through the lens of her own memory and experience of Kensington, coming out as a young, politically engaged, queer woman. Taking the ephemeral nature of experience in urban space to heart, through a series of solo and collaborative performances, temporary installations, community projects and public posters, Katz works with the notion of transition and movement. each hand as they are called captures the spirit of the Market on any given day, filled with passing but memorable vignettes.

Roaming, live vocal performances insert an experimental soundtrack of assimilation, anachronism and hybridity into the urban landscape of the Market. Based on the jazz-fusion music of Yiddish speaking sister duos from the 60s, Katz’s haunting compositions are a combination of popular music, Yiddish classics and jazz, composed backwards for female duets. The resulting absurdist vocals create a hybrid language of calls and beckoning within the Market streetscape.

A community-based component of the project involves Katz working with residents from the Terraces at Baycrest and grade eight students from Ryerson Community Public School. Together, their working process will highlight Kensington as the important meeting point of Jewish and Chinese culture through the game of Mah Jongg, a game originating in East Asian communities which migrated and was popularized with North American Jewish women during the 1920s. The project culminates in a public day of inter-generational Mah Jongg in the Market’s Bellevue Park on June 7 (rain date: June 14).

In addition, Katz performs solo against the backdrop of Kensington Market’s tense relationship to urban development. At odd and unexpected hours, she will be seen working on temporary structures, building and deconstructing scaffolding in previously undisclosed locations. Katz’s scaffold performances gesture to the incredible labour history of the area, positioning the act of construction as obstruction and to memory itself as construct.

While each of Katz’s performative and social gestures are ephemeral, each hand as they are called will have a constant presence in the market through a series of interrelated street posters, designed by Katz in collaboration with award winning designer and artist Cecilia Berkovic. The posters provide additional context for the project while inserting a distinct visual presence amongst the eclectic mix of band-posters, announcements about lost pets, and other posted ephemera populating the Market.
Reena Katz isn't being blacklisted because her views on Israel somehow make her anti-Semitic (they don't), she's being blacklisted because she is too Jewish for the Koffler Centre and the United Jewish Appeal.

To complain about this outrage email the following people: lstarr@kofflerarts.org, ceckert@kofflerarts.org, thewer@kofflerarts.org, tliederman@kofflerarts.org, ishohat@kofflerarts.org, etauben@kofflerarts.org,

This is what Reena has to say on the matter:



Dear friends, family, comrades and colleagues;

Most of you know that I've been working on a site-specific commission for the Koffler Gallery in Kensington Market, set to open on May 20th. Kim Simon is an independent curator, who found me and proposed my work to the Koffler last year. She has been my main creative (and now political) ally in the process.

Today, at 9am Kim and I were informed by Lori Starr (Koffler executive director) and Mona Philip (Koffler curator) that the Koffler is disassociating from the exhibition: removing their name and URL's from any further outreach materials, exhibition posters and press.

Why?
Their Board of Directors, along with their major funder - The UJA of Greater Toronto - has decided that they "will not associate with an artist who publicly advocates the extinction of Israel as a Jewish state".

In our meeting with Lori and Mona this morning, it was made clear that their decision is based on my involvement specifically with Israeli Apartheid Week. Lori was explicit that it isn't me they object to, but the public statements I've made on behalf of specific organizations. Seeing this as a moment of potential change, I proposed a meeting with their Board, in which I would explain the true mandate of Israeli Apartheid Week, CAIA, and the Jewish Women's Committee to End the Occupation - now known as Women in Solidarity with Palestine.

Why now?
A year ago, Kim asked Mona directly if Koffler would have a problem showing my work considering my solidarity with Palestine. Mona was clear that since the project didn't deal with the issue, Koffler would stand behind it. Indeed, after a year of having access to my website, CV, Facebook page and any Google search results, it wasn't until this week that they chose to look at my Facebook page, and found a link to Israel Apartheid Week.

What the?
This weekend, I am working with Kim Simon, the independent curator on the project to respond to Koffler's press release (click on it to link there) with our own press release in response. It's evident they are acting out of fear. Fear of critique of Israel from within the Jewish community, fear of the repercussions of standing by an artist who is affiliated with justice for Palestinians.

Nu, so, what now?
They have offered to continue the project's $20,000 funding - without attaching to it institutionally in any way. An interesting proposal indeed. The project is quite extensive, and involves youth from Ryerson Community Public School, Seniors from Baycrest Centre, The Element Choir, solo vocalists and a number of stores, homes and cultural institutions in Kensington Market. Of course, I don't want to cancel the project but feel very uncertain at this time of how I want to proceed with it. Kim and I are putting thought to this, and plan to have a decision on Sunday. I am interested in taking this up politically, and strategizing around the best way to do that.

Until then, I would greatly appreciate your support in sending the Koffler messages. This is clearly an attempt by a mainstream Jewish institutions to stifle dissent within our community, and the art world in general. Please cc me on anything you send. Also, talk about it to anyone you know - especially arts organizations and their members. I'll be in touch soon with our press release.

With love and justice,
Reena


And here is an excellent letter from activist Henry Lowi:

To: lstarr@kofflerarts.org
Subject: Reena Katz unfairly targetted by Koffler Centre
Date: Sat, 9 May 2009 22:28:12 +0000

Lori Starr,

Executive Director, Koffler Centre of the Arts

Dear Ms Starr:

I read your announcement about the Reena Katz exhibition.[i]

I have known Reena Katz since she was a teacher in a Jewish Sunday School. I consulted her many years ago about violin lessons for my daughter. She referred us to the best violin teacher in Toronto.

I am well aware of Reena’s activism in solidarity with the oppressed people of Palestine. I know that Reena is motivated by an acute consciousness of the history of Jewish suffering and persecution (and culture!), and a commitment that “Never Again!”, to anyone, anywhere.

Despite the Koffler mandate, [ii] you are taking sides in a political issue. Your position is symptomatic of a kind of panic that is overtaking pro-Zionist organizations. Your panic is based on the painful awareness that you have placed yourselves on the side of injustice and oppression, an uncomfortable position for a Jew to inhabit.

The atrocity committed recently by the State of Israel against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip has drawn the attention of the whole world. It is well documented. [iii] It has been compared to the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa.[iv] The whole world has seen how the Palestinians -- virtually unarmed, isolated, and poorly led -- are being systematically massacred by a well-armed military power that enjoys unlimited military, political and economic support.[v] Strong feelings of solidarity have been aroused.

You are untouched by those feelings of solidarity.

Most Jewish community organizations remained silent in the face of the atrocities and the ongoing blockade of Gaza. Unfortunately for you, all decent people, all lovers of humanity noticed the silence of the Jewish organizations. Fortunately, all also noticed that Jewish dissidents -- Righteous Jews, upholders of our traditions of struggle against injustice -- spoke out.[vi][vi(b)]

Reena Katz is one of those Jewish dissidents.

The Jewish community is split. The split will deepen. On one side, you will find those who uphold the values of solidarity, decency, culture, and human rights. On the other side will be the supporters of murder, racism, and apartheid. All will have to choose their side,

You have chosen your side.

By dissociating yourselves from Reena Katz’s artistic work, for political reasons, you are engaging in a form of cultural boycott. As you know, progressive Palestinian grassroots popular organizations have called for a boycott of Israeli cultural and academic institutions.[vii] Peace-seeking Israelis support the boycott.[viii][viii(b)] Solidarity-minded Canadians, like author Naomi Klein, support the boycott.[ix] Faced with the boycott, Zionist apologists howl about “singling out Israelis because they are Israelis”, “anti-Semitism”, and the like.[x] They lie.

The Zionists lie, but they are in a panic. Fewer and fewer people are impressed by Zionist lies. More and more are impressed by the inevitable parallels between Israel’s genocidal conduct and the conduct of other oppressive regimes.

Solidarity with Palestine will grow, while disdain for Zionism and its supporters will grow.

You are singling out Reena Katz because she is a decent human being who speaks out against the oppression of fellow human beings. You have done so very publicly, making it very clear where you stand, and with whom you stand.

Reena Katz’s Israeli and Palestinian comrades pay a heavy price for their activism.[xi],[xii],[xiii],[xiv] They know that justice is on their side. They will win. Palestine will be free. Arts and culture will flourish. Jews and Arabs will live together, in peace, as equals.

Regards,

Henry Lowi


And go see the show at Kensington Market beginning May 20!
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