At first glance, life in Ramallah can seem quite liberated where people really like to go out and have a beer or a glass of wine in the handful of bars that serve alcohol in the centre of the city. As well as that, people are very welcoming and often invite you for another drink at their home. During my first week here, I’ve been out every evening and almost without exception I’ve returned home late after drinking substantial amounts of Palestinian beer or wine. It’s been really nice and there’s always a lot of laughs. Perhaps there’s a tendency to turn one’s back on the problems and all the restrictions that the various occupations impose, but there also lies a certain kind of stubborn resistance in this insistence that life goes on despite all of the problems. Ramallah is also the wealthiest city on the West Bank, the base of the Palestinian government and president, as well as a centre for all of the international organisations that operate here. I still haven’t been north to Nablus and Jenin where the atmosphere is supposedly a lot heavier and the feeling of hopelessness is much more prevalent. And Gaza is bleeding, as one of my friends said. Nicola and myself wanted to go to Gaza and visit some of the local artists who are totally isolated just 75 km from here but we couldn’t go as it was impossible for us to get permission from the Israelis. People told me that if I could get permission then I should go because the people in Gaza need to be heard.
Returning to ‘the good life’ in Ramallah: on Friday I went to yet another party at Khalil and Gabriele’s place. They are on their way to London and have now had at least three
goodbye parties. I have been to two of them. At this latest party there was a German person I knew called Lisa. She had organised a couple of exhibitions that I’d been in over the years and it was a surprise for both of us that we were to now meet in Ramallah. Khaled was there too. He is a local artist and organiser who over the last year has been involved in establishing a Palestinian art academy in Ramallah. Before this academy there weren’t any actual art schools in Palestine, just a few courses at the various universities, of which there are six in the West Bank. Through the academy, Khaled is trying, to establish a more critical and internationally oriented culture around visual art in Palestine. The academy is a subsection of the art academy in Oslo, Norway, that apparently finances the whole project. I am going to visit the academy one of these days and it will be interesting to see how it works.
Lisa said that the reason she was here was to attend a conference in Tel Aviv that had the theme ‘Art and Nationalism’. At the conference she’d spoken about the changing role of art institutions in a globalised era. Her argument was that art institutions were about to break free of the state and various nationalist projects that otherwise had been their main point of departure since the 1800s. It was like throwing a bomb in the party, when she told us that she’d put forward this argument at a seminar in Israel. In Europe, where art institutions are increasingly privatised, she might have been right but in Israel art institutions and the writing of cultural history is used as a political tool in the construction and justification of the Jewish state. On the 60th anniversary of the state of Israel there’d been a series of exhibitions that erased nearly all traces of Arabic culture from their history.
In such a way these institutions contribute to the very myths that preserve the Jewish state and Israeli nationalism.
I was pretty upset by Lisa’s story. In my opinion, it’s very problematic to contribute to these kinds of conferences in Israel even if you have a critical angle. In such a context, this critique merely functions as a justification of the state as it makes it possible for the Israelis to claim that they give space for critical voices even though they continue their everyday atrocities in the occupied areas. It’s probably quite typical, however, that today’s professional art administrators simply take part in these contexts without taking into consideration the wider political implications. Hotshot international exhibition organisers (like Charles Esche) were also contributing to the conference about art and nationalism that took place in the Digital Art Lab in Holon outside of Tel Aviv. (http://www.digitalartlab.org.il).
Our argument led to a discussion about the campaign for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel that is starting to gain some attention in the West. For example, in Great Britain there are several academics that are said to have made the decision to boycott and stop all academic and cultural cooperation with institutions in Israel (http://www.pacbi.org). Most recently, the French film director Jean-Luc Godard had been invited to speak at the opening of the Film festival in Tel Aviv in May. Initially he’d agreed to do it but then, after political pressure from Palestine, he had decided against it (http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article9570.shtml). It seemed peculiar that Godard would have appeared in such a context after he had made a film in the 70s and 80s about the Palestinian struggle for liberation.
From what I’ve seen, heard and read during my brief stay here I don’t actually think there’s any other way other than a total international boycott of trade and institutional cooperation with Israel. In this way it would then be up to the Israeli people to work out with their leaders what is to happen with this insane occupation. Lisa said that, as a German, she had some specific historical problems that made it difficult for her to refuse an invitation to a conference in Israel. In her opinion, the Holocaust was decidedly the most horrific crime against humanity ever committed and that, as a German, this fact could not be easily dismissed. Gabriele disagreed though. Gabriele, who, as I said, has an Indian background, suggested that the colonial era was equally as horrific and with even more victims as a consequence: ‘First the Europeans did it to others, then they did it to themselves’, she said. But Lisa insisted that it was difficult for a German to distance herself from Israel.
Khaled, who was at first sympathetic towards the idea of a boycott, chimed in that it was important to know the Israelis otherwise you run the risk of exaggerating or distorting the other side. He said that people in the wider Arabic world often imagined that Sharon drank blood when he was thirsty and ate humans when he was hungry. However, the acquaintance between Palestinians and Israelis that had existed before is about to disappear because the Israelis have now closed all work related and regular commuting from the West Bank and Gaza into Israel. Palestinians also no longer watch Israeli TV as they did before. Now they watch Al Jazeera. This separation has become much more pronounced in the past few years and thus the myths, prejudices and images of the enemy are becoming more and more black and white. Khaled sees this as a big problem. He would read Barak’s and Netanyahu’s autobiographies in order to understand their way of thinking. Barak was clearly the worst according to Khaled. At least, you know where you’re at with Netanyahu. Lisa offered, with a smile, the chance for me to come and visit her in Tel Aviv next week. She was going on a beach holiday by the Mediterranean coast. Khaled said he thought that it sounded like a great idea but I replied that I didn’t really feel like going.