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Around the Jewish World Spat over Painting Sparks Debate on Free Speech for Vancouver Jews

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The relationship between art and Jewish sensitivities can be a rocky one.

Coming shortly after the Jewish federation in nearby Seattle canceled a speech by actor Leonard Nimoy, whose book of photographs of women wearing Jewish ritual items was considered sacrilegious in some circles, Vancouver artist Jeannie Kamins says she is facing a different kind of censorship.

Kamins’ art is being shown at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Vancouver. But she recently had to remove one of her pieces, a portrait of Canadian Parliament member Svend Robinson, after members of the Jewish community told the JCC that they found it offensive.

Kamins’ “offense” is that Robinson is a fierce critic of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.

During an April 2002 visit to the West Bank, Robinson appeared on television confronting Israeli soldiers as he attempted to reach the besieged headquarters of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Robinson later declared that the Israeli government and military were “guilty of torture and murder.”

Kamins said she painted Robinson’s portrait in 1992 “as part of a series of portraits of people who I feel have integrity, political commitment and who are controversial.”

She added that she included Robinson’s portrait in the exhibition not to offend, but because it represented one of her best works.

“It’s outrageous that I should be judged by what I put in when it was not a political piece, but a picture of a man sitting on a bench. This is not free speech,” Kamins said. “What is important is why it was removed and how decisions of exclusion are determined at the JCC.”

Claire Belilos, a member of Vancouver’s Jewish community, disagrees.

“When you exhibit somewhere, you have to consider their values and policies, and if you don’t like those policies, you go elsewhere,” she said. “I think Kamins showed a total lack of sensitivity by exhibiting that piece, because Svend has proven by his actions and words that he’s an enemy of Israel. How would you like it if she painted a portrait of Hitler and showed it there, at the JCC, calling it free expression?”

Rabbi Barry Leff, who leads the Beth Tikvah Congregation & Center in Richmond, British Columbia, agreed with Belilos.

“Freedom of expression must take into account the context of where it is being expressed,” he said. “A venue like the JCC has the right to display things that are in accord with their values, and if the JCC felt that having Robinson’s painting was not compatible with the organization’s values, they’re perfectly within their rights to ask Kamins to remove it.”

That issue surfaced again last year, the Jewish Museum in New York was criticized for an art exhibition that critics said trivialized the Holocaust.

Gerry Zipursky, the JCC’s executive director, told Vancouver’s weekly Jewish newspaper that he would discuss the issue at a future board meeting. He said Kamins agreed to remove the painting from the exhibit after she was informed that there had been some complaints, particularly from Holocaust survivors.

He added, however that the removal of the piece was not about freedom of expression.

“We are clear about our loyalty and support and relationship with Israel,” he said. “That doesn’t mean to say that there can’t be freedom of expression, but if people try to make issues political in nature, in our view, we try to remain apolitical.”

Kamins isn’t buying that explanation.

“I think the people who complained about that portrait want to stifle controversy,” she said. “They’re pig-headed, narrow-minded bigots.”

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