PRAGUE (JTA) – Belgian Jewish leader Joel Rubinfeld had a queasy feeling last year when he first heard about a state-sponsored Palestinian cultural festival planned for Belgium.
Now, he says, his worst suspicions have been confirmed.
A preview of the festival last month in Paris featured posters that called for a boycott of Israel and compared Israeli raids on militants in the Gaza Strip to Hitler’s bombing of Guernica, Spain. The posters were displayed at the Paris offices of Belgium’s French regional government for one week in late March.
With the display slated to move to Belgium in the fall, Rubinfeld, the president of Belgium’s main French-speaking Jewish umbrella group, the Brussels-based Coordinating Committee of Belgian Jewish Organizations, is not pleased. He is pressing the event’s sponsor, Belgium’s French regional cultural ministry, to spike the posters.
Rubinfeld’s angst could foreshadow a controversy that may ensue when the festival of visual arts, dance, theater, debates and film makes its rounds in September and October throughout Belgium’s French-speaking region, which is home to some 3.4 million people, including about 17,000 Jews.
One boycott poster featured in the festival shows a teddy bear in chains and urges viewers not to buy “products of the occupation” because “Israel imprisons Palestinian children.” The poster was created by the Ramallah-based Zan Studio, whose founder has said Israel has no right to exist. Another poster shows Hamas and Fatah shaking hands and making the victory sign.
“The French Community of Belgium is saying it’s supporting art, but they are supporting a political event,” complained Odile Margaux, a Belgian Jew who represents the Israeli Labor Party in Belgium.
”We see these as political, not cultural, posters,” Rubinfeld said. “Why is my government paying for this?”
He said the cultural minister of Belgium’s regional French government, Marie-Dominique Simonet, promised him several months ago that she would not allow “hate-mongering” to be part of the festival, which is called Masarat, Arabic for “path.”
Masarat is being spearheaded by the Palestinian Authority’s mission to the European Union in Brussels.
P.A. representatives did not return e-mails or calls from JTA seeking comment on the festival’s content.
Simonet’s chief of staff, Alain Demaegd, said the festival gives “Palestinian artists a space for expression, which they have very little of at the moment.”
The festival, he added, “is not political.”
Demaegd said there are rules governing the tone of the exhibits.
“The guidelines are no encouragement of violence, no denying Israel’s right to exist, no defense of violent terrorism,” he said.
After the festival’s posters went on display last month in Paris, Rubinfeld complained to Demaegd, who said as of now “there is no decision” about whether the posters violate those guidelines.
The minister “is not going to judge the artistic merits of the works,” Demaegd said.
“They just don’t get it,” Rubinfeld told JTA. “They don’t understand how having such posters can and will hurt Jews within their country, and it is citizens of their country they should be responsible to.”
Rubinfeld said he wrote an official letter of complaint to Simonet demanding that the posters and similar inflammatory material not be shown Belgium.
An independent Dutch artist, Fabienne Verstraeten, heads the commission that oversees the festival, which has a budget of about $1 million. The festival is based at the Brussels cultural center Les Halles de Schaerbeek, but it will travel to venues across Belgium’s French-speaking region of Wallonia.
Each year, the French Community in Belgium sponsors a cultural festival along the lines of what it calls the “north-south divide,” helping poorer countries display their talents abroad.
Isaac Franco, a board member of Belgium’s Radio Judaica, said Masarat is about defaming Israel.
“The posters shown incite hatred, anti-Semitism and promote terrorism,” he said. “We want the ministry to make sure these posters do not come to the festival.”
Rubinfeld says he does not object in principal to his government’s funding of the Palestinian festival, but questions why a non-country should receive such support.
“It’s not like we have sponsored a Tibetan festival or a Kurdish festival,” he said.
“It’s good that people learn about Palestinian culture, but we are afraid of importing the Middle East conflict to Belgium. You promote hostility against Israel, and the next day a rabbi gets beat up.”
Demaegd suggested the reason the festival has stirred up controversy is because it’s rare for a European government to sponsor any type of Palestinian event.
The French Community in Belgium, led for many years by socialists, has been a vocal critic of Israel’s policies in the Middle East. In 2001, the cultural ministry signed an agreement to enhance cultural cooperation with Israel, but the agreement was blocked by the local parliament as a protest against what it deemed as Israel’s unjust reaction to the second Palestinian intifada.
Recently the ministry came to a new agreement with the Israeli Embassy in Belgium to step up cooperation for Israel’s 60th anniversary. The Belgian ministry is co-sponsoring a dozen or so events celebrating the milestone.
That progress in Belgian-Israeli ties may be one reason the Israelis have not made much of a fuss about the state-sponsored Palestinian festival.
A spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Belgium, Laurent Reichman, said the embassy has no comment on the festival.
“We understand the Belgian Jewish community reacts, and we understand their concern,” Reichman said.
Asked about the posters, he said, “We hope it’s an isolated event.”