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Around the Jewish World in Montreal, Exhibit Gone Awry Sparks War of Words over Photos

June 16, 2005
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When last seen in the neighborhood, Stephan Hachemi was furiously dragging the boxes containing photos by his mother, the late photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, into a taxicab. The city of Cote St. Luc, a mostly Jewish municipality that is part of Montreal, took down an exhibit containing Kazemi’s photos earlier this month, just days after it opened.

The exhibit, featuring 23 of Kazemi’s photos from Iran, Afghanistan and Palestinian areas, was created in Montreal in 2003 as material for a documentary film festival. It already has been shown in Paris.

The Iranian-born Kazemi, a Canadian citizen who lived in Montreal, made news internationally when she allegedly was tortured to death by security officials in an Iranian prison in July 2003. Her son has been on a crusade to have her killers brought to justice.

Hachemi’s taxi ride ended a week of controversy and mud slinging focusing on whether several of Kazemi’s photos and their accompanying texts were anti-Israel, and whether Cote St. Luc’s public library had the right to censor what it considered offensive material.

Hachemi has filed a complaint against the borough with Quebec’s Human Rights Office and says that he plans to sue.

The saga began May 31 when the exhibit opened in a Cote St. Luc library located in City Hall.

At the opening, a Cote St. Luc resident complained that a portion was anti-Israel and offensive, and demanded that those photos be removed. Further complaints were received later that week, and on June 3 the librarian took five pictures down.

Hachemi was furious and demanded that Mayor Robert Libman take action. The council met and offered to keep the exhibit open, but with the controversial photos and text removed.

Hachemi demanded that the exhibit run in its entirety or not at all. Cote St. Luc complied and the exhibit, scheduled to run for six weeks, lasted less than one.

Then things really got ugly.

Hachemi walked into borough manager David Johnston’s office with a camera crew, threatening a lawsuit, Libman told JTA.

“I have been receiving the most vile, anti-Semitic messages and e-mails you could possible imagine, from all over. I have never experienced this in all my years in politics,” Libman added.

Libman, the borough council and the library have been vilified for their actions by local media, with few voices supporting their move.

The problem stems from the texts accompanying Kazemi’s photos.

“We feel we were initially hoodwinked by Mr. Hachemi, because he did not include this material” in his original submissions, Libman said.

The exhibition, which was not publicized in advance, was comprised of a series of photographs. But, according to a June 9 statement from the borough council, “what was not divulged prior to the mounting of the exhibit was the clear political agenda of Mr. Hachemi. The sequence of photos, joined by the accompanying text, sought to weave a narrative which unfavorably compared the State of Israel with the oppressive regimes of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Mullahs of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

“The accompanying text that was submitted by Mrs. Kazemi’s son at the very last minute states that her photos depict women ‘whose lives are taken hostage by despicable, unscrupulous men who claim the right, in the name of the State or God, to destroy them because they do not share their ideology of domination.’ “

Libman said the library’s administrator of exhibitions should have red flagged the offending material when it came in, but the man lacked the political acumen to realize he had been handed a hot potato, Libman said.

Reached by JTA over the weekend, Hachemi called Libman “a liar,” and said the situation was mishandled from the outset.

The municipality came after him to get the exhibition, he said, “at a time when I was very optimistic about the progress I was making in my mother’s case.”

On May 24 he sent the materials the borough asked for, including the captions, most of which were written by his mother, he said.

It took the borough 24 hours to notify Hachemi that the exhibit had been taken down, he said, and officials then refused to take his calls.

He stressed that the controversial caption cited in the borough’s statement “refers to my mother’s work and how she was close to the victims of injustice,” and noted that it doesn’t specifically mention Israel.

The nastiness could have been avoided with an apology from borough officials, but they resisted, Hachemi said.

Libman said he “was never asked for an apology per se, only publicly” as Hachemi was blasting the borough in the media.

“This exhibition is an attack on the State of Israel,” Libman said. “I don’t feel in the least bit compelled to give an apology to someone who would put on something like that.”

Council member Dida Berku, a lawyer, said it was clear from the start that the exhibit was problematic.

“When you walked in, on one wall you had a pastoral scene of women in Iran and Afghanistan, and then on the other side unsettling images involving Palestinians, with that text. It was difficult not to experience a knee-jerk reaction,” she said.

Told that Hachemi insisted the offensive caption didn’t necessarily refer to Israel, Libman responded that Hachemi “may just be naive and we may have misread his character. That’s completely possible.”

“It’s too bad it turned out this way,” he added. “Our intention was to give Zahra Kazemi’s family support in their quest for justice after the terrible injustice done to her, but ironically, we got a lot of publicity for the wrong reasons.

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