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In Australia, City Council Moves to Remove Anti-israel Art Exhibit by Henry Benjamin

May 6, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Melbourne’s city council has withdrawn financial support to an organization that promotes emerging artists following the exhibition of a virulently anti-Israel work.

The 24/7 program had taken space in the display window of a city center car park to show the latest work in a nine- month program that features different artists each month.

The exhibit portrayed the Israeli flag in the background of the window, while on the window itself the artwork featured text with harsh — and wildly inaccurate — “facts” about the Jewish state: that “since the creation of Israel in 1948, 200,000 Palestinians had been killed, 5,000,000 refugees had been created, 21,000 square kilometers of land had been annexed, 385 towns and villages had been destroyed, US$300 billion military dollars have been spent, 100 + WMDs have been manufactured and 65 U.N. resolutions had been ignored.”

The artwork went on display Monday evening. It was endorsed by the city council, which gave the organization $8,000 for the project.

The artwork was removed within 24 hours following angry complaints from the Jewish community, politicians and city councilors.

“We are not censors, but there was no way the council could put its name to a work like this,” Mayor John So told JTA. “The organizers breached their contract with us, which states clearly that we have to be advised beforehand if any work contains any themes which could be interpreted as racial or controversial. I have instructed our Arts Committee to take whatever steps possible to get our money back from the organizers. We are not in a position to spend taxpayers’ dollars on ventures like this.”

The work was produced by artists Aslan McLennan, 23, and Utako Shindo, 22.

Artist Mark Hilton, 27, who directs the 24/7 group, said he was in Japan when the exhibit went public. He knew of the content before the work was exhibited, he said, and believed the issue had been turned into a media circus.

“As I was driving home from the airport I could see the Victorian state government’s opposition leader being interviewed, and I knew something was wrong. We received so many threatening e-mails from people out to destroy the exhibit that we had no choice but to remove it,” he said.

But Michael Lipshutz, president of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, said he had checked with numerous Jewish organizations and had heard of no threats being made against the project.

The city council was correct to withdraw its support, he said.

“This piece of ‘art’ amounts to no more than spurious propaganda,” Lipshutz said. “Their message was heavily flawed.”

Even the state’s premier, Steve Bracks, called the exhibit “inappropriate.”

So told JTA that Hilton and his partner, Kiron Robinson, had apologized to the city council.

Hilton denied the work had been a political statement, describing it as a topic “for discussion.”

He added that the artists had the space for a month, and would try to quickly develop a different work depicting media bias and restrictions of free speech.

Ted Lapkin, an executive member of the Australia Israel Jewish Affairs Council, said that missed the point.

“This was not an issue of censorship; this was the use of public money to exhibit blatant propaganda,” Lapkin said. “Perhaps if it was a private exhibition it may have been open to debate, but this cannot be the case when it is sponsored with public money.”

A Palestinian spokesman, Ali Kazak, told reporters that Australian politicians were “allowing themselves to be bullied by extreme lobby groups.”

A spokesman for the city council told JTA that the council had received about 200 phone calls on the issue, with more than 70 percent supporting the council’s decision to remove the exhibit.

The council is considering making an apology to the Melbourne Jewish community.

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