Why should Palestine be taboo for a UK art gallery ?

Mancheste's Whitworth Art Gallery recently fired its director after the Israel lobby complained about one of its exhibitions (citysuites.com - Flickr)

Kit Klarenberg

The Electronic Intifada  /  March 3, 2022 

The lobby group which demanded the sacking of a British art gallery director was previously found to have made baseless allegations against advocates for Palestinian children.

For many months, UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI) has targeted the University of Manchester-owned Whitworth Gallery over an exhibition expressing solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom.

The row instigated by UKLFI led to Alistair Hudson’s recent dismissal from his post as the Whitworth director.

The dispute focused on an exhibition from the research collective Forensic Architecture, which opened at the gallery in July last year.

Titled “Cloud Studies,” it explored how pollution, chemical weapon attacks and the aftermath of explosions affect marginalized people the world over, including Palestinians.

statement from Forensic Architecture was pinned to a wall beside the exhibition. It saluted the Palestinian liberation struggle and argued it was “inseparable from other global struggles against racism, white supremacy, anti-Semitism and settler-colonial violence.”

In response, UKLFI fired off a threatening screed to Manchester University’s administration, arguing the institution breached its public sector equality duties by not considering the “impact of the inflammatory language and representations” in the exhibition.

Whitworth duly removed the statement from the exhibition, prompting Forensic Architecture to close it outright in protest and Palestinian solidarity activists to stage demonstrations outside the gallery.

Balance ?

Hudson subsequently reopened the exhibition with the statement restored, along with an opposing statement from the Manchester Jewish Representative Council, which belongs to a network of pro-Israel organizations. This addition was made for purposes of “balance.”

“The Forensic Architecture exhibition within the Whitworth Art Gallery contains false statements. We ask visitors not to assume that any statement in that exhibition is true,” it read. “You may wish to photograph this statement on your mobile so that you have it to hand as you see the exhibition.”

Despite how the Whitworth allowed a pro-Israel group to challenge the exhibition, the UKLFI still pushed for Hudson to be punished.

When asked what role it may have played in Hudson’s departure, the organization directed The Electronic Intifada to claims made on its website.

The UKLFI website states that the group wrote to the University of Manchester in September, suggesting it consider “appropriate disciplinary action” against Hudson. UKLFI alleged that he gave false assurances to the university’s administration that the “accuracy and legalities” of Forensic Architecture’s statement on Palestine had been established.

Hudson did not reply to a request for comment from The Electronic Intifada.

Teaching the truth

A University of Manchester spokesperson said that “staffing matters remain strictly internal to the university and we do not comment on media speculation.”

The spokesperson nonetheless denied that the university had violated the right to freedom of expression for academics and artists.

“Museums and galleries have traditionally been a space of experimentation and challenge and we hope that the Whitworth is a place where we can debate, discuss and disagree well,” the spokesperson added.

“As a university and gallery, there are various rights and duties which apply across our work, including the protection of academic freedom, freedom of speech and expression and duties under equality laws…We work tirelessly to ensure that these rights, and our duties (including our public sector duties), are considered fully and carefully.”

UKLFI’s efforts to suppress legitimate criticism of Israel are not always successful. Some of its failures have been embarrassing.

In 2020, UKLFI reached an out-of-court settlement with Defense for Children International-Palestine. UKLFI had run a smear campaign against that charity, falsely alleging that it had provided “financial or material support” to terrorist organizations.

Last year, British TV regulator Ofcom dismissed complaints UKLFI submitted over a Channel 4 News interview with young British Palestinians.

The group argued that the broadcast was “unfair” and “seriously prejudicial” to it. The Channel 4 report accurately described how the UK’s charity regulator had dismissed complaints about the organizations War on Want and Medical Aid for Palestinians.

Those complaints had been submitted by UKLFI, although the group was not named in the Channel 4 report.

The Whitworth Gallery was being monitored by UKLFI before the Forensic Architecture exhibition opened.

In June last year, the Whitworth posted a statement on its website expressing solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, who had been subjected to a major Israeli assault the previous month.

Within two days, the statement was removed from the website.

UKLFI stated at the time that it had “engaged with supporters of the gallery” and “made representations” to Alistair Hudson.

“Hudson listened carefully to our comments and was very understanding. We accepted his assurance that there was certainly no intention to cause division,” UKLFI wrote.

When Hudson was appointed Whitworth’s director – a job he began in 2018 – the University of Manchester noted that he had a “strong record of championing art as a tool for social change and education.”

By hosting the Forensic Architecture exhibition, Hudson was allowing the British public to learn about the injustices inflicted on Palestinians. Teaching the truth is evidently something that the pro-Israel lobby cannot accept.

Kit Klarenberg is an investigative journalist exploring the role of intelligence services in shaping politics and perceptions

Editor’s note: A change was made to this article following publication. A legal representative of Defense for Children International-Palestine has confirmed that UK Lawyers for Israel reached an out-of-court settlement with that organization in 2020. There was no financial element to that settlement.