Art with an ethnic consciousness / Dana Gilerman

At first glance, it is hard to understand the shared thread in all the works on display in the "Oblivion and Memory" exhibition at the Mitzpeh Ramon Community Center. Many of the works feature handcrafts; there are a lot of photos from family albums and an occasionally interesting mix of Western art and motives from the East.

The exhibition has some critical pieces on discrimination against Middle Easterners (such as Meir Gal's work, "9 out of 400"), alongside ironic works (such as those by artist Arik Bukovza) depicting canonic figures from the early days of Zionism. Some discernible subjects and images are typical of Palestinian drawing by the young generation, but these elements can be found in every contemporary art exhibition, be it Palestinian art, Arab-Israeli, Ashkenazi, American or Middle Eastern.

The common denominator lies in the name of the entire project, "Mizrahiyut and Araviyut." The project, produced by the Sephardi Democratic Rainbow, an advocacy group promoting rights of Sephardim and Mizrahim i.e., Jews of Middle Eastern descent) and the Mossawa Advocacy Center for Arab Palestinian Citizens of Israel in collaboration with the Community Centers Company and Omanut La'am (Art for the People), features six exhibitions that opened this month and will travel in the coming year all over the country.

There are 34 Palestinian and Middle Eastern artists featured in the exhibition, and all of them consider the contexts of these two population groups. The exhibition that opened in the Ashkelon community center deals with the question of identity: the one in the Neveh Eliyahu community center considers the question of the expanse; at the Kfar Kassem community center, an exhibition titled "Wound" opened; at the Baka al-Gharabiyeh community center, an exhibition titled "Roots" opened and in the Peki'in community center, an exhibition titled "Encounter" opened. The curators are Shula Keshet, an artist and social activist and the director of the feminist organization "Ahoti" (my sister) and Zahad Harash, an artist and curator.

In recent years, there have been quite a few exhibitions that focused on the matter of Middle Easterness, cultural suppression and the culture of this group. Keshet curated many of these exhibitions, including "Ahoti – Middle Eastern Female Artists in Israel," which was shown at the Jerusalem Artists' House (with Rita Mendes Flohr); the "Mizrahiyot" exhibition at the Ami Steinitz gallery in Tel Aviv (where additional exhibitions on the subject were shown); and the "Mizrahi Reading" exhibition featured in the lobby of the Ministry of Education building in Tel Aviv.

Some two years ago the Ein Harod Museum of Art featured "Mother Tongue," an exhibition curated by Tal Ben-Zvi that angered some of the Mizrahi women activists, who argued that an Ashkenazi curator could not curate an exhibition dealing with Middle Easterness without working with a Middle Eastern curator.

The series of exhibitions raises the question of whether or not the issue of the suppression of Middle Easterners has yet to be fully covered. Keshet feels that this is far from the case. "It is possible that it seems on the outside like a fad, but not from our perspective, that of the Mizrahim," she argues. "It's a subject that's far from being resolved. Nothing's really changed. Perhaps there is more awareness, but if we don't continue the situation will revert back to one of silencing."

Beyond dealing with the subject of Middle Easterness, the project has another element that was hardly discussed in the past, and here, too, it takes time to find it. Keshet is referring to silencing and suppression, but not only of Middle Easterners but also of the Palestinians. The connection between these two groups is surprising and even somewhat contrary to the stereotypes of Middle Eastern Jews as Arab-haters. "This perception is created by the media, which zeroes in on the lone, Mizrahi protester who shouts `death to the Arabs'," says Keshet, adding, "The truth is far from that. The Middle Eastern Jews understand there is a connection between origins and suppression. Now they have to comprehend how it also exists among other minority groups in Israeli society. That's the hardest thing, to understand, that Middle Easterners and Palestinians are fighting a shared battle."

But nevertheless, the groups do not suffer the same suppression. The Middle Eastern Jews are in a better place in the hierarchy. "Correct, but the two groups suffer from racism against them. We live in a racist state, primarily toward non-Jews, and then toward ethnic minorities. But there are other links and connections between Middle Eastern Jews and Palestinians, with regard to unemployment and lack of investment, both in education and in social affairs. There are also cultural connections. Both of their identities derive from here, from the Middle East. If I look at the social struggle in Israel, there is a lot of divide-and-conquer among the groups. There is a lot of talk about social justice, but each of these groups is fighting alone, sometimes against each other. This project comes to combine the forces."

How is that done in practice?

"Through the connection between Middle Eastern and Palestinian artists, through the connection between a Mizrahi curator and an Arab curator, through the connection between the two organizations that are behind the project – the Sephardi Democratic Rainbow and the Mossawa Center."

Why did you choose the medium of art for a social battle?

"I proposed the project to the Sephardi Democratic Rainbow, thinking that there, too, when they talk about social issues, there is a broad approach. We don't talk only about economic oppression, but also about cultural oppression. It's a whole array of things."

It sounds like all of these understandings belong more to the world of academia. How was it actually received?

"Before I came to the places and community centers, they told me that no one would want to hear about it, they said that it's too soon to make the connection. People thought it would spark opposition in the communities, settlements and community centers. But I'm glad to say that the reality is completely different. In general, the grass roots are ahead of academia. The grass roots is life itself and then comes academia and runs the discussions in closed halls."

Why are all the exhibitions shown in community centers?

"It's a matter of principle in my eyes, to exhibit in a center that connects culture, art and community. Some people do claim a community center is not an appropriate exhibition space, but that's exactly the thing that we're coming out against. A gallery doesn't have to be a sealed-off space. It can also exist in a place where there is continuous activity. In general, one can already see the discrimination in the decision on where to place art and culture. That's exactly why galleries and exhibition spaces are only located in places aimed at the wealthy."

First published in "Ha'aretz", 10.10.2005