After shock letter, Israel museum directors call on international colleagues to denounce Hamas

Leaders of local cultural institutions were shocked by open letter that called for support of Gaza without mentioning the Hamas massacres and atrocities of October 7

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

The Israel Museum, October 2023. (Courtesy: Eli Posner)
The Israel Museum, October 2023. (Courtesy: Eli Posner)

When more than 2,000 artists worldwide signed an open letter circulated by Artforum, calling for an end to “institutional silence around the ongoing humanitarian crisis that 2.3 million Palestinians are facing in the occupied and besieged Gaza Strip,” Israel’s museum directors froze in disbelief.

“I saw the headline and said okay, and then my friend said, scroll to the bottom, and I was horrified,” said Raz Samira, deputy director and chief curator at MUZA, Eretz Israel Museum and chair of ICOM (International Council of Museums) Israel, apparently referring to the signatories.

The October 19 letter stated that “silence at this urgent time of crisis and escalating genocide is not a politically neutral position,” writing that “artistic programs benefit from these politics. We now ask that they continue and be extended in recognizing the crimes against humanity that the Palestinian people are facing.”

There was no mention at all of the murders and atrocities committed by Hamas in Israel’s southern communities and cities, where some 1,400 people were murdered in Israel during the unprecedented assault, mostly civilians slaughtered in their homes or at an outdoor music festival, as well as soldiers in bases near the border.

At least 220 people, including the elderly, women and children, were abducted to Gaza, in the bloodiest and most deadly attack in Israeli history.

“There were artists who signed the letter, who we worked with daily, colleagues, we were in shock,” said Samira.

Samira immediately reached out to her museum colleagues, planning to write a letter in reaction to ICOM, a global organization of museums and museum professionals committed to promoting and protecting cultural heritage.

“ICOM acts like a political group,” she said. “There’s nothing humanitarian about it.”

The participating museum directors agreed, and helped draft the letter that was sent out on Sunday to various ICOM committees and its spokesperson.

The letter, signed by local museum directors included Israel Museum director Suzanne Landau, Tel Aviv Museum of Art director Tania Coen-Uzielli and Haifa Museums director Yotam Yakir, and called on ICOM to condemn the October 7 Hamas attacks.

“To be clear, this is not another episode in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the museum directors wrote. “We also want to remind the ICOM community that Israel is a liberal democracy that protects freedom of expression, diversity and the arts.”

At first, she heard from the spokesperson for the national committee, said Samira, who wrote that he hoped that the ICOM secretary and board would respond to the Israeli communication.

On October 23, an addendum to the letter was published:

“While we cannot recirculate the petition to all 8,000 signatories, we, the group that authored the petition — as well as a number of the signatories who have reached out in recent days — are saddened that our call rejecting ‘violence against all civilians, regardless of their identity,’ without explicit condemnation of the horrific massacres of Israelis conducted by Hamas on October 7th, was understood by some readers as a lack of revulsion to that violence. We mourn all civilian casualties. We hope for the expeditious release of all hostages and continue to call for an immediate ceasefire.”

Samira said she has received some private emails and messages from colleagues, but for now, she wonders why Israel should even belong to the association.

“It was an outrageious one-sided response that didn’t even mention one word of what happened in Israel,” said Israel Museum’s Landau, who assumed her position just one month ago.

Some colleagues did reach out privately, as well as friends, but no one said anything publicly, said Landau, who flew to New York this week to address a board meeting of the American Friends of the Israel Museum.

She’s there to offer an update of the situation in Israel, knowing that it’s going to be a difficult time for museums in Israel, without tourism or government support.

“I know many artists who signed this letter,” she said. “It’s so very painful to realize that artists and curators in museums in Israel are alone because the majority of the international community made this statement.”

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