City of Jerusalem evicts gallery after invite to left-wing group

Move follows pressure on mayor by culture minister to cancel talk by controversial NGO Breaking the Silence

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Nir Barkat (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Nir Barkat (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Jerusalem municipality on Wednesday said it was evicting an independent art gallery, a day after Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev pressured the mayor not to allow a controversial left-wing organization to lecture there.

The order came just hours before Breaking the Silence was scheduled to hold its event at the nonprofit Barbur Gallery and Community Art Center in the city’s Nahlaot neighborhood.

However, the city denied it was caving in to political pressure, saying that the move was merely about enforcing local planning regulations.

“This has nothing to do with free speech. The municipality needs the building for other municipal purposes and will consult, among others, with neighborhood representatives about its future use,” Mayor Nir Barkat said.

The order to clear the building within 90 days came a year and seven months after the mayor boasted that the Barbur, which is Hebrew for “swan,” would stay open after alternative accommodation had been found for a kindergarten that qualified to use the premises.

Barbur, in one of the capital’s more colorful neighborhoods, hosts contemporary art and artists and runs programs for a variety of local communities.Some of its activities are funded by the city and the Culture Ministry.

Barkat summoned Barbur representatives for a hearing on Tuesday over their invitation to Breaking the Silence.

A dance performance at Barbur Gallery in Jerusalem, 2017 (screen capture: YouTube)
A dance performance at the Barbur Gallery in Jerusalem, 2017 (screen capture: YouTube)

His move followed an urgent letter from Regev pressing him to intervene and cancel the municipality-funded event.

Regev took to Facebook Tuesday to lambast Breaking the Silence for “using every opportunity to harm Israel’s name and slander the Israel Defense Forces fighters.”

Pressuring Barkat to cancel the organization’s talk, Regev said she would not lend a hand to publicly funded cultural institutions that gave a platform to “lying organizations cut off from reality.”

Facebook screenshot showing Culture Minister Miri Regev gesturing to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, Tuesday, February 7, 2017.
Culture Minister Miri Regev (right) gesturing to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, February 7, 2017. (screenshot Facebook)

Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Dov Kalmanovich joined Regev in calling for the event’s cancellation, saying he could not imagine Barkat would give a “left-wing extremist organization such as Breaking the Silence” a stage to present its views on the city’s account.

Barkat is expected to run for a senior spot in the ruling right-wing Likud party ahead of the next national elections, and has even been floated as a possible challenger to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Breaking the Silence is an organization that collects testimonies from former Israel Defense Forces soldiers about alleged human rights violations they witnessed in the Palestinian territories during their military service.

Wednesday’s lecture by the group’s educational director, Nadav Weiman, was scheduled to focus on the organization’s recently published report on the influence of Israeli settlers on the activities of the Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank.

Students protest during a talk by the Breaking The Silence NGO at the Hebrew University, December 22, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Students protest during a talk by the Breaking the Silence NGO at the Hebrew University, December 22, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The talk was planned to be followed by an open conversation with Breaking the Silence director Yuli Novak.

“It’s quite amazing to see how behavior [a lecture] that is supposed to be normative in a democracy turns into a display of civil courage when fascism rears its head,” Novak posted on her Facebook page.

On Tuesday, Breaking the Silence tweeted that it was reserving a front-row seat at the event for Regev.

The Jerusalem municipality said the closure move was taken in light of a decision by the municipal legal adviser: that municipal planning and building regulations forbade use of the building as a gallery, and that the nonprofit organization operating the gallery did not have a permit to use it.

“I support the decision of the municipal legal adviser and I’m sorry that the nonprofit organization chose to show contempt for and repeatedly contravene his instructions regarding what is allowed and not allowed in the municipal building,” Barkat said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with his British counterpart, Theresa May, in London on Monday, February 6, 2017 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with his British counterpart, Theresa May, in London, February 6, 2017. (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

Breaking the Silence is one of a small number of left-wing Israeli organizations that is repeatedly attacked by right-wing politicians including Netanyahu himself.

On Monday, during a state visit to the UK, when the media in Israel and overseas was focusing on a controversial Knesset bill, which was subsequently passed — to legalize settler homes built illegally on privately owned Palestinian land — Netanyahu chose to ask his British counterpart, Theresa May, to halt funding to organizations “hostile to Israel” such as Breaking the Silence, which he named.

But the UK stopped funding the organization five years ago and the Prime Minister’s Office was forced to issue a clarification, saying Britain funded the group indirectly, via organizations such as Christian Aid and CAFOD, the Catholic international development charity.

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