A court on Thursday approved the eviction of a Jerusalem art gallery from municipality-owned premises following a series of politically controversial events held there.
The ruling followed lengthy arguments before a courtroom packed with members of the artistic community, who came holding paper swans in support of the Barbur gallery. Barbur means swan in Hebrew.
Yossi Havilio, who represented the gallery and who is running for the position of Jerusalem mayor in October’s municipal elections, argued that the municipality was motivated by political considerations and that public faith in the judicial system could be shaken unless there was a proper investigation into that facet of the case.
But while noting that the municipality’s motives were indeed political, Judge Amir Dahan ruled that the city was within its rights to reclaim the property.
“The realization of property rights is not dependent on a motive,” he wrote in his ruling.
Dahan gave Barbur 45 days to appeal the ruling. The gallery, which has been active for 13 years, vowed to appeal.
But in ordering the gallery to clear the premises by February 1, 2019, Dahan said that a new mayor and city council could still reverse the decision by allocating premises to the gallery or by opting to not implement the eviction order.
The Jerusalem municipality served the eviction order on the gallery in February 2017, a day after Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev (Likud) pressured Mayor Nir Barkat not to allow the left-wing organization Breaking the Silence to lecture there.
Breaking the Silence is an organization that collects testimonies from former Israel Defense Forces soldiers about alleged human rights violations they witnessed or were party to in the Palestinian territories during their military service.
The group has been a frequent object of right-wing ire and was the inspiration for a bill approved into law by the Knesset last month to empower the education minister to ban organizations critical of the Israeli military from entering schools.
That specific lecture at Barbur went ahead as planned, while some 100 supporters and a much smaller but no-less-vocal group of right-wing activists faced off outside.
Earlier this year, the city attempted unsuccessfully to prevent the gallery from hosting an open discussion organized by the Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families Forum and the Combatants for Peace movement about an Israeli-Palestinian ceremony on Israel’s Memorial Day.
After Thursday’s ruling, the gallery said in a statement on its Facebook page, “The judge acknowledged the political motives behind the aggressive efforts to monitor and interfere with the activities at the gallery, yet nevertheless he decided to deny the gallery its basic right to defend itself in court.”
The statement further charged that Dahan “supports those wishing to devastate the freedom of speach [sic] and shatter the very foundations of democracy.”
Outgoing Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who is not running for municipal re-election in October, praised the court’s ruling.
“We won’t allow an invasion of the municipality’s assets and won’t in any way allow them to be used to harm IDF soldiers and the State of Israel,” Barkat said in a statement.
His comments were echoed by Regev, who said “in a civilized country like ours there is no room for lawbreakers and intruders to illegally [be] at a municipal property.”
Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin, a mayoral candidate who like Regev and Barkat is a member of the ruling Likud party, also applauded the court’s ruling.
“It’s time that the Barbur gallery removes itself and not a moment too soon. It is inconceivable that a municipal property is illegally held and used for radical political purposes, hosts radical left-wing organizations and gives a platform to events marking the Nakba,” he wrote on Twitter, referring to the Palestinian term for Israel’s independence, which means ‘catastrophe’ in Arabic.
Deputy Mayor Ofer Berkovitch, who is competing with Havilio and a host of other candidates to be mayor, told The Times of Israel hours before the ruling, “With private funds, they can do what they want within what the law allows, but this is a city property for cultural activity and in this case, I don’t think Barbur is acting correctly.
“It was a wonderful facility for the community but I feel that it’s losing its way. The attempt to drag things toward politics in a city-owned property is wrong.”
Laura Wharton, who represents the left-wing Meretz party on the city council, described the decision as “a scandal.” Posting on twitter, she said, “Israel and its capital Jerusalem should sanctify the values of freedom and certainly the right of every person to express his or her opinion, whatever it may be.”