A lecture by the controversial left-wing organization Breaking the Silence went ahead as planned in a packed Jerusalem gallery on Wednesday night as some 100 supporters and a much smaller but no less vocal group of right-wing activists faced off outside.
Police formed human barriers to keep the two sides apart.
Just hours earlier, Mayor Nir Barkat had announced the Jerusalem Municipality’s decision to evict the Barbur (“Swan”) gallery from its municipal-owned premises.
Leading the group of right-wing activists was rabble-rouser Bentzi Gopstein, head of the far-right extremist Lehava organization, which works to prevent intermarriage and coexistence between Jews and Arabs. Gopstein is a follower of the late rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated expelling the Arabs from Israel and the West Bank.
On one side of the narrow alleyway leading to the gallery were some 30 right-wingers, among them ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students and religious Zionist settlers, one of whom had come from the settlement of Kochav Hashahar some 37 kilometers (23 miles) away.
Asked about the low right-wing turnout, Gopstein told The Times of Israel, “We didn’t plan a big demonstration. We just came to say that there’s no room for Breaking the Silence in Jerusalem. The municipality told them that and with God’s help we’ll shut this gallery down.”
Right-wing Jerusalem city councilman Aryeh King, who is active in settling Jews in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, led the initial chant, “We won’t betray Jerusalem” as supporters sang “Am Yisrael Hai” (The People of Israel Live). As the evening wore on, chants of “Kahane was right” and “Long Live Kahane” could be heard, together with expressions of support for Elor Azaria, the Israeli soldier convicted of manslaughter and awaiting sentencing for the killing of a disarmed and wounded Palestinian assailant last March.
On the other side, chants of “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies,” and “Freedom of speech, the Barbur will not be silenced!” rang out.
Breaking the Silence director Yuli Novak took time out of the lecture to tell the crowd: “It’s a victory that so many of you came. The battle for Jerusalem — for our home, for how this city will look — is only just beginning, and this is the way to go — without folding, without blinking, without being afraid of this nonsense.”
“What’s happening today is the struggle we need to continue — the way is still long, but the occupation will end and we will succeed,” she said.
“The only way they’ll stop us from talking is by stopping the occupation!”
The Jerusalem municipality said the eviction order was made in light of a decision by the municipal legal adviser, who said 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 the building.
Barkat insisted that the eviction order was not political, saying that the move was merely about enforcing local planning regulations.
His decision followed a visit Tuesday by Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev (Likud), who urged him to cancel the lecture and said she would not lend a hand to publicly funded cultural institutions that gave a platform to “lying organizations cut off from reality.”
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.
The Wednesday night lecture focused on the group’s recently published report on the influence of Israeli settlers on the activities of the IDF in the West Bank.
Barbur, located in Nahlaot, 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.
Yossi Havilio, a former legal adviser to the Jerusalem Municipality, who represents the Barbur gallery, accused Barkat, who recently joined Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, of political pandering.
He told The Times of Israel that both the Supreme Court and the Attorney General had ruled in the past that while party political activities could not take place in municipal buildings, non-party activities could, even if they were politically controversial.