Video & Print  |  The Bay Citizen (and Oakland North)  |  September, 2011

For 22 years, the Museum of Children’s Art (MOCHA) has focused on providing art instruction and community outreach for the children of Oakland. Recently, museum staff and board members found themselves embroiled in what one board member described as “the most contentious issue on the planet.”

This past Saturday, MOCHA was set to open an exhibit called “A Child’s View from Gaza,” featuring drawings and paintings made by Palestinian children living in Gaza. The exhibit includes many graphic scenes of war—sprawled, bloody bodies, crying children, burning buildings, tanks and planes firing missiles. The art ranges from rudimentary drawings by young children to more detailed, elaborate pieces. Most of the works were done in 2009 after a fierce round of clashes that included weeks of Israeli bombing of Gaza in what Israel characterized as an effort to halt rocket attacks on Israel and arms import into Gaza.

Then on September 8, after months of planning the exhibit with sponsoring group Middle East Children’s Alliance, MOCHA cancelled the event.

Board member Randolph Belle said the decision was based on the violent nature of some of the work in the show. “Basically we got some [calls from] concerned parents, the Jewish Federation and MOCHA community members,” Belle said, “stating that they didn’t feel that children should be exposed to these images in a public space.”

On Friday, dozens of protestors in front of MOCHA, organized in part by the San Francisco-based Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC), shouted “Shame!” and accused the museum’s board of censorship. “It is very hurtful,” said AROC Youth Program Coordinator Lubna Morrar, who spoke at the protest. “We had been working with [MOCHA] for so long, and if they felt like they didn’t want to take on this project then they shouldn’t have even implemented it to begin with.”

As speakers took turns at the bullhorn, emotions in the crowd ran high. Robin Dubner, a member of San Francisco Voice for Israel, was part of a small but vocal presence supporting MOCHA’s decision to cancel the exhibit. She waved an Israeli flag over the heads of speakers and demonstrators. At one point, she came too close to the protesters and was confronted with shoves, harsh words and threats of calling the police.

Ziad Abbas, associate director of the Berkeley-based Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA), said that during the six months of preparing for the exhibit, which was to include various workshops, “the staff was very supportive, very helpful.” But just two weeks ago, Abbas said, MECA was informed that the event would not take place.

He said the MOCHA representative who called him did not explain in detail—”just that it is an internal issue they are having,” Abbas said. “But we know, we understand that the moment you talk about Palestine, or mention Palestine, you will find the pro-Israeli groups try to put the pressure to silence or to shut you down.”

Abbas said he understands MOCHA was under pressure from various groups. “That is what we saw on the Internet later,” he said. “Many people supporting Israel were congratulating each other after the museum cancelled the exhibition.” Specifically, Abbas and his associates point to both the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Jewish Federation of the East Bay as playing a role in the exhibit’s cancellation.

Faith Metlzer, of San Francisco Voice for Israel, said she was relieved the exhibit would not be shown at the museum. “The art has anti-Semitic, as well as anti-American, symbolism,” she said. “To me, things like this—bombs with Jewish stars on them—it’s just a way of demonizing our people and our religion.”

Metlzer said she worried about how the exhibit would have affected Jewish children in Oakland. “How would you go around with a Jewish star on a T-shirt or on a chain, when the symbol of your people and of your religion has become a hate symbol?” she asked.

In addition to complaints about the violent imagery included in the show, Belle acknowledges that MOCHA did receive calls from people worried that the exhibit was “painting the Jews in a negative light.” But he says the cancellation was not political, and was instead done to protect children from inappropriate, graphic images.

“We are being painted as censors, we’ve been portrayed as having caved in,” Belle said. “We’ve been portrayed a lot of different ways that are just not accurate. We would never have taken the show had we ascribed to any kind of censorship.”

Belle describes MOCHA as a small organization that was caught off-guard and overwhelmed by the emotional reaction the exhibit generated. “We probably did not diligently look at the implications of having this show,” he said. “I don’t know if it was naïveté or just a misjudgment, but there were some mistakes made, and we are paying for them right now.”

Before this controversy, MOCHA had no official exhibition policy, and the “Child’s View of Gaza” exhibit was accepted with a simple up-and-down vote by the board. “In retrospect,” Belle said, “we should have done things differently.”

While “no one threatened to pull [MOCHA] funding or anything else like that,” Belle said, the burden placed on the organization by a controversial exhibit was just too great a risk. “We can make a statement, or we can serve our constituencies,” he said.

In the past, MOCHA has featured work by children of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a WWII exhibit. “Those exhibits did not generate the kinds of passionate responses that this one did,” Belle said.

Abbas also points to those exhibits in questioning MOCHA’s actions. “Why is Palestine different?” he asked. “Children paint what they see in the street. They paint what the Israeli army did. They try to reflect the reality of where they live.”

The Middle East Children’s Alliance received a call from MOCHA on Friday afternoon proposing an alternate exhibit. “They used the terminology ‘modified some pictures,’” Abbas said, which he described as another form of censorship. “We told them ‘Shame on you…it is too late.’”

Abbas said that after MOCHA’s decision, he remained determined to show the artwork because he had promised the Palestinian children that their work would be seen. After two frantic weeks of trying to locate a new venue in the Bay Area, Abbas and the Children’s Alliance found an empty storefront whose owners were willing to host the exhibit. The building, at 917 Washington Street, is just two blocks away from MOCHA. After viewing the space for the first time on Thursday, the Middle East Children’s Alliance on Friday morning signed a lease for two months, the length of time MOCHA had originally agreed to show the exhibit.

On Saturday, the anger and tension of Friday’s protest seemed to have been replaced by relief and celebration at the opening of the alternate exhibition. The work was first presented in the courtyard in front of MOCHA, as community members each holding a piece of children’s work from the show stood in a circle surrounding the area. The crowd, easily more than a hundred people, then marched around the corner to the new location.

The windows of the new space were filled with large reproductions of several pieces from the show, with the words “CENSORED Palestinian Children’s Art” in a red bar across the top. Inside, people crowded into the space to see the art. In one drawing, a bandaged child cries blood-red tears from behind what appears to be prison bars. In another, a man waves a Palestinian flag as a helicopter bearing a Star of David fires a missile directly at the man. In the background, planes and tanks fire on a burning building and bodies lie scattered on the ground.

Outside, a five-piece band provided a festive soundtrack and Israeli and Palestinian flags flew side by side. Abbas told a crowd of smiling faces, “They tried to silence us, but we are here!”

Despite the conflict, Abbas thanked MOCHA staff for originally championing the exhibit and expressed hope for working together in the future. After a few uncertain weeks, Middle East Children’s Alliance seems to have benefitted from the controversy. Worldwide coverage of the controversy has led to calls for the exhibit to appear all over the world. Fifteen-dollar T-shirts were selling fast and furious and the exhibit space was packed.

Community members were on hand Friday and Saturday to support both sides of the debate. Eleanor Levine, a member of the non-violence advocacy group Code Pink, said Friday, “This is not about religion, it is about a very powerful lobby, the Zionist lobby, that exerts a tremendous amount of power. And they are simply not interested in having the Palestinian voice heard.” Levine called the conflict “a great shame and pity,” and said she hopes MOCHA has “the opportunity to show different cultural art and values” to the people of Oakland.

Moses Libitzky of Piedmont had a different reaction. “I really appreciate that the museum didn’t show this exhibit,” he said at the Friday protest. “It’s inappropriate to politicize a children’s museum.” Libitzky said the images in the exhibit “are quite violent and show a lot of people with Jewish stars hurting children.” While acknowledging the right of the Children’s Alliance to promote what he called an “anti-Israel” position, Libitzky said MOCHA is simply not an appropriate venue for the exhibit.

Randolph Belle and the rest of MOCHA’s staff are eager to get back “to doing what it is we actually do,” Belle said, “as opposed to what we’ve been thrust into.”

“We are trying to make sure that children have the opportunity to push paint around, we are absolutely not political,” Belle said. “We are just in a very, very unfortunate situation.”