Jerusalem — Last week, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court ruled for the closing of Barbur Gallery, a nonprofit art organization that has been operating in city-owned property for the past 13 years. Judge Amir Dahan accepted the demand, made by the Municipality of Jerusalem to close the gallery, although Dahan conceded that the move was largely political, and not administrative as the municipality claimed.
Barbur Gallery has been targeted by the municipality since it hosted a lecture by Breaking the Silence, a left-leaning NGO created by veteran Israeli combatants who call for the end of Palestinian territories’ occupation. Breaking the Silence collects testimonies from former Israeli soldiers who have witnessed or taken part in human rights violations committed against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The organization has been the object of frequent virulent attacks by ring-wing lawmakers, who have accused its members of treason. It was further cited as the inspiration for a new bill by the Knesset (Israel’s legislative branch) that bans groups critical of the Israeli army from entering schools.
The lecture event in February last year directed similar ire at Barbur Gallery. Culture Minister Miri Regev, who’s been vocal against the NGO, said after the ruling, “Barbur Gallery has given a platform to those seeking to undermine our values and symbols and I can only welcome its closure.” Regev was the driving force behind the municipality’s efforts to evict the gallery from its premises.
Directed by the Minister, Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat employed several tactics to avoid the negative optics of limiting the organization’s right for freedom of speech. At first, he argued in court that Barbur has defied a municipal directive by which the gallery’s space was meant only “for the exhibition of pictures, statues, etc. and maintenance of plants in the garden and not after gallery hours.” When that tactic failed, the municipality claimed that it simply needed to allocate the space for other purposes. All through, Barkat insisted that the eviction order had nothing to do with the controversial lecture.
Both claims were dismissed as a smokescreen by Judge Dahan, who wrote in his verdict, “It is crystal clear that the consideration at the basis of the demand is that the municipality is uncomfortable with the type of expressions there.” The judge nevertheless approved the eviction order, citing the municipality’s right to take control over its property. After the ruling, Mayor Barakat finally felt free to pronounce his political motives: “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 [Israel Defense Army] soldiers and the State of Israel,” he wrote in a statement.
The ruling was issued in an open court hearing with the presence of tens of artists and activists who waved origami swans in solidarity with the gallery. (Barbur is the Hebrew word for Swan.) In a statement on its Facebook page, the gallery said:
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 … In doing so he supports those wishing to devastate the freedom of speech and shatter the very foundations of democracy.
Yossi Havilio, a lawyer representing the gallery, added after the ruling on last Thursday that the public’s faith in the judicial system could be shaken unless there will be a proper investigation into the political motives behind the decision. Havilio, who’s running for the position of Jerusalem Mayor in the upcoming municipal elections in October, asked the court to postpone the decision until after the elections to allow a new mayor to decide on the gallery’s fate. The judge rejected the request but stated that a new mayor will be able to reverse the decision. Mayor Barkat will not be running for another term, but Havilio’s chances to win the elections in the historically conservative city of Jerusalem are assumed to be low.
Earlier this year, the municipality tried but failed to prevent the gallery from hosting a discussion with the Israeli-Palestinian Forum of Bereaved Families (Parents Circle) and the Combatants for Peace movement. The event was held in preparation for a joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day, which is meant to honor the fallen on both sides. The gallery held the discussion despite the municipality’s threats of legal action. A rare example of true resistance in the local art scene, Barbur Gallery vowed to appeal the ruling and to adamantly continue its programming before the eviction deadline on February 2019.