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The Hecht Museum on the campus of the University of Haifa in Israel canceled a talk by an artist this week because he identifies as a Palestinian. The museum said that artist Saher Miari’s talk was called off because an appearance by a Palestinian artist does not conform with the politics of the Hecht Foundation, the foundation backing the museum.
The cancellation drew a barrage of condemnations from local artists, activists, and academics. Haifa University immediately denounced the museum’s decision and held the talk at another venue on campus on Tuesday, January 14.
The talk was scheduled for Tuesday in conjunction with Miari’s exhibition Construction in Progress, currently on display at a corridor outside the university’s library. The exhibition was organized by art history students as an assignment for a course in curatorial practice taught by the curator Smadar Schindler.
A day before the scheduled talk, the Hecht’s director and curator Shunit Netter-Marmelstein sent a letter to Schindler and to the chair of the university’s art history department, Jochai Rozen, informing them of her decision to call off the event. The letter was provided to Haaretz.
“The decision stems from our commitment to take the views and the wishes of the Hecht Foundation into consideration. Based on past experience, the foundation would not permit a gallery talk to be held at the museum for a Palestinian artist,” Netter-Marmelstein wrote. “We would have been spared the unpleasantness that we have encountered if you would have approached me directly and then I might have gotten complete information regarding the event that you wished to hold.”
The Hecht Museum has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment. In a statement to Haaretz, Netter-Marmelstein refused to respond to questions about the incident, saying that she’s currently vacationing abroad, but said that she “would like to apologize if unpleasantness was unjustly caused to anyone involved.”
Miari, who lives in an Arab town in the north of Israel, graduated from Haifa University’s MFA program in 2018. In a phone conversation with Hyperallergic, he called the cancellation a “blatant act of racism.”
“I was a student at this university and I’m still collaborating with it. Now, this museum is telling me that I don’t belong here,” he said.
In a series of posts on her Facebook page, Schindler called the museum’s decision “incomprehensible” and “unacceptable,” and warned that “a red line was crossed.”
On Thursday, Israeli artist Ram Samucha announced on Facebook that he has asked the museum to remove his work in solidarity with Miari. “Dear Saher, I’m ashamed of this incident and I ask for your forgiveness,” he wrote.
Haifa is a mixed Jewish-Arab city in the north of Israel, known as the cultural center for Palestinians living in Israel. The University of Haifa relies significantly on tuition fees from Palestinian students, who constitute 41.1% of its total student population (as of 2017).
Among the museum’s critics was Professor Gur Alroey, dean of humanities at the Haifa University. In a letter he sent to the president, rector, and director-general of the university, he wrote, “It is not difficult to imagine the storm that would have erupted if the curator of a museum in Europe had written a similar email to a department head and replaced the word ‘Palestinian’ with the word ‘Jewish.’ I am ashamed and embarrassed as a faculty dean, as a faculty member, and as a citizen.”
In a public statement provided to Haaretz, the University of Haifa said:
The university views the matter with gravity. The decision to prevent an Israeli artist from participating at an event to which he had been invited due to a certain component of his identity is an inappropriate decision that has no place at the university. The decision was taken without the approval of the administration and without informing it. The curator is currently abroad and therefore at this stage only a partial investigation has been carried out. A full, thorough investigation will be held when she returns to Israel.
Featuring local architectural motifs and building materials, Miari’s exhibition explores the notion of the Israeli home from the perspective of a Palestinian living in Israel. The work is informed by Miari’s work as a construction worker during his college years. (Construction jobs are common among Palestinian men as they face scarce employment opportunities in a largely discriminatory job market.)
“My work grows from the experience of building homes for Israelis,” he told Hyperallergic. “Through that, I examine what it means to be a Palestinian living in the state of Israel.”
Miari demands an apology from the museum and calls on Haifa University’s art department to reconsider its relationship with the Hecht Museum as long as it keeps working with the right-wing foundation. “I will not remain silent over this,” he said. “I will demand a meeting with the museum’s director and pursue this matter to its conclusion so this won’t happen again.”