Amid an alarming escalation of violence against Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories, a major collector is facing backlash for its ties to pro-Israel lobbying activities and the Israeli Air Force. Boycott Divest Zabludowicz (BDZ), an anonymous group of artists and activists founded in 2014, is encouraging artists to de-author work acquired or exhibited by the Zabludowicz Art Trust.
“We call on all cultural workers, art institutions and arts press to join us in taking action in solidarity with all Palestinians who are forced to endure horrific daily acts of violent oppression by the Israeli state,” said BDZ in a statement last Friday.
Housed in a former 19th-century Methodist church in central London, the Zabludowicz Collection of over 4,000 contemporary artworks was amassed by Anita Zabludowicz and her husband Poju, who founded the pro-Israel lobby BICOM (Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre). Poju Zabludowicz is also the CEO of Tamares Group, an investment company that holds a stake in Knafaim. Through its ownership of Maintenance Wings Limited Partnership, Knafaim provides military aircraft maintenance services for the Israeli Air Force.
A 2009 episode of Channel 4’s investigative documentary series Dispatches also revealed Zabludowicz’s business interests at the time in a shopping center in Ma’ale Adumin, an illegal West Bank settlement.
BDZ’s letter has been signed by over 600 artists and organizations, including Forensic Architecture founder Eyal Weizman; art gallery Reena Spaulings; art historian Claire Bishop; and artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan. Some artists, including Rachel Pimm and Jasmine Johnson, have heeded the petition’s call to “withdraw the conceptual content” of past work shown or purchased by the collection or its subsidiaries, including Daata Art Fair and Times Square Space in New York, an artist residency and exhibition venue founded by Anita and Poju’s daughter Tiffany Zabludowicz.
It is not the first time the Zabludowicz Collection has come under scrutiny. Back in 2014, the art magazine Mute ran an editorial denouncing Poju’s connections to BICOM as well as the source of his wealth: his father, Shlomo Zabludowicz, founded the Israeli defense contractor Soltam Systems, which provides weapons to the Israel Defense Forces as well as the US Army.
But calls to divest from Zabludowicz have recently grown louder, in the wake of an Israeli police raid on the Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan and a dramatic upsurge in violence and forced displacement in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. According to the United Nations’s preliminary data, at least 177 Palestinians and 10 Israelis have been killed by Israeli airstrikes and Palestinian militant rockets in the deadliest escalation of conflict in the region since 2014.
“When not erupting in the mass killing of Palestinians with the flimsy pretext of national defence, this project is maintained, structurally, by an apartheid system contravening human rights law which oppresses Palestinians living under the de facto governance of Israel, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea,” says BDZ in its statement.
Artist Adam Broomberg says he is “horrified by the lack of any kind of response to the violence from the art world.” He sees the latest rise in tensions as a tipping point for the cultural sector, which has long turned a blind eye to the complicity of philanthropic entities.
“Everybody knew about Harvey Weinstein and what he was up to. And everybody in the art world knows that the [Zabludowicz] Collection is funded by that money,” Broomberg told Hyperallergic. He added that Anita’s patronage of emerging artists in particular, among the most vulnerable in a top-heavy art market that idolizes blue-chip names, has likely deterred people from speaking up.
“But there’s a moment where enough people gather enough courage and seek solidarity with one another, and together find the courage to say something,” Broomberg said. “Although things have been brutal for the Palestinians for the last 70 years, they’ve reached a critical mass which is just unbearable.”
In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for the collection told Hyperallergic, “Zabludowicz Collection is not a political organisation. We condemn violence and aim to promote dialogue. We are aware of the recent petition and find it misinformed and upsetting. One artist has been in touch and we have respected their wishes and removed reference to their project from our website.” (The spokesperson declined to provide more detail as to which aspects of the petition it deems to be “misinformed” or name the artist whose reference has been removed.)
Despite the collection’s claims to be an apolitical platform for art and exchange, much of the work included in its trove or displayed in its spaces is of fiercely political character: artist and filmmaker Yael Bartana, for example, has created work about the rebuilding of Palestinian homes in the occupied territories; Seth Price launched a website that tracks art collectors‘ donations to political parties. The list goes on: Francis Alÿs, Allora & Calzadilla, Glenn Ligon, and Wolfgang Tillmans are just a fraction of the artists in the Zabludowicz Collection whose practices variously engage with urgent social justice issues.
A member of BDZ who spoke to Hyperallergic on condition of anonymity said it’s “becoming harder for anyone who has work in the collection to defend the position of their artwork having political valence.”
“This is a cultural strike, so it’s not an economic boycott,” they continued. “We want to avoid getting trapped in the argument that all money is bad, so we are withdrawing cultural labor and cultural capital from any association to which it would add value or give them any importance or credence.”
“We want to make the link between this cultural front which we feel is doing the job of artwashing what this institution stands for,” they added.
Update 5/24/21 11:52am EST: In a statement posted on Instagram on Friday, May 21, the Zabludowicz Collection said it lamented “the war between Israel and Hamas,” adding that it supports “a Two-State Solution that guarantees the rights of Palestinians and Israelis to live and work side-by-side in peace.” Comments on the post were disabled.
“We welcome the ceasefire as it is only through respectful and diplomatic dialogue that a permanent peace can be achieved,” the statement continues. “We know that violence and aggression are not the answer and mourn the innocent lives lost on both sides.”