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Over 250 artists, critics, and scholars signed a letter addressing the ties between board members at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Israel’s violent attacks against Palestinians. The letter, released by the Strike MoMA campaign, was signed by prominent scholars like Angela Y. Davis, Gayatri Spivak, Fred Moten, and Lisa Lowe. Other signatories include the well-known writers, critics, and artists Ariella Azoulay, Claire Bishop, Laura Poitras, Phill Collins, Michael Rakowitz, Haig Aivazian, Chloe Bass, and Mahogany L. Browne.
“This letter aims to build decolonial solidarity across borders by drawing attention to MoMA’s entanglement with the mutually reinforcing projects of settler-colonialism, imperialism, and racial capitalism in Palestine, the US, and around the world,” the missive reads. The letter was also signed by several Palestinian artists and curators including Yazan Khalili, Lara Khaldi, Jumanna Manna, and Nora Akawi.
The letter, titled “Free Palestine/Strike MoMA: A Call to Action,” follows 11 days of Israeli attacks on Gaza that killed more than 230 people, including dozens of children. Thousands of others were wounded and tens of thousands were displaced. On the Israeli side, 12 people have been killed, including two children and at least one soldier. A cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, mediated by Egypt, was signed yesterday. While scrutinizing MoMA’s billionaire board members, the signatories, call on the artistic community to stand in solidarity with Palestinians.
“We call upon our friends, colleagues and communities to join the struggle for a free Palestine,” they wrote.
The letter goes on to charge MoMA trustees like Steven Tananbaum, Daniel S. Och, Leon Black, Paula Crown, and Ronald Lauder with being “directly involved with support for Israel’s apartheid rule.”
Och, CEO of Och-Ziff Capital, is a current member and former chairman of the Birthright Foundation, an organization that sends Jewish youth on trips to Israel to strengthen their Zionist beliefs. Black, MoMA’s disgraced former chairman who stepped down from his position due to his financial ties to convicted sex offender Jeffery Epstein, has donated over $1 million dollars to the same foundation. Black also donated $100,000 to the nonprofit Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces, according to the website Mondoweiss.
Tananbaum, CEO of the hedge fund GoldenTree, has donated $1.8 million to “support Israel by sending young adults to Israel” via the Art Institute of Chicago, the letter says. However, a spokesperson for the Chicago museum contested this claim, which is based on public records, telling Hyperallergic in an email: “The $1.8m gift from the Tananbaum Foundation to the Art Institute of Chicago was used to purchase A Love Supreme by Julie Mehretu. The purpose of the gift, as reported on the foundation’s 990, appears to be transposed with their grant to another organization.”
Tananbaum has also been accused of profiting from the Puerto Rico debt crisis. Crown and her husband James have stakes in the weapons conglomerate General Dynamics, manufacturer of the MK-84 bombs that the Israeli army dropped on Gaza in the past 11 days. And Lauder, MoMA’s Honorary Chair and president of the World Jewish Congress, has pushed world leaders to adopt a new definition of anti-Semitism that would curtail criticism of Israel.
“With figures like Lauder, Crown, and Tananbaum on its board, MoMA cannot pretend to stand apart from the attack on Gaza or the Occupation of the West Bank and Jerusalem more broadly,” the letter says. It continues:
Given these entanglements, we must understand the museum for what it is: not only a multi-purpose economic asset for billionaires, but also an expanded ideological battlefield through which those who fund apartheid and profit from war polish their reputations and normalize their violence.
In recent years, toxic philanthropy on museum boards has become subject to increasing public scrutiny, driven by artist-led protests and awareness campaigns. Included in the signatories on today’s letter are some of the artists who requested their work be withdrawn from the 2019 Whitney Biennial in protest of then-trustee Warren Kanders, owner of the weapons manufacturer Safariland Group. The group includes Forensic Architecture, Nicholas Galanin, Meriem Bennani, Korakrit Arunanondchai, Agustina Woodgate, Eddie Arroyo, and Christine Sun Kim.
A series of weekly protests across from the Manhattan museum has continued this trend, with a coalition of activist groups called the International Imagination of Anti-National Anti-Imperialist Feelings (IIAAF) seeking to promote a “post-MoMA future” that prioritizes the needs of communities over the undue influence of billionaire museum donors. Last Friday, more than 300 people participated in the sixth weekly event for its biggest gathering thus far. The action, which centered Palestinian lives, culminated in the arrest of one protester. A video of the incident shows five police officers tackling the protester to the ground before detaining him, and an eyewitness told Hyperallergic that the protester was also beaten up by the officers.
Five activists who were involved in a previous altercation with MoMA security officers were also informed that they had been permanently banned from the museum. The museum alleges that several security guards were injured in standoffs with demonstrators, but has not provided evidence for these claims. However, an activist and former MoMA educator says she was struck repeatedly by a guard, a claim corroborated to Hyperallergic by several other protesters. Today, the activists will gather again at Urban Plaza on West 53rd Street for a “direct action” highlighting freedom struggles in Palestine, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and other places.
“For those who love Palestine, we have waited too long for this moment to not say what needs to be said, despite the fear, the risk, the cost, of speaking out and naming things for what they are,” the signatories wrote. “We stand with Palestine, or we stand with silence, aiding and abetting the disaster.”
Editor’s note 5/28/21 5:02pm EST: This article has been updated with a comment from the Art Institute of Chicago stating that Tananbaum’s donation to the organization was used to purchase a painting by Julie Mehretu rather than to “support Israel by sending young adults to Israel.” The spokesperson noted that the record of the $1.8 million donation “appears to be transposed with their grant to another organization.”
Read the letter in full here:
Free Palestine/Strike MoMA: A Call to Action
We the undersigned artists, critics, scholars, and organizers are writing to express our support for the Palestinian struggle against Israeli colonial rule and its apartheid system. We feel it is urgent to highlight the connections between the ongoing violence of Israel against the Palestinian people and a leading institution of the art system, namely the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). This letter aims to build decolonial solidarity across borders by drawing attention to MoMA’s entanglement with the mutually reinforcing projects of settler-colonialism, imperialism, and racial capitalism in Palestine, the U.S., and around the world. When we focus on the interlocking directorate of the MoMA board, the museum becomes visible as a shared site of action for our interconnected struggles. This works against the all-too-frequent isolation and exceptionalization of Palestine, and
strengthens the bonds between Free Palestine, Black liberation, Indigenous sovereignty, and all movements for land, life, and liberation, from Puerto Rico to Kashmir and beyond.
Violence against Palestinians has intensified in recent weeks, first with the ongoing forcible displacement of families in Sheikh Jarrah, then with the violent incursion into the Al-Aqsa Mosque, followed by the carpet-bombing of Gaza, and a series of organized settler attacks across occupied Palestine. This has included attacks on spaces for media, culture, and art, most recently Dar Yusuf Nasri Jacir for Art and Research in Bethlehem. At the same time, these attacks have united Palestinians both on the ground and in the diaspora, with resistance proliferating in a diversity of forms: yesterday, a General Strike shut down the entirety of historic Palestine, and massive marches have taken place in cities throughout the world, with #PalestineStrike as a shared declaration of agency, dignity, and solidarity.
Cultural institutions are part and parcel of struggles against settler-colonial violence. 600+ cultural workers have announced a boycott of Zabludowicz Art Trust in London on account of that organization’s ties to the Israeli military. The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement is gaining momentum, including the affiliated Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. As part of the Palestine mobilizations in New York last week, hundreds gathered at MoMA, where a young man was arrested and beaten by the NYPD. The police had been called to the scene by the museum, which on the same day announced that it would be permanently banning five organizers from stepping foot in the museum.
Why show up at MoMA? Why now? Because many members of the MoMA board are directly involved with support for Israel’s apartheid rule, artwashing not only the occupation of Palestine but also broader processes of dispossession and war around the world. Consider Steven Tananbaum, CEO of GoldenTree, a hedge fund known for profiteering from the Puerto Rico debt crisis. Tananbaum’s foundation donated 1.8 million dollars to “support Israel by sending young adults to Israel” via the Art Institute of Chicago, dwarfing his $400,000 contribution to MoMA itself that year. Daniel Och, CEO of Och-Ziff Capital, also known for its plunder of Puerto Rico, is a current member and former chairman of the Birthright Foundation, which is also partly funded by the Israeli state. Birthright tours aim to recruit Jewish youth from around the world, especially American Jews, to the Zionist cause while sanitizing the occupation and erasing Palestinians. Leon Black, best known for his connections with Jeffrey Epstein, has donated more than 1 million to Birthright as well. Paula Crown’s wealth comes from her husband James Crown’s armaments company General Dynamics, whose Land Systems division works closely with Israeli military technology companies, and the Israeli Occupation Forces themselves (General Dynamics products have also been used in the bombing of Yemen by the Saudi government). The MK-84 bombs being dropped on Gaza by the Israeli air force are made by General Dynamics. The Paula and James Crown Creativity Lab on the second floor of the museum stands while homes, schools, hospitals, and media offices in Gaza are flattened.
Finally, MoMA’s Honorary Chair Ronald Lauder is president of the World Jewish Congress, which has long campaigned in defense of Zionist policies, and, most recently, has lobbied numerous heads of state including those of Britain and Germany to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s definition of anti-Semitism. This definition is widely used to conflate criticism of Israel with Anti-Semitism, and has resulted in the proscription and criminalization of speech in support of Palestinian liberation (including but not limited to BDS) as a nefarious form of racism—a development that should concern everyone in the arts. This definition of Anti-Semitism also serves to collapse a plurality of Jewish identities into one identity indissociable from the state of Israel, tacitly condoning the violence it perpetrates in their name. This is a form of psychological warfare that defines Jewish people who speak out against the occupation as “traitors,” “self-hating Jews,” or even unworthy of having their voices considered Jewish at all. With this in mind, it is also worth mentioning the fact that Lauder is a close friend and donor to Donald Trump, and is closely connected with the pro-Israel evangelical Right. This reliance on Trumpism and the Christian Right for Zionist support has ironically fueled the growth of real movements for white supremacy and anti-Semitism in the U.S.
With figures like Lauder, Crown, and Tananbaum on its board, MoMA cannot pretend to stand apart from the attack on Gaza or the Occupation of the West Bank and Jerusalem more broadly. Because the corporate power and wealth that sits atop the museum suffuses all of its operations, there are no clean hands. Given these entanglements, we must understand the museum for what it is: not only a multi-purpose economic asset for billionaires, but also an expanded ideological battlefield through which those who fund apartheid and profit from war polish their reputations and normalize their violence. For MoMA’s board members, the trail of their malfeasance leads in many directions, from fueling climate crisis to support for the NYPD Foundation to the extractivist violence of the Cisneros empire. But there is no denying that Palestine is one of the crime scenes of the MoMA board. We do not expect, nor do we call for, any statement of concern from MoMA. Let us remember that a year ago after the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Aubery that museums issued statements of solidarity with Black Lives Matter, only to board up their windows as the rebellion unfolded.
For those who love Palestine, we have waited too long for this moment to not say what needs to be said, despite the fear, the risk, the cost, of speaking out and naming things for what they are. We stand with Palestine, or we stand with silence, aiding and abetting the disaster. We unequivocally denounce the continuation of the Israeli settler colonial project, its apartheid regime, and the interlocking technologies of power and violence that enable it. We unequivocally support the right of return for all Palestinian refugees. We call upon our friends, colleagues and communities to join the struggle for a free Palestine.
This Friday, May 21 at 4 PM Eastern people will gather at MoMA. We call on the museum to respect people’s right to protest, and to refrain from involving the NYPD, which creates an unsafe environment for everyone involved. For those who are not in New York City or who otherwise cannot participate in person, an online assembly will also be held. We encourage and support autonomous parallel actions, wherever they may take place. To sign this letter, join the online assembly, or share information about parallel actions, write to firstname.lastname@example.org
FREE PALESTINE/STRIKE MOMA
(as of the time of publishing, 5/21/21, 12:53pm EST; corrected 5/21/21, 4:26pm EST)
Linda Martín Alcoff
Art Handlers Alliance
Ariella Aisha Azoulay
Ben C. Baer
César Barros A.
Dalida Maria Benfield
Marc Joseph Berg
Lluís Alexandre Casanovas Blanco
Chinatown Art Brigade
Mahogany L. Browne
Lucas G. Crane
Crenshaw Dairy Mart
Frantz Fanon Foundation
Mireille Fanon Mendès-France
Abou Farman Farmaian
E. C. Feiss
Layal L. Ftouni
Ruth Wilson Gilmore
Tag Harmon Campaign To Free Mumia
Robert Chase Heishman
Josie Roland Hodson
The Illuminator Collective
Robin D. G. Kelley
Christine Sun Kim
M. Carmen Lane
Pamela M. Lee
Elliot J. Liu
Ángeles Donoso Macaya
James M. McHugh
Clara Lopez Menendez
Chandra Talpade Mohanty
New Red Order
Within Our Lifetime: United for Palestine
Jasbir K. Puar
Conor Tomás Reed
Jean Rodea Carla
Root & Branch Collective
Tracy J Rosenthal
Dean Itsuji Saranillio
We Will Not Be Silent
Robyn C. Spencer
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
Bra Mike Stainbank
Ann Laura Stoler
Leyya Mona Tawil
Virgil B/G Taylor
Evan Calder Williams
Artists For Workers
Rayya Zein El
Update 5/28 11:42am EST:
Since this article was first published, more than 20 more artists, scholars, and critics have added their signatures to the letter. The new list of signatories includes:
- Nan Goldin
- Xaviera Simmons
- Emily Johnson
- Saks Afridi
- Caitlin Cahill
- Mateo Chacon-Pino
- Mira Dayal
- Thyrza Goodeve
- Saim Demircan
- Filipe de Sousa
- Anaïs Duplan
- Nikki Gamboa
- Zack Ingram
- Stanya Kahn
- Devin Kenny
- Nikki Leger
- Cole Lu
- Naeem Mohaiemen
- Azikiwe Mohammed
- Esther Poppe
- Dina Ramadan
- Rijin Sahakian
- Natalia Viera Salgado
- Shori Sims
- Sindhu Thirumalaisamy
- Ian Wooldridge
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