Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Wall has Two Sides in Burlington

I was naîve to assume the story of the controversy surrounding the exhibition of Peter Schumann's "Independence Paintings" had come to an end, as I just ran across some more references to it.

I'm not sure how this escaped my notice for over a month but my letter to the editor was published in Seven Days, in it I comment on journalist Ken Picard's article, "Over the Wall" (some of my comments appeared in an earlier blog entry.) In the interim, Picard and I had a civil email exchange where we discussed our differing views on how stories of this complexity should be ideally covered. Ultimately, I think our biggest differences owed to his being concerned with his being a working journalist who has to worry about deadlines and space constraints, while I am a blogger and an artist who doesn't think of such things as often.

Other responses to the story can be read here. That said, I do think his follow-up story, "The Wall has Two Sides" is a very well done story that juxtaposes the reactions of two Vermonters, one of Jewish, and one of Palestinian Arab descent to the exhibition.


While Ken Picard’s story, “Over the Wall,” was the most comprehensive story to appear in the Burlington press regarding the controversy surrounding Peter Schumann’s “Independence Paintings” at this year’s Art Hop, it failed to address the key issues of the debate.

The three most vocal critics of the piece and its exhibition — Rabbi Joshua Chasan, Ric Kasini Kadour and I — have never stated any opposition to art representing the Palestinian plight, nor have we advocated censorship. Our position was that the work, by appropriating imagery of the Holocaust in a manner that we found intellectually dishonest, amounted to soft-core Holocaust denial (in terms of minimalizing or trivializing the genocide) and thus, anti-Semitism.

Mr. Kadour’s essay asked that the work be presented in a context where that would be clear. Rabbi Chasan’s letters to Art Hop’s organizers were to ask them to consider the ethical implications of the exhibit, and his letter to his fellow clergy was to ask them to speak their consciences (Rabbi Chasan’s letters have been published on my blog). My own writings explained in explicit detail why the work should be regarded as anti-Semitic. I do not charge anti-Semitism on a whim.

At no point did any of us advocate censorship. We have only attempted to follow bad speech with good speech. While it is sad that would-be censors, unable to articulate their own criticism, attempt to co-opt a cause that does not call for censorship, it is worse when those who court controversy misrepresent all of their critics as censors. I encourage members of the community to work with Art Hop organizers to evaluate what went wrong so that trust can be re-established.

That said, the issue of Holocaust denial is barely addressed in the article, and opinions that have little basis in fact are given equal footing with those that are well researched and well thought out.

Furthermore, Bob Greene and Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel (VTJP) can deny that they advocate anti-Semitism or Holocaust denial all they wish, but, as Chasan, Kadour and I have all pointed out, a simple visit to their website contradicts such denials. Picard could have and should have visited the website and reported on what he saw there, as I did. A libel is only a libel if it has no basis in fact. Labeling me a “motherfucker,” as Greene has done, does not change that.

That Schumann and VTJP have chosen to confuse issues by injecting false analogies with the Holocaust into any discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict shows that they lack the moral seriousness to discuss the facts of the conflict, the causes, their history, and any possible solutions in an honest and thoughtful manner. They simply have no regard for historical truth.

The reports of the September 8 presentation make an unambiguous case that civil discussion has broken down, and, while there are guilty parties of varying political affiliations, the fault originates with those who inject divisiveness and dishonesty when there should be truthful reasoned dialogue. Ugly statements breed ugly statements.

Ian Thal

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