A controversial new exhibit celebrates mass murderers and raises war propaganda to the level of high art.
This Summer the French National Museum, the Jeu de Paume, once famous for its display of Impressionist paintings, is hosting an astonishing photography exhibit, Phantom House. The work of an Israeli Bedouin woman, Ahlam Shibli, it assembles an eclectic series of photographs that depict a number of different groups whose homes are really not theirs, or who do not have homes—people who “live under oppression.” These include Bedouin “Trackers” who enlist in the IDF, “Palestinians” living in the Galilee and Jordan, Polish children in orphanages, Middle Eastern LGBTs who live in Western countries, the French of Corrèze during the Nazi occupation, and, in by far the most elaborate of the exhibits, the Palestinian families of “martyrs” who “resisted” the “occupation,” standing with the pictures, posters, and graves of their “disappeared” relatives.
The exhibit has elicited predictable controversy. These alleged “martyrs” who “took control of their own deaths,” the object of loving devotion by their families, are actually mass murderers who killed themselves in order to murder as many children, women, civilians as they could. Like so much of the Palestinian narrative, these photos give no place to the “other” except as faceless colonial oppressors. For one Jewish woman, a patron of the museum, the experience was horrifying. Looking at these pictures of “martyrs,” she recognized people who had blown up restaurants and buses, which were chosen precisely because there were children there.
Outraged objections poured in. The museum’s response was to post a notice that insisted that this was not propaganda and quoted the artist insisting that she was “not a militant, not judgmental.”
Of course, all of this is nonsense. If not propaganda (like the famous pipe that is not a pipe), it is a display of lovingly presented photographs of propaganda. The artist is decidedly judgmental, presenting her fellow Bedouin who serve in the IDF as pathetic sell-outs to a colonial regime (they appear strikingly comfortable and secure with themselves in the photos), peppering her exhibit on French victims of the Nazi occupation with comments on how they turned around after liberation and became colonial oppressors in Indochina and Algeria. The unalloyed admiration for the “resistance to occupation” of the Palestinians, juxtaposed with that of the French resistance to the Nazis, plays on a common, if grotesque, theme of Palestinian propaganda—that the Israelis are the new Nazis and the Palestinians the new Jews.
How can the French, who know what Nazi occupation was like, compare their experience to that of Palestinians in the West Bank? How they could not notice that while the Nazis killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in occupied Europe as part of their deliberate policy of collective punishment, the Palestinians kill thousands of civilians as part of their “resistance”? How could they miss the difference between an “occupation” that kills 6 million Jews and one that produces a Palestinian population with the highest standard of living in the non-oil-rich Arab world? How can they glorify a movement that embraces and intensifies Nazi Jew-hatred? And why do they view Jews who attempt to protect themselves from that aggression through the eyes of those who foment hatred? How did such a profound moral disorientation occur, and why has it been elevated to the level of high art?
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