Ignore Jack Lang's condescension: Arab World Institute’s normalisation with Israel betrays its roots
Last month, over 260 Arab academics, journalists, political figures and artists signed a statement calling on the World Arab Institute/Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) in Paris to cease its normalisation of Israel.
The IMA, a much-visited space in the French capital, is hosting an exhibition entitled ‘Jews of the Orient’ in which artwork from several Israeli Institutions, including the Israel Museum and the Ben-Zvi Institute, are being showcased.
This decision by the IMA is in contravention of the call made by Palestinian civil society since 2005 to boycott, divest and sanction (BDS) Israel over its violations of international law. Culture has been a vital propaganda tool used by Israel to whitewash its crimes of settler colonialism, occupation and apartheid.
As the signatories to the public letter explained, this is “an attempt to impose Israel as if it were a normal state in the Arab region, even though the settler-colonial and apartheid regime is far from normal.”
"[Lang's] role at the head of such an important establishment requires at least a basic understanding of important political questions for people in the region – and the oppression of the Palestinian people has been a central one for over a century"
Despite the considerable strength of the message sent, the IMA did not change its mind, nor did it express any regret. Worse still, the president of the IMA, Jack Lang, went as far as publicly calling the signatories “sheep” and condemned the letter for being "completely disproportionate and beside the point".
In his Radio J interview, Lang further insulted the renowned list of signatories – which includes internationally celebrated artists such as Lebanese musician Marcel Khalife and Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman – by suggesting they had agreed to be “dragged…behind a text which in truth they have not even checked."
The IMA president added that the BDS campaign “aims at turning attention away from the deep meaning of this exposition, which has nothing to do with any political debate”.
As the former culture minister of France, it is almost laughable that Lang would say such a thing. It is also patronising for him to suggest that the inclusion of Israeli art within an institute that represents the Arab world in France isn’t highly contentious.
His role at the head of such an important establishment requires at least a basic understanding of important political questions for people in the region – and the oppression of the Palestinian people has been a central one for over a century. Batting away the political nature of the Institute’s actions is deeply disingenuous, to say the least.
This is especially true given his support for the Abraham Accords, Donald Trump’s normalisation project between Israel and other states in the region, and his praise for the Moroccan King’s normalisation deal with Israel.
In fact, in reacting to the letter, Lang once again highlighted his support for normalisation with Israel and his view that this should be encouraged. It is therefore clear that he does not in fact negate the political nature of the exhibition, but instead celebrates it.
Nor is this the first time that Lang has used his position to further France’s political interests in the region. For example, he recently called on Arab countries to cease the boycott that many had called for following French President Emmanuel Macron’s Islamophobic comments and practices, under the guise of fighting Islamic separatism. Lang’s aim is not to represent Arabic culture and intellectual production in France, it is to wield the institutional power of the IMA against it.
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) spoke out against Lang’s comments, which it said “manifests a white supremacist ideology and recalls the dark era of direct French colonialism around the world.”
People are not only right to have legitimate concerns over the very political nature of Israel’s inclusion in the work of the IMA, but also of Lang’s ability to continue in his position.
Even if the IMA president is only interested in the reputation of the institute, this move is an exercise in isolating itself from the richness of Arab culture and intellectual production.
"Even if the IMA president is only interested in the reputation of the institute, this move is an exercise in isolating itself from the richness of Arab culture and intellectual production"
This is also something that the petition warned against, stating that its decision “would cause the Institute to lose not only the intellectuals and artists whose creative cultural output it has hosted for decades, but also the Arab public in general.”
Artists already withdrew in protest from the “Arabofolies” festival organised by the institute last month as it included Israeli artists, and even the former IMA director, Nada Yafi, joined the letter’s signatories.
The entire affair has done a great disservice to the IMA and undermined the hopes of those wishing that it would serve as a legitimate institution for the encouragement of art and creativity from across the Arab world.
Furthermore, Lang’s behaviour reeks of the cultural arrogance that has become such a historical marker of France’s imperial endeavours abroad. The conviction once held that it was the republic’s historic task to “civilise” people across the MENA is now applied to promoting Israel’s normalisation within the Arab world, it seems.
Lang’s intentions are clear, and his political history has strongly indicated that he speaks from the position of defending and protecting the Republic’s interests at home and abroad. Lang wants to teach the Arab world what should matter to them, how they should express themselves, and in what forum.
The breadth of support that the letter against his decision has received points to the fact that those days are well and truly over. He might cuddle up to autocratic rulers in the region, prepared to normalise relations with Israel, but the people remain steadfast in their solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for liberation.
Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.
Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia
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