Solidarity Triumphs Over Manchester University’s Cowardice and its Refusal to Defend Academic and Artistic Freedom

Solidarity Triumphs Over Manchester University’s Cowardice and its Refusal to Defend Academic and Artistic Freedom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Solidarity Triumphs Over Manchester University’s Cowardice and its Refusal to Defend Academic and Artistic Freedom

Open Letter to Professor Nalin Thakkar

‘Your Decision to Censor a Statement Supporting the Palestinians at the Whitworth Cloud Studies Exhibition is Shameful and Cowardly’

Below is a letter that I sent earlier today to Nalin Thakkar, Manchester University’s Vice President for Social Responsibility, n.thakker@manchester.ac.uk

Together with the refusal of Forensic Architecture to allow its Exhibition to continue, the vast number of messages they received and the Manchester Palestine Action/PSC demonstration outside, the University caved in.

The far-Right UK Lawyers for Israel [UKLFI], who have no standing in this matter whatsoever, responded by saying that they were ‘“considering all options”. In other words their bluff has been called and they have no options other than to slink away.

Like the affair of the Stretford High School whose head tried to divert an appeal for the Palestinian victims in Gaza to Israeli ‘victims’, it shows that concerted mass action and campaigning can make a real difference.  It also shows that the effect of Israel’s attack on Gaza is to change the political climate on Palestine.

Open Letter to Professor Nalin Thakkar

Dear Professor Thakar,

Your decision to remove a statement in support of the Palestinians from the Whitworth Gallery Exhibition of Forensic Architecture is both shameful and cowardly. It demonstrates Manchester University’s contempt for freedom of speech and academic and artistic freedom.

In 2017 Manchester University bowed to the demands of the Israeli Embassy when it censored the title of a speech by Marika Sherwood, a Jewish holocaust survivor, who compared life in the Budapest Ghetto to those of the Palestinians.

In one of the most infamous incidents of murder in 2014 an Israeli plane machine gunned 4 children playing on Gaza’s beach – according to Regev it was ‘a tragic accident’

It might be thought that the experiences of a historian, who was a child survivor of the last Jewish community to be destroyed by the Nazis in Europe might trump the opinions of Israeli Ambassador, Mark Regev. Regev is infamous for justifying Israel’s war crimes in Gaza, which in 2014 killed 2,200 people, including 551 children.

As a diplomat Regev was sent to Britain in order to lie on behalf of his country. It speaks volumes that Manchester University’s Administration preferred a diplomatic liar, whose job it was to explain away war crimes, to that of a Jew who lived through the holocaust.

It is not as if Sherwood was alone in comparing Israel and Nazi Germany. Professor Ze’ev Sternhell of the Hebrew University wrote in Ha’aretz that in Israel there was a ‘Growing Fascism and a Racism Akin to Early Nazism’.  Sternhell was a child survivor of the Nazi ghetto Przemyśl in Poland. Fortunately he wasn’t invited to speak at Manchester University.

Professor Yehuda Elkana, Rector of the Central European University, which was forced out  of Budapest by Israel’s anti-Semitic friend, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, was a child survivor of Auschwitz. Elkana too compared Israel to the Nazis speaking of ‘the tragic and paradoxical victory of Hitler’ in the lessons that Zionism draws from the holocaust. Quoting Thomas Jefferson Elkana concluded that ‘democracy and worship of the past are incompatible.’  It would seem that democracy and Manchester University are also incompatible

Sternhell and Elkana would also have been censored by you and your fellow academics in your desire not to offend the Zionists. The fact that in Israel today mobs chant ‘death to the Arabs’ just as in Poland and Nazi Germany they used to chant ‘death to the Jews’ is irrelevant since power not truth is what determines your decision making.

The Exhibition, Cloud Studies, shows how the environment and atmosphere are polluted by man-made clouds, to the detriment of those living underneath them. The use of poisonous gas and white phosphorus against civilian populations, from Palestine to Chile are inevitably political since it is impossible to avoid asking which political and economic interest groups are to blame.

Of course the statement at the entrance to the Exhibition

would offend supporters of Israel and Zionism. It was your duty to stand up to the voices of censorship. Unfortunately Manchester University, once again, has failed abysmally in this respect.

Unsurprisingly Forensic Architecture’s director, Eyal Weizman, a British-Israeli professor, has demanded that the exhibition be closed. What you lack in integrity others have to compensate for.

composite image of spatial analysis conducted by Forensic Architecture and Amnesty International in relation to Rafah 1.8.14

What is particularly disturbing is your attempt to justify what you have done. Free speech is meaningless unless it includes the right to offend. As George Orwell wrote:

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people things they do not want to hear.”

Your response to those who have written to you has been that

artistic freedom, freedom of speech and expression and academic freedom ‘must be considered alongside other rights and obligations, including those under equality laws.’

This is disingenuous. There is nothing in the Equality Act 2000that prevents criticism of Israel or states that commit war crimes. Would you have suppressed criticism of Apartheid in South Africa if there had been a domestic lobby of White South African expatriates?

You talked of the Statement’s ‘potential impact on some communities in the city, community cohesion and fostering good relations.’ These are weasel words employed to hide your desire not to offend the rich and powerful.  You are quoted in the Jewish Chronicle as saying that

“We are very sorry for any distress which has been experienced by members of our Jewish community in connection with aspects of the Cloud Studies exhibition, particularly the accompanying written statement.”

This is not only outrageous but in itself anti-Semitic. What you are saying, whether you realise it or not, is that British Jews have an investment in Israeli Apartheid and Israeli war crimes. The lack of self-awareness of Zionism’s apologists never ceases to amaze.

‘Anti-Semitism’ as per the OED is ‘hostility to or prejudice against Jews.’ The Jerusalem Declaration on Anti-Semitism defines anti-Semitism as ‘discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews’. These are simple concepts, even for an academic.

Being a professor I think we can assume you possess a modicum of intelligence, despite acting as the ventriloquist for racist lobbyists. Can you find even one mention of Jews in the statement you censored?  The criticism is directed solely against the Israeli state.

There were 4 groups who lobbied you. UKLFI, Manchester Jewish Representative Council [MJRC], North West Friends of Israel [NWFI] and the Manchester Zionist Central Council.

UKLFI is a group of far-right lawyers who provided a platform for Regavim, an NGO that spends its time trying to secure the demolition of Palestinian homes in the West Bank.

NWFI is a group that has demonstrated with and organised with the fascist English Defence League and Tommy Robinson.

The MJRC is the Manchester Zionist Central Council under another name and does not represent secular or left-wing Jews. But even were that not the case, criticism of Israel is none of its business. British Jews are British not Israeli.

Instead of meeting with these groups (or Regev) they should have been told them that censoring an artistic exhibition was none of their business.  Instead you went out of your way to appease them.

Your behaviour reminds me of those German academics who took the cowards way out when they refused to stand by their Jewish colleagues as they were forced out of their posts. At least they could plausibly justify their behaviour out of fear for their own safety.

Tony Greenstein

Below are extracts from articles on the exhibition of Forensic Architecture that Manchester University censored.

Cloud Studies is filled with hope not hate

Media and activist criticism of Cloud Studies

An article critical of the exhibition, with one (anonymous) commenter describing the exhibit as “hate-filled”, was published in the Jewish Chronicle.  The commenter was quoted as saying “The information is totally decontextualised and there is no mention of Hamas or the reasons for the conflicts.”

This appears to suggest that art should conform to some sort of BBC balance standards. But this is an exhibit in an art gallery, art does not need to be balanced, and the BBC balance standards for years allowed equal footing to climate deniers, often financially backed by powerful fossil fuel interests, in debates against those fighting against climate change who had the backing of 99% of the scientific community.

For me the concept of balance has to be weighed against the evidence available and the power invested in both sides of an argument. And in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict there is no doubt that the power lies with Israel and the weight of evidence shows that Palestinians overwhelmingly suffer the most human rights abuses in this conflict.

From the investigation “Ecocide in Indonesia”

The Jewish Chronicle article also takes issue with the phrases of the “struggle against apartheid” and “settler colonial violence” used in the exhibit, as if this were unacceptable language. But when you look at the evidence of oppression and violence against the Palestinians by the Israeli state since “the Catastrophe” in 1947, the only rational conclusion is that Israel and the occupied territories are an apartheid state, with different rights for Arab and Israeli citizens, in which Palestinians are regularly subject to discrimination and violence.

Activists at UK Lawyers for Israel have written to the University of Manchester saying that they are concerned about “the impact of the inflammatory language and representations contained in the exhibition on the Jewish people in Manchester”.

The director of Forensic Architecture, Israeli-born Eyal Weizman, replied to the allegation that the exhibit could inflame discrimination by saying, “I disagree with those that say so: like anti-Palestinian racism, we oppose and condemn antisemitism, and wrote it in our statement.”

It would be a backwards step for the fight for human rights across the globe, if Whitworth Art Gallery and the University of Manchester succumbed to the pressure being exerted against this exhibition, by curtailing its run or refusing to host similar exhibits in the future.

Drones

The use of an Israeli drone over Gaza to drop multiple canisters of teargas over Palestinian protestors, depicted briefly in the Cloud Studies film, brought to mind that Oldham is home to an Israeli owned Elbit arms factory. While the drone in the film was not an Elbit drone, the company is a primary supplier of Hermes drones to the Israeli military, and components manufactured in Elbit factories in England are used in Hermes drones. These drones have taken part in the attacks on Gaza in 2009, work carried out by Elbit factories across the UK contribute to the oppressive clouds over Gaza.

Meta-data and drones in Cloud Studies also took me back to the UK’s involvement in the US drone strike assassination programme, where suspected terrorists are identified not by evidence, but by meta-data, which is acted on to execute them by lethal attacks from military drones.

Carbon Cloud and the sources of fire, 2015

What Cloud Studies showed me, with the wide-ranging studies presented at this exhibition, was that meta-data and the wealth of digital information out there can be used progressively. It has restored my faith in the potential of the silicon revolution to steer humanity in the right direction, and away from the path dictated by state and corporations, which leads to an Orwellian future.

Big Brother is getting bigger, and increasingly connected.

With this exhibit Forensic Architecture have provided a growth spurt for the little brother, the one who believes in human rights and creating a fair society where everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential, and not be surveilled and stamped on by those that abuse power.

Cloud Studies shows that you can find beauty and hope in man-made clouds, including the rapidly expanding digital cloud created by human actions and utilised by Forensic Architecture to such strong effect in this exhibition.

Investigating toxic clouds and environmental racism with Forensic Architecture

Tom Taylor 21st July 2021

On Juneteenth last year, a day commemorating the emancipation of African American people from slavery, members of St James Parish gathered at the Buena Vista burial site in Louisiana. A video posted to YouTube shows mourners clutching bouquets of flowers whilst others hold black umbrellas to protect them from the hot sun. The group had gathered to honour their enslaved ancestors buried there. A placard resting on the ground reads: “Formosa: You are NOT welcome here”.

Formosa Plastics Group plan to build a factory on the banks of the Mississippi which would include the burial ground. RISE St James, a local community group, have organised against the development. 

“We’re going to stand up for St James Parish; this is our home and we’re not going anywhere”, founding director Sharon Lavigne says defiantly in the YouTube video. RISE say the factory will contribute to the poisoning of the air and water supply with toxic chemicals. Formosa disputes the accusations about health issues.

An extract from the video is featured in Cloud Studies, a new exhibition being shown at the Whitworth as part of Manchester International Festival. The exhibition situates the struggle for clean air in Louisiana within a wider investigation into how toxic clouds are weaponised by states, corporations, militaries and police forces around the world. 

Samaneh Moafi is a senior researcher at Forensic Architecture (FA) – the organisation behind the exhibition – and has oversight over the Cloud Studies project. FA is a research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London, known for its use of architectural techniques to expose human rights violations. 

‘Cloud Studies’, 2008-2021| Photo: Michael PollardCourtesy of Forensic Architecture and the Whitworth, The University of Manchester

She tells me that ‘toxic clouds’ was a common theme across multiple investigations they had previously carried out, such as the use of tear gas in Hong Kong, herbicidal warfare in Gaza and chlorine dumping in Syria. “We realised that we had been able to develop new investigative techniques in order to map these clouds [and] bring liability around them”, she says.

The exhibition’s central film is shown on a huge curved screen which cuts across the gallery space. It demonstrates the techniques and technologies FA uses to investigate toxic clouds and draws comparisons between these human rights violations through narration voiced by Moafi. 

The section on Louisiana charts the connection between air pollution caused by petrochemical companies and high cancer rates in the area. It also highlights the fact that the area, known as the petrochemical corridor or ‘cancer alley’, was once known as ‘plantation country’ because of the large number of fallow sugarcane plantations that stood there.

 “The petrochemical industry has inherited the spatial logics of settler colonialism and slavery […] it is the latest phase of a continuum of environmental racism spanning 300 years”, Moafi says in the narration.

Olukoye Akinkugbe, an assistant researcher at FA, explains how the team built on existing research and technology to chart the spread of emissions. “We have been working with a scientist [who] has simulated particles in the air which represent particle emissions from sources that we map, and we’ve been able to build a 3D model”, he says

“You see the extent and volume of something you can never really see with your own eyes; you get a very spatial understanding of the extent”, he says. This research is then combined with interviews with local people to create a more detailed picture.

‘If toxic air is a monument to slavery, how can we take it down?’, 2021 | Photo: Michael PollardCourtesy of Forensic Architecture and the Whitworth, The University of Manchester

A room in the exhibition explores the ‘cancer alley’ investigation in more detail with videos and models visitors can engage with. A sign at the entrance reads: “If toxic air is a monument to slavery, how do we take it down?” 

Imani Jacqueline Brown, an artist, activist and researcher from New Orleans who worked on the project, explained the meaning behind this statement at a panel talk prior to the exhibition.

“If we remove all the monuments to slavery, to slave masters and to colonists, what then? What else is actually a monument to slavery?” she says. “[This region is called] ‘cancer alley’ because people living there have one of the highest EPA determined risks and rates of cancer in the US because they’re breathing some of the most toxic air produced by over 200 petrochemical plants […] that occupy the footprints of fallow sugarcane plantations”.

‘Tear Gas in Plaza de la Dignidad’, 2020 | Photo: Michael PollardCourtesy of Forensic Architecture and the Whitworth, The University of Manchester

The exhibition is one platform FA are using to share their investigation, or one “forum” as they put it. It will also exist as an advocacy tool in court cases, a lobbying tool for changes in laws and regulations and as evidence in claims for reparations.

FA’s recognition by the art world is not something that has always sat comfortably with founding director Eyal Weizman. After FA was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2018, Weizman told artnet that “it’s very unexpected: we don’t consider ourselves to be artists”. It was telling that one of the first questions he considered at the panel talk was “why are we doing exhibitions at all?”.

It’s something I also talk about with Moafi when I ask why they chose to showcase their findings at an art gallery. “I think the question that had come up at the time of the Turner was a question of discipline – whether our practices were in the discipline of art or something else”, she says.

“To ask this question of discipline is a bit archaic because if anything the work that we’re doing is precisely on the intersections of different disciplines. A third of us come from the discipline of architecture, but we also have journalists, artists, software developers, legal activists and so on”.

Another researcher I spoke to, Omar Ferwati, hopes the field of architecture more broadly can learn from FA’s activism. “I think there is great potential and desire amongst individual practitioners to be engaged in politically aware and sensitive work that is responsive and be agents of change, rather than agents of normalcy”, he says.

Moafi hopes that people come away from the exhibition with an understanding that the struggles for air across the world are all connected. “How can we protect this universal right to breathe if not by locking arms?”, she asks.

It takes time to fully appreciate Cloud Studies. This is not an exhibition where you can flit from room to room because you will miss Forensic Architecture’s key message: struggles against toxic air around the world are interconnected. Whether you can call it art or not is beside the point; it’s challenging, purposeful and deserves to be seen.

Please write to the following apologists for Israel’s war crimes and ethnic cleansing:

Alistair Hudson, Director of the Whitworth alistair.hudson@manchester.ac.uk

Nancy Rothwell, President and Vice-Chancellor of The University of Manchester nancy.rothwell@manchester.ac.uk

Nalin Thakkar, Vice President for Social Responsibility n.thakker@manchester.ac.uk

Patrick Hackett, Registrar, Secretary and Chief Operating Officer patrick.hackett-REGISTRAR@manchester.ac.uk

Exhibition | Forensic Architecture: Cloud Studies (Whitworth Gallery)

From Gaza to Grenfell, Forensic Architecture’s latest exhibition, Cloud Studies, documents the perpetration of, and resistance to, slow violence as it is enacted by states and corporations, writes Esther Kaner in her review.

Ceasefire Magazine 13.8.21

Artists pull work from Whitworth gallery after Palestine statement removal

The Democratisation of Art? Manchester International Festival 2021 – Review

Artists pull work from Whitworth gallery after Palestine statement removal

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Louisiana Bucket Brigade

On Friday, June 19th, 2020, members of RISE St. James assembled on the site occupied by Formosa Plastics, formerly the site of the Buena Vista plantation, to honor their enslaved ancestors buried on the property. keep up with RISE on facebook here:

 

 

 

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