Sides divided after childrens museum in Oakland cancels art show by Gaza kids

With the Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland abruptly canceling an exhibit of drawings by Palestinian children last week, pro-Israel advocates in the Jewish community are cheering. Sponsors of the exhibit are booing.

The downtown museum had planned to open “A Child’s View of Gaza” on Sept. 24. The exhibit was to have featured children’s drawings — many of them depicting blood and violence — of their reactions to Israel’s 2008-2009 Gaza incursion.

A concerted lobbying effort by the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Jewish Federation of the East Bay and the Anti-Defamation League persuaded the MOCHA board on Sept. 8 to cancel the show.

While applauding the museum’s decision, JCRC Executive Director Rabbi Doug Kahn criticized the exhibit for promoting an anti-Israel political agenda and providing no context on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Two drawings that were going to be shown in the exhibit “A Child’s View of Gaza” in Oakland images/courtesy of middle east children’s alliance

“The exhibit would have brought tremendous polarization and division directly into the museum,” he said. “The content of the exhibit was extreme. It would have been outrageous that very young children would potentially view drawings depicting violence.”

Officials of the museum, a brightly colored facility that features on-site children’s learning programs, agreed. In a statement, MOCHA board chair Hilmon Sorey said, “It became clear that this exhibit was not appropriate for an open gallery accessible by all children.”

Sponsored by the Berkeley-based Middle East Children’s Alliance and several other pro-Palestinian organizations, the exhibit had been displayed before at an art museum in Maine.

Among the drawings are images of Israeli bombs and tanks striking a mosque; a bomb labeled with the U.S. and Israeli flags landing in a bloody square with a dismembered body nearby; an Israeli soldier with a Star of David on his chest, threatening a mother and child with an assault rifle; and people on fire and bloody corpses in the street.

Not exactly Sesame Street.

“The violent images portrayed in the drawings were not appropriate for children,” said Rabbi James Brandt, CEO of the East Bay federation. “Because all of the perpetrators of the violence in the drawings were labeled with Jewish stars and Israeli flags, children who visit the museum would make a direct association between the drawings and their Jewish friends and classmates.”

MECA Executive Director Barbara Lubin approached the museum six months ago to propose the exhibit. She told j. this week that museum executives “were very excited” about the project at the time.

Lubin anticipated resistance, and warned MOCHA staff and board members. “We told them there could be some pressure from outside groups, but they didn’t seem concerned,” she recalled. “Then we were told [Sept. 8] that there had been some pressure put on their people and funders.”

Lubin dismissed the concerns of the JCRC, including the appropriateness of showing violent images to young children. She also noted that MOCHA displayed previous exhibits of art by children from war zones, such as Iraq and World War II Europe.

The 2004 Iraqi exhibit at MOCHA included drawings depicting U.S. attack helicopters in the act of firing. The museum’s 2007 Holocaust exhibit consisted of art drawn more than 60 years ago by Bay Area children reacting to the war headlines of the day.

“In terms of this not being appropriate for kids, it’s just as appropriate as the Iraqi exhibit,” Lubin stressed, adding that MECA was going to have counselors on hand to assist young patrons with any questions, concerns or distresses they might have had.

Lubin conceded the exhibit would have helped push MECA’s cause, noting, “It is to let the voices of children who live in the Gaza Strip and [who] lived through some of the most awful experiences have a voice. That’s the agenda.”

Brandt, who has an arts background and at one time taught art to children, questioned whether the pictures were created without adult intervention.

“I can’t definitely say whether these pictures were drawn by children,” he said, “but I find it challenging to believe that these children were not specifically directed and coaxed. [Israeli] soldiers do not wear Jewish stars, and the ambulances in Gaza do not say ‘Ambulance’ in English.”

Lubin said she has appealed to the MOCHA board to reverse its decision.

The JCRC, meanwhile, is urging people to email the museum and Sorey to express their appreciation of their decision to cancel the exhibit.

Unless the cancellation is reversed, Lubin said she and MECA supporters will gather in front of the museum on Sept. 24, the exhibit’s previously scheduled opening day, and display the drawings.

On the MECA website, Lubin decried the cancellation as a blow against freedom of speech.

Kahn disputed that logic.

“What people should be outraged by is the notion that an organization would try to use the good name of the museum and take advantage of its openness and good will,” Kahn said. “The decision to cancel the exhibit has nothing to do with free speech. This has to do with age-appropriateness and creating a safe environment for all children, including Jewish children.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.