ICOM's balancing act in the Hamas-Israel war

Tel Aviv, New York. In a press release published online on October 25, Icom (International Council of Museums, attached to UNESCO) expresses its support for the civilian populations in Israel and Gaza, calls for a ceasefire and recalls the rules of international law concerning the protection of heritage in war zones. The text, quite short, does not mention Hamas and does not condemn the October 7 attacks or the hostage taking.

It seems that it was Icom Israel which insisted that a statement be published, even though the organization had remained silent since the start of the conflict. Indeed, on October 22, several directors of Israeli museums wrote directly to Icom to demand a reaction. The letter states that it is not a “new episode of the Israel-Palestine conflict”, and compares Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to the Taliban and the Islamic State. The signatories emphasize that the values ​​defended by Icom and by Israeli democracy are “attacked by Hamas”. They add that, since October 7, museums in Israel have protected their collections and strengthened their security according to Icom recommendations (Israeli museums remain closed until further notice). Finally, the signatories urge Icom to “condemn Hamas’ massacre of defenseless citizens.” The Icom press release therefore does not really meet the expectations of the members of the Israeli committee.

The forum of discord

The letter from Icom Israel finds its origin in an internal controversy in the art world: on October 19, the American magazine Artforum published a column signed by more than two thousand personalities in the field. This text, quite long, mentions neither Hamas nor the Israeli victims, but calls for support for Palestinian civilians and denounces Israeli colonization as well as “the genocide” in Gaza. Among the signatories are artists from the Arab world (Taysir Batniji, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige), American and European artists (Nan Goldin, Laure Prouvost), exhibition curators and some gallery owners. On the French side, we note that Éric Baudelaire, Françoise Vergès, Élisabeth Lebovici, Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel, Claude Lemand and Elias Sanbar signed the text.

This column, whose author is unknown, aroused indignation in Israel, not only for its content but also because some signatories worked with Israeli institutions. The president of Icom Israel, Raz Samira, also deputy director of the Eretz Israel Museum, therefore wrote this open letter to Icom, supported by the directors of the major Israeli museums.

On the same date, an open letter calling for unity in the art world and condemning the Hamas attacks was signed by several gallery owners and artists (Paula Cooper, Dominique Lévy, Emmanuel Perrotin, Marina Abramovic). Under pressure, Artforum added an addendum to the forum, where the victims of October 7 and the hostages are mentioned. Several signatories also claimed to have been pressured by American or Israeli collectors to remove their names from the platform, which some did (Tomás Saraceno). The editor-in-chief ofArtforumDavid Velasco, was quickly disowned by his superiors and fired on October 27.

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