A BDS Moment in Tokyo

In planning a family trip to Japan, I was fairly certain that there wouldn’t be much of a Jewish story to share with you. I did know that the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) had opened a mailbox for contributions after the terrible earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear disaster last March, but I had no plans to go north to visit the devastated area. 


I also knew that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had been there to help after the earthquake, one of the first responders on the ground, as usual, just like in Haiti and the scenes of countless other disasters. But we were going to see our son who is in Tokyo for the summer, and I just didn’t see where I could even fit in a visit to the Jewish Community Center in Tokyo.


But I was wrong. I almost wish I were wrong. This has nothing to do with Japan or the Japanese people. I loved Japan and it was a wonderful trip on the whole. The country is beautiful, clean, and sophisticated, and the people are warm and welcoming. It has to do with an art exhibit.


One of my non-Jewish interests is contemporary art. I take a class in New York City that tours the galleries once a week. Over the last several years, I have seen many unusual uses of various kinds of media. I have seen art I liked, art I didn’t understand, and things I would not define as art. I have learned that art is very often inspired by the times in which we live and that the market for art often drives the artists as well.


So I knew that I wanted to visit the Mori Art Museum in the Mori Tower, one of Tokyo’s tallest skyscrapers, which has a worldwide reputation in contemporary art. First we toured the sky view floor, with 360-degree views of Tokyo. We then ascended an escalator to the museum floor. As we got to the top, we saw that it was an exhibit of Arab art called “Arab Express: The Latest From the Arab World.” Okay, deep breath, open mind.


I got somewhat more concerned when I read the exhibit was prepared with the cooperation of the embassies of Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. I also saw the embassies of France and Finland named. Finland? Again, I was trying to have a cultural experience, not a political or personal one, but I was on alert. 

You can see the list of sponsors, artists, and some of the pieces in the exhibit until June 28, when the exhibit closes. Much of the art is engaging, thoughtful, and creative in the use of video, paint, photography, and digital media. Some of it is funny and meant to be so. Some questioned the rights of women in Arab society, some on the dependence on oil dollars.


As I walked further into the exhibition, though, I began to find pieces that, to me, crossed the line from art to propaganda. The first was a set of two paintings, which the information card identified as depicting schoolchildren unable to attend classes because of Israeli bomb attacks. I thought about schoolchildren I know in Sderot and Ofakim and Kibbutz Erez, who have been cowering in bomb shelters for the last three weeks, unable to go out to play, about schools hit and people injured.


The next, by Akram Zaatari, a Lebanese artist, showed a montage of rockets striking a hill in Lebanon entitled “Saida, June 6, 1982, showing camera movements.” It is a time lapse photograph of Israeli rockets hitting a hillside during the first Lebanon War. 


But two things occurred to me. First, if you didn’t read the information card, you might not have realized that the strikes didn’t all happen at once. Second, and I am so annoyed that I didn’t take pictures (I am still of a generation that doesn’t take pictures in museums, although I did photograph a great deal of delicious food on this trip), because near this photo montage was a statement that said something to the effect that the Japanese people, having suffered so much in war and due to natural disaster, should have sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people. My open mind was quickly closing.


The last piece I stopped to look at really put me over the edge. It was a relatively obscure piece of old video footage, clearly depicting either an air force base or an airport. Again, it was the information card that made me crazy. It explained that the video depicted the former Lydda Airport, which was occupied — occupied! — by the Israelis in 1948 (!) and was then known as Lod Airport and now as Ben Gurion Airport.


I understand that there are two narratives, or more than two narratives, about the creation of the State of Israel, about the status of the West Bank and Gaza, about peace solutions, about the security fence. I understand that no one and no country are perfect.


However, there is one thing about which I am very clear. The United Nations affirmed the partition plan on November 29, 1947, which mapped out two states, one for the Jews and one for Arabs, and which led to the declaration of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. Lod Airport, now Ben Gurion Airport or any name you want to call it, does not and has never stood on occupied land.


When we talk about the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, it sometimes seems like an organized effort that we should be able to readily identify. But here I was, in Tokyo of all places, reading an information card that simply denied the rightful existence of the State of Israel. 


The meaning was clear — all of Israel is actually “occupied.” I still can’t believe I didn’t take pictures, because you have to see it to believe it. And this is why I am so proud of the work done by our Community Relations Committee in combating the BDS movement. If you want to know more about what you can do to stand up for Israel in these kinds of moments, check out our great website, Campaign for Truth.


I was distraught at the thought that Japanese and other visitors to this exhibit might accept all of this “information” as true, and at the thought that someone, in Israel, somewhere, needed to know about this. I wanted to think that Israeli artists could also come to the Mori Art Museum and tell the compelling story of Israeli existence.


The next morning I told our tour guide, who was not with us when we toured the museum, how upset I was by the exhibit. I didn’t want to embarrass her or make her feel badly; I just wanted her to know that there was another side to the story.


We were on our way to the train station, and the guide was engaged in conversation with the driver who was bringing us. I assumed they were having a practical discussion about getting to the station or other logistics. Instead, it turned out that she had been telling him about my experience. The guide told me that the driver had driven a group of IDF soldiers to the earthquake area in the first few weeks after the disaster. They were helping to clear roads so gasoline trucks could get in to provide fuel. Clearly, their work had made a positive impression.


Maybe deeds work better, and last longer, than propaganda. I hope so.


Glad to have gone, glad to be home.



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