The Arab World Institute’s normalization with Israel betrays its roots

Arab intellectuals and artists have condemned the inclusion of Israeli artwork by the Arab World Institute and reiterated the call for a cultural boycott, but President Jack Lang’s response shows where his true intentions lie, writes Malia Bouattia.

French President Emmanuel Macron and IMA President Jack Lang visit the “Jews of the Orient” exhibition in Paris on November 22, 2021. [Getty]

Last month, more than 260 Arab scholars, journalists, politicians and artists signed adeclaration calling on the World Arab Institute/Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) in Paris to cease its normalization of Israel.

The IMA, a busy space in the French capital, hosts an exhibition titled “Jews of the East” in which works from several Israeli institutions are presented, including the Israel Museum and the Ben-Zvi Institute.

This decision by the IMA contravenes the call made by Palestinian civil society since 2005 to boycott, divest and sanction (BDS) Israel for its violations of international law.Culture has been a vital propaganda tool used by Israel to whitewash its crimes of 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 if the regime of colonization and apartheid is far from normal”.

“[Lang’s] the role at the head of such an important establishment requires at least a basic understanding of the political issues important to the inhabitants of the region – and the oppression of the Palestinian people has been central for more than a century”

Despite the considerable force of the message sent, the IMA did not change its mind or express regret. Worse still, IMA President Jack Lang went so far as to publicly call the signatories “sheep” and condemned the letter as “completely disproportionate and irrelevant”.

In his interview with Radio J, Lang further insulted the famous list of signatories – which includes internationally renowned artists such as Lebanese musician Marcel Khalife and Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman – by suggesting that they had agreed to be “ dragged…behind a text they actually didn’t even check.”

The IMA President added that the BDS campaign “aims to divert attention from the deeper meaning of this exhibition, which has nothing to do with any political debate.”

As France’s former culture minister, it’s almost laughable that Lang would say such a thing. It is also condescending for him to suggest that the inclusion of Israeli art within an institute that represents the Arab world in France is not very controversial.

His role at the head of such an important establishment requires at least a basic understanding of the political issues important to the people of the region – and the oppression of the Palestinian people has been central for more than a century. Denying the political nature of the Institute’s actions is deeply dishonest, to say the least.

This is all the more true given his support for the Abraham Accords, Donald Trump’s normalization project between Israel and other states in the region, and histo rentfor the King of Morocco’s normalization agreement with Israel.

In fact, in reacting to the letter, Lang once again underlined his support for normalization with Israel and his view that it should be encouraged. It is therefore clear that in fact he does not deny the political character of the exhibition, but on the contrary celebrates it.

It is also not the first time that Lang has used his position to promote France’s political interests in the region. For example, he recently called on Arab countries tostop the boycottthat many had called for following the Islamophobic words and practices of French President Emmanuel Macron, under the guise of fighting Islamic separatism. Lang’s objective is not to represent Arab culture and intellectual production in France, it is to exercise against it the institutional power of the IMA.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) expressed himselfagainst Lang’s comments, which he said “manifests a white supremacist ideology and recalls the dark era of direct French colonialism to the world”.

People are not only right to have legitimate concerns about the very political nature of Israel’s inclusion in the IMA’s work, but also about Lang’s ability to continue in his position.

Even if the president of the IMA is only interested in the reputation of the institute, this approach is an exercise in isolating the richness of Arab culture and intellectual production.

“Even if the president of the IMA is only interested in the notoriety of the institute, this approach is an exercise in isolating the richness of Arab culture and intellectual production”

This is also something 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 have already withdrawn in protest from the “Arabofolies” festival organized by the institute last month since it included Israeli artists, and even the former director of the IMA, Nada Yafi, joined the signatories of the letter.

This whole affair has done the IMA a great disservice and undermined the hopes of those who wanted it to serve as a legitimate institution for the encouragement of art and creativity throughout the Arab world.

Moreover, Lang’s behavior reeks of the cultural arrogance that has become such a historical marker of France’s imperial efforts abroad. The once held belief that it was the historical task of the republic to “civilize” people across the MENA region is now being applied to promoting Israel’s normalization in the Arab world, it seems.

Lang’s intentions are clear, and his political history has strongly indicated that he speaks from the standpoint of defending and protecting the interests of the Republic at home and abroad. Lang wants to teach the Arab world what should matter to them, how they should express themselves and in which forum.

The magnitude of the support the letter against his decision received indicates that those days are well and truly over. He might huddle against autocratic leaders in the region, ready to normalize relations with Israel, but the people remain steadfast in their solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for liberation.

Malia Bouattia is an activist, 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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The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.

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