Leichhardt Council and Friends of Hebron

From a Press Release May 23, 2008, by Inner West Chavurah (Contact: Uri Windt [email protected] Phone: 0418 208 755)

Following the efforts of Friends of Hebron (FoH) to get a sister city relationship going between Leichhardt and Hebron the Inner West Chavurah (IWC), many of whom live in Leichhardt, got involved.

The Friends of Hebron wished to convey a narrative of suffering by the Palestinian people at the hands of Israel.

The Chavurah indicated that this approach invites the competing narrative of suicide bombing in Israel and constant shelling of Israeli towns from Gaza even though Israel withdrew unilaterally from there.

Portrayed in these terms the Middle East conflict gets replicated in Leichhardt with tensions felt in the community and tit-for-tat accusations of who is the victim, and who is the perpetrator. The reality is that everyone in the Middle East suffers, and many respond by perpetrating and the violence continues.

The dilemma for Council was: should Council facilities be used in activities that have the potential to cause disharmony, anxiety, and dissention in the Leichhardt community?

The Chavurah posed a positive way forward: why not celebrate the courageous people, on the ground, Israeli and Palestinian, who at some risk to themselves extend a hand of friendship and trust and undertake joint projects to improve each others lives and demand that a two-state solution be enacted by their leaders.

A joint effort by IWC and FoH would replicate the many peace initiatives being practiced in the Middle East.

The outcome of several meetings and extensive discussions was a Council resolution supported by both FoH and IWC.

Instead of a sister city arrangement it was agreed that Council would be happy to support projects related to Hebron or the Middle east, as long as they met certain guidelines.

Council particularly wanted to have FoH and IWC do a project jointly if possible. A committee of 4 Councilors was set up to vet any use of Council premises to promote Middle East stuff.

Following these meetings and the Council resolutions, the IWC tried to progress this joint project by endeavouring to contact FoH by email and phone over several weeks, but with no response.

At some point last year, unbeknown to Councillors or IWC, FoH booked the Library space for the exhibition about Al Naqba and Hebron.

This was discovered two days before its opening. The IWC asked Council if it had approved it. They knew nothing about it.

The exhibition had been organized in breach of the Council resolution agreed to by FoH.

Council could now ask for it to be prohibited and face the criticism of applying censorship or it could allow it to proceed, thereby ‘rewarding’ the disregard of Council’s explicit intentions.

To avoid that dilemma, IWC offered to host an exhibition of its own. The content would be precisely that proposed in discussions with FoH and Council – examples of projects involving Palestinians and Israelis working together to improve each other’s lives. These examples include agriculture, sport, technology, and political activism promoting a Palestinian State.

This would ‘restore’ some balance and perspective to those visiting the exhibitions.

Permission was granted and an arrangement made to meet with the librarian. She allocated space that was not being used by the FoH exhibition. She also informed us of the Library’s guidelines which needed to be met – given the large number of mothers and toddlers visiting the Library, the content of any exhibition  could not raise anxiety; that is, it had to be ‘G rated’.

The IWC went about a frantic exercise in creating an exhibition. We gave ourselves a deadline of Saturday morning to put it up. As a short cut we proposed to do it as PowerPoint presentation with a couple of banners either side of the photos projected.

Friday morning, before the Library opened, Council inspected the FoH exhibition. A decision to take it down was made at that point by the Mayor, General Manager, head of Council facilities, the Library Manager.

The exhibition was already clearly in breach of the Council Resolution (and very clear that FoH had not acted in good faith in their representation to Council). They also felt it was not ‘G rated’ – suitable for a public Library space.

FoH have made much of the visit by ASIO/ the anti-terrorist squad (or whoever they were) and portrayed themselves up as the victims of censorship and bias.

The facts are, however, that FoH had not abided by the Council Resolution that they publicly endorsed at a full meeting of the Council last September. FoH had acted in bad faith in not telling anyone during their discussions with either Council or IWC that Council premises had already been booked and an exhibition organized.

The pity of it all is that an opportunity for dialogue and discussion has been lost.

The IWC remains prepared to undertake a joint project, as outlined above, with willing partners focused on the people-to-people efforts being made by Israeli and Palestinians, working together to create peace.