Ahmad Ali Daword, at the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. | SKIP SCHIEL

‘Nakba’ photo exhibit draws criticism at Newton library

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‘Nakba’ photo exhibit draws criticism at Newton library

Ahmad Ali Daword, at the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. | SKIP SCHIEL

NEWTON – In typical times, a photography exhibit at the Newton Free Library of Palestinians in West Bank villages taken six years ago would probably draw only a smattering of visitors to the small gallery, which usually features the work of local artists.

But these are not normal times for a community already feeling vulnerable because of an increase in antisemitic incidents and pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel student protests at colleges and universities.

And the fact that the exhibit – “The Ongoing & Relentless Nakba: The Palestinian Catastrophe of 1948 to Today” – began before Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, and in the midst of a war against Hamas further infuriated Jewish residents.

Some 200 protestors, according to police, shouted down some pro-Palestine activists outside the library and a largely pro-Israel crowd of more than 100 individuals packed the library’s gallery and forced a halt to the opening reception.

Videos of the event showed protestors shouting “never again,” “shame,” “rapists,” and “no place for hate” as Skip Schiel, the Cambridge photographer who put together the exhibit, tried fruitlessly to talk about his work.

One man wearing a keffiyeh screamed “long live Palestine” and was seen arguing vociferously with one resident. A Newton police officer separated the two men.

The title of the exhibit drew a sharp rebuke from Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, who issued a statement saying the “subject matter and title would be offensive to some residents” particularly during a month that includes Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“I believe this exhibit will be quite hurtful and divisive,” the mayor said, but added that she supported Library Director Jill Mercurio in her effort “to be a role model for how a community library can help residents learn about deeply painful and contentious topics.”

City Councilor David Micley echoed the mayor’s comments, saying that the core issue wasn’t the photos but it’s “anti-Israel title and agenda of the exhibit” that he found “offensive and problematic.” He called “the agenda driving this exhibit explicitly one-sided and biased.”

Mercurio said the exhibit was approved by an independent committee of art professors and professionals who live and work in Newton last July.

Schiel, a one-time math and science teacher at the Maimonides School, a Jewish day school in Brookline, said he was “disappointed and angry” at the response to the exhibit and expressed bewilderment at what the protestors “hoped to accomplish and why they chose those methods.”

He said he believed the anger was not targeted at him personally “but at my view of history that I try to foster through my photographs.” He has visited Gaza and the West Bank 15 times over the past 20 years.

The exhibit features 14 photographs of people and landscapes in the West Bank between 2018 and 2019 taken by Schiel, who describes himself as “a socially engaged participatory photographer.”

The photographs, he said, are designed “to show the humanity of those who suffer,” as Palestinian refugees, as well as well as “fields and ruins” from the communities in which they once lived.

In remarks prepared for the exhibit opening, Schiel, a Quaker, said after the Seven Day War in 1967, he was “fully supportive of Israel” and even called himself a Zionist at the time.

The protest was the second pro-Israeli rally in Newton in the last month. A rally in front of a home on Homer Street where posters of the Israeli captives in Gaza were defaced drew some 2,000 people in April.

The exhibition gallery was quiet in the days after the opening, a solitary policeman sat on bench alongside Eileen Kurkoski, a nurse practitioner and Newton resident who hung a placard from her neck that said “Are you sick of war? Let’s talk and listen to each other.”

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