Library exhibit focusing on West Bank sees pushback in Newton

There’s a new art exhibit at the Newton Free Library that features photographs from the West Bank, and some in Newton are voicing outrage over it.

“I believe this exhibit will be quite hurtful and divisive,” Mayor Ruthanne Fuller wrote in an email to the public voicing her opposition to the exhibit the day before it was set to go on display.

What is the exhibit and why are people upset that it’s there?

Some background

The Newton Free Library follows the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, which seeks to give libraries some autonomy to allow free display of diverse ideas.

“The Newton Free Library has offered New England artists exhibition space for decades. Twice a year an independent committee of art professors and professionals who live or work in Newton selects works to be displayed during the following year in the library,” Fuller wrote in her email statement, emphasizing that the selection of an artist’s work is not an endorsement of it. “They encourage artists from a variety of ethnicities and life experiences to apply.”

Given how busy the Newton Fee Library is, exhibit space is in high demand and art is chosen well in advance of the exhibits. According to the library website, last summer the committee chose an exhibit by photographer Skip Schiel to be displayed throughout this month.

That exhibit, titled “The Ongoing & Relentless Nakba: The Palestinian Catastrophe of 1948 to Today,” features photographs taken of people and landscapes in the West Bank in 2018 and 2019.

An exhibit of photographs by artist Skip Schiel of people and landscapes in the West Bank is causing controversy in Newton. Photo by Bryan McGonigle

On Oct. 7, Hamas-backed terrorists stormed Israel from Gaza and killed more than 1,200 civilians and kidnapped hundreds more. Since then, Israel has waged a military assault on Gaza that has killed thousands of people there. And in Newton, the war in Gaza has hit home in the form of anti-Israel hate crimes.

Opening a dialogue

“When told of this exhibit by Library Director Jill Mercurio, I immediately had deep concerns,” Mayor Fuller’s email reads. “I knew that the subject matter and title would be offensive to some residents, especially at this time with conflict in the Middle East and rising antisemitism at home.”

But Fuller said she supports Mercurio’s decision to let the exhibit go up because it shows the library’s commitment to freedom of speech.

“I applaud the efforts by the Newton Free Library to be a role model for how a community library can help residents learn about deeply painful and contentious topics,” Fuller wrote. “Rather than canceling or postponing this art show, the Library is helping us learn, engage, think critically and converse civilly.”

An exhibit of photographs by artist Skip Schiel of people and landscapes in the West Bank is causing controversy in Newton. Photo by Bryan McGonigle

On Wednesday, Ward 2 City Councilor David Micley said the exhibit’s title shows the artist’s bias. “Nakba” is Arabic for “catastrophe” and refers to the displacement of Palestinians during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, which had been waged by several Arab nations after the creation of the State of Israel.

“It’s not the photos that are the core issue, rather it’s the anti-Israel title and agenda of the exhibit that so many in our community, including me as a proud supporter of the people and State of Israel, find offensive and problematic,” Micley wrote.

“The Newton Free Library is a public place that Newton residents collectively support with our tax dollars,” he continued. “If we, as a community, decide to use the library as a place for dialogue and discussion on difficult political debates, that needs to be done with intent and balance of perspectives. This exhibit fails to do that.”