Building legitimacy from an empty shell: a Palestine exhibition in Paris - Opinion

An exhibition of Palestinian culture in the heart of Paris serves as a catalyst for a hard-hitting media campaign.

 Police officers take position during riots following the death of Nahel, a 17-year-old teenager killed by a French police officer in Nanterre during a traffic stop, at Champs Elysees in Paris, France, July 1, 2023 (photo credit: REUTERS/NACHO DOCE)
Police officers take position during riots following the death of Nahel, a 17-year-old teenager killed by a French police officer in Nanterre during a traffic stop, at Champs Elysees in Paris, France, July 1, 2023
(photo credit: REUTERS/NACHO DOCE)

Last week, when a policeman shot and killed Nahel M., a 17-year-old delinquent of North African descent, riots broke out across France. The Collectif Palestine Vaincra, a French organization linked to the PFLP, called for an intifada to avenge the boy’s death. Though the violence targeted French society as a whole, Jews were often singled out. Some Jewish-owned shops were sacked and pillaged, and a Holocaust memorial was desecrated. 

France is facing its own version of the Israeli dilemma: a violently hostile, separatist Muslim population. And yet it devotes considerate means to promoting one of the very causes that ignites and unites the rebels of the banlieue.

In Paris these days, right next to a large university where thousands of students stroll by daily, a pink billboard proclaims: “Ce que la Palestine apporte au monde?” Meaning, what does Palestine bring to the world? The inquiring visitor can enter the Institut du monde arabe (Arab World Institute), a publicly-funded museum and cultural center focused on Arab culture and visit this exhibition.

The first room immediately offers a disconcerting answer to that question. With a feminist twist at odds with the status of women in the Arab world, Palestiniennes et Palestiniens en leurs musées purports to showcase the collection of a future national Palestinian museum of modern art – a “Museum in exile” – that curiously rhymes with Jewish history.

There is a hitch: most of the art shown in that room is the work of international artists, and hardly depicts the life of Palestinians. In other words, despite further sections devoted to the poet Mahmoud Darwiche and the (French) writer Jean Genet, who embraced Palestinians fighting against Israel, the exhibition is largely an empty shell, which is not that surprising, given that there was no distinct Arab Palestinian identity before the 1960s.

To underestimate the impact of this event, however, would be a mistake. French media gave broad coverage to the exhibition when it opened on May 31. The curator and Palestinian dignitary Elias Sanbar and a number of sympathetic guests were featured in a high-profile broadcast on Radio France.

The exhibition was also covered by major newspapers and magazines. An official catalog was published, and conferences were held, praising the Palestinian cultural achievements heralded by the exhibition. The exhibition itself is sponsored by the public radio broadcaster France Culture, the daily newspapers L’Obs and Libération, and two art magazines. The same message was conveyed everywhere: the Palestinians are an ancient people with deep roots and a rich culture.

To build legitimacy from an empty shell, one needs a megaphone. The media ensured that the message was broadcast to a much wider audience than the exhibition itself.

This effort does not happen in a vacuum. In France, as in Europe generally, the media are constantly focused on Israel, almost always portrayed as an occupier and settler state that steals “Palestinian land,” as if Israel stood where there had once been a sovereign Arab Palestinian nation. Of course, one can wish for a two-state solution. But this standardized terminology translates into an equation that places Jewish oppressors over Arab victims.

This is quite dangerous in a country like France, with sizable Jewish and Arab minorities, where Jews have been victims of terror attacks because of this accusation. The killer that shot three Jewish children in Toulouse in 2012 justified his act as retaliation for the “Israeli murder of Palestinian children.”

Legitimizing Palestine with this exhibition goes hand in hand with denying the legitimate presence of Jews in their ancestral homeland. It is a confrontation in the battle for the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.

In this context, the exhibition and the media campaign that widened its impact gives unfounded historical legitimacy to the Palestinians and reinforces the belief that Jews should be held responsible for Palestinian suffering. This endangers Jews, not only in Israel but also in the Diaspora.

A false depiction of the past will not foster a better future. It would be wonderful if the Palestinians, rather than fighting against hard truth, started to engage in original creation to build a great culture for the future. Yes, 3,000 years of Jewish history in the Middle East do confer legitimacy.  But why couldn’t it be earned? Honestly?

France itself has a long history. Surely it could make better use of its media if it truly wants to encourage the advent of a peaceful Middle East, not to mention avoiding fanning the flames at home.

Laurent Hayem is the founder of InfoEquitable, a website that monitors coverage of Israel in French-speaking media, publishing in-depth analysis and prompting corrections of inaccurate factual reporting.

This op-ed is published in partnership with a coalition of organizations that fight antisemitism across the world. Read the previous article by Raouf Leeraar