Culture  Where words often fail

“A Village United Against the Wall” uses photography to confront the devastation of conflict in the Middle East

Like most people who have at least some basic knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I’ve engaged in heated discussions over the past weeks. I’ve read articles from writers on all sides of the political spectrum, and read the heart-shattering personal testaments of both Israelis and Gazans.

These exchanges, however nuanced and thorough they were, still left me with the feeling that I knew relatively nothing. And despite the constant media exposure, I still couldn’t help but feel utterly removed from the situation.

Perhaps I had simply been reading the wrong things. After all, even the infamous Joe the Plumber travelled to Israel to give an assessment of the situation. It’s getting infinitely harder to validate sources, and to cut through the complexity and bullshit. But, while difficult, it is absolutely essential. In fact, if there is one thing that all of these commentators would probably agree on, it’s that the situation is dire, and neutrality has become unconscionable.

It was not until last week, when I went with a friend to view a photo exhibition documenting the lives and actions of Palestinian civil dissidents in the village of Bil’in, that I felt that I had a clear understanding of the greater conflict. The photo exhibition, put on jointly by Tadamon! and ActiveStills – a group of documentary photographers working out of Israel and Palestine – displays the lives and civil resistance of the citizens of the West Bank town.

The photographs are currently showing in Café L’Escalier (552 Ste. Catherine E.) until February 9, and will be at Bar Populaire (6584 St. Laurent) from February 13 to 28. While there’s no particular significance to these two locations, the photo exhibit will move during the first week of March to Café Aquin, a student café at UQÀM and location with distinct importance.

“The photos will be shown during the 5th international Israeli Apartheid Week,” says Aaron Lakoff, a member of Montreal-based social justice collective Tadamon! “This is significant because the student movement in Quebec, largely via the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ) student union, has been instrumental in supporting the Palestinian struggle, especially via the international campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.”

In the context of the recently-escalated conflict between Israel and Gaza, Lakoff thinks the exhibit has renewed importance. “This photo exhibit shows the commitment of the Palestinian people to stand up against oppression at all odds. Every Friday for the last three years, the villagers of Bil’in have marched peacefully out to the wall, built on their olive groves, and every week they have stood down brutal violence from the Israeli occupation forces, usually in the form of rubber bullets, tear gas, and beatings. The fact that they keep going back shows an unbreakable will on their part, just as the residents of the Gaza ghetto have been saying that this most recent slaughter will not break their spirits.”

And this comes through in the exhibit, albeit in a sometimes-bizarre way. At Café L’Escalier, photos rest above quaint tables where couples sip coffee and nibble on baked goods, seemingly oblivious to the starving eyes above them. The jarring contrast brings out the importance of discussing the situation and displaying reminders of what’s going on wherever possible.

“The photos encourage the kind of conversation and rational discussion that such an ethically and morally conflicting issue necessitates,” says Ariel Appel, a U0 Arts student who joined me in attending the exhibit’s opening. “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes immediately more human, more personal and more urgent when it infiltrates into your daily life. I was not particularly knowledgeable about the conflict prior to seeing the exhibit and I don’t know if I would say I walked away knowing more, but I did walk away feeling more of an obligation to know and more of an obligation to contemplate these issues on my own.”

I think what the exhibit really shows – though I say this somewhat grudgingly, being a firm believer in rational discussion – is the ability of art to succeed where words often fail. The pictures speak volumes, and with their startling immediacy, explore the Israeli-Palestinian issue in the truest, raw sense.

When looking at these photos, I saw more than I expected. In the fearful, tired faces of the citizens of Bil’in I also saw the angst of southern Israelis. I saw my Jewish ancestors that died in the Holocaust, and the innocent Palestinians who at this moment continue to face incredible adversity.