All humans have human rights

By Nick Cohen, December 22, 2011
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The Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour's Nation Estate is not as worthless as most agitprop. She does not scream at the audience but imagines the tiny homeland on offer to the Palestinians as a claustrophobic, concrete, tower-block. Her people are crammed inside, but you never see them. The only figure in view, a woman, I assume is Sansour.

We see her sitting next to the lifts in the high-rise's lobby. On the wall beside her a sign reads, "Floor 3 – Jerusalem, Floor 4 – Ramallah, Floor 5 – Bethlehem" and so on. Other photographs show the woman walking round grim, bare rooms with cracked, concrete floors. From the windows, the viewer captures a glimpse of the brilliant gold on the Dome of the Rock . It glitters from another, better world.

Agitprop fails as art because the audience cannot understand it on its own terms. Partisans must instruct the viewers beforehand on the correct response. If they don't understand or accept the argument, they won't understand or accept the work.

I suppose you could not fully appreciate Sansour unless you knew about the consequences of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in advance. It is redeemed in my eyes because even if you knew nothing, you would still find the contrast between the gold and the grey, the free space and the confined rooms, disturbing

I urge you to resist the temptation to snarl and walk away

Far worse works win arts prizes all the time. Sansour's work, however, cannot win the Lacoste Elysée Prize. The fashion chain's cultural commissars removed her from the prize shortlist. She alleges they found her work to be too "pro-Palestinian," and then asked her to cover-up their censorship by pretending that she had quit of her own accord. Index on Censorship has seen emails proving that Lacoste first accepted her then dropped her.

Modern antisemitism in its western form is becoming "the racism of the anti-racists" to use Pascal Bruckner's marvellous phrase. Whereas Jew haters once claimed that there was a conspiracy to control everything from the banks to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the interests of advancing Jewish power, today they claim that a conspiracy controls American foreign policy in the interests of advancing Israeli power to crush Palestinians.

In my political neighbourhood, the cause of the Palestinians as not just one cause among many but the only cause.

At a recent left-wing meeting I attended, a speaker announced that women "don't only care about men and babies - we care about serious causes, we care about Palestine". I know I should have spoken out, but I was too flabbergasted to tell her how ridiculous she sounded. No one else in the room thought her ridiculous at all.

Whenever one challenges left-wingers about their acceptance of notions of Jewish power they would once have condemned as fascistic, or ask them why they magnify the crimes of Israel and ignore mass murderers, they wave the bloody shirt of Palestinian suffering. It is both a justification and a taunt.

I urge to you to resist the temptation to snarl and walk away.

Just because the "international community" ignores far worse suffering than the Palestinians endure, does not make Palestinian suffering right. Just because antisemites exploit a cause for their own malign ends, does not mean that cause is worthless.

Abandon a universal view of human rights and you end up in the same cesspit as your own opponents, who allow the tiny state of Israel to block their view of all the evils of the world. Mutatis mutandis, you will also mimic the Israeli settlers who believe they have the right to the West Bank because God gave them the special power to override the human rights of its inhabitants.

The organisers of a supposedly respectable art prize ought to have the confidence to say that one deals with political opponents not by banning them but by arguing with them.

    Last updated: 11:38am, December 22 2011