Israeli Art Critic Wins Legal Battles

Israeli scholar Gannit Ankori has been an advocate of Palestinian art and culture, but it has not protected her from criticism by advocates for the Palestinian cause.

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During the past year, Ankori, chair of the art history department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has been the subject of critical reviews in two prominent art journals, both of them claiming that her main thesis was drawn from the work of a Palestinian artist and that her work, in some respects, reflected Israel’s appropriation of Palestine.

Ankori challenged both reviews with legal threats, and she has won financial compensation and an official apology from both journals, most recently in late June.

In the latest case, the College Art Association, publisher of America’s premier art journal, agreed to pay $75,000 and committed to making a public and a personal apology to Ankori as part of a settlement reached after her lawyers threatened to lodge a defamation suit in Britain. The dispute pertained to an article in Art Journal written by Joseph Massad, a controversial Columbia University associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history.

This is not the first time that Palestinian and Israeli academics have squared off over history in the region. But in this case, the Israeli academic is one who has shown an enduring sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Ankori has been attacked in the past by the Israeli right and has received the support of several Palestinian artists in the current dispute.

Ankori speaks of the bitterness of the legal wrangling of the past year.

“The personal attacks against me, by reactionary and nationalistic elements on all sides, are unrelated to issues of ‘academic freedom,’” she told the Forward. “Throughout this ordeal, I was particularly encouraged by the unwavering support of my colleagues and friends, particularly my Palestinian friends.”

The thesis for which she has been criticized is, in large part, in line with the Palestinian cause. In her book “Palestinian Art,” published in 2006 by Britain’s Reaktion Books, she argues that the art began before Israeli independence in 1948.

The first critical review came from Susan Noyes Platt, a Seattle-based art historian who has a blog called “Art and Politics Now.” She penned an article in the May 2007 edition of Art Book, a British journal from Blackwell Publishing, in which she relayed allegations that Ankori had stolen ideas from Palestinian artist and scholar Kamal Boullata — claims that were first made by Boullata. A month later, after Ankori’s lawyers threatened to file a libel lawsuit, a settlement was reached whereby the publishers agreed to withdraw the article, issues apologies to Ankori and pay her some $30,000 in compensation.

More recently, Massad made a similar argument in a review called “Permission to Paint: Palestinian Art and the Colonial Encounter.” Ankori’s lawyers pursued the same strategy and obtained a similar result this past May. In a letter of apology to be published in the winter 2008 edition of Art Journal, the publisher “acknowledges that the review contained factual errors as well as certain unfounded assertions.”

Massad, who is embroiled in a tenure dispute because of harassment accusations by some Jewish students on campus, did not return requests for comment. He told The Chronicle of Higher Education that the settlement was a “cowardly act.” While acknowledging that his article did contain a few errors, he said that CAA should have defended the right to an open academic debate.

In both cases, Ankori used a weapon that has become a lightning rod in recent years: plaintiff-friendly British libel laws. Linda Downs, CAA’s executive director, lamented the decision to threaten a lawsuit about academic work.

“CAA provides a platform for intellectual debate for nearly 100 years, and this is the first time this has happened,” Downs said. “This is very unfortunate, and we are very concerned that someone has chosen to take this to a legal realm.”

For Ankori, though, the issue at stake is broader.

“I believe that scholars should be judged according to the quality and integrity of their work,” she said, “not according to their gender, race, religion, sexual preference or national identity.”

Written by

Marc Perelman

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Israeli Art Critic Wins Legal Battles

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