Who’s afraid of children’s art?

In September 2011, the Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland (MOCHA) was expected to open an exhibition called “A Child’s View of Gaza.” The selection of artwork drawn by Palestinian children in the wake of the 2009 Gaza War, known as Operation Cast Lead, had been assembled by MECA, the Middle East Children’s Alliance and was scheduled to stay at the museum for two months. Had things gone as planned, it’s likely this article never would have been written — but things most definitely did not go as planned.

What happened is not fully clear, but pressure from the Jewish community and worries that some of the imagery would be disturbing to children caused MOCHA to cancel the exhibition. The move was celebrated by some Bay Area Jewish organizations. According to The Forward, the Federation called the cancellation “great news,” and said that “the ‘Child’s View of Gaza’ exhibit at MOCHA has been canceled thanks to some great East Bay Jewish community organizing.”

Others outside the Jewish community were not so thrilled. Online petitions were circulated to attempt to force the museum to reconsider. One person angry about the museum’s decision was the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, who penned a blog post calling the decision “sad” and lamenting that censorship still exists in the United States of the 21st century. It was a post of more muted tones than her interview with Foreign Policy magazine three months prior, when she’d opined: “I think Israel is the greatest terrorist in that part of the world. And I think in general, the United States and Israel are great terrorist organizations themselves.”

The more measured, regretful tones of Walker’s blog post about the situation in Oakland caught the eye of Jordan Elgrably, an Arab Jew and one of the co-founders of the Levantine Center in Los Angeles. “I said, ‘Well, what are people really afraid of?’ ” Elgrably said recently, speaking on the phone from the park, his children at play a few feet away. “This is kids, and it’s from their experience. It’s searing; it’s real. We should host this.”

Around the same time Elgrably was contemplating Walker’s op-ed, an e-mail from MECA, the organizers of the failed Oakland exhibition, popped into the in-box of Amani Jabsheh, a Los Angeles-based peace activist. MECA was looking for places to show the work around the country, and they needed help. Jabsheh knew she had to do something. “When I saw what they painted — that’s their reality. I want people to see how the children suffer there under the occupation.”

According to Jabsheh, it was Rachel Corrie, a young American woman who was killed while protesting in front of an Israeli bulldozer, who inspired her to get involved in promoting peace in the Middle East. She saw what Corrie had done and thought to herself that if someone like Corrie, who shared no background with Palestinians, was getting involved, she couldn’t sit on the sidelines. “She was not Muslim, she couldn’t speak the language, you know, [had] nothing [in common] with us, and since that time, I’ve felt an obligation as a human being to do my part,” Jabsheh said.

Jabsheh wrote back to the organizers and MECA, and they put her in touch with another woman in Los Angeles who had also contacted them, Dara Wells-Hajjar. When Jabsheh and Wells-Hajjar connected, they realized that they’d both worked with the Levantine Cultural Center and that it would be the perfect place to stage the exhibition.

Elgrably agreed. “For a decade now, we’ve been championing a greater understanding of the Middle East and North Africa by presenting arts and educational programs that really attempt to bridge political and religious divides,” he said of the Levantine Center.

The center is presenting the exhibition through Feb. 17, and on Jan. 29 will host an event at the Hollywood Women’s Club with guest speakers Laila Al-Marayati, Diane Shammas and Kristen Ess Schurr, three women with deep knowledge of the Middle East who’ve all spent time in Gaza. Musician Naser Musa will also be performing. “He’s also all about the kids,” said Elgrably of Musa, “so he felt strongly about performing for this.” 

Jabsheh believes art is an incredibly important tool for peace. “If we can help those children when they’re young not to be angry and not to seek revenge, and to have a chance to express their feelings in a beautiful way, like through art and through singing … why not?” It’s far better than rockets and war, in her mind. “In the future … they will paint, maybe, kids playing together, and Jewish kids next to them playing together.”

Although Elgrably says the Levantine Cultural Center hasn’t faced the sort of pressure that caused MOCHA to cancel the exhibition, he noted, “We’ve had already a couple of menacing phone calls.”

Most of all, Jabsheh hopes people will give the exhibition a chance before they cast judgment on it. “Come and see and listen, and if you disagree, that’s fine,” she said. “All of us can have disagreements with people, but we still can be friends.”

“A Child’s View of Gaza,” will be shown from Jan. 17 to Feb. 17 at the Inside/Outside Gallery, Levantine Cultural Center, 5998 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. On Jan. 29 from 4-7 p.m., the Hollywood Woman’s Club will host the special event with speakers and music, at 1749 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. For more information, visit http://www.levantinecenter.org/event/childs-view-gaza-exhibition-comes-los-angeles.