Artist challenges US Zionists with depiction of the Nakba
James Reinl, Foreign Correspondent
Last Updated: May 24. 2008 8:05PM UAE / May 24. 2008 4:05PM GMT
NEW YORK // When Ildiko Toth designed a poster commemorating the 1948 destruction of Arab towns by Jewish militants, the Oregon-based artist said she wanted to “give a voice to the suffering of the Palestinian people”.
This week, it appears that the Hungarian-born designer has got her wish. More than 1,000 copies of her poster will be plastered on billboards across midtown Manhattan to coincide with next month’s Salute to Israel Parade.
Bearing the words “Nakba – 60 Years of Forced Exile”, the posters will probably be seen by hundreds of thousands of supporters of Israel as they march along New York’s glitzy 5th Avenue and celebrate what organisers describe as “an ancient dream realised”.
Members of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation freely acknowledge they orchestrated the poster campaign to rain on the Zionists’ parade, according to the national advocacy director, Josh Ruebner.
“Participants in the Salute to Israel Parade will see our ads and be forced to confront the reality which they deny, namely, that Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish state is only possible by refusing Palestinian refugees’ their right of return home,” Mr Ruebner said.
The posters will “educate New Yorkers that the establishment of Israel in 1948 was accompanied by the widespread and purposeful ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homes and lands”, he said.
But parade organisers said Israel’s supporters will march undeterred, saying the event celebrates a “war of survival” in 1948 that saw Jews overcome “attacks on all sides” to create “the only democratic state in the Middle East”, according to Michael Miller, chief executive officer of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
“This is America, and everyone here has the right to free speech, which many in the Arab world do regrettably not have,” Mr Miller said. “If movements that have a different point of view want to put their message on a poster and stick it on walls throughout the city, that is their privilege.
“The supporters of Israel are not going to be guided by a poster. This parade is going to be one of the most exciting we have had in years. There is so much to celebrate: from what Israel has brought to the world to what Israel means symbolically to the Jewish people.”
Ms Toth’s poster, a winning entry in the US Campaign’s Expressions of Nakba art competition, depicts parachutes in the pattern of kaffiyehs carrying keys towards Jerusalem, together with a list of the Palestinian villages destroyed by Israelis in 1948.
The design plays with potent symbols for the Nakba exiles who still treasure property deeds to the flattened buildings and keys to doors that no longer exist – images that possess particular significance to Ms Toth, 34.
Following an internet romance, the designer married Samir al Sharif, 26, a Palestinian student, in Cairo in May 2006 before taking a honeymoon cruise on the Nile and heading to Ms Toth’s family home in southern Hungary.
After spending several months together in Hungary, Ms Toth returned to the United States, where she has been resident since 2000, while Mr Sharif visited his parents and 10 siblings in northern Gaza.
When he tried to leave, Mr Sharif was told he needed to apply for a new exit visa but bureaucratic failures and tighter regulations have kept him trapped in Gaza waiting for the valid paperwork to arrive. He blames officials on both sides, Israelis and Palestinians, for keeping him there.
“Why do they refuse me?” Mr Sharif said. “I have done nothing against Israel. Since returning to Gaza I have done nothing except sit at home. I have a right to be with my wife.”
Without direct access to consulates, Mr Sharif was forced to write dozens of letters pleading internationally for help from ambassadors, human rights groups and even Oprah Winfrey, the US television host. To date, nobody has been able to help.
By day, Mr Sharif works in his parents’ electronics store – an irony in an area beset by power blackouts – where an absence of customers and goods has seen sales plummet to the equivalent of– about Dh20 a day. In the streets outside, donkeys and carts have replaced cars due to a shortage of petrol.
By night, he waits until 3am for his wife to call during her lunch hour so the couple can reminisce about the few happy times they have enjoyed in two years’ of marriage.
“As a Palestinian, he acts very strong,” Ms Toth said. “He tells me: ‘Everything will be OK soon’ and ‘We will make it’. But I know it is really hard for him.”
The outlook for Mr Sharif remains uncertain. Ms Toth is pinning her hopes on securing US citizenship, believing the nationality change will improve her chances of getting her husband out of Gaza.
In the meantime, she contents herself with the knowledge that her poster – the product of her pain – will bear testament to the difficulties still faced by herself, Mr Sharif and many other Palestinians.
“In today’s age, people can easily form a one-sided opinion about an issue without fully understanding the other side,” she said. “I’m trying to raise awareness of the situation of Palestinians, humanise their tragedy and educate people who are not aware.
“I’ve always been interested in the deep, dark recesses of the world and to give a voice to such issues. Since I have known Samir, I have found a passion in him as well as his plight.”