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Staff support museum director sacked for Palestine solidarity 

Manchester University [Wikipedia]
Manchester University, 19 August 2021 [Wikipedia]

More than 100 members of staff at the University of Manchester (UoM) have signed a letter opposing the attempt to force out the director of the Whitworth Art Gallery, Alistair Hudson. The signatories called the move a "grave violation of academic and artistic freedom of expression."

Hudson was asked to leave his post last month following complaints by UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI) about statements of solidarity with Palestine displayed at the gallery during an exhibition last summer.

"It is damaging and dangerous that the UoM supported the idea that a statement against Israel's war crimes against the Palestinian people was an act of anti-Semitism, and forced its removal," said the signatories. "This was not only a violation of academic freedom… but also a violation of the principle that universities should provide a space for free critical inquiry and opinion."

The letter warned that the decision to remove the statement of solidarity with Palestine "sends a chilling message to all staff and students that they can lose their jobs or be expelled if an outside body disagrees with work being conducted on university campus."

The University of Manchester was accused of not a nurturing an open space for enquiry and critical discussions about racism, colonialism, occupation, apartheid and other international examples and experiences of oppression. "It is the duty of universities to provide a supportive environment for staff and students to discuss these issues, express solidarity, and hopefully build a better future, without the fear of censorship and other punitive actions being taken against them," added the letter's signatories.

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At the centre of the controversy was an exhibition curated by Turner prize-nominated investigative group Forensic Architecture. It mentioned Israel's violence against Palestinians. A statement at the entrance of the exhibition read: "Forensic Architecture stands with Palestine", outlining experiences of "ethnic cleansing" of Palestinian neighbourhoods by "Israeli police and settlers". It continued to say that the Palestinian liberation struggle "is inseparable from other global struggles against racism, white supremacy anti-Semitism, and settler-colonial violence."

UKLFI protested against the wording of the statement in a letter to the vice-chancellor of the university, claiming that the language seemed to be "designed to provoke racial discord." The university removed the statement after which Forensic Architecture called for the closure of its exhibition "with immediate effect".

The founder of Forensic Architecture, Eyal Weizman, is a British Israeli professor at Goldsmiths in London. Weizman expressed concerns about academic and artistic freedoms and stated how important it is for the duty of equality to include Palestinians.

The university, which runs the Whitworth Art Gallery, reversed its decision, reopened the exhibition and agreed to display "different perspectives on the issues raised by the exhibition and help contextualise them".

Not much appeared to have happened until last month when Hudson was forced out of his job. In removing Hudson, the university explicitly cited his response to the fallout from last year's exhibition. UKLFI, which advocates for Israeli causes, told the Guardian that it had "suggested that the university should take appropriate disciplinary action" against Hudson in September.

Commenting on Hudson's departure, Weizman said: "Alistair turned the Whitworth into an art space where the important questions of our time could be asked. His sacking is the last in a series of bullying actions by the University of Manchester, which initially aimed at silencing our solidarity with Palestinians, then at stifling open debate and taming political art more generally. This move will shrink the space for art and artists."

The staff letter demands Hudson's reinstatement and calls upon the university to "apologise to the Whitworth Art Gallery, the wider UoM staff, and UoM students for this grave violation of the principle of academic and artistic freedom."

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