Israel Pulse

Israeli art student hounded by Israeli right

Article Summary
Instead of defending freedom of expression and art, Israeli politicians hounded the art student who depicted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a rope.

Writing that Culture Minister Miri Regev has asked Education Minister Naftali Bennett to stop funding the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design because of a poster by a first-year student is a dog bites man story. But in fact, this is what happened this week, when a poster showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a rope swept the social networks. It’s hardly surprising that the culture minister, who is proud of never having read Chekhov, doesn’t understand the difference between a poster displayed in the stairwell of an arts school and incitement against asylum seekers in the town square (as she did in 2012, when she called African asylum seekers “a cancer”). And then again, maybe she does understand and even knows that the school assignment of an 18-year-old student, posted on the web by some anonymous hand, is hardly a security threat to the prime minister. But Regev, as always, never misses an opportunity to pick up a few more likes from her fans.

Many on the political right, and even on the left, did not like the poster’s depiction of Netanyahu next to a hangman’s noose. Others saw in it a legitimate form of criticism against Netanyahu, one of the prime instigators of the violent incitement that preceded the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. They read the substitution of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign poster image and the word “HOPE” with a picture of Netanyahu with the word “ROPE” as a portrayal of Netanyahu killing the hope for peace. In art, the interpretation is in the eye of the beholder. As Eli Petel, the head of the fine arts department at the academy, said, “An exercise by students at an academy is not a call for action. The aim of art education is providing an opportunity to ask questions about the personal, social and cultural — and inevitably the political — space in which we live.”

The resilience of a democracy is measured, among other things, by its ability to restrain itself and withstand criticism. The meaning of a defensive democracy is not just dealing with incitement to violence, but also protecting the public space against those who would silence criticism in the name of fighting incitement. In the storm over the Bezalel poster, two of the most senior gatekeepers of this space have now called in the police on behalf of the government to penetrate the very heart of the art and culture world. State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan decided there was sufficient cause to launch an investigation of the student and her department head on suspicion of incitement. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit found the time, in between reviewing the “examinations” of the prime minister’s doings that have piled up on his desk, to approve the questioning of the student and her teacher.

And what about opposition leader Isaac Herzog? Maybe he had a few words of support for the Bezalel students whose halls were invaded by police? Not really. Herzog issued a condemnation of the artistic display and explained that “freedom of expression is important and necessary, but it should not be used to incite toward harming public leaders from the right or the left.” Perhaps the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, Yair Lapid, sent a message of encouragement to the students of Bezalel? No, he didn’t. It seems that he preferred leaving this task to students of the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design who held a solidarity protest with their friends on the streets in Ramat Gan.

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Lapid’s contribution to the public debate was an artistic critique of the poster as “bad art” and a description of the work by an 18-year-old student hung in a school hallway as “an ugly and dangerous attempt to grab headlines through violence.”

Even President Reuven Rivlin, a stalwart champion of democracy, did not save the day this time. Instead of addressing the blatant crossing of lines by the state prosecution and the police, he wrote on his Facebook page that the student’s work was “a clear crossing of the lines.”

In an interview with Haaretz daily on the day after he was questioned by police, Petel said he can see that the artistic community in Israel feels under great pressure. “We will soon be marking the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Bauhaus. Bezalel is based on a very similar teaching concept. And when one thinks about what happened in 1933, it rings a realistic bell for us these days.” Petel was referring to the Gestapo takeover of the school and the flight of most of its lecturers from Germany.

That being said, there’s no danger of a forced government takeover of Bezalel and a subsequent flight of its staff in the foreseeable future. Regev achieves the goals of the Netanyahu government in a more democratic manner. Or so it would seem. Her way was quintessentially summed up last July during a Cabinet debate about the fate of Israel’s public broadcasting, in general, and the proposed new public broadcasting corporation, in particular. “What’s the point of having a corporation if we don’t control it? The minister should control it. What, we’ll provide funds and then they’ll broadcast whatever they want?” she said. One can easily replace the word “public broadcasting” with “theaters,” the “cinematheque,” “festivals,” “media,” as well as “the courts” and even “the school system.”

At some point one should tell Regev about British General Sir Evelyn Barker, who was sent to British Mandatory Palestine to put down a revolt by the pre-state Jewish underground groups — Etzel and Lehi — and made the famous anti-Semitic comment that the British would hit the Jews “in a way the race dislikes as much as any, by striking at their pockets.” But the Barker-Regev method works. The funding benefits for theaters willing to put on shows in Jewish settlements in the occupied territories and the threat to defund the recalcitrant ones led recently to a performance by the Habima National Theater in the community center of the Jewish settlement town of Kiryat Arba. The repertoire of the performing arts center in the settlement town of Ariel includes productions by the Cameri Theater, Beersheba Theater, Gesher Theater and even the avant-garde Tzavta Theater (with the political satire "Angina Pectoris," which is hardly complimentary to the settlers).

On the other hand, Regev has announced that organizers of ceremonies, such as the annual Ophir cinema awards, seeking funding from her office will be required to present her with a detailed program of the event in advance. The former military censor explained that the decision stems from her desire to “ensure professional standards and national criteria.” And who will determine whether an artist is up to professional standards and adheres to national criteria? You guessed correctly.

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Found in: miri regev, incitement, freedom of expression, censorship, benjamin netanyahu, barack obama, art

Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.

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