After 62 Palestinians were killed May 14 during demonstrations in Gaza along the Israel-Gaza border, students at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem decided to protest in their own way. The students, mostly Israeli Arabs, hung black posters in the school’s corridors recording the names of the Palestinians killed. The exhibit also included signs with Gaza's shape that read, “Not Your Toy,” part of a refrain from the song by this year’s Eurovision winner, Israeli Netta Barzilai.
Science Minister Ofir Akunis of Likud banned the students from participating in an international science conference scheduled for the end of the month in Jerusalem. His decision was obviously entirely political. When asked by Al-Monitor whether all Bezalel students would be prevented from exhibiting at the conference, Akunis answered, “Yes.”
Bezalel, located on the Hebrew University campus on Mount Scopus, is considered one of the leading institutes of its kind in the world. The absence of works by its students at the upcoming conference, which will host 25 science ministers and delegations from around the world, is a disproportionate form of collective punishment that infringes on freedom of expression. The conference will include exhibits of works by students of design from art schools across the country.
Akunis told Al-Monitor that he supports freedom of expression and creativity, but added, “I will not permit the freedom to disparage. Even Hamas has already announced that the casualties along the border with Gaza were [mostly] its own people, or in other words, terrorists.”
Akunis was most likely shocked by the exhibit, as were most Jewish Israelis who watched as Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers defended the fence against allegedly desperate Gaza residents, with Hamas later claiming that most of the casualties were its people. That is exactly where the thin line runs between shock and government intervention against a legitimate political protest by Arab students. Like so many Israeli Arabs, the students were shocked by the bloody events and felt a sense of identification with their Palestinian “brothers and sisters” in Gaza.
Contrary to right-wing allegations, the posters, which were taken down, were not incitement against the IDF, nor were they a call to commit treason. They were a form of protest through art, which a strong democracy like Israel should be able to tolerate and respect. Akunis does not understand this, nor does Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein of the Likud Party, who said, “The artists protesting on behalf of themselves would do well to remember our troops along the Gaza border, who are protecting them, too.” The same goes for Jerusalem's mayor, Nir Barkat of Likud, who was so shocked that he demanded that Bezalel’s administration remove the posters, which, he tweeted, contained “the name of terrorists, who were injured, when they tried to break through the Gaza border fence in order to kill Jews.” Barkat, who plans to run for election on Likud’s Knesset list, added, “There is a limit and a clear red line as to how far people can make cynical use of freedom of expression.”
Did anyone really cross that red line? It is not at all clear why the emotions of the students on such a day should be considered cynical. Why couldn’t Akunis and others respect their feelings and their artistic expression? Obviously, banning their works from the conference won’t suppress the events of May 14 or cause them to be forgotten. If anything, such a response will only exacerbate the simmering antagonism that the students feel.
Furthermore, Bezalel also has right-wing students who identify with Im Tirtzu, an extreme right movement. They responded with an exhibit of their own, which includes the names of Jewish fatalities of terrorist attacks. The group also released a blunt response, stating, “Once again we see a shocking case of posters calling for hatred and pride in terrorists being disseminated. Instead of sending a maintenance crew to clean up this incitement and instead of punishing the recalcitrant student responsible for the exhibit, we see a cloud of joy hovering above us.”
Fortunately, Bezalel’s administration was not intimidated by the blaring political rhetoric aimed at right-wing voters. “The Bezalel Academy is a safe space for freedom of expression in Israel, enabling its students to engage in free, critical, and creative discourse on the wide range of topics that they deal with,” Bezalel tweeted.
The administration of Tel Aviv University also did the right thing when it refused to punish or even respond to the decision by an Arab lecturer in the Law Department that she would not hold class May 16 as a sign of her identification with the Palestinian struggle. Lena Salaymeh told her students that she was responding to the call for a general strike by the High Follow-up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel. “Out of respect for the Palestinians being slaughtered in Gaza, I am honoring the call for a general strike. Wednesday’s classes and office hours are canceled,” she told them in an email. The university simply said that her decision does not represent its own views on the matter, and that Salaymeh was acting independently.
In this case, too, it was the legitimate right of an Israeli Arab citizen to feel sorrow and identify with the people of Gaza, and any attempt to deny her that right is doomed to failure. In contrast, anyone who feels differently, and that includes most of Israel’s Jewish citizens, can and do express themselves in all sorts of ways.
A democracy such as Israel's should be sufficiently generous and confident to allow young Israeli Arab artists to express themselves as long as their works don’t incite, which is illegal. That should be the only red line. People can love the art or hate it. They can be shocked and disgusted by it, and they can denounce it. All of that is OK. It’s even important. Protests, particularly political protests, are intended to shock and shake people up. That is the essence and source of their power. They can’t all be nice. They must be provocative. Otherwise, they simply wouldn’t exist.
In a country such as Israel, which has been engaged in a bloody conflict with the Palestinians for many long years, it is reasonable to assume that there will be some very belligerent protest art. The best response would be to keep the country’s creative spaces open and inclusive. It would be better to confront the Arab members of Knesset, some of whom really do incite against the state and support acts of terror, instead of attacking young artists.
In December 2015, Education Minister Naftali Bennett rejected the inclusion of the novel “All the Rivers,” by Dorit Rabinyan, in matriculation examinations because it depicts a romantic relationship between a Jewish woman and an Arab man. Bennett, in fact, did a disservice to his own right-wing nationalist agenda and contributed to increasing sales of the novelist’s works.
A decision by politicians on the right to ignore the Bezalel exhibit would not have caused a national disaster. On the contrary, it would have bolstered and served as a glowing example of Israeli democracy and also of Israeli art.