Arts Academy Under Attack: Police Questionings, Censorship and a Blow to Academic Freedom

'There were threats and curses that came to the department offices and to my personal email, in writing and orally,' says Eli Petel, head of Bezalel's Fine Arts Department.

Students at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem protest against the “harsh blow to academic freedom."
Emil Salman

Eli Petel, head of the Fine Arts Department at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, was questioned by police last week for about an hour and a half because of the work of a Bezalel student, who as an exercise during a lesson displayed a picture of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu next to a noose.

“They asked me questions about incitement and about limits,” Petel told Haaretz. “I explained to the investigators how teaching is practiced and the dynamic of an art school – that students display works in front of a class and receive criticism, and that the teacher doesn’t know what they’re going to bring.

“I stressed that the wall in a school of art is like a word processor for students, and that we don’t know what we’re going to see on the wall.” He said that he doesn’t know whether the investigating policeman agreed with his explanations, “but I understood that he was learning something new.”

Students at Bezalel, near posters they hanged on the walls of the academy.
Emil Salman

Last week was a stormy one at Bezalel. After the students and teachers went on strike for two hours, the faculty members sent a letter to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, protesting the “harsh blow to academic freedom in Bezalel and to higher education in Israel.” They noted that “an exercise in the context of the academy is not a call to action. The purpose of art education is to provide the opportunity to ask questions about the personal, social, cultural – and of necessity the political – space in which we live.”

During the week students also posted visual protests on the partitions and walls in the building, attacking Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev and Netanyahu. Among them there were also protest installations, one of them by members of Koma 6, the internet magazine run by the Fine Arts Department students. They hung a noose in the area, and one after another students climbed up to it and took pictures with the noose wound around their necks.

The photographs were downloaded onto a nearby screen and were displayed in a loop. The students who planned the installation explained that the idea behind it was to make the image of the noose absurd and to cause it to look foolish. “It was a big misunderstanding, they took the image out of context,” said one of the students. “Nobody has a right to enter the academy, which is a learning environment, and to level criticism,” adds another student. They hope that the attack against the students will end, and think that they don’t have to be more careful.”

Eli Petel, head of the Fine Arts Department at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.
Sagie Azoulay

At the same time, in another installation that lasted for about an hour and was composed of dozens of students and teachers, the participants spent five minutes making a terrible racket, which was produced in any possible way – from stamping their feet to banging chairs on the floor, and in the following five minutes they stood in silence. The installation was run by three faculty members: artist Ohad Fishoff of the Fine Arts Department, Daniel Meir, who teaches in the art and photography departments, and musician Eitan Shefer of the Screen Arts Department. Among the participants in Fishoff’s installation was Petel.

Petel says that after some of the student’s work was posted on the internet, police officers came to get information about her. “I accompanied her so she wouldn’t be afraid, and we took her to the investigation secretly,” says Petel, stressing that they first of all thought about how to protect her. “That’s why a gag order regarding information about her is important,” he adds, noting that the student’s exercise “was part of another five or six images that she was required to do, which may have remained on the wall with nobody paying attention to them.”

Don’t you regret that you provided personal details about her?

Protests against censorship at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, after a student was questioned by police over art depicting Benjamin Netanyahu and a noose.
Emil Salman

“We’re a law-abiding institution and I realized that she was protected in terms of publication of the personal details.”

He says that as opposed to what her attorney said, the student has yet to return to her studies and still feels threatened. Petel himself was also the target of barrages of hatred this week. “There were threats and curses that came to the department offices and to my personal email, in writing and orally. Threats such as ‘We’ll burn you’ and ‘We’ll behead you.’”

Are you afraid that the students will censor themselves?

“Not necessarily. I think that something big is happening and the attitude towards art in the media and on the social networks is changing, and Israel can be something significant within that. We’re coming from a very intellectual and ultra-liberal approach and I think that people can be more outspoken regarding things that they can do, in terms of public exposure.”

He welcomed the process led by students from the Shenkar School of Engineering, Design and Art last Wednesday, when they blocked the Elite Junction in Ramat Gan in solidarity. “It’s wonderful that people joined the protest. It’s a struggle shared by everyone involved in art, it’s not exclusive. We learn that from one incident to the next, and now when we’re getting to fundamental issues, we have to put them on the table,” says Petel.

How did the students react to the proceedings against their fellow student?

“With nobility and a bit of confusion. They’re young first-year students, and they barely know one another. They talk and ask super-serious questions, both about art and about legal issues. They ask, for example, who’s responsible for the work, they or the institution? They ask about the nature of a work’s effect, does it lie in its ability to become public? They ask whether the artist’s intention is still exclusive, as in the past, or does it now depend on the public? In that sense the politicians and the discussion on the social networks have turned the exercise into a significant work, although it’s [only] a Photoshop exercise.”

The images are publicized without the artists’ intention, sometimes when they’re not at all ready. Doesn’t that make the artistic discussion superficial?

“In my opinion, something interesting is happening. In the past 100 years we’ve been accustomed to the idea that the artist is exclusively responsible for his work. Today the works create new images on their own, which can have a serious influence. There are questions as to whether it’s a discussion about plastic art or about the public.”

Petel, as opposed to many of his artist and curator friends, doesn’t think that spontaneous artistic activities, like the golden statue of Netanyahu that was installed in central Tel Aviv by artist Itay Zalait, are low art, and feels that the public discussion about them is important. He says that what has changed is that the situations and the relations between the artists and the public are becoming more complex.

“There are questions about exhibition spaces, about academia and about the public arena, and I see that as a good thing. I strongly believe in lingering in front of a work of art and in the radical nature of artistic activity, of a single person confronting a single spectator, but something has changed in the artist’s ability to control an image, because the art spaces have also become other spaces.”

Culture Minister Miri Regev refers to very specific parts of art and culture

“That’s a tragedy in my opinion, and it also frustrates me as a director, as an artist, and as a Mizrahi artist (of Middle Eastern or North African origin). As of today, when I look at her as an artist, I prefer to be mute in certain places rather than being hoarse all the time From what I absorb from the artistic community there’s a great deal of pressure, I don’t want to give her that stigma, but she causes people to have bad feelings, and the claim that we’re starting to be like certain regimes is becoming an actuality.

“We will soon be marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus school, whose teaching philosophy is very similar to that of Bezalel. And when you think what happened in 1933, it sounds to us like a realistic possibility these days.” Petel is referring to the Gestapo takeover of the German institution and the flight of most of the teacher to other countries.

There are many claims that if instead of Netanyahu the figure of MK Zehava Galon (Meretz) had been displayed, the reactions of academia would have been different.

“I refuse to talk about right and left. In terms of our experience in similar situations I have found myself defending right-wing artists in both internal and media discussions. I insist on not complaining about the right in this situation, but rather about the government’s attitude towards [artistic] works in general.”