Israeli College Nixes Show Over Art 'Resembling Hamas Flag'

A work due to appear at a College exhibition includes the Islamic declaration of faith. Following protest, the curator called off the show instead of removing the piece. The artist: ‘The surrender to 'Im Tirtzu' is pathetic’

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“No” (hanging right), created by American-born visual artist Hillel Roman in 2015, at the college gallery.
“No” (hanging right), created by American-born visual artist Hillel Roman in 2015, at the college gallery.Credit: Hillel Roman
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

Sapir Academic College announced on Sunday that it was cancelling the exhibition “At the Edge of the Sky,” which was supposed to open this week, due to a right-wing protest sparked by one of the drawings displayed in it.

Members of the Im Tirtzu NGO, and others, objected to the piece – which is called “No” and was created by American-born visual artist Hillel Roman in 2015 – because they said it resembles the flag of the Islamist Hamas movement and includes the Islamic declaration of faith. The declaration, “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his messenger,” appears on the Hamas flag, but the work itself does not portray the flag per se.

“Last Thursday students were exposed to an art exhibition that is now being set up,” according to a statement by Sapir College, located in southern Israel. “The show, which was scheduled to open on April 4, includes an installation that aroused a storm of emotions and harsh reactions, and therefore, the authorized forum decided unanimously that the entire exhibition will not open – due to the insult to public feelings.

“Sapir Academic College provides a warm home for Jewish and Arab students, and acts with determination to maintain the vital balance between freedom of expression and an affront to public sentiments. The shared life on campus is proof of unity and mutual respect, and we will continue to do everything in our power to maintain it.”

"No," by Hillel Roman (2015), bearing the Islamic declaration of faith. A right-wing protest prompted by the piece sparked cancellation of an art exhibition at Israel's Sapir Academic College.Credit: Hillel Roman

“It is unconscionable, at an academic college in Israel, which along with the other communities along the Gaza border has been the target of Qassam rockets for over 20 years, that the flag of Hamas, which is responsible for these attacks, and for the deaths of dozens of Israelis, including a student at the college, should be on display,” declared Along Davidi, mayor of the nearby town of Sderot.

On Friday Davidi approached the chairman of Sapir’s executive board, attorney Gilead Sher, and the college’s CEO, Orna Gigi, asking them not to display the work. His request led to the decision that the exhibition would be cancelled until further notice.

After the decision was announced, Roman talked to Haaretz about his work and the inspiration for its creation: “I drew it during Operation Protective Edge [in 2014, in the Gaza Strip]. I logged on to Hamas’ Wikipedia page, and read that in the beginning Israel supported the organization as an alternative to the Palestine Liberation Organization – I drew it as is, on a black background.

“In addition to [being part of] the Hamas flag, this is a text that appears in many places. A monotheistic, prayer-like text. It could undergo certain adaptations and be turned into a Christian or Jewish text. That is its beauty. And it’s a very nice inscription in my opinion. Both as a text and as a design, and it embodies no violence at all.”

Roman, 46, admitted that he had been afraid that the work would arouse anger: “I’m not naïve. I knew that the work was likely to spark a reaction. But the fact that the college surrendered to [right-wing Jewish organization] Im Tirtzu is pathetic. We have to differentiate between the thing itself and its representation, and as the administration of an academic institution – I would rise above. Furthermore, nobody from the institution’s administration spoke to me or asked for an explanation. I’m only in contact with the curator and the department head.”

'The chaos began'

According to curator Tamar Roded Shabtay, “the chaos began even before the opening and before texts were displayed. People simply passed by and saw Arabic writing, and recognized it as the prayer that appears on the Hamas flag, and they saw red. There were threats to burn down the college. There was no room for conducting a discussion, for talking, for explaining.”

The text that was supposed to accompany Roman’s work explains that it “reflects something that is common to Jews and Muslims, centering around a monotheistic faith which lies at the foundation of both religions. The calligraphy of the drawing illustrates the unity by combining fragmentary shapes into a single unified and orderly shape.”

Roded Shabtay stressed that the show has nothing to do with right or left: “The discussion here is about the spirit of the place, the holy spirit, the spirit of the times and the southern wind that blows outside the walls of the gallery. Art has the marvelous ability to reflect the place where it’s located. That is actually the almost magical power of arousing a response. The power operated this time beyond our expectations.”

Despite the suggestion of the college to take down only Roman's work, the curator refused and cancelled the entire show. "It was obvious it had to be called off," she said. "I was not going to remove just one piece."

According to a statement from Im Tirtzu – about 20 of whose Israeli-flag wrapped activists demonstrated on Thursday against the opening of the show, while crying “Shame!”: “We were happy to hear about the college’s decision in the wake of the student protest that we accompanied along with our activists. There’s no place for incitement in academia, certainly not at a publicly funded institution. We will continue to fight for Zionism in academia.”

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