Israel Police questioned an art student on Tuesday after she put up 12 posters printed with the face of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a noose hanging in front of him at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem.
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Earlier Tuesday, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit approved the launching of a probe on suspicions of incitement
In order to open a police investigation into the crime of incitement, approval is required from the attorney general, or the deputy attorney general for special affairs, due to fears of harm to the right to freedom of expression. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit approved the opening of an investigation on Tuesday, adopting State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan's recommendation. At the end of an incitement investigation, however, further approval from the attorney general is needed in order to file an indictment.
Teachers and students at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem were confronted on Monday with the 12 posters printed with Netanyahu's face with a noose superimposed in front of it. The works were put up in a stairwell in the art department of Bezalel building on Mount Scopus, and were taken down after a few hours, though it is not clear who removed them. Putting up student art work in the hallways is routine at art schools such as Bezalel.
Many of the students and faculty at Bezalel only heard about posters after the uproar began because they were placed in an out of the way stairwell and were only up for a few hours. They were posted on the stairs between two floors of graphic design department on floors 8 and 10 in a relatively isolated part of the building.
The wall where the posters were stuck up became a focus for more artwork on Tuesday. Someone put up a sign that said: "In every Israeli hides a little 'Shin Betnik.'" The sign was done amateurishly and the writing was on a background of yellow smileys.
Another handwritten sign said: "I want to be on Channel 2 too," and underneath were two drawings of a noose and Netanyahu; along with a picture of a young women, seemingly an Arab, saying: "Incitement!"
The posters are a takeoff on the famous poster of U.S. President Barack Obama, though the word "Hope" in the Obama poster has been replaced by the word "Rope" for Netanyahu. The posters of Netanyahu were taped up surrounding an old poster of incitement against former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in which Rabin was labelled a "traitor," and alongside them was stuck another sheet of paper reading: "This is called incitement..."
The student's lawyer told Haaretz that she is 18 of age and on her first year at Bezalel. "She was asked, as an excessive in Photoshop, to superimpose two images." The poster, he said, has nothing to do with the incitement suspicion because the noose was not around Netanyahu's neck. By changing the word "hope" in the original Obama poster to "rope," the artist tried to say that Netanyahu was chocking out hope, he explained.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel condemned Mendelblit's decision to open an investigation, saying that "there is no basis for an investigation in this case and the decision seriously harms the freedom of artistic expression."
"It is clear the work is not a call for an act of violence or support for violence, and it is even clearer that there is no real possibility the work will lead to violence," ACRI added. "Therefore, the results fo the investigation are known in advance, and the only implication of this terrible decision is to be another threat to the freedom of artistic expression, which in any case has been under attack in recent times."
Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev rushed to respond on Monday and posted the image on her Facebook page. "Artistic freedom is not freedom for incitement!" said Regev in a press release, adding that the time has come place a boundary on art for incitement and to stop funding for Bezalel. "If it had been a picture of [opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog] arrests would have already been made. I call on Education Minister Naftali Bennett and say: The time has come that you too set the boundary between art to incitement and stop the funds to Bezalel."
"It is possible that the original work in the stairwell, the posters of Netanyahu, went through a number of versions - and possibly at the hands of different people," Regev added. "It is possible someone, most likely a student and not necessarily the original artist, added the poster of Rabin, and later someone else put up the handwritten sign saying: "This is incitement..."
The students union at Bezalel said on Monday that this was a private work of art by a student who chose to express herself through personal channels. The students union said it had no connection to the work, and certainly did not support messages calling for violence or incitement in any form; but as an institution for design the unions said it believes in the freedom of expression and art, and supports the expression of the entire spectrum of opinions, within the limits of the law.
Bennett called the work "an embarrassment" on his Facebook page. "Those who cannot set boundaries for themselves, other will set for them."
"Last week we began a process of formulating ethics rules and limits for institutions of higher education. The left, and mainly the 'Haaretz' newspaper attacked me in the name of 'academic freedom.' So let me make it clear: Academic freedom does not grant permission to incite for murder to incite against Israel. It also does not grant permission to harm students with positions different from the lecturer. We, the citizens of Israel, pay 11 billion shekels a year to academia, and it is our right to prevent politicization and incitement against Isral on campuses. We will continue to govern," wrote Bennett on Facebook.
Prof. Adi Stern, the president of Bezalel and a graphic designer by training, told Haaretz that in internal academic terms this is not incitement but expressing an opinion. It is not at all clear what this opinion is, who put it up, why and what their intentions were.
Bezalel said originally that it was still not clear, and they were checking out, whether this was an exercise in a course or the personal expression of a student; but in any case it was an internal academic expression as part of the ongoing give and take on the matter of design, art and culture, including questions of limits, coping of figures and memory. Bezalel said no political incitement was involved or intended, and it should be judged on artistic considerations.
Lacking a statement from the artist on her intentions, those who saw the work formed their own opinions. Opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog tweeted a condemnation of the work, saying freedom of expression is important and essential, but it cannot be abused to incite to act against the country's leaders, on the right or the left.