Israeli College Department Head Resigns Over Censorship of Political Artwork

Controversy surrounds Shenkar student's drawing of nude with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked's face.

Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked delivers a speech during a conference in Budapest, Hungary, Monday, June 6, 2016.
Tamas Kovacs, MTI via AP

A department head at Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art has resigned to protest the college’s censorship of a drawing of a naked woman bearing Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s face.

In a letter to his students yesterday, Larry Abramson said the decision by Shenkar’s president, Prof. Yuli Tamir, to censor the work left him no choice.

Abramson heads Shenkar’s Multidisciplinary Art School, and the work in question was produced by one of the school’s students, Yam Amrani. It was supposed to have been shown at an exhibition of final projects by graduating seniors.

In his letter, Abramson said that Tamir called him last Thursday, a few hours before the exhibition opened, and ordered him “to remove” Amrani’s drawing.

“During this conversation, I voiced my objection in principle to this censorship, due to both the principle of protecting our students’ freedom of speech, and the severe educational and public damage this self-censorship would cause Shenkar and Multidisciplinary Art School,” the letter continued. “Prof. Tamir told me she was taking this risk on herself and ordered me, by dint of her authority as my boss, to carry out her instruction.”

In the end, the work was shown, but with the face blacked out. Tamir, a former Labor Party education minister, said she would have made the same decision had it depicted a left-wing female politician rather than the rightist Shaked. “I think it’s a work of hurtful chauvinism and has nothing to do with politics,” she said.

Abramson told Haaretz he met with Tamir on Sunday to tender his resignation. She asked him to withdraw it, and they agreed to organize an open debate on her decision in the exhibition hall on Wednesday, with the participation of administrators, faculty members and students.

If this debate produces positive results, Abramson said, he’ll withdraw his resignation. If not, he’ll quit.

“Without freedom of expression, we don’t have an art school,” he told Haaretz. “If, out of self-censorship, we silence or hide images, then what are we asking of society? How can we advance critical, open and provocative debate, all the things for which art exists?”

This, he continued, is his “mission,” and if he can’t advance it, “I’d rather remain in my studio.”

Abramson said he greatly admires Tamir, and was therefore shocked and frightened by her decision. “There was no revolution, they didn’t burn down the Knesset, but new values are dictating the [public] agenda,” and in this situation, self-censorship is more “frightening” and “dangerous” than external censorship, he argued.

“I feel that everything we’ve taught them until now is no longer relevant,” Abramson added, referring to his students. “How can we tell them now that being an art student entails social commitment?”

The Shenkar faculty has issued an open letter backing Abramson and opposing the censorship decision.

“It’s clear to all of us that ill winds are blowing through Israeli society,” the letter said. “It’s also clear to us that running an academic institution at such a time requires meticulous judgment and redoubled caution. But in our view, censoring artworks strengthens the ill winds in Israeli society and undermines our right to exist as an educational institution.”