'We Had to Derail the Train': Memories From the Student Rebellion in Jerusalem's Fine Arts Academy

The 1977 'student rebellion’ at Jerusalem’s Bezalel art school was inextricably, if indirectly, linked to the war that took place four years earlier. The leading players look back on a protest that many believe changed the local art scene forever.

In the opening scene of Amos Gitai’s 2000 film “Kippur,” a young couple writhes in bright colors on top of white bedding. In their act of lovemaking, the two - with their entwined body parts and colors bleeding onto the sheets - create a life-sized painting. The movie, dealing with Gitai’s own experience in the Yom Kippur War, begins and ends with the same scene, a direct transition from art and desire to the battlefield and, at the end of the war, back to the same bed, same woman, same bleeding colors.

In 1973, just before the war, artist Motti Mizrachi ‏(then an art student at Bezalel - Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem‏) created one of the most memorable pieces of Israeli installation art. He filmed himself in one of the rooms of the academy’s classrooms, having sex with his partner atop an enormous lump of dough.

This incident is indicative of the atmosphere at Bezalel in those years: equal parts search for an artistic path, imitation of international trends, desire for authentic self-expression and a fierce desire and need to defy the establishment. In the years following the war, this atmosphere turned into turmoil, culminating in the events that came to be known as the “student rebellion” of 1977, no doubt influenced by the 1960s student uprisings in Europe and the United States.

The Bezalel uprising was the result of attempts to impose institutional, academic criteria on the art school, following a 1975 decision to accredit Bezalel as an academic institution. But all involved agree that the intensity with which it broke out was related to the traumatic 1973 war, in which the trust Israeli society had for its elected leadership was broken, and the fact that the heroes of the protest movement were artists.

The rebellion started when a group of young Bezalel lecturers, together with some charismatic students in the fine arts department - mostly ex-soldiers who had been injured in the war and whose tuition was therefore paid by the state - demanded that they be granted more involvement in what was happening in the academy.

The administration, however, had other plans: The academization of the school required the formulation of more rigid standards as to who would teach, what would be taught, and who would be accepted.

As Haaretz reported in October 1977, after Bezalel was accredited, no fewer than five separate committees - one appointed by the Council for Higher Education - debated the academy’s new mission statement. The fine arts department convened task forces consisting of students, teachers and psychologists who were charged with discussing the gamut of problems within the department; these wanted to submit their recommendations to rectify what they considered to be a chaotic situation.

When the students realized that their demands were not going to be met and that the school’s administration was dismissive of their desire to be truly involved in decisions affecting the material to be taught, the task forces started coming out with increasingly aggressive statements. “This is not the time to make art. We have to fight for the conditions that will allow us to make art - that is to say, a foundational basis for operation. There is no opposing ideology!!!” they wrote in the minutes for one of the meetings. “We, members of the fine arts department - students and teachers - will fight, using whatever means we decide on, against any external, bureaucratic or other attempt to impose on us external arrangements that will limit our artistic activity.”

It was the misfortune of John Byle, the head of the fine arts department, to be caught in the line of fire between students and teachers on the one hand, and the academy’s administration, headed by Dan Hofner, on the other.

Byle, an immigrant from the United States who came to Bezalel after teaching at the Technion in Haifa and working as an assistant to sculptor Yitzhak Danziger, became head of the fine arts department in 1967. He insisted on cleaning up the department, which he had viewed at the beginning of his tenure as a mess.

Byle, who didn’t really get what his loudmouthed students wanted, made fun of the task forces and, as a joke, circulated his “bullshit document” - including a list of ridiculous rules and “bullshit” categories, such as “video bullshit,” “romantic bullshit” and “conceptual bullshit.” In 1977, Byle was forced to resign because the academy’s administration thought this would resolve the tensions, and Dedi Ben Shaul was appointed in his place. But that wasn’t enough. In June 1978, the students and teachers shut down the fine arts department and attempted to take over the administrative offices to protest what they called ‏(in an interview with the daily Yedioth Ahronoth‏) “the imposition of external decisions and gross interference in the department’s academic freedom.”

The incident that triggered this outburst was the Bezalel senate’s decision to adopt the recommendations of the expert committee headed by Marc Scheps, then director of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which called for the dismissal of several teachers in the department and the institution of new rules. That committee recommended that two tenured and very popular teachers ? Yitzhak Pugacz and Micha Ullman - be fired, and that five other teachers not have their contracts renewed.

Last convulsion

Art researcher and curator Ruti Direktor, who has extensively studied this episode and its effect on Israeli art, says the number of people responsible for the rebellion was relatively small. They realized they were approaching the end of an era and tried to defend what they believed in, she adds.

“The rebellion was the last convulsion before Bezalel completely changed gears to become what it is today: a yuppie, careerist academy that produces professionals,” she says. “Most of the students weren’t really involved, but there was a core group, especially of young men, with a great deal of barely contained rage, energy, restlessness and political awareness. Had it not been for the [Yom Kippur] War, they may never have ended up at Bezalel to begin with. But there they were, and they just let go of all the enormous rage and frustration they had pent up since the war.”

Many of the students in this group would later become prolific artists. Some - such as David Wakstein, David Reeb, Arnon Ben David and Yoram Kupermintz - claim that the events of that era continue to affect their work to this day. Menachem Haimovich, often called the leader of the rebellion, left Israel straight after completing his studies at Bezalel, moving to New York and settling there. He did not pursue an artistic career and did not stay in touch with his cohorts from Bezalel.

During the rebellion, when Bezalel was still in its old building downtown, students and teachers created some works that may be called conceptual, being both pieces or art and expressions of protest. Some of the more memorable art events included painting the offices of fine arts department black; digging a pit in the school’s courtyard; a class taught by Moshe Gershuni in verse; as well as a parade of students walking on all fours through the streets of Jerusalem. Kupermintz doodled deconstructed Stars of David and swastikas on the cafeteria walls - a stunt that earned him 48 hours in the police lockup at the Russian Compound.

Among works of art that weren’t part of the protest but were made by Bezalel graduates and teachers after the war - and undeniably

connected to the war - were the piece by Gabi Klezmer, a request he had submitted to the Interior Ministry to have his name legally changed to Fatma Khaled ‏(the request was denied‏). Byle says today that he couldn’t figure out what object Klezmer intended to submit for critique and a grade. “I asked him, ‘But how are you going to exhibit that?’” he says with a frustration that hasn’t dissipated to this day.

“In the final analysis, the entire corpus of work was informed by this, but it wasn’t necessarily happening in those years,” says Direktor. “Take Wakstein, for example. To this day he focuses on explosions, because his tank exploded in the war.”

Wakstein, who grew up on Kibbutz Einat, was 18 when the Yom Kippur War broke out. He served in the Armored Corps on the Suez Canal, until he was wounded on October 22. In the hospital, surgeons were getting ready to amputate his arm, but thanks to the determination of one of the doctors, the arm was rehabilitated and regained full function. With a badly scarred arm, shrapnel lodged throughout his body, and a case of post-traumatic stress disorder, he was discharged from the IDF, and began studying social sciences at Tel Aviv University. In 1975, he transferred to Bezalel.

For Wakstein, both as an artist and as a social activist, the rebellion at Bezalel was a formative event. “We undertook a certain process we didn’t really understand, but it was tremendously important,” he reflects. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it occurred in the context of an intense encounter among young, sensitive, alert, beaten and bruised members of Israeli society. The hospital was the first time I’d ever heard of PTSD. These were the cumulative materials the members of my graduating class brought to Bezalel.

“Before I was drafted, I traveled to the United States and I came back to Israel with LPs by all these bands, and amazing album covers,” he continues. “For me, freedom, music and protest were all linked together. More

humanistic and politically aggressive stances were stirring to life - a stark contrast to our parents’ total trust in the automatic routine of life, the Zionism that my father bet so heavily on. On the kibbutz, we were still powerfully affected by the myth of the Six-Day War.

“When I came to Bezalel, I was self-conscious, because the state had arranged for me to study there at its expense, but then I met an entire class that was in the same position. So eventually we became a little less ashamed. We identified with the extreme left wing at the school, the Black Panthers, stuff that really spoke to me a lot. In my apartment in the student dorms, I met

Menachem Haimovich. We studied drawing with [Joseph] Hirsch, who was very conservative and heavy; he’d come from Germany with all this Expressionism. I’d draw a kettle and he’d say, ‘Try to catch what’s behind it.’ He spoke a language I didn’t understand. And the battlefield kept raging in my head. I’d be drawing and seeing tank battles. At this time I also started to hear what was going on in Europe, especially the art of Beuys.”

The influence of German artist Joseph Beuys on both the students and teachers at Bezalel at that time was enormous. “Beuys was teaching in Dusseldorf and said every human being was an artist, or had the potential to be an artist,” says Ruti Direktor. “He was dead set against the notion of entrance exams to study at the academy and was actually fired because of this, because the Dusseldorf academy couldn’t afford not to have some sort of vetting process. Beuys was the great hero at Bezalel in those years - in part for his fundamental disagreement with the idea of turning art into a subject for study, especially academically.”

Wakstein also identified with Beuys’ military past: He’d been a pilot in the Luftwaffe in World War II and was wounded when his plane was shot down on the Crimean Front in March 1944. He always claimed to have been rescued by Tatars, who wrapped him in fat and felt after they discovered him buried in the snow. “The materials used to save Beuys after he was wounded became the raw materials of his work,” Wakstein explains. “I started to understand that the world of formalistic art, the historical discourse and the artistic subjects like John Byle’s stains and drips, or the lyrical or American abstraction, held no interest for me now. We had no time for that. Planes were crashing, things were happening all around us. And we needed someone to look at it. That was our call. We wanted help with developing the artistic tools to deal with our pain and distress.”

The teachers who sided with the students - or the students who sided with the teachers, it all depends on whom you ask - were working artists who were fascinated by conceptual art and introduced it to the school, artists such as Ullman, Gershuni and Yehezkel Yardeni. At the end of the day, their act cost them their jobs.

“We encountered the life of the artist in Israeli society through our teachers, and that meant worries about making a living and getting tenure. They were busy with their own stuff, but connected with us because they got it,” says Wakstein. “Micha Ullman cared that I’d been in a tank, was wounded in the war, and had killed some 100 people. I told Hanan Laskin, the photography teacher, that I wasn’t going into any darkroom because the colors, the red light, the dark - for me that was the tank all over again.”

“In those years, Bezalel was political because the art was political,” says Arnon Ben David, another prominent rebellion figure who believes the protest was an outgrowth of the art, not the other way around. “The protest was the result of the sense that there was an equivalence of value between art and politics, that it wasn’t necessary to make art and recruit it to politics, because the political aspect was already an integral part of the structure of the work. This is what happened in American and European post-modernism - the work applied itself to the space in which the viewer operates and lives. This trickled over into Israel, too. Relating to time and place and politics was almost a given. The revolutionary activity was itself a work of art, more so than more limited pieces of art. The pieces made by Gabi Klezmer and Sharon Keren were political and inspiring, long before the student rebellion and the academization of Bezalel became issues.”

Ben David, who started his studies at Bezalel before Wakstein, and who is now an artist with a doctorate in philosophy, missed an entire semester because he was called up for reserve duty during the war. “The revolutionary steps in art were more connected to artists like Beuys than to any influence exerted by immediate political events,” he reflects. “On the other hand, it’s clear that people who came out of the war weren’t willing to compromise. Immediately after the 1973 war, nothing happened at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem or at Tel Aviv University. The war didn’t make anyone there try to have an impact on the system. At Bezalel, it was different. It was hard to sell us a bill of goods, but nothing would have happened without Menachem Haimovich. He thought a revolution was possible.”

Reeb also came to Bezalel in 1975, having been wounded only three days into the Yom Kippur War. His injuries were relatively minor but, because of medical complications, he was forced to stay in the hospital for several months. Reeb calls the students’ political awareness “naive.” “There was all this anger toward Golda [Meir] and [Moshe] Dayan, but it wasn’t unique to us. In my first year at Bezalel, there were antigovernment demonstrations, but we didn’t participate in them. We were political in a very muted sort of way.

“In 1977,” Reeb recalls, “I hung up posters that dealt with art but also related to what was happening in the occupied territories. That year I kept a journal of drawings. I remember a sketch of a soldier with a flag-festooned spear lodged in his back. I showed it to my teacher; he didn’t like it. He said it was too literal. He liked more abstract things. So at this time I was also creating more abstract pieces.

“Bezalel’s orthodoxy was completely conceptual. [Joshua] Neustein, Gershuni and Ullman. The consensus was: more thinking out loud, less making pieces. The notion was that art could be manifested in your way of life. There were artists who thought that artists had to stop making art and just live. This didn’t interest me so much, because I loved making pieces of art.”

Reeb sees the major effect of the war on Israeli art not in the events at Bezalel, but rather on the toll the war took - those who didn’t come back. “There were people who could have created art or culture and were killed or wounded in such a way that they never did anything in life. There was this guy in my year who’d escaped from Chile after Allende was murdered. He did amazing things as a student, but at some point during his studies he stopped, and it was directly related to what had happened to him in Chile. Dramatic national events always take a toll.”

In terms of the art, Reeb remembers an exciting time. “I remember this sculpting class in which Lance Hunter suspended a weight made out of plaster from a rope. When it was his turn to present his work, he crashed it to the floor, where it shattered into pieces. Someone else dug a pit in the courtyard; it took days. I made a metal fence from which I hung paintings. John Byle was a good administrator in the sense that pluralism was important to him. But I think the administration took a pretty dismissive attitude to the students, and that was a mistake.”

Wakstein remembers the precise moment when whatever trust he still had in Bezalel evaporated. It was, ironically, after the decision was made to have student representatives on the pedagogic committees. “In my second year, I was the class representative to the department committee,” he recalls. “Of course, the teachers also had their representatives. So I was sitting there and listening to a conversation about one of the teachers, and it was just awful. There was all this disagreement and animosity and malice among the teachers. I get it; I get that parents also freak out. But we, the group of kids, were bleeding from our wounds. The loss of trust was complete.

“We felt we had to stop and derail the train. We had to generate a crisis. We managed to stop the fine arts department from traveling on the harsh autopilot of Israeli society. The war created optimism about the connection between political struggle and art, and that’s still relevant to me. The connection between the function of art, of the personal, is obvious and it has to be made public in a way that will matter to all of us. Suddenly, without being aware of it, the department saw the link between art and society, art and politics.”

In his third year at Bezalel, Wakstein started to combine art with social action. Together with some classmates, he started an art workshop for the children of Yavneh, then an outlying development town seeking a brighter future. “The rebellion moved from Bezalel to Yavneh. At Bezalel we received neither the form nor the contents of art. So we just hit the reset button on the question of what doing art means here. It changed my own art. Instead of painting portraits of Israeli-born women, I started doing other things.”

After the firing of the teachers and the student revolt, yet another administrator ? Osvaldo Romberg - was appointed to head the fine arts department, replacing Ben Shaul. Romberg managed to still the turmoil because at first the students thought he’d act on their behalf, but while the rebellion was not suppressed, none of the students’ demands were met.

“The rebellion was a total failure, generating the opposite of what it wanted,” Direktor argues now. “Romberg, who came from Argentina and had the personal charisma of a revolutionary, took Bezalel and in the 1980s made it into an academic institution with a completely different generation of artists - people who were very focused and goal-oriented, and very much into making objects.

“At the end of the 1970s,” she adds, “there was also a return to painting. This was the end of the minimalist and conceptual era. The radical, revolutionary spirit was abandoned. Today, the entire art world has been academized. The average profile of a contemporary artist is that of someone who is very sophisticated, very educated. On the other hand, the products all look alike. The rebellion was the end of the era of naivete in Israeli art. Afterward, a new breed of artist was born.”

Snake pit

For the teachers involved in events, the saga left deep scars. Byle ? who is now 85 and continues to show up at his studio in Tel Aviv every morning ? has called the Bezalel of that time “a snake pit.” During our conversation, several times he showed me how the hairs on his arms stood on end while he was recalling those times. “I hold a lot against Bezalel,” he says.

From his perspective, many personal intrigues were mixed in with the rebellion. In general, he feels he was a victim of a struggle that wasn’t even directed at him. “After the war,” Byle notes, “there was a sense that all the people ‘up there’ - the people in charge - were guilty. In every field. I came to teach, and the students tried to shut me up.

“I wanted the people in the fine arts department to learn how to do things ? to draw, to paint,” he says. “I wanted them to experience different techniques and materials. There was a student who wanted to do installations and nobody got her. I brought her a book on performance art from abroad. I wanted to do a thought workshop, but the school’s head wouldn’t allow it. On the one hand he wanted innovation, but on the other he didn’t accept what I was offering. I said that people were creating works of art but had no idea how to explain them. They didn’t have the language to define the things they were trying to express.”

Ullman, who taught etching, drawing and multimedia, feels that the suppression of the rebellion was very violent. “The convening of an external committee seemed like a very aggressive act toward the department. In essence, problems within Bezalel were solved by force, just as problems outside Bezalel were solved by force. From the moment they brought in an external investigating committee, they introduced tanks into the campaign. Bezalel’s senate appointed the committee because they were afraid the spirit of protest would affect the other departments.”

He sees a direct link between the suppression of that rebellion and other Israeli protests that have been suppressed, the most recent being the social protests in the summer of 2011. “Outside of Bezalel, aggression was rampant. Most of the public believed in force, and this was manifested by Likud’s victory in the [1977] election,” says Ullman. “For the protesters at Bezalel, the Yom Kippur War functioned like the Vietnam War. But unlike other student uprisings, the one at Bezalel was a complete and total failure.

The failure stung, but its effect on art, says Ullman, was dramatic both for himself and his students. “Personally it was very hard, but for the art it was empowering and clarifying,” he reflects. “The art became much more existentialist. I’d been digging pits since 1970, and the events only deepened them. It was also a milestone in the students’ work ? this connection between life and art. It was existential learning with an unforgettable lesson. In that sense, the rebellion was a success. Two years later [in 1980] I was at the Venice Biennale with Gershuni. The two rebels.”

In addition to the very male activity at Bezalel, there were prominent female artists in the 1970s - most of whom were not Bezalel graduates - who also created art with explicitly political features. “All the art of the ‘70s was a product of the war, whether the artists had themselves fought in the war or were just starting to create art at this time,” says Direktor. Deganit Berest, who completed her studies at Bezalel just before the war, dealt with maps and borders. After the war, Michal Na’aman created “The Eyes of the Nation,” in response to a televised statement by a soldier in the Golani Brigade, who had said that Mount Hermon was “the eyes of the nation.” She took two poster boards and wrote on them “The Eyes of the Nation” [in Hebrew] and placed them on the beach in Tel Aviv.

Another typical feature of ‘70s art, says Direktor, was the presence of the fragile human body, especially in installation art. “Both men and women were showing the body in moments of weakness or distress. It wasn’t a sexual, sensual, tempting body, and this was connected to the deep residues left by the war. Even Motti Mizrachi’s dough, which seemed so risque and sexual, was not an ideal or healthy sensuality. There was no joie de vivre in these exposed bodies.

“It’s true,” Direktor adds, “that in the 1960s, Yigal Tumarkin had already created bleeding bodies in bronze, but Tumarkin’s work was a paradox between its antiwar messages and the very aggressive physical presence of the statues, themselves a forceful means of artistic expression. The artists of the ‘70s had greater congruence between their messages and expressive means, which were weaker and somehow meager. There wasn’t a lot to document; everything was perishable and fleeting.”

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