Tension at Top Israeli Art Academy Amid Palestinian Solidarity Protest, Backlash

A group of Israeli artists who teach at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design gave protesting Arab students their full support, drawing a backlash from some Jewish students and government officials

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Students at Bezalel's Mount Scopus campus in Jerusalem.
Students at Bezalel's Mount Scopus campus in Jerusalem, in 2012.Credit: Emil Salman
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

Tensions have been high at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, which has found itself drawn into the political morass of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After Arab students declared a strike in solidarity with Palestinians, dozens of prominent artists teaching at the institution sent them a letter of support, which in turn drew a backlash from Jewish students who threatened to boycott them and government officials who threatened to revoke funding from the institution.

The episode began when Arab students sent a letter to the school’s department heads: “We are striking against the terrorist state in which we live, and over the academic bubble that continues apace in the middle of the suffering our people is experiencing. In recent weeks we tried to strike a balance between our support for the people of Sheikh Jarrah and the events at Al-Aqsa Mosque and our need for education, but it was mission impossible. … We view your silence as support for the forces that shot us at the demonstration, and brought in armed settlers against us and into our home. Therefore, in the weeks to come, we shall stand together against Israeli terrorism.”

Architect and Bezalel lecturer Sharon Rotbard at his Tel Aviv home.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Reem Jarrar, a fourth-year photography student at Bezalel and a participant in Haaretz 21, a project aimed at amplifying underrepresented voices and stories of Arab communities in Israel, says there are a few hundred Arab students at Bezalel, and they decided to strike because they were feeling hurt. “We are in clashes and we simply reached the point where we can’t find a balance between being at an Israeli institution and being constantly in the line of fire. It was impossible and there was no support for us from the administration, so we decided to take this step,” she said.

Last week, dozens of teachers signed a letter of support for the school’s Arab students.

In the letter, dozens of teachers at Bezalel, including prominent artists and architects such as Tamar Berger, Ruti Kantor, Zvi Efrat, Sharon Rotbard, Eli Petel, Roee Rosen, Senan Abdelqader, Noa Sadka and Irit Hemmo, expressed their profound solidarity with the students’ “struggle over their home … in light of police and settler violence, the fruit of government policy.”

They added they were “well aware of the difficulty in studying at the institutions of the conquering and subjugating nation, particularly at this time. However, as teachers and out of a belief in the power of higher education to contribute to social and political change, we are committed to finding a way to help you to continue your studies even under the current conditions.”

Bezalel lecturer and left-wing activist Tamar Berger.Credit: David Bachar

Before the letter was published, the school’s administrators – president Prof. Adi Stern; vice president Liat Brix Etgar and the department heads – sent a letter to the student body in an effort to bring calm. “We have been following with concern the difficult events in Jerusalem. We seek to strengthen your spirit in protecting freedom of worship, freedom of conscience and the right to protest,” the administration wrote. “You are invited to come to us, the department heads, for a one-on-one conversation and assistance. We hope for calm and for a routine of brotherhood, solidarity and inclusiveness in Jerusalem.”

Instead of calm, however, the faculty letter provoked a heated response.

The letter sparked protest among some Jewish students, who sent two letters to Prof. Stern, launched a protest on Instagram and sent a letter to department heads on Thursday threatening to boycott the classes of the lecturers who signed the letter of support for the Arab students. Students hung signs around the Bezalel campus reading, “Shame on you Bezalel lecturers; the institutions’ founders despise your values and your hypocrisy, and so do we.”

The letter threatening a boycott was signed by dozens of students, out of Bezalel’s 2,500-person student body. In the letter, they claimed the lecturers supporting the Arab students were ignoring the reality facing Israel’s public. “Given the lecturers’ one-sided stance that incites against many of us, while ignoring and lacking empathy for students with different identities, we cannot accept that we need to submit our work to lecturers who regard us as violent and who create divisions between us and our classmates,” they wrote.

Artist and Bezalel lecturer Eli Petel at an exhibition of his work.Credit: Meged Gozani

The institution also faced a backlash from the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage. Ministry Director General Avi Cohen Skali sent his own letter on Thursday slamming the lecturers’ letter.

“A group of lecturers are denouncing their country at a time of war and while a local population is acting aggressively against the country. This is an embarassing action that weakens Israel from within,” he wrote to Prof. Stern. and other officials. “Unfortunatel a group of lecturers acting against the country in the name of ‘freedom of expression and artistic freedom’ isn’t new.”

He threatened to cut portions of Bezalel’s budget that come through his department, including its contribution to funding a new Bezalel campus at the Russian Compound. It’s not clear whether his ministry has that authority.

Cohen Skali also threatened to demand the chairman of the Board of Higher Education enforce “The policy of expressing opinions when it comes to proper conduct at institutions of higher education in areas where academic activity and political activity overlap.”

Other Jewish students expressed support for the lecturers.

“It’s unclear what’s so frightening and shocking about this email. Is it the fact that it expresses support for citizens who are hurt by this situation? It would be best to try to see all of the sides and to understand that it’s possible to express empathy and that it really doesn’t come at anyone’s expense,” one female student wrote in a Facebook group for Bezalel students.

Artist and Bezalel lecturer Roee Rozen at an exhibition of his work at the Tel Aviv Art Museum.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

One peer retorted, “The suffering doesn’t exist only on one side, but this letter refers only to one side,” while another called the letter, “problematic and infuriating” and said the lecturers “are creating division and incitement among the students while exploiting their position.”

Another noted, “Chill already, it’s not an official letter from Bezalel.”

In a written response, Bezalel said that the school had nothing to do with the lecturers’ letter and that it did not represent the school’s stance.

“Bezalel has hundreds of lecturers, employees and some 2,500 students with diverse opinions. There is room at the institute, which champions freedom of expression and creative freedom, to voice protest and personal opinion of every kind. We are confident in the resilience of the community to contain various personal positions while maintaining dialogue, empathy and mutual respect, and we wish for calm, brotherhood, solidarity and inclusiveness in Jerusalem and the region.”

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