Second controversial Netanyahu poster at Bezalel.
(photo credit: BEZALEL ACADEMY OF ARTS AND DESIGN)
Israelis of all political persuasions should stop and reflect upon the state of our democracy. The occasion – a police interrogation under caution of an 18-year-old art student suspected of incitement.
The hapless student’s art project, a montage hung on a wall of a stairwell at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, depicts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s head with a hangman’s noose superimposed.
This immediately triggered outrage among politicians who have personal experience of such artwork regarding Yitzhak Rabin in the tense weeks leading up to his assassination in 1995.
Right-wing politicians cried “incitement,” warning that this could lead to someone raising a hand against the prime minister or someone else on the other side of the political divide.
Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev (Likud), a former IDF chief censor, was quick to leap into the fray with her typical threat to cut the budget of art she doesn’t like.
“Freedom of art is not freedom to incite,” she said. “It began with a statue in the city square, and now it has come to a noose,” she said, referring to a gold statue of Netanyahu that was erected and then torn down last week in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.
Regev said it was “artistic talent used to incite and murder,” adding that if it had been a poster of opposition leader Isaac Herzog the perpetrators would have already been arrested.
Herzog released a statement saying he “utterly condemns” the poster. “Freedom of expression is important and necessary, but there is no place to use it to incite to harm public leaders on the Right or the Left,” he said, adding, “We will replace Netanyahu through democratic means only.”
Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit ordered the police to open an investigation over the poster into possible incitement. On Wednesday, another artwork was displayed at the school depicting a nude Netanyahu wearing a gold crown on his head and nothing else. A noose was superimposed over his private parts, which were significantly miniaturized. On the drawing was the phrase: “Is it okay this way, attorney-general?” The missing irony in the first case of alleged art – in what someone will inevitably label “Postergate” – is the fact that Netanyahu’s dramatic visage on the poster is replicated in the montage dozens of times in the exhibit, surrounding the well-known 1995 Rabin poster labeled “Traitor.”
Instead of forming its opinion from the actual poster and not a small excerpt taken out of context, the public might be better off considering this case a juvenile effort at expressing a political view. The poster’s hangman’s noose can be interpreted as representing a warning to our society that what happened once could happen again.
Bezalel tried to calm down things with a statement that should put the hysteria to rest, noting that the academy “is a safe space for freedom of expression in Israel and allows students free speech, critical and creative, in a variety of subjects that concern them.”
The school noted that the work was displayed in a stairwell and is a photo montage of Netanyahu portraits surrounding a derogatory poster of Rabin.
Next to the work a piece of paper hung with the phrase: “It’s called incitement...”
“The exercise, more or less successful, is part of a professional discussion,” Bezalel stated, “hanging on an internal wall of the stairs in the academy and is not exhibited publicly nor as political incitement, and that is how it should be judged.” The work was taken down after a day.
Because violence has occurred in the past – notably the Rabin assassination – as a society we are right to be sensitive and smart to cry foul. The often vulgar and violent rhetoric found on social media platforms is another warning sign that violence exists within our society and political discourse. Our education system needs to tackle these issues and educate youth to be tolerant to different opinions and cultures.
But this doesn’t seem like the right case to warrant a criminal investigation. Authorities need to be smart, and Israel’s delicate balance between security and freedom of art and expression needs to be upheld.