Student: Teacher told me to cover Star of David

Lecturer Nizar Hassan already facing dismissal over slamming student who showed up in IDF uniform.

shamrock star of david  (photo credit: )
shamrock star of david
(photo credit: )
In her native New York, Estee Nemeth was warned not to wear any visible symbols of Jewish or Israeli identity in the subway. So she wore her Star of David inside her shirt. But she never dreamed that in Sderot, the Kassam-battered symbol of Israel's struggle against terrorism, the chain around her neck and the patchwork Israeli flag she sewed on her day pack would get her into trouble. In the fall of 2006, Nemeth, 25, walked into a cinematography class at Sderot's Sapir Academic College, sat down and placed her bag down by her feet, just like any other student. When the lecturer, Nizar Hassan, a celebrated Arab-Israeli documentary filmmaker, walked in and started teaching, something on Nemeth's bag clearly bothered him. Nemeth says he stopped the lecture and asked her: "What is that?" referring to the credit-card sized Israeli flag sewed onto the bag. "Turn that bag around. I don't want that side facing me," he said. Nemeth, initially thinking Hassan was joking, didn't comply. "Some of the other students also thought this was one of his jokes, one of his many ways that he challenges the students and gets them to think differently," Nemeth says. What happened next ended all notions that this was a game. According to Nemeth, the lecturer walked over to her, bent down and turned her bag so that the Israeli flag was facing the rear wall. It took a few seconds for Nemeth's shock to subside, but she decided to turn her bag back to its original position, flag forward. "Turn it away," the lecturer said. "No," Nemeth said, starting to feel threatened. The lecturer walked over to her again, turned her bag around, and continued with his lecture. This time, Nemeth picked up her bag, turned it back, and placed it on her lap, thinking there was no chance the lecturer would take it from there. She was wrong. According to Nemeth, Hassan pulled the bag off her lap and put it in one of the drawers in his desk. The lecturer carried on with his lesson, and Nemeth had lost her bag for the duration of the class. Several months later, towards the end of the 2006-2007 academic year, Nemeth met with Hassan at his office at Sapir to discuss the progress of her documentary film about a young Sderot boy who won seventh place in the world ballroom dancing competition. Nemeth hadn't noticed that her silver necklace, usually tucked into her shirt, was sticking out. "What is this thing and why are you walking around with it?" Nemeth says the lecturer asked. Again, Nemeth thought he was just curious or toying with her. "I explained to him that it's not a religious thing with me but rather that it was out of Zionism, which is something that defines me," Nemeth said of the Star of David around her neck. "He told me that he didn't want to see it." Nemeth went to see the head of the college's Film and Television Department, Avner Faingulernt. "Avner was supportive but said he couldn't really do anything," Nemeth says, adding that she and six other students from Hassan's class asked permission to change teachers, each for his or her own reasons. "I thought the lecturer was being racist toward me, and I couldn't study in his class anymore," Nemeth said. Faingulernt acceded, and according to Nemeth, said he wasn't surprised at their request as many students found the teacher's style difficult to cope with. "He is charismatic and pushes the students' boundaries. But sometimes he doesn't know where to put a limit to those boundaries. He's actually a good teacher, once you look past the abuse," Nemeth says. Faingulernt opened a separate class for Nemeth and the six other students, who were nicknamed "The Nizar Hassan Refugees." If that name rings a bell, don't be surprised. What makes this story relevant today is that it took place a full year before the same lecturer, Nizar Hassan, admonished a student for coming to his class dressed in an IDF uniform - a story that quickly turned into a national scandal. In December, IDF reservist and aspiring filmmaker Eyal Cohen received permission to leave his base specifically for Hassan's class, arrived without changing from his army uniform, and was berated by Hassan, while the whole class watched. A committee set up by Sapir Academic College President Ze'ev Tzahor to examine the incident decided on January 31 to give Hassan one week to write an unequivocal apology to Cohen that also made clear that he respected the IDF uniform and that he would teach anyone who was wearing one, or be fired. Until he did so, he could not teach at the college, and if he did apologize and then acted in a similar manner in the future, he would also be fired, the panel decided. Etti Livni, Hassan's lawyer, told the committee "Hassan acted with good intentions, as someone who just wants to see human beings in his class - not soldiers, not Jews, not Arabs - and he did not mean to humiliate anyone. Just seeing a uniform is enough to frighten and intimidate him. They represent violence for him. He reacted to the student appearing in uniform out of fear." Nizar claimed he thought the student was armed. Hassan has refused to apologize, and the college is in the process of terminating his employment. He declined comment for this story. Livni categorically rejects Nemeth's claims about the Star of David incident, which first appeared in a Yediot Aharonot story covering the Eyal Cohen case. Livni added that her client was considering legal action against Nemeth for libel. "These things never happened. Suddenly, when a story appears in the papers, she remembers that there was an alleged incident," Livni said. One of Nemeth's classmates, Ofir Grazier, wrote to the committee that the events surrounding the flag and necklace described by Nemeth "took place in an atmosphere of humor, in which Nemeth herself took part, smiling and laughing." Grazier continued: "Nemeth left Hassan's class because she didn't like the immense challenges it posed and didn't like hearing things that didn't fit her ideologies. Hassan is not an anti-Semite and not anti-Israeli." In an interview with Haaretz, Nizar Hassan is quoted as saying, "I respect the belief of every person, whether they wear a skullcap or a veil, or any other faith." When Cohen's case burst onto the headlines, Nemeth says she felt that she could no longer hold her own anger inside and decided that she was going to file her own complaint. "It annoyed me that nobody stood up for Eyal or for me. I couldn't keep it inside any longer. I went to Tzahor and told him that this kind of thing had happened before, to me. For a long time I felt alone, and didn't want to be the one leading a campaign to get Hassan fired. He also had a way of charming people and there were many students on his side. But when the case of the reservist happened, I felt people needed to know that this was no isolated incident, and that if people wanted to come study here, they needed to know that there was this kind of lecturer here," Nemeth says. Nemeth sent a letter to the committee investigating the reservist case, laying out her complaints. After months of promises to open an investigation, the school finally invited Nemeth to meet with Tzahor, who essentially said that there was nothing he could do in Nemeth's case. A spokesman for the college responded to Nemeth's claims by saying, "While we do not diminish the severity of Estee Nemeth's complaint it is unfortunate that she remembered to file a complaint only a year-and-a-half after the incident. In any case, the student met with the president of the college and the issue was sent to a disciplinary commission. There are now processes to terminate the employment of the lecturer in question and the decision has been taken to terminate his employment. Due to this decision it is not necessary to further act on [Nemeth's] complaint. We call on all students who feel hurt by anyone at the college not to wait for years to complain but to do so at the earliest possible moment." Nemeth first complained one year after the incidents described in this story. Her complaint formed part of the commission into Cohen's case and was not the basis for an independent investigative review, which she says was promised her and reneged upon. "I came here to study film from New York, which has great film schools. I felt I missed Israel and that there was something missing in my personality. I called Sapir from New York and they allowed me to study here. After what happened to me I feel the school let me down," she says. "In my opinion what happened to me is more serious than what happened to the reservist soldier, because this felt racist." Nemeth says she will most probably move to Tel Aviv to complete her graduation project. "It's the school's responsibility to make sure lecturers behave within boundaries. The fact that they didn't respond to my complaints really upset me."