Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit ordered an investigation into alleged incitement on Tuesday morning, after images from an art exhibit featuring posters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alongside a hangman’s noose drew widespread condemnation.
Amid a debate on whether the piece constituted art or incitement, Mandelblit decided to open the investigation after consulting with State Attorney Shai Nitzan. Police said later Tuesday they had begun the probe.
The controversy started after a Likud official posted on Facebook on Monday afternoon what he said was a poster on display at Jerusalem’s prestigious Bezalel art school. It later emerged that the single Netanyahu image he posted was part of a larger work, featuring multiple images of Netanyahu and the noose surrounding a single image of assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, with “this is called incitement” written on a piece of paper next to the posters. Some reports said the Rabin poster and a piece of paper at the side bearing the text “This is called incitement” were not in the original display, and were added later by other students.
The artwork was the work of a first-year art student at Bezalel, part of a school assignment, which she put up for a few hours in a school stairwell on her own initiative. The probe is deemed unlikely to lead to a prosecution, Channel 2 reported Tuesday afternoon.
In his post, Eli Hazan, a director of communications and international relations for Netanyahu’s Likud party, said the image of Netanyahu was on display on a stairwell wall at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. The caption on the poster reads “Rope,” and echoes a 2008 presidential campaign poster of Barack Obama, except that the Obama poster was emblazoned with the word “Hope.”
“This is what’s being exhibited at this moment at Bezalel — the Academy for Art and Design in Jerusalem,” Hazan, the Likud official, wrote. “Is this being exhibited as art?” he continued. “Change the name and the picture and instead put in a left-wing representative and exhibit it in a [West Bank] settlement. Will it be seen as incitement?”
After Hazan posted the image, numerous politicians echoed his claim of incitement, with Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev calling on Education Minister Naftali Bennett to draw a line between art and “incitement,” and to cut Bezalel’s funding.
“Freedom of art isn’t freedom to incite! It started with the statue in the city square and now we have a noose,” she said in a statement. “This is artistic talent to incite and murder. If it had been a picture of [Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog], there would already be arrests.”
Herzog also condemned the piece and said, “Freedom of speech is important and essential, but there is no place for using it to incite toward harming public leaders from the right or the left.”
President Reuven Rivlin wrote on Facebook that the poster “was a clear crossing of lines” and “incitement against the prime minister,” adding that “we learned the hard way that there is no place for language like this” and that artists must exercise responsibility with their works.
By the evening, though, it emerged that the image posted by Hazan on Facebook wasn’t the full picture: photographs of the full installation showed that it featured a dozen posters of Netanyahu with the rope placed around a single image of Rabin that bore the slogan “traitor.”
That image of Rabin was a photo of a poster wielded during a rowdy right-wing demonstration that took place in Jerusalem in 1995, days before he was assassinated. Netanyahu famously addressed that demonstration from a balcony and accusations and counter-accusations over his alleged failure to call inciters to order have continued to circulate ever since.
Adi Stern, president of Bezalel, told the Hebrew-language daily Haaretz in an article published Tuesday morning that the image posted by Hazan had been taken out of context and “is not incitement but the expression of an opinion.”
Stern added that critics of the artwork, which had been removed by Monday evening, are intentionally “taking the work out of its original context” for political purposes, and noted that the piece was not part of an official exhibit but was put up in a stairwell at the artist’s own initiative.
He also told Army Radio Tuesday that if a photo of the entire piece had been published and not just the single poster of Netanyahu, the response “would have been completely different,” as the display was meant to be about incitement, rather than a form of incitement in itself.
MK Zehava Galon (Meretz), who also spoke with Army Radio on Tuesday, said that while she found the piece “to be in bad taste,” she was most bothered by Regev’s call to cut Bezalel’s funding, which Galon said was akin to “dictating to the students what to think, what to say and how to express themselves.”
The student was not immediately named; Stern told Army Radio that school officials weren’t the ones to take it down.
In a statement, Bezalel said that the college is “a protected space for freedom of expression in Israel, which allows students free, critical and creative debate over the wide range of subjects that occupy them.
“The work that hangs on the stairwell is composed of the image, which appears several times around a documentary photograph of incitement posters against prime minister Rabin. Next to the work is a page that reads, ‘This is called incitement.’”
The statement went on, “It’s still not clear, and we’re checking, whether this was an exercise that was part of a course or the personal expression of a student, although in any event, this is an internal expression, within the boundaries of the academy, and as part of a continuing debate on subjects of design, art and culture, including on questions of boundaries, the transcription of images and memory.”
“On the surface, the work corresponds with several known images that have significance and weight, including the memory of incitement against Rabin, and the famous poster of President Obama with the caption ‘Hope.’
“The exercise, successful or not, is part of a professional discussion, mounted on an internal wall on the steps of the academy, and is not displayed in a public way. There is no political incitement in it and that’s how it should be judged.”
A statement from Bezalel’s student union said the union did not support messages calling for violence or incitement, but, as part of an institute of design, believed in freedom of speech and art and the expression of the full spectrum of opinions within the limits of the law.