Less than a week after an artist placed a life-sized golden statue of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a Tel Aviv Square “to test the boundaries of free speech,” a poster featuring Netanyahu with a hangman’s noose sparked fresh uproar on Monday.
A Likud official posted what he said was a poster on display at Jerusalem’s prestigious Bezalel art school. It later emerged, however, 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. 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.
In a post on Facebook, 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?”
Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev immediately called 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.
“We are obliged to be responsible, especially during these militant days. This is not our way. We will replace Netanyahu only by democratic means,” he added.
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 multiple posters of Netanyahu with the rope were placed around a single image of Rabin that carries 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 Rabin’s murder. Netanyahu famously addressed that demonstration from a balcony.
Accusations and counter-accusations over Netanyahu’s alleged failure to call inciters to order have continued to circulate ever since, and also apparently inspired artist Itay Zalait’s decision last week to choose the Tel Aviv square where Rabin was assassinated (and which was later named after him) as the location for his golden statue of Netanyahu.
In a statement, Bezalel said that the college was “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.
In July, Yuli Tamir, president of the Shekar College of Engineering and Design, ordered a department head to remove a student’s painting of a kneeling, naked woman whose face was noticeably similar to that of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
Tamir — a former lawmaker and minister for the Labor Party [today part of Zionist Union] — told the Haaretz newspaper at the time that she thought the artwork was “a work of hurtful chauvinism” that had nothing to do with politics.