Israel: Art featuring ministers stirs controversy

4 January 2017

Two recent displays of art featuring Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu have caused renewed uproar over art and freedom of expression in the major cities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Controversy erupted at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem after a provocative poster featuring Netanyahu with a hangman’s noose was displayed at the academy, reported The Times of Israel on 12 December 2016.

Members of Netanyahu’s Likud party, including controversial culture minister Miri Regev, criticised the poster, calling it “incitement” rather than art, with Regev going so far as to call on education minister Naftali Bennett to cut the academy’s funding.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelbilt ordered police to begin an investigation over the possible incitement case after the academy’s administration took down the art work, reported The Jerusalem Post on 14 December 2016.

On 14 December 2016 students, lecturers and administrators who felt their freedom of expression threatened held a protest to call attention to the actions.

** UPDATE: Police have opened up an investigation into death threats made to the artist behind the noose posters and her lawyer, reported The Times of Israel on 18 January 2017. The threatening letter was made up of letters cut out from newspapers.

Statue removed
Earlier in December, artist Itay Zalait, erected a 4.5 metre gold statue of Netanyahu late at night at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square without a permit. Soon after the statue went up, authorities placed a notice on it for the owner to remove it. Hours later the statue was taken down, reported Haaretz on 6 December 2016.

The artist said that he put up the statue to see if it would lead to any type of punishment, specifically recalling an incident in late November 2016 where an activist was imprisoned for four days due to critical social media posts.

Zalait had invited people to come to the square to take down the statue and “topple Netanyahu”. Regev called the statue an “expression of hatred towards Netanyahu”, reported The Guardian on 6 December 2016.

Painting censored
In July 2016 the Shenkar College of Engineering censored a painting by Yam Amrani, a student of the college’s Multidisciplinary Art School, as part of the school’s exhibition featuring its graduates’ work. The painting entitled ‘Snidim’ (Sheets) featured a nude woman who bore a striking resemblance to Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, reported The Times of Israel on 20 July 2016.

Amrani did not identify the woman in the painting as the minister, but college president Yuli Tamir nonetheless ordered head of the art school Larry Abramson to remove the painting from the exhibit. The painting was eventually kept in the exhibition, but the woman’s face was covered up with black tape.

Despite the compromise, Abramson tendered his resignation as head of the art school, saying:

I gave my objection in principle to such censorship, both on the principle of freedom of expression for our students, and in the serious educational and public damage that will be caused to Shenkar and to the Multidisciplinary Art School due to this self-censorship. She [Tamir] ordered me, under her authority as my manager, to carry out her instructions. For me, that was a real blow to the very soul, an abomination in the sanctuary of art.

Abramson agreed to hold off his resignation after an emergency meeting was held to discuss the issue to see if a “dynamic” can be created that “allows for freedom of expression and academic liberty”, reported Jewish Business News on 19 July 2016.

Photo: Itay Zalait Facebook page


» The Times of Israel – 18 January 2017
Death threats to student for artwork featuring Netanyahu in a noose

» Artforum – 14 December 2016
Artist invites Israelis to topple statue of the prime minister in Tel Aviv

» The Jerusalem Post – 14 December 2016
Nude Netanyahu picture stirs up more controversy for Jerusalem art school

» The Times of Israel – 14 December 2016
Bezalel students seal mouths in protest over removal of PM pics

» The Times of Israel – 12 December 2016
Poster of Netanyahu with hangman’s noose sparks furor

» Haaretz – 6 December 2016
Artist behind toppled golden Netanyahu statue ‘intrigued’ if it will lead to punishment

» The Guardian – 6 December 2016
King Bibi for a day: Golden Netanyahu statue is toppled

» BBC – 6 December 2016
Netanyahu statue: Golden likeness of PM appears in Tel Aviv

» The Times of Israel – 20 July 2016
Professor resigns over censorship of nude ‘justice minister’ painting

» Jewish Business News – 19 July 2016
Nude portrait of an Israeli minister was censored

More from Freemuse

» 8 September 2016: Israel: Tensions remain strained between artists and culture ministry

» 3 November 2015: Israel: The political legacy of muzzling artists

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