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2006-05-10

Brandeis University Takes Down Palestinian Youth Art Exhibit Mounted by Israeli Jewish Student

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An art exhibit at Brandeis University featuring 17 paintings by Palestinian youths was removed by university officials last week, after several complaints from students. We speak with the Israeli Jewish student who organized the exhibit and the director of Brandeis University’s International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life. [includes rush transcript]

We look at a controversy that has erupted over an art exhibit at Brandeis University in Boston. The exhibit features 17 paintings of Palestinian youths who depict their perspectives on life under Israeli military occupation. But just four days into a two-week run, the exhibit was removed by Brandeis officials after several complaints from students. A university spokesperson has said the school would consider re-mounting the paintings if they were to appear alongside paintings showing an Israeli perspective. The exhibit was organized by an Israeli Jewish student who said she wanted to showcase a Palestinian perspective on campus. The exhibit was subsequently moved to MIT where it is being housed for one week.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined on the telephone from Waltham, where Brandeis University is, by Lior Halperin. She’s the student who organized the exhibit at the university. We’re also joined in the studio by Daniel Terris. He is the Director of Brandeis University’s International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life. Lior’s exhibit was a project for a class called "The Arts of Building Peace," which is taught under the auspices of the Center. Lior Halperin is an Israeli Jewish student at Brandeis who organized the exhibit. We welcome you, Lior, as well as Daniel Terris, to this broadcast. Lior Halperin, we’d like to begin with you. Can you explain how you came to mount this exhibit at Brandeis?

LIOR HALPERIN: Hi, good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us.

LIOR HALPERIN: As you explained, I took a class called "The Arts of Building Peace" this semester, and we were trying to find ways in which art can be used as a mechanism for bringing people together, for enhancing debate, for conflict resolution and reconciliation. And since I believe in all of that deeply, and since I’m an Israeli and a peace activist, I thought about bringing my usage of art and my belief of art as a mechanism for bringing people together into the Brandeis community. And my connection to Palestinian children has been in the past through using art to express their belief and their opinions. This was my objective for bringing the exhibition on campus.

I contacted a dear friend of mine that is a director of the Alrowwad Cultural Center in Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, and together we came up with the concept of having this exhibition brought to Brandeis, where I felt in my only year in Brandeis that the Palestinian voice has been very marginalized and not as freely expressed and prevalent as the Israeli point of view is on campus. And he contacted the children from the center and asked them a very simple question, to create paintings of images of their lives, which they did, and that was my exhibition, their exhibition.

AMY GOODMAN: How old are the kids?

LIOR HALPERIN: Between 11 and 16.

AMY GOODMAN: And the number of paintings?

LIOR HALPERIN: 17.

AMY GOODMAN: And Daniel Terris, can you talk about Brandeis University’s decision to take down the paintings?

DANIEL TERRIS: Good morning, Amy, and good morning, Lior. Let me talk about the lens through which I looked at the exhibit. Over the last several years, Brandeis has been really deeply involved in trying to bring a more complex perspective to the Middle East and to really pursue a kind of goal of mutual understanding. My center has been deeply involved in not only bringing Israeli viewpoints to campus, but really making a sustained effort to bring Palestinian voices to Brandeis. We have actively recruited students, Arab students from all over the Middle East. We’ve established partnerships through my center with NGOs in Ramallah, in East Jerusalem, in Nablus and in Bethlehem, and we’ve also put together a multiyear, multidimensional partnership between Brandeis University and Al-Quds University, one of the premier Palestinian universities.

So, I’ve been deeply involved in those efforts, and one of the things I’ve learned in the whole series of programs that we’ve done on the Middle East, many of which have brought Palestinian voices to campus, even during this year when Lior says they’ve been silenced or marginalized, is that these kind of things need to be done with great care. There’s a lot of sensitivity on every side, both in the Jewish community and the Palestinian community and in the American community, over these issues, so that any activity that we undertake needs to be done with great care, not only to not to offend people, because that’s not necessarily the issue, but to do something so that the educational context is maximized, and so the goal of mutual understanding is pursued.

Lior’s exhibit, while done with the best of intention, is really nurtured in the very climate in which Palestinian voices are welcomed onto campus, had the admirable goal of trying to humanize Palestinian youth, but I was concerned that the form and the content of the exhibit actually in some ways undermined the goal that she was trying to pursue, so I called to advise her that I thought the exhibit was in some ways not reaching the goals that she really wanted to achieve.

AMY GOODMAN: And was it your decision to take down the exhibit?

DANIEL TERRIS: I wasn’t involved in the decision to take down the exhibit. What I did was suggest to Lior that there were ways in which this exhibit, while with the intent of humanizing Palestinian children and Palestinian youth and giving them voice, in some ways actually contributed to the opposite kind of perception, the combination of paintings with political speech, the controversial images that were part of the exhibit, and the absolute lack of any educational context, so that viewers who came and went by the exhibit in a library space had no real opportunity for understanding, might have contributed to the opposite effect that Lior intended. And this was kind of confirmed when some of the Brandeis students who went by the exhibit the couple of days after it was over, called the administration and said, "Why — is this exhibit intended to show how Palestinian young people are propagandized by their elders?" And so, that was the kind of concern I had, that actually the form and content of the exhibit had the opposite effect that Lior was trying to achieve.

AMY GOODMAN: Lior Halperin, your response?

LIOR HALPERIN: Well, I agree with almost everything that Daniel Terris says. My only question is: was the decision to take it down the right decision, if the intent was to allow an educational debate to take place? Because, if anything, the debate that is going on right now between the Brandeis community, which has been amazingly supportive, proved that the university community is ready to discuss those issues and is ready to see those images, and it’s a community that refuses to have a decision taken by the administration for it, saying that it’s not ready to deal with those images portrayed in the paintings of the children.

DANIEL TERRIS: I think everybody on the Brandeis campus agrees that we need a better process for thinking about how to host controversial speech on campus. I think it’s clear that we need a better advance process, where an exhibit like Lior’s, instead of just kind of through a bureaucratic method going up on the library, has some kind of advance preparation, in which faculty and students and administrators are all involved in thinking what’s the right context, what are the right kinds of events that stimulate conversation, what are the ways in which we can maximize the educational opportunities.

AMY GOODMAN: Daniel Terris, what were the images you most objected to of the kids’ drawing?

DANIEL TERRIS: Well, it wasn’t any particular image. It was the way that the whole exhibit was framed and the fact that there wasn’t really much explanation about how the images were chosen, how the speech and the images were put together, and that there wasn’t really much opportunity for real public conversation and expression around the exhibit. So it was the combination of all those things, not the fact that any particular image was controversial or difficult. I mean, we’ve sponsored dozens of programs on campus that have had — where people have said controversial things from all different perspectives, so that isn’t the issue. The issue is how it’s held, how the conversation is promoted on campus.

AMY GOODMAN: Lior Halperin?

LIOR HALPERIN: Yes. Let me say that a week before the exhibition opened, I did an enormous outreach to the Brandeis community. I wrote emails and phone calls to almost every activist group on campus, including a lot of professors and faculty, asking them to please attend the exhibition opening that we had on the 26th of April, telling them that this is going to be a controversial issue and a difficult issue for many people in the Brandeis community, and I’m asking them to come and create a dialogue and debate. I got no response from the community. I got no response from the community.

Also, alongside the paintings, there was my narrative, my statement as a creator of the exhibition, explaining that as an Israeli and a peace activist, I believe in the power of the art to bring people together, and my ability to empathize and understand the paintings that are coming from Palestine is what I believe the core of our ability to create coexistence and reconciliation in that complex area. And I also noted there were students who complained for a very specific number of paintings that were very difficult for them.

But my question is: how would we expect Palestinian children from refugee camps to portray anything else but the reality of their lives? If it’s difficult to see in the third floor of a beautiful library in Waltham, we can imagine what it means to live those daily lives, which is exactly the intent of my exhibition. It was taken down, because I think people could not allow themselves to respect those images in a respectful way. I don’t think the intent of taking down the exhibition was to create a better forum for it to be taken back. I think the intent was to take it down, to continue silencing those voices.

DANIEL TERRIS: Well, during the week that the exhibit controversy was going on on campus, I was hosting eight prominent Palestinian administrators from Al-Quds University, who were meeting with people from all over campus, speaking on campus, learning both about administration, in order to build partnerships between Brandeis and Al-Quds, and also speaking about larger issues on the Middle East, and this has followed a whole series of other visits by people from Al-Quds University, as well as the appointment of a prominent Palestinian to our Crown Center of Middle East Studies, as well as a series of other programs that have presented a variety of views on the Middle East. So, I really don’t think this is about silencing Palestinian voices.

This isn’t to say it was the right or wrong decision to take down the exhibit, but I do think the question of care, the question of genuine collaboration between faculty and students and administrators about how to do each of these programs best is really at the core, and I think Brandeis will look forward and look for ways to do this kind of thing better over the months to come.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you sorry Brandeis has taken the — made the decision it did to remove the exhibit?

DANIEL TERRIS: I think I really regret that the exhibit has become the center of this kind of controversy, and I think everybody agrees that the process that we had in place was not a good process, either for mounting this, because Lior mounted the exhibit without any real kind of genuine discussion, and I think everybody agrees that we didn’t have a good process for considering it once it was in place. So, I think that’s the kind of thing we’re going to try to fix.

AMY GOODMAN: I was with people from MIT, a professor, last night, and I asked about the art exhibit, because it’s on display now at MIT. And he was saying there’s absolutely no controversy about it. You know, it’s hardly gotten any attention, actually, just by it being up.

DANIEL TERRIS: Well, the context has been well established by the public controversy that there’s been, and it may not be the same kind of issue on their campus.

AMY GOODMAN: Who are the people that objected — students, donors, who?

DANIEL TERRIS: Well, I certainly saw some complaints from students. I don’t know whether there were complaints from donors or others outside the university, but the complaints I saw were from students. But I want to say that my phone call to Lior was not prompted by student complaints, although it was somewhat exacerbated by the fact that students were confirming the doubts that I had had about the exhibit.

AMY GOODMAN: Looking at some of the articles on the whole controversy, the Daily News Tribune, an article called "Facing Censorship," it talks about students carrying signs outside the library to criticize what they say is censorship by the university, and then it says Alice Rothchild of Boston, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, carried a sign that said, "Closing our eyes to injustice is not a Jewish value." Your response?

DANIEL TERRIS: I think trying to create a full-body picture of all points of view, bringing them to campus, discussing them, having them as an integral part of our community is absolutely a Jewish value. It’s absolutely a Brandeis University value. And I think we’re going to continue to do that kind of work in the months and years to come.

AMY GOODMAN: Lior Halperin, the response of the community. You were saying they didn’t respond to your original call to come out for the opening of the exhibit, but once the paintings were taken down.

LIOR HALPERIN: Yes, and — well, I think it’s a combination of people being outraged that the university has decided for them they’re unable or not mature enough to respect those images. So it’s a combination of people going out for the freedom of expression or freedom of speech and people who are for freedom of Palestine and freedom of the art. But I think the outreach has been truly amazing. If anything, the debate that’s taking place right now, I bless for that. I disagree with Mr. Terris that the discussion that has followed taking down the exhibition is not useful. I think it’s a useful — it’s an intelligent and civilized and wonderful discussion that is taking place right now, and I absolutely bless for that. I received the most enormous amount of support from people, from professors, from students, from faculty, from people within the larger community of Boston saying that they bless for my initiative, and they see the beauty in what I was trying to bring on campus, to show the human connectedness between people who are different, and even though they live in a conflict area, they’re able to create this connection.

DANIEL TERRIS: Amy, I want to say, I think the debate going forward is, indeed, healthy in many ways. And I think one of the things we need to do coming out of this is to remember that there is an inherit tension on university campuses today between academic freedom and freedom of expression, and I’ve gotten a lot of emails and communications saying that is simply a pure case of academic freedom. But academic freedom is not an absolute in a context in which universities have an interest in thinking about the educational fabric of the community and in thinking about how to contain and hold speech in a way that is productive and that doesn’t incite issues of hatred and violence. Now, I’m not saying that the young — in this particular case, that was the issue and that these young children were advocating hatred and violence. I’m only saying that this is an issue attention that universities have been dealing with for a long time in this country and are going to continue to, and the debate that comes out of this will help us deal with it better.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see the exhibit being mounted again?

DANIEL TERRIS: There’s certainly talk about that on the Brandeis campus. The administration has invited some faculty to begin considering ways in which it could be brought back, but in a way that’s fully productive.

AMY GOODMAN: Lior Halperin, would you consider mounting it again?

LIOR HALPERIN: I will definitely consider mounting it again. I have yet to receive any response from the university administration directly, and they’re still not considering me a part of this equation. So, until they do and explain to me in a respectful and intelligent manner why was the exhibition taken down, what was so intimidating about these images, and what would be a good way they would think to bring it back, and why do they want to bring it back on campus, I don’t feel I can bring back the paintings of the children. These are paintings by children, not by me, and I respect their opinion and their decision, so it’s a decision of me and them together.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. I want to thank Daniel Terris, Director of Brandeis University’s International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life, and Lior Halperin, an Israeli Jewish student at Brandeis University who organized the Palestinian youth art exhibit that the university took down.

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