As I write this, students at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA are gathering to rally against censorship on campus. They’re protesting the University’s decision to pull a student’s exhibit of drawings by young Palestinians. The Boston Globe broke the story yesterday:
Palestinian teenagers painted those images at the request of an Israeli Jewish student at Brandeis University, who said she wanted to use the art to bring the Palestinian viewpoint to campus. But university officials removed the paintings four days into a two-week exhibition in the Brandeis library.
Lior Halperin, the student who organized the exhibit, responded,
“This is outrageous. This an educational institution that is supposed to promote debate and dialogue. Let’s talk about what it is: 12-year-olds from a Palestinian refugee camp. Obviously it’s not going to be about flowers and balloons.”
Brandeis took the action after a number of students who saw the exhibit complained, and Lior declined to modify her exhibit to address their complaints. “Now, Brandeis is embroiled in a debate about how to portray Palestinian perspectives on a campus where 50 percent of the students are Jewish,” reports the Globe.
I spoke to some people I know on campus, and that’s not quite how they see it. To them, the issue is censorship.
The Globe quoted Aaron Voldman, 19, a Jewish freshman at Brandeis: ”I would like to think of my university as a place that is open to discussion, and I see art as one of the purest forms of discussion we can have.” Aaron heads DFA Brandeis, one of the largest Democracy for America groups in the state, so he and I talk occasionally. I emailed him for his thoughts, and he framed the issue clearly:
I can empathize with students’ concerns and their sentiments of feeling offended by the art exhibit. I think that their concerns must be addressed, but the University’s action of removing the art exhibit was not the appropriate action to take.
That’s what I’ve been hearing from other people on campus: While the issue might have originally been about “how to portray Palestinian perspectives”, by removing the artwork, Brandeis changed it into a debate about freedom of expression.
The Globe reports that “the university would consider displaying the artwork again in the fall, alongside pieces showing the Israeli point of view.” But what is the “Israeli point of view”? On a campus where the majority of students are Jewish, well, you’ve heard the old joke: Put two Jews in a room and you get at least three opinions. And indeed, Lior Halperin, the student who solicited these drawings from the refugee camp and displayed them, is an Israeli Jew and served in the Israeli army. Is her point of view not “Israeli”?
I called Dennis Nealon, the university spokesman the Globe spoke to, to get Brandeis’ side of the story. As he puts it, the problem was a lack of context: These drawings were displayed in the library, not in a museum. They were not accompanied by any explanation of what they were, or why they were being displayed there. Some students who saw them were hurt, some were disturbed. Nealon says the University initally wanted to redo the exhibit in a more productive way, but when they approached Lori about it, she would not cooperate. With classes about to end, they felt there was no time left to handle the matter this semester, and removed the drawings. I put Aaron’s comment to him, that whatever the issues, removing the drawings was the wrong approach. He agreed that yes, that is what the debate on campus is focusing on now, and it is a legitimate point.
Censorship has a bad reputation for a reason: When those in authority decide unilaterally to suppress expression, they shut down debate about the ideas being expressed. That’s exactly what happened here. Instead of debating the content and context of the drawings, even many students who were bothered by the exhibit are protesting their removal. Who decides what must not be displayed? Yes, a few students were hurt, but others were enriched, or indifferent – everyone has their own reactions. One student I emailed with, Jonathan, wrote,
“I have to say that I’m pretty surprised at the censorship. The exhibit merely displayed pictures drawn or painted by Palestinian youths, as well as saying their names and their hobbies. I don’t recall seeing a single anti-Semitic thing in any of the pictures. They were merely pictures drawn by children who were living miserable lives. With the exception of two or three of them, every single one was into either swimming, painting, or both.”
And the University itself doesn’t usually reject Palestinian perspectives. As the Globe reported,
The controversy occurs at a sensitive time for the campus, which has angered some students and Jewish groups with the appointment of a prominent Palestinian scholar and with a partnership with Al-Quds University, an Arab institution.
When I was a grad student there, the campus radio station, WBRS FM, hosted one of the best programs I’ve ever heard on radio: Just Like You, a weekly program by Israeli Jew Michael Bavly and Israeli Arab Forsan Hussein (listen to an NPR clip about their show). The two of them published a peace proposal called The Bostonian Agreement.
Voldman called some of the artwork “saddening” but said,
These young Palestinian refugees and their supporters at Brandeis chose a nonviolent means to express and communicate how the feel about the conflict. As a University, we should do everything in our power to encourage communication, not suppress it.
Brandeis is a University uniquely positioned to foster real debate about Israeli and Palestinian perspectives. By removing these drawings, I feel that Brandeis shut down what could have been a useful debate and made censorship the issue instead.
(I graduated from Brandeis in 1993 and received a masters degree from Brandeis in 1998. I was an active member of WBRS, served as program director and general manager, and continue to say in touch with them. I was born in Israel, and have family there.)