Brandeis Heats Up Over Palestinian Drawings

(Excellent reporting, Cos! Thanks for making those calls. As to Brandeis, they should put that exhibit back up immediately and apologize for being so intolerant. Why do they hate art and children? - promoted by Bob)

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.)

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24 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Oy!

    So at about 1pm I'm on my way to the library for my regular 1 hour shift there (I work at the circulation desk, and yes, I know my Thursday shift is short.) About 30 or 40 people are in front of the library with Palestinian flags, signs against censorship and so forth. On the front door of the library a sign is taped that reads "Free Speech Ends Here!"

    I have to say, both sides of this "controversy" seem to be acting pretty silly. On the one hand you have the University and whoever it was that asked the pictures be taken down. The pictures weren't really all that offensive, they just showed the Palestinian side of things, and only the Palestinian side. So they took the pictures down after something like 4 days.

    The protesters are right, and I completely agree with everything Aaron said about the university -- it was stupid and insensitive of them to take the pictures down.

    But some of the protesters are not making their case very well. They're calling the university "draconian," talking about how the university has no respect for differences whatsoever, holding signs that say, "Think the pictures were offensive? Try OCCUPATION!" and so on. One of them came to the circulation desk to complain about it, as if we had anything to do with taking down the pictures and we could do anything about it. Incidentally, it wasn't the library's decision to take down the pictures, or at the very least not the circulation department's! The general sense I've been receiving from other students is that they're protesting for the sake of protesting, which tends to happen a lot on this campus.

    Just my $.02.

    • Thanks!

      Great stuff.

    • It wouldn't be Brandeis...

      without people protesting just to protest. (Anyone every see the movie "PCU?" It was very popular on my hall freshman year.)

      That being said, Brandeis has had some pretty great protests as well - 1969: Students take over Ford Hall to encourage University to create African-American studies department, rename Brandeis "Malcolm X University." 1986: Students attempt to take over administration building to protest the University's investments in companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. 2000: Charlton Heston is invited to speak on campus by Brandeis Republicans. Hundreds of students turn out to protest, many with fake gunshot wounds, some dressed as Moses. Every year: more candlelight vigils, sit-ins, and speak-outs than can be reasonably counted.

      FWIW, I firmly disagree with the university's decision to remove the art and I'm glad people are speaking out against it. I don't think that name-calling or over-reacting will help anyone's cause. (But the "you think art is bad? try OCCUPATION!" sign did make me laugh.)

      Brandeis class of 2002

      • Brandeis

        Wait, wait, wait.

        Just how many folks who go to or went to Brandeis are there on this blog?

        • small world!

          Yeah, I'm noticing that :)

          Also, I just got an email from Dmitry Vilner, the student who the Globe quoted as saying that it was "ludicrous to find these hung up with no explanation."  It turns out he's one of the people I met two years ago while visiting friends in Colorado, who took me with them to a Brandeis alumni association lunch in Denver where newly admitted high school seniors could meet Brandeis alumni before the went off to college.  It was Denver, so there were only about 15 freshmen-to-be there, and I clearly remember Dmitry.

        • Go 'Deis!


        • A Brandeis connection, at least

          I didn't attend, but two high school friends and my brother did, and I spent a lot of time on campus...but I'm not sure that completely counts :-)

        • One more here, 'deis 03

      • Don't go to Brandeis . . . . BUT

        I love the movie PCU!

      • I thought the charlton heston protest was stupid

        He was obviously begging for a protest and to get his name in the news by going to brandeis, so why oblige him? 

        Idiot with ludicrously over-the-top pro-gun views confronted by larger group of idiots with hormone-fueled anti-gun views.

    • Amendment

      I just want to amend a quick fact: my friend just showed me pictures from the protest outside the library and it's clear to me that I underestimated the headcount. There was probably closer to 80-100 people at the protest throughout the course of it. I must have come towards the end.

  2. for the record

    I think Brandeis loves art and children :)

  3. Regarding today's protest

    Today was just a mess. It seems that while good-intentioned students were demanding an explanation for censorship (something definitely worthy of a debate), they foolishly played into the hands of the "Israel is an Apartheid Genocidal State" crowd and made no effort to distance themselves from the hooligans waving Palestinian flags, wearing keffiyahs, and shouting "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!" What does that mean, "from the river to the sea?" Isn't there already a country called Israel inbetween the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea? I spoke with one of these guys, who represented the Somerville Divestment Project (which failed twice to repeal investments from Israel, btw), and he pretty much told me Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth. It's sick.

    Regarding the "innocence" of these children's paintings, this is anything but the case. Virtually every painting includes the theme of "Haqq al'Auwda" which translates to "Right of Return." They have little keys and they mention Jerusalem a lot. Again, what does this mean in context? It means that Israel should no longer be a bastion for Jews suffering persecution around the world, and it means that, basically, the Jews in Israel should either leave or be massacred. How is this any different than "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free?" But that's not all. The paintings also incorporated images of Jews wantonly killing Palestinians, shooting into towns, mowing people down with bulldozers, etc. One in particular featured a HISSING SNAKE COILED UP INTO THE STAR OF DAVID. If that's not Nazi-era propaganda, then what is it?

    I'm all for freedom of speech and the marketplace of ideas, but the University should not be putting up these disgusting, anti-Semitic displays in the first place. I'll admit that it was a mistake to take the paintings down once they were already up. But let's be honest, this is far more than a censorship debate. Let's not play into the hands of the Palestinian flag wavers who showed up today. Let's acknowledge these viewpoints for what they are and, while respecting the freedom of speech, also make clear the VIOLENT AND ANTI-SEMITIC messages that are thrown around in the debate.

    PS-Did anyone catch the number of keffiyahs being worn at the protest? Does anyone remember how Yasser Arafat shaped his keffiyah to look like a map of "Palestine" which, again, precluded Israel's existence? Symbolism is incredibly important in this battle and it seems like it's disregarded.

    • thanks for the firsthand report

      Let's acknowledge these viewpoints for what they are and, while respecting the freedom of speech, also make clear the VIOLENT AND ANTI-SEMITIC messages that are thrown around in the debate.

      That's the really unfortunate thing here: By not respecting freedom of expression, Brandeis has distracted students from having a debate on the merits of the things you bring up.

      Some of the students I spoke to felt that allowing Palestinians to express their anger through art could prevent violence.  Some felt that the drawings were dangerous, and others thought they were harmless.  I tried to convey this variety in my post.  If Brandeis hadn't taken the drawings down, those are the things everyone at Brandeis would be talking about now.

      In the meantime, for people who weren't there, the drawings are online here.

      • Thanks for the links

        Seeing the artwork makes a huge difference. What I really hate is the feeling that Brandeis offered these children an outlet for expression and then balked when some people didn't like what they had to say. Were they expecting love letters to Israel?

        I agree that the Star of David out of a snake is somewhat disturbing, but that means that we need to address the hatred towards Israel that this generation is learning, not that we need to try and stifle or suppress it. (Because that works oh so well.)

        Some might argue that these pieces represent little more than anti-Israeli propaganda, or that the kids are being used to depict an anti-Israeli point of view. Whether or not there's truth to that, it's in Israel's (and the world's) best interest to address the suffering and concerns of the Palestinian people, especially the children. We ignore them at our own peril.

        • the offer and withdrawal were from different sources

          Just to clarify, the exhibit was put together by a student at the center for ethical studies, along with her professor.  The Brandeis administrators who chose to pull the exhibit were not, as far as I know, involved in any way in the initial decision to have the exhibit.

          Other than that, I agree with what you'e saying.  I just don't want people to think that the same people who initially invited the exhibit then rejected it.

  4. I'm Brandeis too

    I'm a Brandeis PhD student, I'd heard a little about it all, but very busy lately getting ready for my qualifying exams and finishing up the semester. I'm glad people are protesting though.

  5. some more info

    I just got this email from the group that had been organizing the protest, and this part went into their fears about outside groups that had infiltrated it:

    The event was about a free speech and whether or not Brandeis would hurt it's reputation as a University dedicated to pluralism. I felt the point was to protect and encourage debate, but not to use it as a rallying call for any particular stance on the issue.

    Unfortunately, we there was the strong and noticable prescence of the Revolutionary Communist Party. For obvious reasons, they provided ample fodder for the members of BIPAC, at least 5 leaders of which were scurrying about the protest photographing the signs held by RCP members.

    Secondly, I felt some of the speakers were not helpful to the cause. They seemed more interested in furthering the Pro-Palestinian, borderline anti-Israeli, agenda than actually protecting free speech. Politicizing this issue isn't going to help, as this is an issue that needs more broad based support that encompasses a variety of opinions on the issue.

  6. There is so much

    anti-Isreali sentiment in classrooms accross America. I am currently a student at a Northeastern college, and it is totally unhip to say anything pro-Israeli in the classroom. Yet I never hear anyone ever say anything about that. (Excpet Alan Derschowitz, who wrote a whole book about it.) Suddenly, people are all up in arms because some Palestinians had their voices silenced. I respect their right to free expression, but given how one-sided colleges usually are on this subject, I'm not exactly heart-broken over this.

    • Truth!

      While I'll bet that's true with most of the world, it's certainly not true at Brandeis. Here it's pretty much the reverse.

  7. Some other Brandeis protests

    1990-Several hundred students led a boycott of the Brandeis bookstore because black students were regularly followed and searched when they were in the Brandeis bookstore. 1991-About 100 protesters came out to let Rabbi Meir Kahane know what they thought of him showing up on campus with no security. A couple of days later Kahane was shot and killed in New York. The FBI showed up in the Brandeis newspaper office to confiscate all photos from the appearance, and were positive that one picture of a well-known student who hadn't shaved in 2 months and who was a tad high at the time looked like a wacked-out Arab, who might have been the same who who did the shooting. Late-1970s-Bernard Coard graduated from Brandeis. Several years later he was tried and convicted of leading the pro-Castro movement that overthrew the government of Grenada, and resulted in the American invasion of the carribean stronghold.

    Heady times.

    In all seriousness, I'm disgusted by Brandeis' reaction to these photos, and continue to be pleased that I have chosen not to give a dime of my money to my alma mater.

    • Don't forget Abramoff!

      We also have Jack Abramoff, who took credit as a Brandies undergrad in 1980 for winning Massachusetts for Reagan.

      • He forgot us :)

        ... and then, when he struck it rich (temporarily), still hardly donated anything to Brandeis.  $50 total, IIRC.

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