Brandeis student Lior Halperin (read an interview with Lior at Democracy Now!) curated “Voices from Palestine,” an exhibit of visual art by Palestinian teenagers, to bring a different viewpoint to the campus. But four days into a two-week exhibition, school administrators have removed the artwork, claiming that it “confused” and “upset” some students.
Below is NCAC’s letter to University President Jehuda Reinharz, as well as the University’s response, a note from the student curator herself, and NCAC’s follow-up. For background, see this article from the Boston Globe.
May 8, 2006
Dear President Reinharz,
I am writing on behalf of the National Coalition Against Censorship, an alliance of 50 national non-profit organizations united in defense of free expression. We recently learned that an exhibition of paintings by Palestinian children, curated by a Brandeis student, Lior Halperin, was abruptly terminated after a few students complained. According to press reports, university officials decided to remove the exhibition because it lacked “a balancing perspective.”
Suppressing the artwork of refugee camp Palestinian children hardly contributes towards a balanced academic conversation. In fact, Halperin conceived the show so as to compensate for what she perceived as the lack of Palestinian voices on campus. The removal of the exhibition only contributes to the impression that such voices are, indeed, taboo at Brandeis.
The notion of balance has recently become the leading pretext on U.S. campuses for silencing politically dissenting voices, canceling invitations to speakers, or closing exhibitions. It is an elusive concept, misguidedly applied to plays, public speeches or curated exhibitions, which are, by their nature, organized around a specific perspective. The requirement that a single event reflect the whole spectrum of positions on a given subject would be paralyzing. What single exhibition could possibly contain the range of positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
It is certainly important to open the University as a whole to a wide range of competing perspectives, but the mechanical weighing of every political position with its exact and equal opposite every time a speaker is invited or a student curates an exhibition, is neither necessary nor practical. Surely, on a campus where freedom of expression is consistently encouraged, the reactions a show provokes would provide sufficient counterpoint.
We are living in a politically polarized world where some views on the Middle East are so emotionally loaded they provoke instant and heated responses. University officials often react too hastily to vocal complaints and political pressure by censoring controversial speech. For instance, just last month Penn State cancelled a student exhibition attacking Palestinian terrorism. Upon further consideration, however, Penn State President Graham Spanier realized that canceling the show was a mistake and invited the student to show his work on campus without imposing any further conditions. No art can be as dangerous as the temptation to silence unpopular speech.
We urge you to assert – as you have done more than once recently – academe’s freedom from political pressure and reconsider the decision to remove the paintings. Universities remain one of the few places where opposing ideas can be discussed peacefully and in depth and where voices that are rarely heard elsewhere can find a forum. It is therefore the responsibility of universities to prepare citizens who can listen and debate rather than seek to suppress views with which they disagree, however profound that disagreement may be. The heckler’s veto is rarely the voice of enlightenment.
Director, Arts Program
National Coalition Against Censorship
A response from Brandeis University:
Dear Ms. Mintcheva,
President Reinharz is traveling, and I am writing in his absence in response to your email about the exhibit. The decision to take down the Palestinian picture exhibit has been seriously misunderstood and mistakenly characterized. As the story gets repeated it takes on new dimensions and new bits of misinformation. The impression that has been erroneously conveyed is that the administration approved the exhibit and then withdrew it in the face of pressure. This is simply not true.
Brandeis encourages serious discussion of all issues, including many that are sensitive, controversial or even painful. For that very reason, the University pays careful attention to the time, place and manner in which exhibits, debates, talks, etc. occur. The concern is heightened when public space at the University is being used. The drawings were part of a Brandeis student’s class project. The student described the installation as a way to “bring into the Brandeis community a different narrative about the Palestinian- Israeli conflict.” In the absence of any larger educational context, various administrators received reports that some students found the exhibit confusing and upsetting. Some thought it was intended to show how Palestinian teenagers are instruments of political propaganda, which most assuredly was not the intent. The University elected to take down the pictures at this time. In this case, as in others, it would be our hope that interested faculty and students would come together to create an exhibit, perhaps this same one, or an event that would allow for thoughtful discussion around the points that the student had hoped to communicate. The University’s concern throughout has been to provide an educational experience for students.
What many who have expressed their concern fail to understand, or perhaps don’t wish to understand, is that if there is any university that is not trying to avoid unpleasant or difficult issues involving the Middle East and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict it is Brandeis. Brandeis University maintains a partnership with Al-Quds University. Our Crown Center for Middle East Studies includes Palestinian scholars, as well as visitors from Egypt, Iran, Turkey, and elsewhere in the Middle East. The University provides scholarships to Israeli Arab and Israeli Jewish students. There are Palestinians who serve on some of our academic advisory boards. No one’s purposes are served when there is confusion about the message of an exhibit, a lecture, a program or any other activity that is intended to educate.
You may also wish to consult a letter posted by Dr. Daniel Terris, Director of the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life. It can be accessed at http://www.brandeis.edu/ethics/TerrisLetter0506.pdf (pdf document)
Response from Lior Halperin, May 8, 2006:
I want to thank you for writing this letter. Your organization’s acknowledgment of the wrong decision made by Brandeis, reinforces my belief in the importance of this debate, and I will continue to echo the children’s voices, perhaps especially where they are attemped to be silenced.
Dear Mr. Hose,
Thank you for your response and the reference to Daniel Terris’ letter.
I understand your concern about misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the events, but the key facts are not in question. The exhibit was mounted and then removed when, as you say, “various administrators received reports that some students found the exhibit confusing and upsetting.”
Both you and Dr. Terris claim that the “absence of educational context” and the potential of the exhibit to be interpreted in ways different than the intended ones provide adequate justification for its removal. I cannot agree. The exhibit was adequately contextualized by the explanation of who created the work and in what setting. I doubt any Brandeis student is ignorant of the political realities in the Middle East. As to misinterpretations: surely, as any artist or curator knows, controlling how the audience interprets art is an impossible goal. The dialogue of different interpretations presents, however, many educational opportunities.
If anything contributed to “exacerbat[ing] conflict” and taking Brandeis a step away from the “goal of mutual understanding” it is the heavy handed act of the administration in taking down the exhibition. There were many ways to enhance the educational context around the show and reduce misinterpretation; removing it a few days after the opening amidst controversy on campus was not one of them.
We believe it is still not too late for Brandeis to repair the damage done by this act of censorship and allow the work of the Palestinian children to be shown on campus.
To get involved: contact some of the people and media outlets below to voice your opinion:
» Email University President Jehuda Reinharz