Just two months before the long-planned February opening of Samia Halaby’s art retrospective, Indiana University (IU) abruptly canceled the show, citing vague concerns “about guaranteeing the integrity of the exhibit.” But the concerns had nothing to do with Halaby’s colorful abstractions. The last time abstract works were controversial in the United States was during the McCarthy era, when Congressman George Dondero slammed all modern art as communist destruction, saying that “Abstractionism aims to destroy by the creation of brainstorms.” In 2024, we are a long way from Dondero’s aesthetic parochialism, but the McCarthyite political playbook seems to have been dusted off quite successfully.

There is a new McCarthyite chill at Indiana University. The enemy is not communism; it is criticism of Israel and its government, especially in the wake of the October 7th Hamas terrorist attack and the subsequent Israeli military response in Gaza. IU canceled the exhibition because, today, it has become almost impossible for institutions to allow a cultural platform for anyone vocally supporting Palestinian rights. And Halaby is both herself Palestinian and a long-time activist for Palestinian rights. While her art is abstract and not overtly political, her social media presence is anything but. Indeed, in a December phone call between the artist and the director of IU’s Eskenazi Museum of Art, where the retrospective was to be held, the director explained that the artist’s Instagram posts regarding Gaza and Israel military acts created concern and influenced their decision to cancel the exhibition. 

Save In the 1950s, accusing someone of being a communist (regardless of available proof) immediately rendered them a pariah; similarly, today, people with political positions critical of Israel’s military campaigns or policies in Palestinian territories face accusations of antisemitism or support for terrorism, leading to cancellations, professional ostracism, and worse [link to our page with anchor to list].  

This January, CIMAM, an organization that connects international modern and contemporary art museums and is affiliated with the Paris-based International Council of Museums (ICOM), noted the “unprecedented international censorship of artists and curators who have expressed their political views and support for the Palestinian people.”

UN human rights experts have also expressed alarm at the worldwide wave of attacks, reprisals, criminalization, and sanctions against those who publicly express solidarity with the victims of the ongoing conflict: “Calls for an end to the violence and attacks in Gaza, or for a humanitarian ceasefire, or criticism of Israeli government’s policies and actions, have in too many contexts been misleadingly equated with support for terrorism or antisemitism. This stifles free expression, including artistic expression, and creates an atmosphere of fear to participate in public life.”(https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2023/11/speaking-out-gaza-israel-must-be-allowed-un-experts)

Is Criticism of Israel Antisemitic?

As the UN experts noted, political speech critical of the state of Israel and its policies is often labeled as “antisemitism” and condemned as such. Indeed, there is a deliberate refusal on the part of some political representatives, including many in the US Congress, to distinguish between antisemitism as a morally unacceptable racial, ethnic, and religious hatred of Jews and the political criticism of Israeli state policies. Criticism of Israeli policies is political speech, hence subject to argument and disagreement, no matter how distasteful some may find such arguments. 

However, charges of antisemitism have thus been leveled at the positions of college students calling for a ceasefire and peace, artists calling for human rights for Palestinians, and even Jewish activists criticizing the policies of the right-wing Israeli government. Indeed, Jewish activists and intellectuals, given that they are more likely to speak up on issues related to Israel, are often in the crosshairs: A lawsuit against Harvard University, claiming that the university had become a “bastion of rampant anti-Jewish hatred and harassment,” cites as evidence a screening of Israelism, a film made by left-wing American Jews about the development of their personal relationship with Israel and their growing horror at Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.  

Russian-American Jewish intellectual Masha Gessen, whose Heinrich Böll prize ceremony was almost canceled due to backlash over their recent writings on Israel-Gaza, recently expressed alarm over the increasing tendency to conflate anti-Zionism and criticism of Israeli policies with antisemitism. As an example, Gessen cited Republican Representative Elise Stefanik’s demand that three elite universities fire their leaders (one of them Jewish) for failing to protect Jews on campus.  Gessen described Stefanik’s campaign as “wielding anti-Semitism as a cudgel against, among others, Jewish people.” Coming from Stefanik, who has controversially made comments echoing the white supremacist “great replacement theory,” charges of antisemitism are, indeed, suspect. Gessen noted the ominous irony of the situation: “When Jewish activists and especially Israeli-Jewish activists are speaking out against Israeli policies, to have non-Jewish people brand that as antisemitism is downright bizarre but also dangerous.”

In comparing the current crisis of academic freedom to the McCarthy period, Judith Butler, another prominent American Jewish intellectual, writes, “The charge of anti-Semitism has been instrumentalized to shut down speech in ways that should be acutely alarming for anyone who cares not only about free speech in the public domain, but academic freedom on college campuses.”

Indiana University is not exempt: this past November, shortly before the cancellation of Samia Halaby’s retrospective, Representative Jim Banks of Indiana threatened the University with the loss of federal funding if administrators overlooked alleged antisemitism on campus. When evaluating the impact of Halaby’s social media posts, the University administration very likely had Banks in mind, and the inevitable charges of failing to combat antisemitism were the exhibition to proceed, charges that the Presidents of the nation’s top universities have been unable to survive [https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/us-soft-power-campus-free-speech/]. 

Torn between the fear of being accused of tolerating antisemitism and their responsibility to academic freedom, Indiana University administrators brought in a seemingly neutral argument: safety.  Indiana University’s Provost insisted in a recent faculty council meeting that Halaby’s exhibition was canceled due to safety concerns raised by the mere possibility that there could be protests. Apparently, where criticism of Israel is concerned, academic freedom can be surrendered to the heckler’s veto of imagined potential protestors. 

And yet, it is in moments like this one, moments of high tension and complex political conflict, that academic freedom—and intellectual freedom in general—are at their most essential. However, instead of providing space for debate—and protest if need be—cultural institutions are buckling under accusations that politically engaged speech critical of Israel is unacceptable and antisemitic. 

Charges of antisemitism are not a new tactic of silencing dissent, but never has it been as successful a tactic as it is at this moment. I first met Samia Halaby some two decades ago in connection with censorship attempts targeting an exhibition titled Made in Palestine, showing the work of Palestinian and Arab-American artists about the Palestine-Israel conflict at the Westchester, NY County Center. The exhibition was attacked by the district’s assemblyman as “anti-Semitic” and for “promoting terrorism”—arguments that are all too familiar today. The legislator tried to cancel a fund-raising event the group had scheduled and the exhibit itself. He didn’t succeed. In 2024, unquestionably, he would.

To read other NCAC’s responses surrounding this issue over the years, please see:

General Commentary:

BETWEEN BOYCOTTS AND SPECIAL INTEREST CAMPAIGNS: THE CHILLING OF SPEECH ON ISRAEL AND PALESTINE

THE TROUBLE WITH BALANCE

Commentary on Incidents:

SURRENDERING INTELLECTUAL FREEDOM: SPERTUS CLOSES EXHIBITION UNDER PRESSURE

“MY NAME IS RACHEL CORRIE”: NEW YORK THEATER WORKSHOP’S SELF-CENSORSHIP

CANCELLING PALESTINIAN KIDS’ ART EXHIBIT A SHAMEFUL VIOLATION OF FREE SPEECH PRINCIPLES

CUNY LIKELY TO REVERSE ON KUSHNER, BUT THE PATTERN STANDS

NCAC Intervention:

NCAC CRITICIZES AMERICAN JEWISH HISTORICAL SOCIETY’S DECISION TO CANCEL EVENTS FOLLOWING PRESSURE CAMPAIGN

ARTISTS, ANTI-CENSORSHIP GROUP PROTEST CANCELLATION OF ISRAEL-PALESTINE PLAY

NAT’L AND INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS WARN THAT CANCELLING DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER SCREENINGS ENDANGERS CREATIVE FREEDOM, UNDERMINES INSTITUTION’S CREDIBILITY

NCAC RELEASES STATEMENT IN SUPPORT OF LINCOLN CENTER’S DECISION TO HOST ‘TO THE END OF THE LAND’ DESPITE CALLS TO CANCEL THE PLAY

BRANDEIS REMOVES PALESTINIAN ART