Sometimes seemingly insignificant events open up a world of understanding to the true state of things. This is the story of one of those events and its aftermath.
Recently, the art department at Sapir College in Sderot, the single-most attacked city in Israel, decided to display an art exhibit. Now, the reason that Sderot has been the most-attacked city in Israel is because of its close proximity to the Gaza border, which has made a tempting target over the years for Hamas or Islamic Jihad operatives seeking to terrorize Israel.
The exhibit, titled “At the End of the Sky,” was intended to focus on religious verses from the Torah and other sources. One prominent painting featured a prominent verse from the Koran, “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his Messenger.”
Fair enough. The problem is that the calligraphy for presenting the verse is exactly how it is printed on the Hamas flag. In fact, the painting was indistinguishable from the Hamas flag, except that the background color was not Fatimid green, but ISIS black.
While the exhibit was being prepared for opening, several art students saw the work and were very upset by the flag painting. They uploaded the picture to Facebook and many others started to react.
Why might such a work engender such a reaction? Perhaps because it was not hard to identify the painting as the Hamas flag, and it was galling to extol that flag of a group that has so terrorized so many in the college and its community.
Soon thereafter, Im Tirtzu activists from our Sapir branch saw the painting and did what it does uniquely well: complain to the college administration about anti-Zionist propaganda and plan a demonstration against it.
Incidentally, the mayor of Sderot also interceded with the college, asking it to remove the work. However, it was only when dozens of student demonstrators protested that the college relented and removed the flag painting.
While this seems to have been the consensual end to an insensitive display that was ultimately dealt with sensitively, it of course did not end there.
Somehow the incident reached the desks of the doyens of Haaretz, the enlightened progressive media voice that has not had a nice thing to say about the State of Israel in decades.
As one might imagine, there was no attempt to understand the context of the issue, no attempt to put the issue into the framework of a frequently traumatized place that continues to live under the threat of attack and destruction from those whose flag was proudly on display as a “work of art.”
Instead, this was a classic storming of the gates of free expression led by foaming at the mouth extremists from Im Tirtzu.
The headline and the last line of the Haaretz editorial say it all: “Cancel Im Tirtzu” and “Send Im Tirtzu to Hell.”
Wow. These are folks not to be crossed. As an organization, Im Tirtzu has recently been deeply involved in such issues as encouraging greater deterrence against terror, guarding the welfare of our soldiers and protecting the Jewish character of Israel.
None of these engendered comments from on high at Haaretz. However, when we supported the sensibilities of students who felt the piece exhibited was an insult, and worse, a threat, then it was only proper to cancel and condemn us to hell.
I believe that Haaretz’s reaction speaks volumes about the state of political discourse, not just here in Israel, but throughout the West.
Above all, it is impossible to miss the hypocrisy here. For the sin of impeding on the right to shove a Hamas flag in your face, Im Tirtzu deserves death. Sure, that seems fair and appropriate.
The message is clear: mess with us, and you deserve to die. It’s that simple: freedom of expression for me, but not for thee. There is no room for reasoned disagreement, for an airing of disparate views. There is my way or else.
Missing from the fury of Haaretz’s reaction is any recognition that Sapir College is an institution publicly funded by taxpayer funds, one that at a minimum should not be trampling the sensitivities of its funders in the dirt in the name of free expression.
Also readily evident is the delicious hypocrisy that in a world of safe spaces, trigger warnings and microaggressions on Western campuses, somehow there can be no empathy for any sentiments that would deem this inciteful work to be problematic.
Related to this is the exquisite sensitivity on the left to acts of provocation that must be avoided at all costs in order not to offend nor inflame the sensitivities of the other.
The condemnation of removing this slap in the face dressed up as a work of art comes from people who would have us refrain from singing “Hatikvah” on the same campus, or displaying and carrying the Israeli flag.
However, when it comes to the sensitivities of Middle Israel—the Israeli version of the “deplorables”—there is no empathy to be found.
One of the prized possessions in Im Tirtzu’s office is the scrapbook of condemnations we have received over the years from those who hate us. Many are from Haaretz. We have been accused of pulling the strings as to what is really going on in Israel, controlling the government, etc. Some of it sounds like it was lifted from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
(Interestingly, in the instant case, there was no top-down decision made by an all-controlling Im Tirtzu. Rather, there was the grassroots self-expression of students on the ground who said that this display was wrong. That, to me, is something to be proud of.)
To us, these condemnations are a red badge of courage, a validation of the significance of the work we are doing on behalf of Israel and Israelis.
There is, of course, room for different opinions about what the college did and student reactions to it. The death sentence is the opposite of the free exchange of views that Israel should be fostering in its citizenry.
That free exchange is precious to us at Im Tirtzu. It is one of the many good reasons why the citizens of Israel don’t want us canceled, nor sent to hell.
Douglas Altabef is chairman of the board of Im Tirtzu and a director of the Israel Independence Fund. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.