Art doesn’t have to explain itself. Or defend itself. Or convince that it’s art in the eye’s beholder.
It can be self-expression. It can be commentary. It can reflect the world or give meaning to the universe. Or defy comprehension.
By any definition, Palestinian Roots is artwork. Maybe bad art, but that’s subjective. Certainly the painting, which depicts a male figure wearing a keffiyeh emblazoned with the map of a borderless Israel and holding two stones behind his back as he gazes upon what is presumably a Jewish settlement under construction, is provocative. That, too, is often a function of art — to make the viewer angry, feel something.
What Paul Bronfman felt, when he finally became aware of the piece which has been hanging in the student centre at York University since 2013, was outrage. Sufficiently incensed at the ham-fisted subtext of the mural — Bronfman describes it as anti-Israel, and it’s hard to disagree — that he’s pulled the plug on his company’s philanthropic support for the university’s Cinema and Media Arts program. Thus, students who had been the beneficiaries of movie and theatrical production equipment made available through William F. White International Inc., of which Bronfman is CEO, get stiffed through no fault of their own, over a piece of artwork with which they have no connection.
Bronfman, who’s on the board of directors of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, wants the offending piece to come down, though the student centre is its own legal entity and York’s administration can’t impose any such directive. Though I suspect York U wouldn’t, even if it could.
The bottom line is that no donor should be permitted to bully an academic institution into submission. That said, Bronfman is completely entitled to withdraw his largesse, however illogical and tenuous the connection between Palestinian Roots and film students. Bronfman told the National Post of the painting: “That’s not artistry, it’s just pure hate.’’
Art, of course, can be hateful. This artist, business student Ahmad Al Abid, has described his rendering as depicting a man “fluttered with conflicting emotions, implications and potential consequences of action … With each of these factors pulling him towards a different route of discourse, we find him calculating the next move.’’
We don’t know if he’ll fling those stones. In real life, countless Palestinians have — and far, far worse.
That’s the other subtext to the controversy, and York officials have disingenuously avoided speaking to the bigger picture.
York, along with Concordia University, has some of the most ardent anti-Israel activists on any Canadian campus, with a muscular Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement — the push for economic and academic sanctions against Israel until (among other demands) it withdraws from land seized during the 1967 Six Day War — and an unbridled Students Against Israeli Apartheid chapter.
Its student newspaper, Excalibur, once ran an op-ed column that justified the 2008 massacre at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva in Jerusalem — the lone Palestinian gunman killed eight students and wounded 11 others. The article’s author argued that the victims would grow up to serve in the Israel Defense Force, which the op-ed asserts is committing a “Holocaust” and desires an Israel from “the Euphrates to the Nile,” monstrous hyperbole that appropriated the language of historical Jewish suffering.
During Multicultural Week, the Israeli flag was vandalized with red paint.
An incoming student union president posted online an image of the Jewish star with instructions to “smash Zionism.”
There was the notorious 2009 incident where members of Hasbara, a pro-Israel group at York were forced to take refuge in the school’s Hillel office (formerly known as the Jewish Student Federation), with protesters banging on the door and yelling anti-Semitic slogans. “Die, Jew, get the hell off campus!” as quoted in one news story.
Just last month a pre-Hanukkah celebration sponsored by the Hillel chapter was interrupted by an anti-Israel student demonstration. Both Hillel and Students Against Israeli Apartheid had scheduled events for the same day, not too distant from each other, though Hillel said they were not informed of what was advertised as a “silent protest” for divestment until mere hours before their Hanukkah gathering.
Jewish students at York have complained for years about feeling threatened and harassed on campus, subjected to increasing hostility. York and the University of Western Ontario, according to a ranking last year by Hillel International, have the largest number of Jewish undergraduates in Canada.
Some historical perspective would be useful here. York University was built in a part of the city that was then heavily Jewish and drew many of its students from that population. The school traditionally respected the High Holidays by understanding that many of those students would be absent on those days and scheduling academic work around that calendar, though certainly classes continued.
Demographics and dynamics have changed. But tolerance shouldn’t.
Jewish students may well feel intimidated, even menaced, by Palestinian Roots. I suspect that un-subliminal anti-Israel message is why the painting was given prominence in the student centre in the first place. It’s political impulse via art. But that, too, is a core quality of the university experience — voices raised, however raucous, close-minded and bullying the cause; the antithesis of respectful dialogue and disagreement.
If you can’t be a sanctimonious idiot in your university years, then when?
Paul Bronfman is far past his idiot years. He should know better.