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Samah al-Azza, 13, created this painting for an exhibit at Brandeis that was later removed.
Samah al-Azza, 13, created this painting for an exhibit at Brandeis that was later removed. (Globe Photo)

Brandeis pulls artwork by Palestinian youths

School says show was one-sided

A bulldozer menaces a girl with ebony pigtails, who lies in a pool of blood. A boy with an amputated leg balances on a crutch, in a tent city with a Palestinian flag. A dove, dripping blood, perches against blue barbed wire.

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.

University officials said the paintings depicted only one side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lior Halperin, the student who organized the exhibit, said the university censored an alternative view.

Now, Brandeis is embroiled in a debate about how to portray Palestinian perspectives on a campus where 50 percent of the students are Jewish and where passions about the Middle East run deep. Six to a dozen students at the Waltham university complained about the paintings, which were hung on Wednesday and removed Saturday.

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.

''This is outrageous," Halperin said yesterday. ''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."

Halperin said she is working with an Arab student organization at MIT to display the 17 paintings there, as early as tomorrow.

Brandeis officials said they wanted to make sure the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is presented in a balanced manner.

''It was completely from one side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we can only go based on the complaints we received," said Dennis Nealon, a Brandeis spokesman. ''People were saying: (a) what is this; (b) what is it trying to say; and (c) should there be some sort of balancing perspective here?" Nealon said that the university would consider displaying the artwork again in the fall, alongside pieces showing the Israeli point of view.

Brandeis, a nonsectarian institution, was founded in 1948, by American Jews seeking to establish a university free from the quotas that Jews faced at elite colleges.

Halperin created the exhibit as her final project for a class called ''The Arts of Building Peace," which explores how music, painting, and poetry can help resolve conflicts. She contacted a friend who works in a refugee camp in Bethlehem and asked her to invite teenagers there to paint images of Palestinian life.

Halperin, 27, an Israeli Army veteran, received images of planes dropping bombs, snakes, and a famous scene of a father and child cowering from gunfire near Gaza City in September 2000. In her ''Voices from Palestine" exhibit, she hung the paintings near the names and photos of the young artists and synopses of their hopes and dreams. A Palestinian psychologist and a child-care worker spoke at an opening reception.

''This was, for me, an opportunity to bring to Brandeis the Palestinian voice that is not spoken or heard through an Israeli or an American Jew, but directly delivered from Palestinians," Halperin said. ''Obviously, that was just too much for Brandeis."

Within days, students complained to the university that the exhibit was jarring and lacked context and reference to the Israeli point of view.

Dmitry B. Vilner, 19, a sophomore, said he found it ''utterly ludicrous to find these hung up with no explanation." Vilner said, ''I was very surprised that it would appear at Brandeis, because Brandeis is a traditionally Jewish, pro-Israel campus."

Vilner and his roommate, Alan D. Meyerson, 19, e-mailed an administrator to ask why the exhibit was on display. ''There's a certain line that's crossed when it no longer becomes a fair debate, but it becomes a one-sided attack against a nation and a people," Meyerson said, ''and that was very much the case with these images."

Last weekend, administrators in charge of student affairs decided that the paintings should come down, with the support of Daniel Terris, director of the university's International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life. The center sponsored Halperin's class. ''If students are reacting in a strong and negative way, with no context and no structure to have a meaningful conversation . . . you can do more harm than good," said Terris, who said he asked Halperin to voluntarily take the paintings down. ''I advised her that I thought it was undermining the long-term goal of making more space for Palestinian voices on campus."

On Saturday evening, after Halperin refused to stop the exhibit, administrators removed the artwork, provoking an immediate response. Students said they circulated e-mails debating whether the decision was about censorship, sensitivity, fairness, or cowardice.

''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," said Aaron Voldman, 19, a freshman who is Jewish and active in a student peace group. ''As we are members of a Jewish institution, where the Israeli support is very strong, the conversation is not quite as open as it possibly could be."

Ralph Ranalli of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.

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