- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 13, 2016

JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel launched an investigation Tuesday into a poster bearing the image of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu behind a noose, sparking a debate over the limits of freedom of expression in an increasingly polarized society.

The poster, a riff on the “hope” poster from U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, was plastered in the hallway at Jerusalem’s prestigious Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, apparently by a student, and swiftly removed. The word “hope” in the original poster was replaced by the word “rope.”

Noam Sharvit, a Justice Ministry spokesman, said the probe was launched to look into suspicions that the poster incited to violence.

Israel’s Culture Minister Miri Regev, a staunch Netanyahu supporter, wrote on Facebook that “artistic freedom is not freedom to incite,” and called for Bezalel’s funding to be cut. Dovish opposition legislators said such a move would trample on the right to free expression, while acknowledging the poster was in bad taste.

“What disturbs me in this context is the immediate lashing out that calls for denying funding to Bezalel,” Zehava Galon, from the opposition Meretz party, told Israeli Army Radio. “We need to leave wide margins for freedom of expression unless it borders on bloodshed.”

Israel has a flourishing arts scene bolstered by world class academies, galleries and museums.

Last week an artist erected a golden statue of Netanyahu in a central Tel Aviv square that drew a stream of selfie-taking passersby before being toppled by a bystander. The statue was interpreted as a commentary on his lengthy rule and reputation for a lavish lifestyle.

But critics say that dissent is being stifled under the current government, the most nationalistic in the country’s history.

Regev has been one of the prime targets of that criticism, with many liberal Israelis saying she expects their artistic output to conform to her nationalistic worldview. Regev has publicly clashed with liberal actors and entertainers, and has threatened to cut funding for institutions that refuse to perform in West Bank settlements.

Adi Stern, the president of Bezalel, told Army Radio that the poster had been taken out of context. He said it appeared with a poster of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin with the word “traitor” printed underneath. Such posters were common ahead of Rabin’s 1995 assassination, part of a climate of incitement that many say inspired the killing. Another sign on display at the academy read: “It’s called incitement.”

Stern said he interpreted the display as a general commentary on incitement.

Ahead of Rabin’s assassination, Netanyahu, who served as opposition leader at the time, addressed a protest in downtown Jerusalem where demonstrators held posters portraying Rabin in an Arab headscarf or Nazi uniform. Netanyahu denies he incited against Rabin in the months leading up to his death, claiming he didn’t see the banners or hear violent chants.

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