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Public installation in Peirce meets praise, backlash

Public installation in Peirce meets praise, backlash

Kenyon Students for Justice in Palestine erected a wall to bring attention to conditions in the occupied territories.

By Henri Gendreau

It came in the night, bringing with it controversy and provocation, delving campus further into a debate surrounding the nature of art and advocacy, speech and offense.

A roughly eight-foot wall was set up inside Peirce Hall by Kenyon Students for Justice in Palestine (KSJP) late Sunday to resemble the separation wall in the occupied territories.

The wall, which KSJP called a public art installation in an allstu email, greeted students coming into the servery on the first day of Passover, a major holiday celebrating the liberation of Jews out of Egypt. The day before the wall went up, three were killed in shootings at a Jewish community center and retirement home outside Kansas City.

After the initial email explained the timing was unintentional, KSJP sent a statement to the student body Wednesday elaborating on its goals.

“We recognize that its overlap with Passover this year may have caused offense to some Jewish students,” the email read in part. “We regret this perceived injury for it was never our intention to offend anyone. At no time, however, did we consider that people would perceive the celebration of Passover to be in any way relevant to the illumination of an unjust policy of the Israeli government.” KSJP decided to address inquiries from the Collegian through its statement.

“I find it to be really offensive, honestly,” said Jess Lieberman ’14, who said the wall and its accompanying fliers did not paint an accurate picture.

“I recognize that I have a unique perspective as a religious Jewish person, that I might see these things that others might not automatically see, but I just feel like that these are issues that need to be taken with sensitivity,” she said.

Kenyon Hillel Director Marc Bragin  found the timing of the wall’s setup unfortunate and insensitive.

“When you have a cause that you want to make a statement for, you really have to think about what that statement says in a wider context,” he said. “In this case, it ended up being hurtful and insensitive to have the wall at this time of year. … I think they missed the mark on communicating their cause by being overshadowed now by people being upset for what they’re trying to say.”

Dean of Students Hank Toutain said he had received several complaints from community members who were offended by the wall. On Tuesday, members of KSJP met with Toutain to discuss the wall and the discussion KSJP hopes to foster.

“I think we had a good conversation,” Toutain said. “I think we probably all have a stake in having a safe and supportive environment for all of us, but for all of us also to engage in a robust exchange of ideas and perspectives.”

The wall has provoked a dialogue on the role of art as advocacy, and the balance between freedom of speech and community values.

In response to the wall and fliers explaining facts — which some have taken issue with — on the walls between Israel and Palestinian territories, Russel Levine ’14 laid out a paper around the installation calling KSJP’s efforts “propaganda.”

Bragin said he took issue with the assertion that the wall was an installation art piece.

“The way it was explained to me, it was an art project,” Bragin said. “That’s a political statement, that’s not an art project.”

KSJP sees it differently.  “Ultimately we believe that art has the capacity to educate and inspire, to challenge and protest,” the group’s statement read.

Toutain hoped this would be the case.

“I guess the optimist in me says there’s a window of opportunity which may not be open very long, particularly this time of year, for some maybe making some progress,” Toutain said. “Could we use this as an opportunity to wrestle with some difficult issues and to talk with people who may not share our views?”

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