Last week, Israeli performance artist Tamy Ben-Tor posted a video to Instagram and YouTube titled “Dear Hamas…” In the video, Ben-Tor dons a mask and a wig of black hair, and embodies a character that might best be described as a caricature of an elite liberal academic.
“I’d like to utter support for your freedom fight,” says Ben-Tor in the video. “I’m still on the fence about the massacre of the babies. On the one hand, they were colonizing babies, they were Zionist babies…”
In the video, which has since been taken down on Instagram, Ben-Tor suggests that the alleged killing of babies and raping of women during the October 7 attack in Israel—when Hamas killed more than 1,400 Israelis and took over 200 hostages—was justified and is supported by the women’s rights movements.
“I will be waiting for you at the university campus when you invade and finally win your exhilarating battle of freedom,” she says.
Ben-Tor is known for performing a range of “despicable stock characters,” as New York Times critic Ken Johnson wrote in a 2012 review, including Jews and other identities. In Johnson’s words, “It emerges that the real targets of Ms. Ben-Tor’s satire are not particular deluded people but academic institutions that embrace and support ludicrous ideas in the name of open inquiry.” Ben-Tor’s work has been generally well received by critics, and her art is in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Perez Art Museum Miami, and the Israel Museum, among others.
Yet her latest video has provoked a different reaction at New York’s Hunter College, where she is an adjunct professor. Several days after Ben-Tor posted the video, two student groups, Palestine Solidarity Alliance of Hunter College and CUNY for Palestine, published an edited version to Instagram that began with text calling the artist a “Zionist” and demanding her “immediate dismissal.”
“We refuse to be in an academic setting with a professor who references animals as she mocks our martyred children,” read text on the video, which has since been taken down by Instagram.
The edited video is a shortened version of Ben-Tor’s with pauses to overlay images and texts. When Ben-Tor mentions killed Israeli children, the edited version includes what appeared to be images of dead Palestinian children, along with text reading, “4,651 martyrs. 1,873 children. 1,023 women,” referring to what was then the casualty count of Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza. The video ends with a link to language students could use in emails to Hunter’s administration demanding Ben-Tor’s firing.
A week after the Hamas attack, Israeli military forensics teams tasked with examining bodies of those killed told Reuters it found evidence of rape and abuse of multiple victims, though the publication noted that officials did not provide forensic evidence in pictures or medical records. Ben-Tor’s reference to “the massacre of the babies” would seem to refer to a claim that spread across social media on October 10 that Hamas beheaded 40 babies, which was later repeated by Biden. While the claim was later walked back, by both Biden and the Israeli government, relief workers tasked with removing bodies at Kibbutz Be’eri said many children were among the dead.
In an interview with ARTnews, Ben-Tor said that the video was a critique of “Western academic humanists who ignorantly aligned themselves with Hamas terrorist organization.” She stressed that she does not conflate Palestinians with the militant group and called the edited video a “hate crime,” adding that she was deeply offended by the inclusion of deceased Palestinian children in the video and accusations of Islamophobia.
“I am against the harm of any civilian of any nation. I am against the killing of any civilians of any nation,” Ben-Tor said.
In a response to ARTnews, CUNY for Palestine students questioned Ben-Tor’s characterization of the video as a critique of academics.
“The video puports to be mocking performative liberals but actually plays on a string of crass anti-Indigenous, anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab, and anti-Muslim stereotypes,” the group said in an email. “Emphatically, her target is not liberals—it is the people who liberals purport to care about.”
The group said that the video’s “mocking, drawling tone” and “crude caricature” is serious, violent, and “left most of us feeling sick.” It further said that Ben-Tor’s accusation of their video as a “hate crime” is a “racist attack” and “exacerbates our vulnerability,” noting that they and other Palestine solidarity groups at the school have faced “routine harassment and violence.”
The organizers further explained that they edited the original video so as to avoid simply reproducing the “violence” of Ben-Tor’s video and to provide commentary for those that “might fail to understand the gravity of what [the video] was doing, and/or wave it off under cover of ‘art’ or ‘satire.’”
Hunter College told ARTnews that Ben-Tor’s video is currently “under review.” Ben-Tor, meanwhile, said she met with members of Hunter administration last week, and was assured that she had not lost her position. She and the administration agreed that she would send a letter to explain her position to students.
In the apology letter reviewed by ARTnews, Ben-Tor wrote, “I am Israeli. However, I do not live in Israel, nor do I affiliate with its government’s policies. I am not a nationalist, nor do I consider myself a representative of any political group. The video was my emotional response to the odd affiliation of several intellectuals in our society with a patriarchy of terrorists who wish to destroy everything we all stand for.”
Ben-Tor’s video, at times in its edited form, has continued to circulate on social media. Ben-Tor said she has been the target of online harassment and threats to her personal safety. She said she had nearly been lured into meeting someone who falsely claimed to be part of CUNY’s administration, and that she has since talked to New York police about the edited video and subsequent harassment. She told ARTnews that she told Hunter administrators that she wanted student groups involved in the edited video to release an official apology.
Tension in the art department, meanwhile, has continued to rise since Ben-Tor’s letter. Students associated with Hunter’s MFA program have—independently of CUNY for Palestine—circulated a petition calling for Ben-Tor’s termination. The letter claims that the apology she offered was “dismissive” and that her satire was misplaced. The letter has been signed by nearly 40 members of the Hunter community, primarily students of the visual arts MFA, though only three students who took Ben-Tor’s graduate class this year (her first) have signed. Among the signatories are four professors, including Nari Ward, a Guggenheim Fellowship awardee and head of the Hunter studio art department.
However, two current MFA students and a former undergraduate student of Ben-Tor’s—all of whom asked to remain anonymous—described the artist as an exceptional and supportive teacher. One student noted that Ben-Tor provided trigger warnings to students ahead of potentially uncomfortable material. Another described her as unpopular with some students due to giving bad grades and not being tolerant of tardiness or absences.
Regarding signing the petition, one of the MFA students said, “It’s a tense environment where people don’t want to do the wrong thing. But they’re not thinking critically. It’s serious to feel entitled to demand a professor’s termination based on their artwork. People feel afraid and pressured.”
It’s not the first controversy for Hunter’s art department this year. In May, artist and adjunct professor Shellyne Rodridguez was fired by the school after video circulated online showing an incident in which she confronted a group called Students for Life of America on the school’s campus.