On December 20, 2023, it was announced that Indiana University (IU) had canceled an exhibit by Palestinian-American artist, and former tenured professor and alumna of IU, Samia Halaby.
The cancellation of the exhibit occurred against the backdrop of a Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, during which over 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals were killed and more than 200 abducted, and the Israeli military’s subsequent bombardment of the Gaza Strip which, as of mid January, has reportedly killed more than 23,000 Palestinians. The violence has led to heightened tensions on campuses in the United States and other countries. In Indiana, in November 2023, Indiana State Representative and US Senate candidate Jim Banks sent a letter to IU expressing concern about anti-semitism on campus and noting that the university could lose federal funding if it tolerates anti-semitism.
The exhibit was to be the first American retrospective of Halaby’s work, titled “Samia Halaby: Centers of Energy.” It was initially approved three years previously and was scheduled to run from February 10, 2024 to June 9th at IU’s Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art. Halaby planned to show previously unseen works including a 1989 painting titled “Worldwide Intifadah” at the exhibit.
On December 20, the museum’s leadership sent Halaby a two sentence letter stating that the exhibit had been canceled because of “safety concerns”. A university spokesperson also explained in a statement to the campus community that “academic leaders and campus officials canceled the exhibit due to concerns about guaranteeing the integrity of the exhibit for its duration.” Neither letter mentioned any specific threats and there was no evidence of threats to the artwork or to IU. Prior to the letters, the museum’s director had told Halaby that employees of the museum were concerned about social media posts in which Halaby expressed pro-Palestinian sentiments and compared Gaza to a concentration camp.
Halaby privately appealed the university’s decision, but received no response.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the cancellation of an on-campus event, in apparent attempt to restrict or prevent nonviolent political expression. University authorities must refrain from acts or decisions which prevent campus events based on concerns about the content of political expression therein. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, punishment aimed at restricting or retaliating against such expression undermines academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.