A Cooper Union Student Lost an Eye Protesting in Israel—But None of Her Vision


At the annual parade of incoming freshmen at Cooper Union, the art majors create their own costumes. In 2007, freshman Emily Henochowicz of Potomac, Maryland, dressed up as one big eyeball. This image of her—arms and legs poking out from the giant eye, the iris and her shoes a matching lime-green, the eye ensconced in some sort of gray matter—has been the icon of her blog since she started it in June 2009.

Now it’s more than an avatar.

At the end of this past May, on the other side of the globe, a tear-gas canister fired by the Israel Defense Forces hit her in the face and blasted her left eye out of her head. The grandchild of Holocaust survivors and daughter of a man who was born in Israel and emigrated to the U.S., she had been protesting at a West Bank checkpoint the morning after the IDF had killed nine people aboard a Turkish aid flotilla bound for Gaza.

As Henochowicz recently wrote of her blog icon, “I’ve had it since I made this blog, and it’s proven oddly predictive. The older I get, the more ridiculous life seems.” Back in the States and getting ready to resume school in the fall, she has referred to herself as “Cyclops” on the blog. For her, it’s still about the art. She doesn’t seem to be into the martyr thing. In the hospital in Israel, Henochowicz says, she immediately began drawing again. She says she doesn’t even know whether her future art should still be about the Middle East—or even about politics at all.

After all, her political activism, she adds, “was a real change from who I was before—an experiment, in a way. And it ended in me losing my eye. But it’s OK.”

Brave words, and she mostly believes them. Her confidence in her physical self is not quite all the way there yet, but she studies how other artists have dealt with—and even taken advantage of—their own eye problems.

In place of an eye patch, she wears a pair of glasses whose frames she designed herself and on which she has painted a swirling red-and-white design over the left lens. Not that her obsession with her eyes was prompted by losing one of them. As a teenager, she says, she had considered becoming a vision scientist before deciding to go to Cooper. Even during her first years in New York City, she says, she was still “obsessed with vision science” and even sat in on a vision lab class at NYU.

Which means she can still focus. “The cool thing about this is that paintings look more 3-D to me now,” she says during a recent stroll through the Frick Collection. “It’s your stereoscopic vision that makes paintings appear flat.” Although she has lost depth perception, she says she can now actually perceive depth even more in a flat painting.

With mordant humor, she tells the Voice, “I guess I can be grateful to the IDF for giving me the chance to see the world in a new way.”

Henochowicz was admitted to Cooper Union’s prestigious art program in 2007, and she has concentrated on drawing, painting, and experimenting with digital imagery. (See Emily Henochowicz’s work.)

Even before she was admitted to the school, one of the most selective colleges in the nation, she was an independent thinker with a well-developed wry sense of humor. At 18, she was interviewed by The New York Times as a high school senior, when she produced a video for someone else’s project called Blasphemy Challenge, an online call to upload videos denying the existence of God. (She has since taken that video down, saying that she’s less bombastic about her beliefs than she was and that “people should believe whatever they want to believe.”)

This past spring, like many other college juniors, she chose to study abroad. She picked a semester at Israel’s leading art school, the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. She planned to make art, study history, and improve her Hebrew.

She says she didn’t see her trip as overtly political in any way. But her art collided with reality.

“There was this view from my school’s campus, and you could see all the way out to Jordan on a clear day,” she recalls. She started painting that view, which included a line snaking through it, but “abandoned it for awhile. When I came back to it, I realized that this big element I was drawing was the Wall. I had been looking at that and drawing that, and I thought, ‘Oh, look, it’s a fence—oh, it’s the fence.’ ”

Before her trip, she recalled having seen pictures of Banksy’s work on the Wall—the internationally known graffiti artist had left his mark on the controversial concrete fence built by Israel—and was stunned by the vast amount of graffiti and other art left by many others on what she thinks of as a “huge canvas.” “Because of the art on the wall,” she says, “it’s a strange mixture of oppression and freedom.” She would eventually add her own touch, painting on a remote section near Qalandiya.

Like quite a few other Americans studying in Israel, she didn’t stick to her own kind. She says she mingled with people from all over the world, including Palestinians. She spent one Passover night last spring on a kibbutz. But on another night, a friend took her to Sheikh Jarrah, an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem that is often a flashpoint of conflict because of Palestinians being evicted and Jewish settlements being erected. She wound up seeing the sparks fly with her own eyes.

A few Palestinian boys were playing with sticks in the neighborhood when several Hasidic settlers approached them. “I’m not sure how this got started,” she says, “and I don’t know who said what first, but suddenly there was a huge group of settlers—30 or more—and they started kind of yelling prayers.”

She says she was stunned. “There are these children, and they have these sticks that are longer than their arms, surrounded by this whole group just singing at them.” The boys starting lashing out with the sticks, but they were outnumbered.

“It was so strange. I had never heard prayers—prayers that I knew—used as a taunt before,” she says, and she went home and drew it, making her first piece of political art.

After that bizarre religious experience, she joined up with the International Solidarity Movement, a Palestinian-based organization primarily made up of international volunteers. Founded by Palestinian, Israeli, and American peace activists, it aims to conduct nonviolent demonstrations against the IDF. Perhaps its most famous volunteer was American activist Rachel Corrie, who was crushed to death by an IDF bulldozer in 2003 while acting as a human shield trying to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian house.

Through the ISM, Henochowicz says, she made more Palestinian friends and spent more time in the West Bank, her eyes opened by the poverty and the families living in tents atop demolished houses.

Several of her friends tell the Voice that she had long conversations with them about whether she could learn more about art in school or out in the world. She started skipping classes—but she was still doing her art. It took her a while, she recalls, to tell her parents she was spending all her time making art and trying to help Palestinians. “My father took it personally,” she says. “He thought I was insulting him.” She says she told him, “This has nothing to do with you,” but that didn’t convince him. As she recalls their conversation: “He was like, ‘But our family—we’re Holocaust survivors!’ ” She concedes that her dad “does know more about history than I do,” but says she doesn’t buy his reasoning on that point.

Her father, Dr. Stuart Henochowicz, tells the Voice that he recalls “seeing on Facebook that she had changed her ‘hometown’ to Ramallah—which came as news to us and was a little alarming. We wondered, ‘What is she up to?’ ”

He says he had been following her activities on her blog—”a new part of the parenting experience”—and when they finally spoke about her protesting, “I didn’t see eye-to-eye with her about demonstrations and such, but we started a dialogue, which was good.” This entire experience, he adds, “has had a very deep imact on me and my always complicated feelings about Israel.”

Emily says her ISM protest activities were about the Palestinians, to prove to them that “it’s not all of our people” who are against them. “It was important for me to tell them, ‘I’m Jewish, and I support you,’ ” she says. “We’re a people like any other, which is part of the reason we’re in the situation we’re in!” Not the self-serious type, she laughs and adds, “Just because we went through the Holocaust doesn’t mean we aren’t racist, too!”

She says her dad “came around,” and he says he eventually became interested in joining Americans for Peace Now, which lobbies Israel to reach peace with the Palestinians. But for the moment, he was concerned about Emily’s safety, and he made her promise not to do anything unsafe. She obliged.

May 15 was Nakba Day, the annual commemoration of what Palestinians and much of the rest of the Arab world calls the “catastrophe”—Israel’s unilateral declaration of statehood in 1948. It coincides, naturally, with Israel’s Independence Day. By this year’s Nakba Day, Henochowicz was spending a lot of her time in the West Bank with ISM colleagues.

In the wee hours of May 31, she recalls, she was awakened at the ISM apartment in Ramallah with news that people on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla flying Turkish and Palestinian colors had been killed by the IDF. She went back to sleep, but when she got up, things happened quickly. She hadn’t planned on going to a demonstration that day, but she put on her Nakba T-shirt—”the most political thing I could wear”—joined her friends, and went off to the Qalandiya checkpoint.

She says she was holding Turkish and Austrian flags, standing not far from Israeli border guards in riot gear—years ago, her grandfather had been an Israeli border guard. “I stupidly thought this wouldn’t be a violent demonstration,” she says, “because it was about people being killed.”

But when a group of Palestinian boys started throwing stones, she recalls, “I thought to myself, ‘Oh, no, don’t throw stones.’ ” She says she knew it would lead to the IDF troops responding by firing tear-gas canisters.

“I didn’t know what to do,” she says as those launches began. “There was a line of media, and I thought of running over to be near them—but I didn’t want to leave the protest, either. I was there to protest.”

She turned to fellow ISM volunteer Sören Johanssen and said, “I promised my family I wouldn’t do anything dangerous, and this is getting dangerous!”

Johanssen later told reporters that the IDF shot tear-gas canisters right at them—the IDF denies this. In any case, a canister landed on either side of Henochowicz, and a third smacked her in the face.

She felt “like a slap, with a little crunch,” she says, and fell back. Quickly—perhaps even before she hit the ground—a Palestinian woman in a hijab caught her and held her, immediately produced gauze, and covered her face with it.

YouTube video and the photo of her bloody face in the Israeli paper Haaretz are shocking: “The IDF maintains that the tear-gas canister bounced off a wall, and that they acted impeccably—but what wall? Where?” Henochowicz asks incredulously.

She was taken to Ramallah Hospital and then to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. She was desperate to call her father, but he got her on her cell first. Because of the time difference, he was waking up to news of the flotilla, calling to tell his daughter not to attend any demonstrations that day. Too late. Henochowicz remembers looking into a mirror for the first time while in the Jerusalem hospital. “I see this gray gloop,” she says. The medical staff “start muttering something in Hebrew. ‘I’d lost my eye’ is what it sounds like to me. They say my eye was smushed. Not all of it was in the eye. And it’s not like they can scoop it up and sew it back in. It was destroyed, basically.”

Stuart Henochowiz raced to Jerusalem, and for the week his daughter was in the hospital—the canister had also broken several bones in her skull and knocked out a tooth—he slept in a chair at the foot of her bed. The situation was worrisome enough even without all the guns nearby. “Emily was in one room with another patient, and next door was one of the prisoners from the flotilla,” he recalls. “There were four soldiers there with their submachine guns in front of that room. While I was in the darkened room with Emily, this soldier comes in with a nurse, dangling his submachine gun.” Dr. Henochowicz says he knew that the soldier was just following orders, but “the thought of her facing a submachine gun at night, after everything she’d been through—I didn’t appreciate the lack of tact.”

Adding to the situation were comments from one doctor and nurses who spoke, he says, “with racism that was straight out of the 1930s.”

“There was one doctor who was explaining Emily’s CT scan,” Dr. Henochowicz recalls, “and what they’d done with the surgery, and then he asked me, in Hebrew, ‘Are you Jewish? Because, then, how could your daughter be involved in such an activity?’ ”

Several nurses, he says, tried to explain Middle East politics in terms they thought he would relate to. “You have your blacks—and we have our Palestinians,” he says they told him. He adds, “They thought I should think of Palestinians in the same way. And I told them, ‘We don’t really think that way in the States anymore! We have a black president.’ And I told them I voted for him and gave money to his campaign, and they replied, ‘You mean, Hussein Obama?’ ”

At least, he says, “they come honestly by their racism. It’s right there. They don’t sugar-coat it. They just come out and say it.” And despite everything, the hospital was used to dealing with acts of war and terrorism and gave his daughter decent medical care.

But Stuart Henochowicz says he’s outraged by what he calls “a basic lack of decency” from the Israeli government. He says he knows that “Israel takes a very hard line,” and so he thinks the military’s stance is that “her face got in the way of the canister.” But, he adds, “these people are fathers. Couldn’t they even bother to ask, ‘Gosh, how is she doing?’ No one from the Israeli government would even talk to me. No one. Why is that? You might not agree with me, or with Emily, but why didn’t they even call me?”

Father and daughter left Israel about a week later, the American Embassy arranging for them to be whisked through security at the airport. Back home in Maryland for recuperation, what Emily calls her “basically silly” personality seemed intact: “I was just full of giddiness—which I think was quite confusing for my mother,” she says.

Now that she’s back in the city, at least for visits, her refusal to take herself too seriously also seems unchanged: “People will come up to me and say, ‘Cool glasses! But how do you see out of them?’ ” she says, laughing about her painted-over left lens. “And I have to tell them, ‘Well, I don’t have an eye.’ ”

But she still has a remaining one for art. During a recent stroll through the Frick—her first trip to a museum since the injury—she is enraptured.

“Aren’t paintings just—delicious?” she asks. She stops in front of Vétheuil in Winter, admiring what she notes is Monet’s “simple and effective” use of light and color. She focuses on her increased awareness of depth in a painting—for someone who was fascinated with how eyes work long before her left one was knocked out, that fascination makes sense.

One of the paintings she particularly wants to see is J.M.W. Turner’s Antwerp: Van Goyen Looking Out for a Subject. It’s a sweeping, dark view of ships in a harbor, the city lightly faint in the distance. She notes the depth Turner has achieved, and talks about how it makes her feel anxious and worried for the passengers in the painting’s smallest boat.

And, if anything, she has a greater appreciation for Rembrandt, who is said to have also suffered from stereo blindness and yet still captured depth.

Stopping to study Rembrandt’s The Polish Rider, a prime example, Henochowicz leans in, squinting, then laughs. “You know how you will close an eye when you get close to something? I can’t do that anymore,” she says. It’s not the first time her now-useless visual habits have revealed themselves to her. “I’ll still roll my eyes,” she says, “and I’ll feel the muscles rolling my left eye. Only there’s no eye there anymore.” But if you want to get a sense of how she sees the world yourself, don’t bother. According to her, medically, “It’s not the same to close one eye or cover one eye as it is to only have one eye to see through.”

She muses about Rembrandt’s own difficulties, citing studies that have convinced some scholars that he had stereo blindness. “They did this study at the National Portrait Gallery,” she says. “Basically, you can tell from a photograph if someone has bad depth perception or not, because you look at where the light is hitting their eyes, and if it is hitting in the same spot. If it’s not lining up properly, they have a lazy eye, or one is dominant. There are a lot of artists like that.”

Of course, there aren’t any photographs of the Dutch master, but he did create some pretty good self-portraits. “When you look at them,” she says, pointing at Self-Portrait (1658), “you see one eye is always off to the side. They’re not photographs—but it’s always the same eye. It’s always the opposite eye in etchings, because etchings are in reverse.”

She knows full well that eye problems don’t stop other contemporary artists. Chuck Close, for example, is not only severely paralyzed but also suffers from prosopagnosia (“face blindness”). His inability to recognize people’s faces hasn’t stopped him from being an accomplished portraitist.

Earlier that day, Henochowciz had met with a practicing one-eyed painter. It seems to bring her some measure of comfort that she has no barrier in pursuing her art. Naturally, there are still doubts about her physical challenges at the moment. “It’s hard—when you’re 21, you’re otherwise healthy, but you’re broken,” she says. “It’s tough.” But after the surgery to clean up the void where her eye used to be, she says, “I kept telling myself, you only need one eye, you only need one eye, you really only need one eye.”

That’s all Duncan Garp needed. The character in John Irving’s The World According to Garp loses an eye but still grows up to be an accomplished photographer and painter. She has listened to the audiobook since her injury, and in real life, she is learning that artists often turn problems into gains. The one-eyed painter whom she just met, for example, does work that is very different from hers. But she says she was happy to learn that they’re both enamored of squares.

“It makes sense,” she says. “I mean, I’ve always loved squares. But now, squares make even more sense to me.” One’s field of vision is limited with one eye, she says, and “wide-screen is about your depth.”

How that translates to media other than painting, she’s not sure. She hasn’t seen a movie since what she calls the “incident.” “Not yet,” she says, pausing, “but I’m supposed to go see Despicable Me with my brother.” She laughs about going to the 3-D movie: “I think if I wear the 3-D glasses,” she says, “I can see it in 2-D. I hope so. I’d hate to have a headache all through the movie.”

But the evidence is that she’s not afraid of having to see things differently. Shortly after her surgery in Jerusalem, she says, she awoke during the middle of the night and did her first drawing with one eye. It’s an abstract, unlike much of what she describes as her “very subjective journalism.”

“I drew then because I had to know that I could still draw,” she says. “After that, I could say,” she draws a deep breath, ” ‘OK. It’s going to be OK.’ ”

Matters unrelated to her art have taken her attention this summer. She’s still staying in Maryland, where she’s been practicing animation, and she’s been coming up to New York only to deal with a few matters. She’s met with her lawyer, who is visiting the city, because he wants to prep her for her official testimony about what happened at the checkpoint. She will either give it at the Israeli Embassy, or via video-conferencing. A lawsuit could come down the line, but for now, the focus is on Israel’s criminal investigation of the person who shot her and the people who ordered it.

She has also met with the New York–based Center for Constitutional Rights, which is considering hosting a show of her work. She says she’s excited about the possibility, but has mixed emotions: “I’m happy all these things are happening, that people are listening to me and looking at my work,” she says. But she knows the attention is because of who she is. “I have just the right ethnicity and nationality for this to be a bigger case,” she says. If the person hit “were Palestinian,” she adds, “it is very unlikely they would get the same response. It’s just the way the world works.”

There are any number of reasons her family could want a ruling from Israel’s own investigation in her favor, not the least of which would be a resolution of the tens of thousands of dollars they have spent on medical care so far. The Israeli Ministry of Defense is refusing to pay her hospital bill, saying the injury was her fault for participating in what it terms a violent demonstration, she says.

More immediately, the paint on her left lens is starting to peel off, and she will have to touch it up. This leads to discussing a more delicate problem she’s facing: whether or not to get a prosthetic eye.

Her socket is still healing, and in a few more weeks, she could be fitted with a fake eyeball, which would move in tandem with her other eye but not dilate.

“My doctor doesn’t understand me,” she says of her oculoplastic surgeon. Maybe she freaked him out when he was examining her with a light: “It’s strange—I could feel the heat in this eye, and he tells me it’s something about my blood vessels now, and they’re healing and sensitive to heat. But what I like about it is that this one is sensitive to light, and this one is sensitive to heat. Isn’t that cool?”

Her doctor, apparently, wasn’t as enthusiastic. When she told him that she might not want a prosthetic, he suggested she might want to talk to a psychiatrist.

“I tried to tell him,” she says, “that I feel like it’s for other people. He said, ‘But people are going to look at you, instead of your eye that way,’ and I said, ‘You see? It’s for other people!’ ” She has no problem getting a new tooth to replace the one knocked out by the tear-gas canister, she says, but “the moment I see myself with two eyes is going to be very strange.”

The one-eyed painter, who does have a prosthetic eye, has convinced her to keep an open mind. “I don’t want to scare people,” she says, “but I don’t scare people now.” She speaks of a compromise: “Some people get a plain white one, and wear a patch.” Playfully, she wonders on her blog whether she could get “an eye for every occasion” or one with a built-in “spy camera.”

When you see everything as your art, your vision is already different. On her blog,, in the post titled “Cyclops,” she writes, “Having one eye is really just a design problem.”