Culture Minister Blocked From Cutting Haifa Museum Funds Over ‘McJesus’ Controversy

In the wake of protests by local Christians, Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber warned Regev that cutting state funding for the museum would improperly infringe on freedom of expression

'McJesus,' on display at the Haifa Museum of Art.
Vilhelm Sjöström

Following protests by local Christians over an exhibit at the Haifa Museum of Art depicting McDonald’s mascot Ronald McDonald being crucified, Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber has informed Culture Minister Miri Regev she has no legal authority to cut state funding to the museum over the issue. Offending religious sensibilities is not grounds for pulling funds, Zilber wrote, adding that demanding that the museum take down a controversial work of art is an infringement on freedom of expression “which has particular weight in the field of culture.”

The “McJesus” installation by Finnish artist Jani Leinonen, is part of the museum’s “Shop It” exhibition on the commercial uses of art and is featured in a gallery on the topic of “Sacred Goods,” the commercial use of religious imagery. The work sparked a confrontation between protesters and the police on Friday in which three police officers were injured. The night before, a firebomb was thrown at the museum.

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The Association for Civil Rights in Israel contacted Zilber after Regev demanded that the director of the Haifa municipal museums, Nissim Tal, remove “McJesus.”

In a letter to Tal, Regev wrote that a work of art that “ridicules the crucified Jesus, the most important symbol for Christians around the world, cannot be provided cover as freedom of expression.”

Zilber responded that everyone is entitled to express their opinion publicly but a distinction must be made between Regev expressing an opinion as an elected official, “which is certainly legitimate,” and what Zilber called the “misleading” impression that Regev has the authority to demand the exhibit's removal or threaten to cut state funding of the museum over the issue.

Zilber stressed the importance of pluralistic public discourse and a range of opinions and “exposure to a broad and uncensored range of art.” She also noted the large number of art works featuring the image of Jesus in an exhibition two years ago at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

“If that same principle of a harming feelings justifying the removal of art at the Haifa Museum had been applied at the Israel Museum’s exhibition, if there had been someone who thought that those works in whole or in part harmed feelings, we might have come to a situation in which, with all of the deletions, limitations and censorship, we would have been left with only blank walls crying out,” she wrote.

On Sunday, the Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic Churches in Haifa filed a request in court for an injunction to remove “McJesus” and two other art works from the same display which they said depicted Jesus and Mary as commercial objects, including Mary as a Barbie doll. The “Sacred Goods” display is in a gallery behind a curtain bearing a sign alerting visitors that the work is not meant to be offensive but “we will respect any decision not to visit this exhibition hall.”

Haifa District Court Judge Ofra Attias sought an opinion from Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit before issuing any decision. The hearing has been deferred to next Thursday.

On Monday, Haifa Mayor Einat Kalisch-Rotem tweeted that she had held “a positive meeting” with Christian clergy from Haifa. “We understood the depths of the hurt that they are feeling,” she wrote, adding there were plans to pursue a number of suggestions had been made.

Rabbi Dov Hayun, Haifa's deputy mayor in charge of cultural affairs, said attempts are under way to address the concerns without resorting to censorship.