Analysis

Ruling on Divisive 'McJesus' Sculpture Fulfills Israeli Culture Minister's Censorship Fantasies

Following years of attempts by Miri Regev to curb offensive artistic expression, this week a court in Haifa upheld the mayor's right to intervene in content at a municipal museum to 'maintain public order'

A statue of Culture Minister Miri Regev.
Tomer Appelbaum

The Haifa District Court's decision this week permitting Haifa’s mayor to intervene in artistic content at municipally owned arts institutions to "maintain public order" is a dream come true for Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, who has sought to curb artistic expression that she found offensive.

The district court issued the ruling in support of a decision by Haifa Mayor Einat Kalisch-Rotem to have the municipally owned Haifa Museum of Art remove "McJesus," a sculpture that sparked violent protests following an outcry by the city's Christian Arab community. "McJesus," which depicted a crucified Ronald McDonald, the McDonald's mascot, was featured in a display on the commercial use of sacred images.

Since taking office as culture minister, Regev has tried time and again to exert her influence over institutions, municipalities and local councils to present certain works of art and refrain from exhibiting others. She has seen nothing wrong with such intervention and hasn't hesitated to make her censorship demands public. She also hasn't hesitated to cut state funding to institutions that fail to accede to her dictates.

To her dismay, however, most of her threats had been ineffective, and as a result, she tried to pass a cultural loyalty bill that would give her authority to deny state funding cultural institutions on a number of grounds specified in the bill. In most of the instances in which Regev has sought to censor artistic content, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel has intervened, prompting a deputy attorney general to advise her that she could not legally do so.

Three and a half years ago, Regev threatened to cut the budget of the Jerusalem Theater Festival if it showed a documentary about the family of Yigal Amir, who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Ultimately a compromise was reached to show the film but not under the festival's auspices.

A short time later, she threatened to deduct funds from the Tel Aviv Cinematheque if it hosted a festival sponsored by the Zochrot organization about the Nakba, a reference to the Palestinians who fled or were expelled in the course of the Israeli War of Independence. A committee appointed by Regev found that its content wasn’t illegal.

Last year she threatened to put a halt to the Cinema South film festival over its showing of a documentary about Bedouin women in the Negev. In the end, the film was shown as scheduled.

The biggest fuss that Regev mounted over a film was in connection with Samuel Maoz’s “Foxtrot.” After attacking the film in every possible setting, she decided not to confine her threats to Israel alone. In February 2018, she pressured the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office to withdraw their financial support for the Israeli film festival in Paris, where "Foxtrot" was scheduled as the opening film.

She also tried to cut funding to the Jaffa Theater. In 2017, she urged Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon to follow suit over the showing of a movie honoring Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour. Two months ago, she raised the issue again with Kahlon, this time demanding monetary sanctions against the arts center at Hansen House in Jerusalem, which hosted an exhibition that included one of Tatour’s poems.

About two years ago, Regev roundly objected to a poster designed by a student, 12 copies of which where hung up at the Mount Scopus campus of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. It depicted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a hangman’s noose in front of his face. Although the posters were taken down after a short time, Regev called on Education Minister Naftali Bennett to withhold funds from Bezalel.

A few weeks earlier, Regev had asked the mayor of Haifa at the time, Yona Yahav, to reconsider permitting the Israeli-Arab rapper Tamer Nafar to appear at a Jewish-Arab cultural festival, saying that the singer “uses every opportunity on stage to oppose the idea of the State of Israel as a state of the Jewish people.” A year later she asked the mayor to cancel a Zochrot-sponsored event and a Nakba film festival at the municipal cinematheque. She also called on Finance Minister Kahlon to penalize the Tel Aviv Cinematheque for hosting the Nakba film festival (despite the prior finding of a panel that she had appointed that the festival was not in violation of the law.)

Two years ago, Regev tried to persuade the mayor of Jerusalem at the time, Nir Barkat, to shut down the Barbur Gallery, for hosting an event by the anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence on its municipally owned premises. Last summer when Regev learned the same gallery was to host a Nakba event for Zochrot, she demanded the attorney general advance legislation to deny it funding. The city said the gallery would be shut, but that decision is now on appeal.