Israel's Ramat Gan Museum Closes After Censorship Rift

The move follows the breakdown of mediation efforts following bitter controversy over the removal of the work ‘Jerusalem’ by Israeli artist David Reeb

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Ramat Gan Museum
Ramat Gan MuseumCredit: Hadas Parush
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

The management of the Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art announced Wednesday that it is closing until further notice after negotiations between artists and municipal officials broke down.

The move is the latest development in a controversy over the removal of the work “Jerusalem” by the veteran Israeli artist David Reeb.

It had been on display at the opening exhibition of the newly expanded and remodeled museum and the decision, which was sought by Ramat Gan Mayor Carmel Shama-Hacohen, was one of the most controversial ever in the Israeli art world.

Reeb’s “Jerusalem” is divided into four rectangles. Painted on two of them is an ultra-Orthodox Jew praying at the Western Wall. On the other two rectangles are the phrases “Jerusalem of gold” and “Jerusalem of shit.” The mayor had asked that Reeb’s piece be removed on the grounds that it could harm the feelings of members of the public.

Artists cover their work at the Ramat Gan Museum.Credit: הדס פרוש

“At this time, a decision has been made regarding the museum’s next steps in which the vision is the promotion of Israeli art,” the statement from the museum in a Tel Aviv suburb said. The museum had only reopened in December after wide scale renovation work.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel filed a district court petition challenging the removal of Reeb’s piece, but the court denied the petition after the museum’s management committee ratified the mayor’s decision. Beginning both prior to that and subsequently, most of the artists in the exhibition asked that their work also be removed unless Reeb’s work was returned to the show. 

Following a recommendation by the district court, Culture and Sports Minister Chili Tropper appointed the chairman of Israel’s museum council, Dr. Yigal Ben-Shalom, to mediate the dispute. The artists suggested that Reeb’s work be restored to the exhibition and that it be set off by partitions and a glass door in the gallery. 

Mayor Shama-Hacohen objected to the proposal and according to a message issued by Ben-Shalom, he demanded that the work be placed in a locked storage space so that it would not be on view to visitors but would remain accessible to visitors who took the initiative to see it. It would only be accessible on Shabbat so that students visiting the museum and religious members of the public would not have access to it. 

The artists said in response that the museum was “evading its responsibility for the crisis, which had led to the exhibition’s dismantling and the museum’s closure.” The artists claimed that the representatives of the museum had not responded to two compromise offers from the artists. 

A poster of the controversial work 'Jerusalem'.Credit: Courtesy of the artist

“In addition, its management committee didn’t even convene to consider the judge’s compromise proposal and the artists’ proposals, which are based on similar settlements from leading museums around the world,” the artists said. “We regret the fact that the Ramat Gan Museum has lost its legitimacy in the Israeli art field and hope that in the future, it will be able to become independent of political figures.”

On Tuesday, dozens of senior curators sent a letter to Culture Minister Tropper and to various Knesset members calling upon them to act to put relations between museums and politicians in order. They also condemned the mediation process for being conducted between the artists and Mayor Shama-Hacohen, who they said did not have the authority to make decisions on behalf of the Ramat Gan museum.

“We call for rules that will prevent interference in the decision-making process at Israel’s art institutions from officials who are not professionals,” the artists said.

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