It’s the artwork of the summer: the “Last Supper” protest exhibit that went up Tuesday night in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. At its center was a lifesize effigy of Benjamin Netanyahu sitting alone at a table laden with delicacies, dipping into a cake decorated with the Israeli flag.
In front of him were loaves of bread, pomegranates, grapes, wine, sausages, tomatoes, berries and cookies. It was hard to distinguish between the real food and the fake. In the background played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17.
The person behind the exhibit is Itay Zalait, an artist who in the same spot in 2016 placed a golden “King Bibi” statue of Netanyahu. That work was toppled within hours.
Two years later, Zalait put up a lifesize statue of the right-wing culture minister at the time, Miri Regev, in Habima Square. That year in Rabin Square he also placed a listing flagpole with the Israeli flag on it. On Tuesday, however, Zalait had actually received permission from the Tel Aviv municipality.
Zalait notes that his “Last Supper” work went up around 24 hours before the start of Tisha B’Av, a fast day commemorating the destruction of both temples in ancient times.
“It’s the eve of Tisha B’Av and this display addresses the last supper of democracy .... You can’t deny that he's a talented man,” Zalait says about Netanyahu.
“He knows how to give speeches and deliver a message; he’s called Mr. Security, Mr. Economy; he’s someone elevated above his people. He’s not like you and me; he’s almost the son of God.
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“This son of God, this Mr. Economy, sits there eating, devouring more and more. He’s ready for dessert, and if we don’t realize the gravity of the hour, this may be democracy’s last supper.”
Zalait notes concerns that “the Third Commonwealth,” the State of Israel, will collapse. So he placed his “Last Supper” near the memorial to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated there on November 4, 1995. The killing came as the Labor Party leader negotiated with the Palestinians for a two-state solution, and critics blame Netanyahu for some of the incitement that helped lead to the assassination.
“By placing the feasting Netanyahu with his back to the Rabin memorial, I’m expressing a hope that incitement doesn’t lead to the murder of a protester or a journalist,” Zalait says.
“Incitement can lead to violence, art displays can’t. They’re meant to make people connect to what they feel in their stomach. If they connect to what they see here, they can sense the critical juncture we’re at.”
The exhibit irked a number of Likud lawmakers and cabinet members, who argued that it could lead to another murder of a prime minister.
“On the eve of Tisha B’Av, someone chose to stoke more hatred and polarization among our people. Is someone hinting that the prime minister’s future will be like ‘The Last Supper’?!” tweeted Regev, now transportation minister.
“It’s only a matter of time before a gallows and noose come out. This isn’t just incitement, it’s a call to action. I call on [Mayor] Ron Huldai: Stop closing your eyes and immediately remove this inflammatory exhibit.”
Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said the statue “isn’t art, it’s a message allowing the shedding of the prime minister’s blood.”
Another Likud legislator, Osnat Mark, caused a stir when in a tweet she referred to Rabin Square by its earlier name, Malchei Yisrael Square, or Kings of Israel Square.
She said “Huldai will tell you it’s art, freedom of expression, while [Attorney General Avichai] Mendelblit will back him up with a beautifully expounded legal brief. The writing is on the wall and it’s written in blood! If the incitement doesn’t stop it will again end in murder!”
After being criticized for using the square’s old name, Mark deleted the tweet. The prime minister’s elder son, Yair, tweeted: “For how long would someone doing the exact same ‘installation’ but with the image of [Supreme Court President] Esther Hayut be detained?”
In response to these accusations, Zalait invited Regev to “stand in front of the exhibit without shooting from the hip. Maybe she’d then realize what its true purpose is. Maybe she’d feel that the empty chair there wrenched her gut, making her adopt a more unifying and embracing stance rather than one that’s divisive and incites. On this day, the eve of Tisha B’Av, she could reflect on her role in destroying the Third Commonwealth.”
Some right-wing activists say the incitement is directed at them, but Zalait disagrees. “Let them show me a case of murder or violence targeting a right-winger; I don’t know of any,” he says.
“I know of violence directed at left-wing protesters, like that on Tuesday. This is an ongoing erosion of democracy.” On Tuesday night, five demonstrators were injured outside the home of Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, a close ally of Netanyahu.
Zalait, 41, is a graduate of the Hamidrasha art school northeast of Tel Aviv. He has presented his work at the Fresh Paint contemporary art fair, at the Janco Dada Museum in Ein Hod and at the P38 Gallery in Tel Aviv.
He says it doesn’t bother him when told his exhibits aren’t well-received in the art world.
“I don’t only do political art; my subject is freedom. I have all kinds of works. I’m currently doing something for the Haifa Museum of Art on this topic. I don’t work via preconditioning, I’m not a cog in a system. The art establishment isn’t in the front of my mind. I work out of intuition, from what’s inside me, and I want to be authentic,” Zalait says.
“I go and demonstrate with my children at Balfour Street,” he adds, referring to the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. “I’m a person who lives in this country. I don’t want to have to explain to my children how it is that Israel became a dictatorship, and then they’ll ask where I was.
“I won’t tell them I was worried about losing a few followers on Instagram, so I do what I do in order to have some influence. I tell all the celebrities who aren’t saying what’s on their minds that they’ll have a big problem later. Maybe they won’t lose their contracts, but they’ll be sorry they didn’t speak out.”
Most people have a hard time connecting with museum exhibits. Do you deliberately create more accessible projects?
“Bringing art to the street is vitally important. How many people go to museums? Why should art be enjoyed by only the top tenth of a percentile? Why shouldn’t everyone be able to look at an image and feel something in their stomach?
“A few older people told me today, with tears in their eyes, that they’d never been so moved by a work of art. I want to make them take part in the next project. Such projects unite people. I want people to see them and want to join in. I don’t appeal to those who already have an opinion. I want people who believe that anarchists are demonstrating at Balfour Street to join me.”
What do you think about the protests outside the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street? There, too, you find young people putting up art displays.
“That’s the best, most authentic, true and touching thing I’ve seen that I can remember. I teach my children to love humankind, to help a person who is weaker than you rather than trampling on him. We’re now at the dessert stage of the last supper, but there has been an awakening. It’s amazing to see what’s happening at Balfour.
“At first I thought it would only be brawls, but it developed in many directions like meditation, with some very determined protesters. The demonstrations on Rabin Square were disappointing, but on Balfour Street the energies are different. People are doing everything they can to save democracy.”
Work on “The Last Supper” took two weeks, with the help of 15 people who are all “victims of the current situation of the cultural world,” Zalait says. “They’ve all lost their businesses and don’t know how they can feed their children.”
Among his partners in the project were Moran Aharon and Elisheva Engelberg from a Jaffa theme restaurant, makeup artist Shiri Shamsha and event producers Leora Zvikler Berger and Ido Berger.
According to Zalait, his work doesn’t receive any special public or private funding. “I’m an active artist selling my work, and I teach. I have a few more displays planned, but I don’t want to be funded. I’ve refused offers to finance my work,” he says.
“This is a popular protest, which is why I began a crowdfunding project called Protest Art that anyone can contribute to, donating whatever they feel like giving. I’ve felt a burning inside for a month, asking myself whether I have any impact as an artist.
“When there’s a need, I’m a citizen who protests. The main demonstrators are the infantry protecting the country, and I’m doing a flanking maneuver.”