Last week was a turning point for culture in Israel. The board of the Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art approved the removal of the work “Jerusalem” by the veteran Israeli artist David Reeb from “The Institution,” the name given to the opening exhibition of the newly expanded and remodeled museum. The move backed a decision by the mayor of the city of Ramat Gan, a Tel Aviv suburb, which is one of the most controversial decisions in the Israeli art world ever.
Reeb’s work in question is divided into four rectangles. Painted on two of them is an ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Jew praying at the Western Wall. On the other two rectangles are the phrases “Jerusalem of gold” and “Jerusalem of shit.” The museum’s chief curator, Svetlana Reingold, displayed the work on the netting in front of the museum’s storeroom, behind a transparent slab – more on that later.
Reeb, 69, has come up against opposition in the past, but never any this fierce. “It was a very stormy week and a lot happened. I don’t expect everyone to like my artwork, and I can understand that some people will be irritated by it. But it’s pretty incredible to see just how far this went,” he says.
“It’s only a painting, but it has turned into news, as if nothing else were happening in the country .... I’ve come up against thickheaded clerks, but not the mayor of a city waging a campaign against me. This is the guy who was our representative at UNESCO? The UN’s cultural organization? I was shocked when he compared me to antisemites, when he mentioned pedophilia.”
Reeb feels that the decision by the mayor, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, is part of the deterioration of Israel’s political culture, a trend spearheaded by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Shama-Hacohen declined to comment for this article.
“As far as I’m concerned, the most frightening thing was [Netanyahu’s] influence on the debasement of the language and the transformation of language into something flexible. The willingness to constantly lie,” Reeb says.
“These are things that I also saw in someone like Shama-Hacohen. The mayor of Ramat Gan lied several times, like with the artwork not being displayed .... The entire interpretation of the work is completely wrong. And its all right as far as he's concerned because it serves his objective. It has become routine to say something that’s not entirely true without the other side having an opportunity to tell the truth.”
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The previous tempests stirred by Reeb’s work were minor in comparison. When Ariel Sharon was prime minister, the director of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Moti Omer, removed a work with the words “Arik eats children.” In 1983, at the museum’s Helena Rubinstein Pavilion, Reeb exhibited works in black and white, and under them he installed posters in the colors of the Israeli and Palestinian flags.
Referring to that incident, Reeb says a right-wing politician at the time, “Rehavam Zeevi, phones the city’s mayor, Shomo Lahat, or Mark Scheps, the director of the museum then, and complained about the exhibition. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘it’s unacceptable for them to put next to each other the colors of the Israeli flag and the colors of the Palestinian flag, whose legitimacy is denied by everybody. Scheps didn’t censor the exhibition, but he did cancel the catalog.”
For years, Reeb has taken part in demonstrations in the West Bank, photographed them and done paintings based on his photos. He has a clear opinion about what he considers the country’s number-one problem.
“Last week, 15,000 settlers marched at Homesh, an illegal [West Bank] outpost. And a day later everybody forgot about it,” he says. “Instead, they’re all preoccupied with some picture that insults the mayor. This is yet another event that reflects the erosion of our freedom of expression in recent years. Maybe it will raise the subject higher on the public agenda.”
A lot of people didn’t understand the ‘Jerusalem’ work. Can you explain it?
“It deals with the sentimentalization of prayer next to the Western Wall, which along with the song ‘Jerusalem of Gold,’ has served as a device for taking over land from 1967 to the present day,” Reeb says, referring to the 1967 song that came out shortly before the Six-Day War.
He says his work “Jerusalem” “doesn’t have one interpretation. It can be interpreted in several ways. It also touches on the fact that Jerusalem is a beautiful city with a special atmosphere, while it’s also a place with a great deal of tension, hostility and population groups that hate each other. It has in it both gold and shit.”
Why did you choose the image of a Haredi man?
“It was in 1997. I was working a lot on the basis of photos by Miki Kratsman. He had photographed a Haredi man praying at the Wall. Maybe that was an expression of anger at the fact that people were exploiting the notion that it’s important for Jews to pray near the Wall to justify the takeover of land in Jerusalem. Also, when I was a young man I heard the song ‘Jerusalem of Gold,’ and even then I wasn’t so enthusiastic about it. It was part of the ritual of victory that served the interests of power. And that’s the context of my work of art.”
At a court hearing, Carmel Shama-Hachohen’s lawyer said that if instead of a Haredi you had painted an Ethiopian, “the same petitioners would have petitioned against the artwork.” What do say about that?
“I’m an Israeli Jew and this is the context I’m operating from. It’s because of this that Carmel Shama’s claim is preposterous – that if it were being shown in Germany or in the United States, we would say that it’s antisemitic. You can’t make these comparisons. The painting doesn’t attack the people portrayed in it.
“Haredim are part of the powerful majority. The people being discriminated against in Israel are Palestinians and foreign workers. The Haredi Jew who prays at the Wall is part of the Israeli ‘we.’ It’s for him that they tore down the Mugrabi Quarter [next to the Western Wall]. They did it fast, immediately after the Six-Day War, without trying to reach any agreement. This is criticism of our sanctified right to Jerusalem.”
Another allegation by Shama-Hacohen is that the painting hasn’t been displayed anywhere. But it was shown at the Mary Fawzi Gallery in Jaffa in the late 1990s, and at Sapir College in the south in an exhibition curated by Liav Mizrahi in 2014.
“Back then [at Sapir], it was a work by Gal Volinez that drew a lot of attention and stoked opposition – he formed a hamsa with the words ‘Itbah al-Yahud’ [‘Slaughter the Jews’ in Arabic],” Reeb says. “In any case, a lot of my paintings haven’t been shown in public; artists more famous than me haven’t displayed all their works.”
How would you want people to respond to the ‘Jerusalem’ piece?
“That it be interesting for them, that it have an effect, that they feel something when they’re standing there, that it made them think. I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything. The fact that I have opinions doesn’t mean I’m trying to persuade anybody. All I’m doing is putting out there what interests me and showing the reality we’re living in.”
Plenty of people have said that now everyone knows who David Reeb is, that this story is giving you a lot of good PR.
“It doesn’t give me any PR, and nobody has phoned me as a result of it to buy any of my artwork, except for all sorts of friends I haven’t spoken with for 20 years. The fact that people are saying “way to go” doesn’t translate into money. And I don’t need all the accompanying chatter. I’m not on Facebook or Twitter, so I don’t even know what people are saying.”
At the Tel Aviv District Court hearing late last month, Reingold explained the artistic concept behind presenting the work on the netting in front of the storeroom.
“We saw that there were various display spaces in the museum, and also a space for housing the museum collection. Once we realized that this space was completely exposed to the public, we knew we could turn this space into a display space in the full sense of the word,” she said.
“In this space we’re talking about self-censorship; basically every curator goes over this before bringing out any work from the collection to the display space. So we placed this work before the entire public at large, when the work is basically inside the storeroom.”
Politicians veering to the right
The story started with a Facebook post by an opposition member on the Ramat Gan City Council, Avihu Ben-Moshe. He uploaded a photo of the work and wrote that it was a “humiliation” that “Jerusalem” was being shown at the museum. He didn’t demand that it be removed, or that any dramatic steps be taken. Shama-Hacohen, who had visited the museum on opening night, posted that “Jerusalem” was on display in a storeroom, so it wasn’t part of the exhibition.
The next evening, a week ago Saturday, once Shama-Hacohen realized that the work was part of the exhibition, he asked Ramat Gan residents on Facebook if they wanted it removed. He noted that the museum’s chairman, Deputy Mayor Roi Barzilai, wanted to keep it on display, so for now he wasn’t going to remove it.
The next day, Ben-Moshe also asked when “Jerusalem” would be coming down. “I wanted to draw attention to a controversial work of art, but I didn’t think it would be dragged into such an impassioned debate causing a colossal crisis for the museum and the city,” Ben-Moshe says. “This whole story is about Shama’s desire to bypass me from the right, to get himself a lot of likes, and hovering above it all is his ego war with Roi Barzilai. He refuses to be seen as losing to him.”
The next day, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Reeb requested a court injunction until a hearing could be held on the matter. But last week, Barzilai asked to have the work removed, and one of the museum workers did so, as Reingold stood outside the storeroom and cried.
These details came to light during the court hearing two days later. Reingold testified that Barzilai phoned her Sunday morning and “informed me that he must remove it and that he was afraid of losing his job.” During the hearing, Barzilai denied having any such concern.
After the removal, a raft of art institutions, including the museums in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Holon, issued condemnations of the act. About 30 other small museums and public and private galleries hung black flags at their entrances. Around 25 artists exhibiting at Ramat Gan requested that their own works be removed.
On Tuesday, 15 of them showed up at the museum and covered their works with black covers. The step, which created the look of a protest installation inspired by the Russian artist Kazimir Malevich of a century ago, only lasted minutes. That afternoon, Shama-Hacohen arrived at the museum and ordered workers there to remove the black covers within five minutes or they’d be fired. Two workers complied.
“I’m very grateful to the artists and the cultural institutions for their solidarity,” Reeb says. “It was impossible to continue the exhibition as it was. And I don’t expect anyone to do more than this. In the end, it’s everyone’s personal decision.”
Later that day, Shama-Hacohen wrote on Facebook that he had met visitors at the museum who left “terrified because of the wild behavior of artists in the display spaces.” He said he found the museum’s managers “frozen and in a panic during the pogrom.”
He added: “The first employee I encountered answered me that there was nothing he could do, a shocking answer from a public employee at a municipal institution with security guards, a municipal security division and a police station next door. So I made it unequivocally clear to everyone there that we had no need for anyone who would collaborate with these provocations or wouldn’t act to preserve order.”
In court Wednesday, attorney Dan Yakir for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said that only once in Israeli history did the board of a cultural institution meddle in an artistic decision. He said that in 1970 the board of Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theater met to discuss whether to halt the showing of a Hanoch Levin play, “The Queen of the Bathtub.”
“Representatives of the actors also took part in the decision to shelve the play,” Yakir said. “It was a shameful disgrace for Israeli culture.”
On Wednesday, however, the district court judge, Kobi Vardi, asked why he should intervene in the decision. “It could be that it will be another shameful decision,” he said. “And maybe the artists will punish the museum for this decision, and also board members spoke about this, as did the curator and also attorney Barzilai. It may be that this will be the punishment. But why should I intervene in the decision?” So he didn’t intervene, and the petition was denied.
A controversial career
Reeb was born in Rehovot in central Israel in 1952. His mother, Ora, was an English teacher who escaped to Africa from 1930s Germany. His father, Moshe, was one of the founders of the Israel Defense Forces’ Manpower Directorate, a doctor and a psychology lecturer at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan.
The couple immigrated to British Mandatory Palestine in 1947, partly, Reeb says, due to the racism toward Black people they saw in colonial Africa. Reeb served in the IDF’s Armored Corps in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, after which he studied at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. He lives in Tel Aviv with his wife, the artist Michal Goldman, and they have two sons.
He has taught at Tel Aviv’s Kalisher art school as well as at Bezalel. He has mounted dozens of solo exhibitions and taken part in group exhibitions in Israel and around the world. In 2013 he won the Rappaport Prize, one of the most prestigious honors awarded to an Israeli artist. In 2014 a retrospective of his works was staged at the Tel Aviv Museum, curated by Ellen Ginton.
Somehow “Jerusalem” drew so much attention, even though Reeb’s oeuvre includes many more controversial works. For decades he has painted scenes of war and occupation, and for two decades he has been taking photographs at demonstrations at Bil’in, Na’alin and Nabi Saleh in the West Bank, and creating paintings based on the photos.
In a Haaretz review of Reeb’s most recent exhibition, at the Artists Workshop in Tel Aviv, Gilad Meltzer has written that only a handful of painters “have turned their gaze toward ‘the problem’ only a few kilometers from their studios. Here and there a painting or sketch pokes out, but they’re the exception. The daily drama-tragedy goes on, and no one paints it. But Reeb has been there for more than three decades, demonstrating, photographing, shooting video and mainly painting what happens in the occupied territories.” In a review of his 2014 Tel Aviv Museum of Art exhibition, former Haaretz art critic, the late Galia Yahav, dubbed Reeb "The territories painter."
One painting in a series of his on war, “Let’s Have Another War,” is also being shown at Ramat Gan. “That series includes a great deal of paintings, and it was shown at the 10th documenta in Kassel in 1997. At that time, a small war was raging between the Israeli army and police near Ramallah,” Reeb says.
“Miki Kratsman and Eldad Rafaeli were there and photographed the Palestinian police from up close. What I like about their photos is that you can’t always tell who are the Palestinian police and who are the Israeli soldiers. I think that in every war the two sides are pretty much alike. Only the uniforms, which are slightly different, let you distinguish between the sides. We’re in a war without an end. It’s the most awful thing in the world. And it’s being taken for granted.”
These paintings are much more critical and complex than the painting that caused the controversy.
“You might think so, but I think that overall they’re engaged in the same subject, which is the need to resolve the conflicts between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the character of the conflict, which serves real estate interests and interests of power. In general, I see this conflict as a civil war.”
How do you feel about the attitude toward you by the curator and the museum?
“I know that Svetlana Reingold was in an uncomfortable position and I’m happy that at the end of the day she told the court where she stood on the matter. It may be that they should have been more transparent regarding the type of display and could have coordinated things better, and that would have avoided any mishaps. Roi Barzilai sent nice messages and apologized several times. But maybe he should have said, ‘We refuse to take it down; you’ll have to fire us.’ He’s not responding to the requests by the artists to remove their works of art. I don’t feel that we’re working with transparency and clarity.”
Forty-three artists sent a letter to the museum demanding that their works be removed immediately, or that a compromise be found letting Reeb’s painting be shown. And Barzilai has told Reeb that the artist’s request might be met and his works removed from the exhibition.
Barzilai also released a statement following the court’s decision. “We will continue to work for the advancement of Israeli art and for its exposure to everyone while maintaining a balance between the preservation of the principle of freedom of expression and the principle of not harming the public’s feelings,” he wrote.
“Also, we will continue to develop the museum as a platform for varied and even radical debate and discourse. A museum is a free space that reflects social and cultural trends. We believe in its power to provoke dialogue in a pluralistic spirit and in accordance with the fundamentals of democracy. And we believe that it plays a social role as a unifying and inclusive place, as the meeting point between ideas, opinions and people through the entire spectrum of opinions and perspectives, and all of this for the sake of advancing humanity.
“The museum will initiate an inclusive dialogue for discussing the key issues and fundamental questions that this crisis has unleashed, with the aim of advancing an open, pluralistic public debate among different communities and groups in Israeli society. Our museum will continue to host Israel’s artists and serve as a tool for increasing the public’s exposure to art.”
After the decision by Judge Vardi, attorney Yakir submitted a letter to the court in which he quotes from a Shama-Hacohen Facebook post: “The court ruled that our decision to remove the offensive and racist work of art is utterly legal.” Yakir stressed the word “our” to emphasize Shama-Hacohen’s involvement in the affair, and added that the mayor attached to his post a photo of Reeb’s work – for the fourth time in less than a week. “And the court was aware, and the court remained silent,” Yakir wrote.