Residents of central Tel Aviv woke up on Wednesday morning to an unusual sight: A protest art installation titled “The Last Supper” was placed in Rabin Square overnight, and in the center was the figure of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sitting alone at a table filled with the finest of foods, including a cake bearing the Israeli flag.
Netanyahu, whose popularity has plunged in opinion polls, said his depiction in a mock tableau of Jesus's final meal before his crucifixion was tantamount to "a shameful threat."
Behind the installation is artist Itay Zalait, who in 2016 placed a golden statue of Netanyahu in the same square, which was toppled a few hours later by citizens; in 2018, he put up a life-sized statue of then-Culture Minister Miri Regev. As opposed to his previous efforts, this time Zalait received permission from the Tel Aviv Municipality before putting up the installation.
“The people who are supposed to protect the citizens and represent them – their chairs are empty. We need to begin to understand that this is not democracy, we are at the last minute before it slips through our fingers,” Zalait explained in a Facebook video Wednesday morning.
“We need to unite, all of us, everyone who was taught that he is the other's enemy – the leftists, rightists, Haredim, religious, Ashkenazim, Sephardim. All these stupid factions, to unite and understand that we must put our democratic rights in this country into action before it is too late. [We must] join the protest at [the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem], join the protests on bridges, leave the house. I’m doing it through art," he said.
The protest installation angered a number of Likud members, who called it incitement to murder the prime minister. “On the eve of Tisha B’Av, there is someone who chose to stoke more and more hatred and polarization among our people,” tweeted Transportation Minister Regev.
“There are those who may be hinting that the future of the prime minister will be like the last supper?! It's only a matter of time that the scaffold and noose will come. This is not incitement, but a call for action. I’m calling on [Tel Aviv Mayor] Ron Huldai: Stop closing your eyes and immediately remove the instillation of incitement.”
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Online responses to Regev came in the form of old pictures of the minister with activists from the far-right extremist group La Familia, who are wearing shirts bearing slogans like “Jews, come and inherit the land” and “Kahane was right.”
MK Osnat Mark (Likud) tweeted: “The Last Supper in the Kings of Israel Square in Tel Aviv. Ron Huldai will tell you that it is art, freedom of expression. Mendelblit will back him up in a magnificently reasoned legal opinion. The writing is on the wall and it is written in blood! If the incitement is not stopped, it will end again in murder!”
Mark deleted the tweet after it drew criticism for using the square's previous title, which it held before its renaming after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the site in 1995.
One of the responses said: “Why did you delete the tweet, my dear statesman? The square is called Rabin Square, maybe you forgot, so I will remind you that Rabin was the prime minister of the State of Israel, contributed greatly to the country and was murdered. He was not murdered by an Arab, God forbid, but by a Jew with a kippa, right-winger Yigal Amir, who was nurtured on the knees of right-wing incitement by the right, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu.”
Netanyahu's son Yair also tweeted about the artwork: “For how long would the person who does the exact same 'installation' but with a figure of [Supreme Court President] Esther Hayut be detained?”
Zalait told Haaretz that 15 people in all helped him put up the installation. In response to accusations of incitement, he said: “Incitement can lead to violence, I agree. Art installations cannot lead to violence. They are intended to rouse people to connect with what they're feeling in their gut."
He continued, "And if they connect with what they see here, and they feel the crucial junction that we are at today, at the Last Supper that may very well be the last supper of democracy, it can lead only to good things.” Zalait said he built the installation in honor of Tisha B’Av, “which symbolizes the destruction of the Second Temple. We are a step from there (the destruction of the Third Temple).”
The installation was put up after five protesters were injured on Tuesday evening at an anti-police brutality demonstration outside the home of Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, in an attack by right-wing activists who stabbed them with broken bottles, punched them, hit them with chairs and sprayed pepper spray at them. Two had cuts on their necks and one required stitches on the back of his neck.
Protesters said police ignored their calls at first, and came to help only after a delay. The attackers, whose identity is not known and seemingly pretended to be protesters, fled the scene. Three suspects in the attack were arrested on Wednesday. Over the weekend, three people were arrested on suspicion of attacking protesters against Netanyahu around the country.
Reuters contributed to this report.