She Survived Antisemitism in the USSR. She Might Not Survive This Israeli Censorship Affair

The furor over an exhibition featuring a painting with the text ‘Jerusalem of Gold – Jerusalem of Shit’ may well have killed the career of its curator. Svetlana Reingold explains why she has no regrets

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Svetlana Reingold. 'This crisis should be used to reorganize.'
Svetlana Reingold. 'This crisis should be used to reorganize.'Credit: Hadas Parush
Naama Riba
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Naama Riba

To say she is one of the main protagonists, Svetlana Reingold has been absent from the media storm that erupted over David Reeb’s “Jerusalem” painting featuring in the opening exhibition of the expanded and revamped Museum of Israeli Art, Ramat Gan.

To recap: the wording that appears on Reeb’s 1997 painting “Jerusalem of Gold – Jerusalem of Shit,” alongside a depiction of ultra-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall, infuriated Ramat Gan Mayor Carmel Shama-Hacohen. He claimed it was racist and antisemitic, and then, following a Facebook poll he conducted among city residents, ordered that the artwork be removed.

In protest, the other artists represented in the exhibition demanded that their own works be removed. When negotiations between the sides failed, the entire exhibition was canceled. In effect, the museum is now shuttered – or, as the mayorprefers to say, “operating at low intensity.”

Reingold was both chief curator of the renovated museum and curator of the crisis-inducing exhibition. And when negotiations between management and the artists broke down, she decided to resign as well.

Svetlana Reingold, next to David Reeb's infamous painting. Credit: Hadas Parush

Until now, she has avoided speaking to the media. But now her resignation has gone into effect, she is opening up about this and previous furors – like, for instance, the one that erupted while she was chief curator of the Haifa Museum of Art when a work entitled “McJesus,”by the Finnish artist Jani Leinonen, was removed in 2019. That work featured an image of a crucified Ronald McDonald. Then, too, the person who ordered the removal of the work was the city’s mayor, Einat Kalisch-Rotem.

“As soon as I saw the ‘referendum’ being conducted by the mayor among his Facebook followers, I realized this was not going to end well,” recounts Reingold about the latest scandal. “It was two days after the opening of the museum, but I never imagined it might end with the entire exhibition being taken down.

“It was hard for me to read the posts he put up on Facebook, whose message, in one form or another, was that artists should be grateful to get a place to exhibit in, and they should behave nicely and not insult anyone. I was thinking that this was something I wouldn’t be able to work with.”

When did you make the final decision to resign?

“Once I was informed that they’d be taking down David Reeb’s work [in January]. Often in such situations, a demand is made from the outside or from social media to resign. For the most part, I’ve never considered these sorts of demands – because loss of employment is a sort of social death.” What are you planning to do now?

The Museum of Israeli Art, Ramat Gan (bottom). The museum is now shuttered – or, as the mayor prefers to say, 'operating at low intensity.'Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“I’m gathering up my energies for the next challenges that await me. But if I can be candid, I don’t have huge expectations about the future that lies ahead.”

What do you think will happen to the Ramat Gan museum?

“The people at the museum should be thinking of taking corrective action to ensure the independence and freedom of expression of the curators and artists. This crisis should be used to reorganize. It’s a crisis that is relevant to all of the museums and municipal galleries in Israel: How can we ensure that this doesn’t happen again in some other space?”

And how can we make sure of that?

“In Britain, for instance, when it comes to governance of art institutions, the ‘arm’s length principle’ is in effect – where even art that is financially supported by the government never actually serves the government. The decision-makers over art subsidies must always be the same ‘arm’s length’ removed as the museum staffers,” in order not to repeat the mistakes that Shama-Hacohen made.

Did you ever imagine that the exhibition might provoke this kind of clash? It did include several controversial works.

David Reeb outside the Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art, last year.Credit: Hadas Parush

“I didn’t think it would happen, though I was wary of such a possibility. But I told myself I couldn’t be fearful anymore. By its nature, art tends to hold up mirrors to society, encroaching and asking uncomfortable questions. The beauty of Reeb’s work is that it challenges the entire discourse on the limits of what is permitted.”

So why was it displayed in a storeroom?

“I displayed it in such a way that it was, on the one hand, part of the museum’s collection, and on the other revealed to the viewer. Also, I was interested in provoking debate on the issue of what is found in the central space and what is found behind the curtains – and, yes, also to call attention to the fact that there’s a political and bureaucratic establishment out there too.”

‘Get the hell out of here, Jew!’

Reingold immigrated to Israel in 1990 from the city of Novgorod, near Saint Petersburg. “I was among the first immigrants to arrive on a direct flight from the Soviet Union to Israel,” she recalls of immigrating alone at age 16, being joined by her parents a few months later. In the Soviet Union, her father served as the city engineer and her mother was an economist. In Israel, her father worked in a factory and her mother as a house cleaner.

“In Russia, I was the only Jew in my class,” she says. “With the breakup of the Soviet Union, a rising wave of antisemitism began. People shouting things like ‘Get the hell out of here, Jew!’ and ‘Go! Fly to Israel’ became a matter of routine.”

She completed high school at the Ort High School in Ma’alot, and then began studying art and history at the University of Haifa. “I completed my bachelor’s and master’s degrees there, and am now in the middle of my doctorate.”

A painting of the museum building is being covered.Credit: Hadas Parush

What do you have to say to the mayor, who believed that Reeb’s work is antisemitic and racist?

“As a person who has experienced antisemitism firsthand, I think the antisemitism discourse is not relevant here in Israel. Here, it is the Jewish people in a position of sovereign power that represses and discriminates, not the opposite. The great thing about Reeb’s work has to do with the fact that he’s telling us that in the Jewish state, of all places, by virtue of its religion and its national identity, it is our fate to play the role of the repressor. Before I immigrated to Israel, I truly believed I was coming to Israel to be part of the Jewish culture, which is something I couldn’t do in the Soviet Union. It hurts me every time anew to see that in Israel, the wave of Russian immigration of which I am a part is nothing more than a plaything in the hands of political interests.”

Do you not think that Reeb’s work is insulting?

“In my opinion, it’s meant to insult the politicians but absolutely not religious Jews. It critiques the political discourse that cynically uses patriotic slogans and empties the holy symbols of all content. The Western Wall, ‘Jerusalem of Gold’ and ‘the worshipping Jew’ are all oft-used terms from the mouths of politicians, who use them to justify every military operation conducted in Israel.”

In this context, she says that Reeb’s work reminds her of the huge banners that used to be hung in the streets of the Soviet Union.

“On these posters, there would always be figures of the great men of the Soviet nation: Marx, Engels and Lenin. But someone would always add some curse in Russian. It was a minor addition that ridiculed the idyllic Soviet world. The Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin spoke about the carnivalesque world, which is the polar opposite of the official political, consensual world. In this world, laughter and parody represent the ruling ideology: the significance of the carnival is the crossing of familiar lines. The same is true for David Reeb, who placed the language of the street right in front of the idyllic world the politicians are selling to us.”

What did you think when you saw social media posts that were opposed to Reeb’s painting – for instance, what was written by rapper and right-wing activist The Shadow?

“The main contention was that this artwork triggers an illegitimate discourse. Yet the comments against it that were initiated by the far right – and which bordered on violent persecution – were seen as being quite legitimate. The Shadow wrote several posts on his Facebook page, which led to thousands of harsh responses personally directed toward me. Truly a dizzying rate of loathing and hostility.”

Artist David Reeb at the removal of the art from the museum, in January. Credit: Moti Milrod

Boycotted by 200 artists

Reingold says art played a big part in her life growing up in the Soviet Union, with frequent visits to the Hermitage Museum with her mother. Following her university studies, she began working at various museums in Haifa. It was 1996, a turbulent period in Israel following the Rabin assassination, and numerous artists were reacting to what was going on. Following a series of minor positions in local museums, in 2011 she became curator of the Mané-Katz Museum, and two years later also the Hermann Struck Museum.

Early in her career, she says, she faced the question of whether it was okay to present contemporary art at the Mané-Katz Museum. “In the 2012 exhibition ‘The Desire for Paris,’ in addition to artists from the School of Paris I showed three contemporary Israeli artists: David Adika, Yossi Breger and Joseph Dadoune. It provoked some inquiries from management.”

Over the years, several curators – all female – left their jobs at the northern city’s museums. Things came to a head in 2015 when the curator of the Haifa Museum of Art, Leah Abir, was dismissed and the Israeli art world decided to boycott Haifa’s museums. Some 200 artists and curators signed a petition.

Reingold was appointed as acting curator and subsequently became Abir’s permanent successor. She was criticized at the time for “collaborating” with the establishment. However, more artists gradually broke the boycott and she went on to curate several large group shows. These included “AnonymX: The End of the Privacy Era,” “Feminist Sculpture in Israel” and “Fake News – Fake Truth.”

There was an accusation that your exhibitions recycle subjects, both in Haifa and Ramat Gan.

“In exhibitions that I have curated, I have not been afraid to repeat subjects that have been discussed in the past. To say, for instance, about feminism that the subject has already been exhausted is ridiculous. After all, gender discrimination still exists at all levels of life. In an exhibition I curated at the Haifa Museum of Art, I engaged in feminism in the transnational era, when numerous women are moving from East to West and developing a fluid identity in order to survive.”

There has always been political meddling in Haifa. In 2006, then-Mayor Yona Yahav demanded that Dov Or-Ner’s reproduction of a painting of flowers supposedly done by Hitler when he was an aspiring young artist be removed.

“During the time I was curator, from 2015 on, I did not feel any intervention. Once we made a decision on the subject of an exhibition, there was no meddling.”

The peak of political interference came in early 2019, shortly after Kalisch-Rotem was elected Haifa’s mayor. A protest arose among local Christian Arabs against the work “McJesus,” which was part of the “Sacred Goods” exhibition curated by Shaked Shamir.

'McJesus,' on display at the Haifa Museum of Art.Credit: Vilhelm Sjöström

Reingold relates that when Shamir told her, as chief curator, about the Leinonen work, it was obvious it was liable to spark criticism, “but I reached the conclusion that I had no right to censor the exhibition. That work was ultimately taken down, but it was the opposite to what happened at the Ramat Gan museum. In Haifa, an audience of Christians argued that their beliefs were harmed; in Ramat Gan, it was the mayor who gave the instruction to take down the work – and that is a case of political censorship, pure and simple. In contrast to [Shama-Hacohen], Kalisch-Rotem tried to find a compromise with the leaders of the Christian community, and only when one could not be found was it decided to remove the work.”

There have been acts of censorship before, both at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Israel Museum. Why is it more prevalent at municipal museums?

“We live in a country where religion is not separated from the state. But censorship can happen everywhere. Even Modigliani’s art that was shown in France triggered outrage due to the nudity, and the police came in and dismantled the exhibition. That would not seem logical nowadays, but every work of art has explosive potential. There are countless examples.

“In 1962, the exhibition ‘New Reality’ was mounted in Moscow. [Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev visited it; he was enraged when he discovered the extent to which the rules of socialist realism had been violated and he hauled the artists over the coals. And still, all of the works were left on the walls and Khrushchev even paid another visit to the exhibition a while later, spoke with the artists and asked that they explain to him the meaning of the works.”

The ethics panel will get back to you

David Reeb's 2000 painting, showing a picture of an ultra-Orthodox Jew praying at the Western Wall, with two captions: 'Jerusalem of Gold' and 'Jerusalem of Shit.'Credit: Courtesy of the artist

During the Ramat Gan crisis in January, there was actually a moment of optimism when Culture Minister Chili Tropper appointed the chairman of Israel’s museums council, Yigal Ben Shalom, to mediate between the artists and Shama-Hacohen. Also trying to resolve the problem were Ramat Gan museum chairman and deputy mayor Roi Barzilai, and Reingold herself. She proposed a compromise in which Reeb’s work be put back up and that a divider be erected so that anyone arriving on the floor on which the work was situated would not be exposed to it immediately.

That did not satisfy Shama-Hacohen, who demanded that the work be hidden in an internal space within the storage room – and that it only be accessible to the public on Saturdays.

What did you think of the mayor’s proposal?

“That it was unacceptable. David Reeb thought so too, and that is what the other artists thought. I did agree to a compromise suggested by the artists. That was my obligation as curator of the museum and the exhibition.”

The person who did not appreciate Reingold’s involvement was Barzilai. In a letter to her, he claimed she had led the artists “into a dead end, even though there was an outline for a compromise. In light of your intervention, the attempt to find a compromise – which would have made it possible to keep the exhibition open and even to see the work by David Reeb – failed. I made it clear to you that you mustn’t intervene in the negotiations, but nevertheless you chose to disregard my instructions, time after time.”

Conversely, Ben Shalom says there a consensus on the technical aspects of the display was never reached at any point.

“An initial outline was agreed by the mayor and artists that anyone who did not want to see the picture would not see it,” he says. “But there was no decision regarding the method. Once everyone weighed in with his or her proposal, the negotiations failed.”

Reingold, he says, was not present during the negotiations but only at consultations, “where she expressed an unequivocal position in support of the artists.”

Ben Shalom has recently formed an ethics committee that seeks to set clear boundaries for the board of directors, as well as better define the role played by curators. “My opinion is unequivocal: curators are the ones who make the decisions, not the body that owns the museum,” he says.

The Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee has also debated the future of the museums, at the behest of lawmakers Emilie Moatti (Labor) and Mossi Raz (Meretz).

Israel needs to create a mechanism that will protect art from political interference, Reingold concludes. She calls for “a law or regulations that would establish the nature of the mediation between the political establishment and the art establishments, and between the management committee and the artistic management staff, in such a way that would protect freedom of expression and provide guidelines for dealing with any harm done to it. Otherwise, there will be no end to this.”

Finally, as someone who immigrated to Israel from Russia, what’s your opinion on what is happening now in Ukraine?

“I think there’s a long tradition in Russia of coping with all sorts of dictators – coping with and opposition to. It makes me very happy that the people in Russia are going out to protest at demonstrations against Putin and the invasion of Ukraine, and I very much hope the current events will finally remove him from power.”

Do you think Israel should get involved?

“I think the most urgent thing right now is for Israel to provide Ukraine with an Iron Dome [anti-missile] system. I also very much hope that if there is a need for it, Israel will take in refugees. That is to say, all of the refugees – whether they’re Jewish or not.”

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