Opinion

The Netanyahu Statue: Work of Art or Political Statement?

Did the Israeli public subconsciously commission the sculpture placed in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, or was the project a lefty gimmick?

A woman takes a selfie with a statue of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, created by Israeli artist Itay Zalait as a political protest against Netanyahu, which was placed without official permission outside Tel Aviv's city hall, Israel December 6, 2016.
Baz Ratner / Reuters

Tuesday morning, we woke up to see a gold statue of Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. Some artist put it there. And in the end, it was pulled down

There was a good feeling in the square. Many people gathered around the statue. They were clearly hungry for an artistic event, for meaningful action. 

One can’t dismiss the energy of an act that spontaneously drew people to the plaza. Of course, violence will do that, but this wasn’t violence; people were laughing, joking, taking pictures. The atmosphere was festive.

One could also sense pent-up political energy beneath the fun: If the leader’s statue is in the square, then destroying it can be a form of political protest. One could sense people’s thoughts: What his opponents haven’t managed to do to Bibi, we’ll do to his statue. 

The temptation was doubly great because the statue was there illegally and bore a municipal injunction ordering its removal, so people felt that toppling it wasn’t really illegal. But that’s cheating a bit. Let’s see us oppose something that’s at least technically legal.

Still, what political force does toppling a statue have when we are powerless to end Netanyahu’s endless terms of office? By toppling the statue, are we not just voluntarily participating in an artistic installation showing the left’s impotence?

And then there were all the people who didn’t come, who said it was all nonsense. What’s all the fuss about, they asked? And they had to be told, again and again: “There’s a statue of Bibi in Rabin Square.”

How is it that people get more upset by the thought that “someday we’ll have statues of our leader here just like in North Korea” than by an actual statue of the leader in Rabin Square? 

“This isn’t a statue put up by a dictator, but an artistic gimmick by the left-wing minority in Tel Aviv,” such people countered. “That’s all that happened here. That’s why only residents of the bubble are getting excited over it.” 

After all, it’s written in the history books that in order to draw a link between a leader’s statue and dictatorship, the work must have been formally commissioned; otherwise, it doesn’t count. 

And in this case, the artist made it clear that nobody commissioned the statue. It was “entirely my own idea, as an artist who dwells among his people,” he told the media.

But this doesn’t mean nobody commissioned it. Granted, there was no formal commission, but the artist was responding to the general mood. The public commissioned his work. 

Not at all, you can hear people insisting; it doesn’t work like that. The public doesn’t commission installations. 

Yet nobody formally commissioned the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, either. The truth is that murder, at the time, was in the air.

And this fact raised some doubts: Is toppling the statue the left’s equivalent of Rabin’s assassination? Will it still be possible, after this, to claim that violence always comes from the right?

Anyone familiar with Netanyahu’s psychological manipulations knows he may yet convince us that Rabin’s murder was a mere metaphor for the actual toppling of this statue by the violent left. 

Therefore, it was clear to everyone in the square that they should refrain from toppling the statue: This time, we won’t stand on the sidelines when they attack a prime minister. How did they manage to make us so afraid?

And in the end, when they finally did topple the statue, it was sad. It was all over so soon. All possible meanings were consolidated into one swift action. Is symbolic violence the refuge of political cowardice?