Ramat Gan Mayor Carmel Shama-Hacohen has appointed himself censor. Over the weekend, he requested that a work by artist David Reeb be removed from an exhibition at the Ramat Gan Museum, which reopened last Thursday. The painting shows a picture of an ultra-Orthodox Jew praying at the Western Wall, with two captions – “Jerusalem of Gold” and “Jerusalem of Shit.”
“Jerusalem is a symbol that’s in the heart of every Jew and sacred to all religions,” Shama-Hacohen wrote on his Facebook page. “Even at the opening event, there were people who couldn’t bear this insult and cut their visit to the museum short because of this work.” The mayor then added, “Ramat Gan didn’t build a museum for a huge sum of money and will not subsidize it every year to expose its children and others to gutter language.”
Art censorship has been growing in recent years. In 2016, Prof. Yuli Tamir, then the president of the Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art, censored art student Yam Amrani’s work “Sdinim” and forced its removal from an exhibition by graduating students. In 2019, Haifa Mayor Einat Kalisch-Rotem removed the “MacJesus” statue from an exhibition curated by Svetlana Reingold, who is now curating the exhibition from which Reeb’s work was censored.
There are many other examples of censorship, with most objectors acting without authority and in defiance of court rulings and legal opinions stating that politicians and directors of art institutions are not authorized to censor. In a letter to Shama-Hacohen, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel referred him to the Museums Law, which includes a provision guaranteeing them freedom of action – a provision with no parallel in Israeli laws governing other cultural institutions. “The management of a recognized museum is free to direct the museum’s affairs as it sees fit within the limits of its bylaws and budget,” the law states.
In his essay, “Freedom of Expression and its Limitations,” former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak wrote that “freedom of expression contributes to social stability. Freedom of expression allows social tension to be expressed verbally, not physically. Social passions are vented peacefully, through words, not violently.”
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The Ramat Gan Museum, like other museums, enables large segments of society to be exposed to art. It’s a pity the mayor is undermining this important cultural institution, which was reopened with great excitement at his own initiative. He is thereby demonstrating an anti-artistic attitude that contributes to corrupting art by constricting artistic freedom and encouraging self-censorship.
Shama-Hacohen may also cause direct damage to the Ramat Gan Museum, as curators and artists worthy of the name may now distance themselves from it and perceive it as a sort of community center instead. The mayor must reverse himself and leave artistic decisions in the hands of the museum’s management.
The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.