Perhaps the police and State Prosecutors Office aren’t yet aware there’s been a change in government. Otherwise, it’s hard to explain why artist Gregory Israel Abou was summoned for questioning last week about a video of his in which he is seen burning a page on which the name of God is written. The reason: Offending the religious public. Chili Tropper may be in the Culture Ministry, Omer Bar-Lev is public security minister and Gideon Sa’ar is in charge of justice, but censorship is still running wild.
The police are also planning to question Orit Lev-Segev, the director of the Mishkan Museum of Art in Ein Harod, where the work was exhibited, as well as Batsheva Goldman-Ida, curator of the exhibit Jetesais (“Iknowyou”), in which the work appeared.
This is scandalous. Abou didn’t spray-paint graffiti on the walls of a synagogue or burn Jewish ritual objects in a provocative installation at the Western Wall. His work had appeared in the museum for over half a year and didn’t offend the religious sensibilities of anyone. But last month a group of state-religious preschoolers visited the museum and while they didn’t see the video, the mother of one of the children did, and was shocked. Religious Zionism lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich saw an opportunity to score some political points and contacted the attorney general demanding an investigation. Various other political censors political censors followed suit.
Under Clause 173 of the Penal Code, one offends religious sensibilities by “publishing a work” or “uttering a word or sound in a public place or in the range of a person’s hearing” that “grossly offends the faith or religious feelings of others.” If Abou’s work, which was displayed in a museum, meets this definition, we might as well close up all the country’s art galleries and turn them into synagogues.
Over the years of Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule, there was a chronic erosion of seminal democratic values, including freedom of artistic expression. Both the prosecution and the police were sometimes forced to toe the commander’s line. But the new government has promised a different approach, one that would allow legal and law enforcement authorities to make substantive rather than political decisions. Unfortunately, the change is not yet evident. For example, Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton did not intervene in the matter of withholding the Israel Prize from Prof. Oded Goldreich because of his political views.
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This persecution of Abou and the museum must stop at once. If religious people are afraid that their feelings will be hurt by a work of art, they should stop visiting museums or ascertain in advance if the content is “kosher.” It’s not reasonable to expect artists to tailor their works to their feelings and be punished if they exceed what the religious consider the boundaries of good taste. The state must not undermine the freedom of artistic expression.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.