On Friday, hundreds of Christians demonstrated outside the Haifa Museum of Art against a work that has been on display for five months — “McJesus,” depicting Ronald McDonald on a cross. Three police officers were injured in the protests. On Thursday night, a firebomb was thrown at the museum.
Culture Minister Miri Regev has so far failed to publicly condemn the violence against the museum, but she didn’t pass up the opportunity for more censorship. On Thursday, even before the demonstrations erupted, she sent a letter to the museum’s director demanding that the work be removed. “I’ve received many complaints about a grave insult to the Christian community’s sensibilities,” she wrote. She also threatened to cut her ministry’s financial support for the institution.
Instead of protecting culture from attempts to undermine it, Regev has joined the assailants. She has thereby confused her job with that of a commissar, whose job is to protect cultural “purity,” and grossly exceeded her authority. In her letter, she wrote, “To show contempt for symbols sacred to religions and many believers around the world as an act of artistic protest is illegitimate and cannot be displayed in a cultural institution supported by state funds.”
But the person who is actually showing contempt is Regev, who refuses to understand that a democratic state is obligated to allow the expression of diverse opinions, even those that violate the current political taste, challenge some groups within society or are hard to swallow. Moreover, she is invalidating art’s legitimacy to attack symbols, thus denying the role art has played throughout history.
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This isn’t like desecrating sacred symbols in a church. The work was displayed in a museum as part of a critical exhibition dealing with consumer culture, and according to the museum management, it “references mega-corporations’ cynical use of religious symbols.” The artist, Jani Leinonen of Finland, who himself is a believing Christian, says he sought to criticize the way Ronald McDonald has become a symbol in popular culture, whose attitude toward him is reminiscent of religious worship.
Moreover, the museum’s management has demonstrated sensitivity to the protest. It met with church leaders in Haifa and decided, together with them, to place signs at the entrance to the exhibition warning of potentially offensive content, as has become the norm in situations where someone’s sensibilities might be offended.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel urged Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber to make it clear to Regev that the culture minister has no authority to interfere in the content of artworks. In its letter, it wrote that even the most elastic of the grounds for denying funding listed in the Foundations of the Budget Act cannot be stretched to include offending religious sensibilities.
It’s a pity that in such a tense situation, the demonstrators are effectively receiving a tailwind from a culture minister who’s a fan of censorship. The museum must be allowed to continue exhibiting this work.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel