Editorial

Haifa’s Mayor McCensor Delivers Miserable Decision on Freedom of Speech

Mayor’s attempt to have it both ways after ordering the removal of an artwork cannot be allowed to conceal

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

Mayor Einat Kalisch-Rotem’s decision to remove from an exhibition at the Haifa Museum of Art “McJesus,” a sculpture depicting the McDonald’s mascot nailed to a cross, and to arrange for “controversial artworks” to be displayed in a closed gallery within the museum is a miserable one.

Casting the surrender to pressure from church officials as a technical measure — “Seeing as the loan agreement was due to expire within a few days in any event, the sculpture will be removed and returned as soon as possible” — only added to the mockery.

Fewer than three days after Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber again warned Culture Minister Miri Regev that she has no constitutional authority to threaten to cut the museum’s budget because of the sculpture, Kalisch-Rotem made it clear there was no need for threats; she could simply create facts on the ground. In a post to social media, the mayor said, “Regardless, we believe in freedom of expression as one of the cornerstones of democracy.” But freedom of expression cannot be separated from art, and it is impossible to speak about the cornerstones of democracy and at the same time to exercise such brutal censorship.

>> Culture minister's demand to remove work of art is an insult to culture | Editorial

Kalisch-Rotem’s attempt to have it both ways cannot be allowed to conceal one simple fact: A politician, even one who was elected by a large majority, has no power to interfere in artistic decisions. The mayor is not the city’s censor. That is not the job she was elected to carry out, and the very use of political power for such illegitimate purposes is a warning light.

Kalisch-Rotem must recognize the risks inherent in her decision. What would she have said had the mayor of Umm al-Fahm prohibited, due to the fear of potential violence, the performance in the city in September by a band with both male and female members? What kind of message would it have sent had the Gay Pride Parade in Be’er Sheva been canceled in the wake of the fierce protests against it? Freedom of expression is a supreme value. As long as a work of art does not incite to violence, we must fight for the right to display it, despite “the aggravation it caused to Haifa’s Christian community,” as Kalisch-Rotem’s statement said.

Regev recently told Channel 10 News (now Channel 13) that as culture minister she had created revolutions that not even two successors would be able to reverse. She was right, not only in reference to the ministers who will follow her, but also in regard to the cultural poison she has distributed to heads of local government.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.