The ruling by the Haifa Administrative Affairs Court on restricting display of the exhibit “McJesus” at the Haifa Museum of Art reflects a dangerous approach, one that gives politicians an opening to censor works of art and culture in general.
The court on Sunday dismissed an appeal by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which complained about the intervention of Haifa Mayor Einat Kalisch-Rotem in the display of the statue by artist Jani Leinonen, out of consideration for Haifa’s Christian population. In their ruling, they wrote, “The mayor has the authority, and even the obligation, to act to prevent offense to the feelings of the population of the city she was elected to lead.”
Despite the judges’ clear statement that “the mayor, like any person who isn’t part of the professional echelon of the museum, has no authority to intervene in the content of exhibits,” the bottom line is that they allowed a politician to intervene in cultural and artistic content under the vague umbrella of “preventing hurt feelings.” The risk in giving such permission to politicians is clear: Today it will be out of consideration for the feelings of Christians, and tomorrow they will enfold their political, sectarian and racist considerations in the whitewashed wrapping of “preventing hurt feelings” of Jews, settlers, homophobes or religious people, in order to squelch artistic expression that isn’t to their political taste.
There’s no need to stretch one’s imagination to understand the dangers of political intervention in cultural content. That’s exactly what Culture Minister Miri Regev did during her tenure; in the name of the hurt national feelings of Jews she persecuted anyone she marked as an enemy and threatened to silence them and withhold their funding. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, through his deputy, Dina Zilber, repeatedly instructed Regev to avoid intervening in cultural content, either directly or by withholding budgets, because such intervention is illegal. In the context of the McJesus controversy, the Justice Ministry also believed that Haifa’s mayor had no right to intervene, but the court chose to ignore this position.
The government has to understand that even its power has limits, which are exceeded by intervening in individual freedom and freedom of expression. The fact that the Haifa Museum of Art is run by a municipal-owned company makes no difference whatsoever. Elected local and national officials must keep their hands off anything that smacks of artistic or cultural censorship. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel must get this damaging ruling overturned by appealing to the Supreme Court.
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The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.