Finnish artist Jani Leinonen could not have asked for better promotion. There has been global media coverage of the protests in Israel in which the Christian community demanded that the Haifa Museum of Art remove the offensive McJesus sculpture. The sculpture was part of an exhibition exploring consumerization of society, including the consumerization of religion and spirituality.
At first, it looked like Leoninen’s artwork would remain in place until mid-February when the exhibition ends, but Haifa’s new mayor finally demanded that it be taken down immediately. It was part of a compromise she reached with the local Christian leadership.
The images coming out showing Christians protesting insensitivity to their sacred symbols is unflattering to Israel; therefore I should, perhaps, not join in the party. But it is curious that there have never been protests or complaints against the sculpture in any of the other countries in which it was exhibited. Will Christians elsewhere now take an example from the those in Israel and begin to refuse to accept the display of this particular piece in art museums? In other words, will growing restrictions to freedom of expression in art be observed in today’s politically correct world? Or, are Christians just tired of everyone being afraid to insult Islam (Charles Hebdo, for example) and not caring how much they insult the former?
Yet this may not be just a question of censorship versus freedom of expression in art; it may also be a question of politics and of law.
Israeli law declares that it is a criminal offence to insult the sensitivities of members of any religious community. One could ask if the Haifa Museum of Art could have faced criminal charges if they had refused to take down the sculpture. Since this law does not require anything more than offending the faith of another person, it is perhaps time to revise this antiquated left-over from British Mandatory rule that was, in any case, devised in order to try to prevent the anticipated outbreaks of violence that eventually took place regardless (in 1929, Muslims against Jews, for those who do not remember).
Art, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder. You do not have to be Christian to be offended by the McJesus sculpture. You do not have to consider it art. It may be, to you, an abomination and nothing more. For others, it is a legitimate piece of art that is making a statement about society. Do we really want a law to define for us which artistic expressions are kosher and which are not — beyond those which incite to hate and/or violence, that is?
While examining the question of censorship, while exploring any societal issue that arises, we need to ask, “Why now?” Why did the protest come exactly now? After all, the cluster exhibit in which the McJesus is hanging has been open since last summer and, according to Haifa Museum of Art Director-General Nissim Tal, over 30,000 visitors have been to see it. I am sure that among those 30,000 visitors there must have been devout Christians. Why did none of them complain within the first month of the exhibit when it would have made sense to raise the issue as opposed to one month before the closing date?
If we look for a possible trigger to the protest in Haifa, the thing that comes to mind is the election of the new mayor, Einat Kalisch-Rotem. It is impossible to know, but I wonder if this protest would still have been instigated if Yona Yahav had been voted in for an additional term.
The two organizations that spearheaded the protest at the beginning were the Israel Christian Aramean Association (ICAA) and Betzalmo, a Jewish organization that fights for human rights in Israel for all citizens of all religions and ethnicities. I do not know if the ICAA has any gripes with Haifa City Hall, but Betzalmo wasted no time in being at loggerheads with the mayor, one point of contention being the presence on City Council of Raja Za’atra; Za’atra is a self-declared supporter of Hezbollah and Hamas. My guess is that Betzalmo is fighting against Kalisch-Rotem on a number of issues about which we will hear in the future, and McJesus was one of the battlegrounds the organization saw fit to open up. Shai Glick, Director of Betzalmo told me that it was he who brought the issue to the attention of the ICAA head, Shadi Khalloul.
I think it is important to combine forces with other communities in the country. The Christians are a community that integrates well and that has no nationalist ambitions of its own. The opposite is true. We need to strengthen this and give it full expression.
The noise will settle down. Since the sculpture has already been removed and stored someplace until the exhibition closing date, it probably has already died down. What is left is a bad taste in the mouth. For everyone, I imagine, each for a different reason. I wonder if there will be a positive or negative impact on Jewish-Christian relations here over the long term.
One of the Christian leaders told me he had no need to go to the museum himself; seeing the photo was sufficient. Instead of going to the museum first to see the sculpture itself within the context of the exhibition and to understand what the artist was trying to convey and then decide if it was a battle worth fighting out in the open, they sent a letter to the Culture Minister and gave the media in Israel and abroad a great week making hay.
I think a much more positive outcome could have been had by having groups of Jews, Christians and Muslims meet in the museum to discuss the offending work together. That would have been something I would have been happy to write about. It would likely not have made the news cycle outside of Israel and it would have been a minor report even here. But it also would not have turned into political fodder available to be exploited in the future for unforeseen purposes.
I am sure that neither group is monolithic: there are Christians who have no problem with the sculpture and Jews who do. Holding educational workshops would have been more valuable for all than the protests that turned violent. After all, when you are a hammer everything looks like a nail. In other words, I accept that this sculpture offends many Christians, but sometimes moments like this are teachable moments that, if seized with both hands, do more for promoting interfaith understanding and mutual sensitivity than making demands and holding loud demonstrations.
And another by-product of the protest is that an artist, who in the meantime turned pro-BDS, got a lot of free publicity and will probably receive even more invitations to exhibitions in the future than would otherwise have been the case. Way to go!