Ronald McDonald’s Crucifixion Triggers Protests at Israeli Museum

Freedom of speech advocates butt heads with institutions protecting the sanctity of religious imagery.

Jani Leinonen, “McJesus” (2015) (photo by Vilhelm Sjöström, courtesy of the artist and Zetterberg Gallery)

A new exhibition at the Haifa Museum in Israel featuring a sculpture of a crucified Ronald McDonald has sparked wide protest and violent clashes between members of the local Arab Christian minority and the police. The protestors demand the removal of the sculpture “McJesus (2015) by the Finnish artist Jani Leinonen, which they deem offensive to their religion.

Hundreds of protesters tried to storm the museum last Friday. Israeli police claim the protestors hurled rocks that wounded three officers, after a protestor threw a Molotov cocktail at the museum’s building on Thursday. A video from the demonstration shows that the police used tear gas and stun grenades to clear the protestors. Five were detained.

The controversial sculpture is part of the exhibition “Sacred Goods,” which examines the commodification of religion and the links between religious systems and consumer culture. Despite the ongoing protest, the museum refuses to remove the work on grounds of defending freedom of expression. Museum director Nissim Tal expressed his surprise at the uproar, which comes months after the opening of the exhibition in August last year.  “We will be defending freedom of speech, freedom of art, and freedom of culture, and will not take it down,” he said. Following a meeting with church leaders and local politicians, the museum agreed to install a curtain over the entrance to the show and post a sign that warns viewers of potentially offensive content.

Instagram user @wadie.abunassar created an assemblage of the offending works displayed in the Haifa Museum exhibition:

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معرض مسيء للمسيحية في متحف حيفا! تحدثت قبل قليل إلى دوف حايون، نائب رئيسة بلدية حيفا، وطالبته بإزالة المعروضات المهينة للمسيحية المعروضة حاليا في متحف حيفا (يمكن مشاهدة الصور بالأسفل)! ساتابع الأمر عن كثب، وكما وضحت سأوضح بصورة متكررة، بأنه بالرغم من نوايا "الفنان" الفنلندي صاحب المعرض الاحتجاج على المجتمع الاستهلاكي الذي نعيش به، إلا انه من غير المقبول استعمال رموز دينية بمثل هذه الطرق!

A post shared by Wadie Abunassar (@wadie.abunassar) on

In a petition they filed at the district court in Haifa today (Monday), Greek Orthodox Church and Greek Catholic Church representatives demanded the removal of other controversial items on display, including artworks by the Argentinian duo Pool and Marianela which feature the crucified Jesus and the Virgin Mary as Ken and Barbie dolls. Wadie Abu Nassar, an adviser to church leaders, told the AP news agency, “We need to understand that freedom of expression is interpreted in different ways in different societies. If this work was directed against non-Christians, the world would be turned upside down.”

Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev, who is pushing for legislation that demands loyalty to the state in art, has sided with the protestors and called for the removal of the artwork. In a letter she sent to the museum, the minister wrote, “Disrespect of religious symbols sacred to many worshipers in the world as an act of artistic protest is illegitimate and cannot serve as art at a cultural institution supported by state funds.” Regev also hinted at defunding the state-funded museum if it doesn’t take action.

Haaretz newspaper published today that Leinonen had already demanded the removal of his sculpture in September, long before the protest, but the museum ignored his request. Leinonen stated his support of the Palestinian BDS movement as the reason for his request, regardless of the recent protest. The museum said in response that it signed a legally sound loan agreement, and that it will not cave to “religious or political pressure.”

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