Dozens of Israeli artists asked to withdraw their works from an exhibition at the Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art, located in a suburb of Tel Aviv, after the museum removed a controversial political work by artist David Reeb per a request from the city’s mayor. Ramat Gan Mayor Carmel Shama-Hacohen deemed the work offensive to the Zionist ethos and “racist towards ultra-orthodox Jews.” The decision is contested in Tel Aviv’s District Court, which held its first hearing today, December 29.
On Thursday, December 23, the Ramat Gan Museum opened the group exhibition The Institution, featuring works by more than 60 Israeli artists. Organized by the museum’s chief curator Svetlana Reingold, the exhibition surveyed the practice of “institutional critique” in Israeli art throughout the decades. It was the museum’s inaugural exhibition after a multi-million dollar renovation that quadrupled its size. The museum is largely funded by the city, but the expansion was bankrolled by selling artwork from its collection.
One of the many political works on display was Reeb’s 1997 painting “Jerusalem.” The canvas shows an image of an ultra-Orthodox Jew praying at the Western Wall with two captions in Hebrew, which translate to “Jerusalem of Gold” and “Jerusalem of Shit.” The writings reference the Israeli song “Jerusalem of Gold,” written in 1967 to celebrate Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem that year. Over the decades, the song gained the status of a second national anthem.
On December 25, Mayor Shama-Hacohen, who previously served as Isreal’s envoy to UNESCO, asked his Facebook followers to vote on whether Reeb’s work should be banned, saying he had already instructed the museum to remove the “disgraceful” work from display.
“Jerusalem is a symbol that’s in the heart of every Jew and sacred to all religions,” Shama-Hacohen added on his Facebook page. “Even at the opening event, there were people who couldn’t bear this insult and cut their visit to the museum short because of this work,” he continued. “Ramat Gan didn’t build a museum for a huge sum of money and will not subsidize it every year to expose its children and others to gutter language.”
Reeb, represented by the Israeli Association for Civil Rights, appealed the decision in a Tel Aviv court, arguing that the decision violated the 1983 Musem Law in Israel, which protects museum displays from state interventions. The court issued an injunction, ordering that no changes should be made to the exhibition until a decision is reached, but the order came after the museum had already removed the painting following a vote in favor of the move at its board of directors.
In an interview with Hyperallergic, Reeb said that he finds Shama-Hacohen’s suggestion that his work is antisemitic “insulting.”
“The painting relates to the instrumentalization and sentimentalization of Jewish attachment to the Western Wall in order to justify the occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank,” the artist said. “There’s obviously no disrespect to religious Jews.”
“I don’t think that the mayor thought about the work. He just saw a political opportunity and seized on it,” the artist added, noting that work never drew such strong reactions when it was shown in previous exhibitions. He also said that the museum never informed him of the decision to remove his work from the exhibition.
The Ramat Gan Museum has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
Reeb is a prominent Israeli visual artist whose politically-engaged work was shown at international venues like Documenta X at Kassel, Tate Modern, the Berlin Biennale, and others. Over the course of his decades-long career, he helped organize collaborative exhibitions with the participation of Israeli and Palestinian artists. On his YouTube channel, he chronicles Palestinian demonstrations against Israeli forces in the West Bank.
As Reeb awaits a court decision, 35 participating artists penned a public letter asking the museum to remove their work from the exhibition in solidarity with Reeb. Later, they shrouded their works at the museum’s galleries and raised black flags to protest the censorship of Reeb’s work.
“The main story here is not about a specific artwork but about a serious violation of the museum’s independence,” Ofri Cnaani, one of the artists signed on the letter, told Hyperallergic in an email. “It seems that the Ramat Gan Mayor finds the act of censorship an amusing matter that should be discussed with emojis on Facebook.”
“As mayor, there is no place for Shama Hacohen’s personal opinion on the museum’s curatorial decisions,” Cnaani continued. “He is welcome to protest but can not treat the public institution as his own living room. Mr. Shama HaCohen abused his power, ignored the museum professional staff, responded to protesting artists aggressively, and avoided any dialogue.”
Art censorship in Israel has become a common occurrence in recent years. In 2020, the Hecht Museum on the campus of the University of Haifa in Israel canceled a talk by an artist Saher Miari because he identifies as a Palestinian. In 2019, the Haifa Museum removed Finnish artist Jani Leinonen’s sculpture “McJesus” (2015) after protests by the Christian community.
“I don’t consider myself a political artist; I’m just an artist who deals with a lot of politics,” Reeb told Hyperallergic. “I can’t turn my back on what’s happening in my country.”
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