Dispute over ‘anti-Semitic’ Western Wall painting shuts down Israel Museum | Israel

Four overlapping black and white rectangles make up the painting Jerusalem by Israeli artist David Reeb. In two, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man is shown praying at the Western Wall – also known as the Wailing Wall – from two different angles, his hands resting against the stone. In front of the images, thick brushstrokes spell out phrases in Hebrew: “Jerusalem of gold,” the title of a nationalist song – and “Jerusalem of shit.”

The work was among several explicitly political and daring pieces featured in an exhibition that opened in December at the newly renovated Ramat Gan Israeli Art Museum near Tel Aviv.

Due to its depiction of an ultra-Orthodox man, however, it was the only artwork in the exhibit that drew the ire of the mayor of the city of Ramat Gan. Carmel Shama-Hacohen took to Facebook after viewing the exhibit, posted a photo of Reeb’s artwork in which he said he found it racist and anti-Semitic, and asked his constituents if they would that it be deleted. Shama-Hacohen did not respond to the Observermaintenance requests.

“It was ridiculous. If I’m anti-Semitic, it’s because I’ve chosen a strange place to live all my life,” Reeb said. “I didn’t take it too seriously at first. But from there, it became something crazy.

The exhibit, titled ‘The Institution: The Museum and Israel’, was the first to be held at the museum after a four-year renovation, and the reopening was meant to celebrate Ramat Gan’s growing reputation as a thriving city. and prosper.

Conflict in the West Bank in Reeb’s Pastorale. Photography: Meidad Suchowolsky

Instead, the controversy over Reeb’s piece turned into a confrontation between many of the artists featured in the exhibit and the museum’s board over its decision to remove the painting. The debate immediately turned political, as the council deputy is one of the mayor’s political rivals, and several other members are city officials on the payroll of Shama-Hacohen.

A district court declined to intervene, and compromise attempts centered on showing the play behind a screen, or only on Saturdays, when ultra-Orthodox Jews did not visit, failed. Fifteen of the other featured artists covered their own work in black cloth in solidarity with Reeb, and after the mediation process failed, dozens of band members demanded that their contributions be removed.

The museum closed again a few weeks later, sparking an intense debate in Israel about freedom of expression, the role of public art and who decides whether works are bad or offensive.

Svetlana Reingold, the museum’s chief curator, eventually resigned.

“Is it in the power of art museums in Israel to lead socio-political change, or are they inextricably linked to the institutional infrastructure? she asked. Ironically, Reingold got a decisive answer.

“I imagined [Jerusalem] would provoke criticism because it challenges the discourse on the limits of what is permitted. I never imagined that he would be a victim of local political censorship.

Reeb, 69, has seen his work exhibited at Tate Modern and at Documenta, Germany’s five-year exhibition. His art is deeply political, centered on the war and the occupation of the Palestinian territories: he generally works from his photographs taken on the scenes of demonstrations in the West Bank and Jerusalem. The subjectivity of memory, as well as an impassive detachment from what Reeb sees as an insoluble conflict, are recurring themes.

Predictably, his art has drawn criticism in the past. A piece criticizing former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was removed from the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in the 2000s, and in the 1980s a series of posters in red, black, green and white – the colors of the flag Palestinian – has been removed from the museum. catalog of the same museum.

Jerusalem, created in 1997, was inspired by his experiences visiting the Old City of Jerusalem for the first time since childhood, the artist said. On the one hand, it was very moving to see Jews praying freely at the Western Wall; on the other hand, he realized that access to Jews was possible because the Muslim quarter of Mugrabi, which adjoined the wall, was demolished after the Six Day War of 1967.

“I wanted to say something about how the wall is perceived with sentimentality, that the idea of ​​it, the idea of ​​Jerusalem, doesn’t match reality,” Reeb said.

The piece has already been exhibited in art spaces in Israel twice, but did not provoke the same reaction as in Ramat Gan.

“Art should ask questions, that’s part of what makes all art interesting. I don’t think there are many cases where art is dangerous. Whether I like something or not doesn’t mean it should be banned. Where is the limit if you go this route? ” He asked.

Reeb wonders if the tone of public debate is changing in Israel. “The willingness to use anti-Semitism as a way to attack anything that challenges nationalist symbols is new, I think.

“Funding issues mean there can be a tendency towards self-censorship. This sort of thing happens everywhere, of course. But here there are also questions about the occupation and its wider effects: freedom of expression and art are victims. The situation is not about to change any time soon… I don’t know if Israel can really be a democratic place until then.

Ha’aretz, Israel’s leading left-wing newspaper, called the Ramat Gan affair a “turning point for culture in Israel.” Dozens of other Israeli museums and galleries, public and private, hung black flags at their entrances in the wake of the row.

But for Diego Rotman, who also showed work at the Ramat Gan exhibition and hung black fabric over his Deller Sukkah installation in protest, the episode also represented an “exceptional example of solidarity, organization and collective power”.

Artists Diego Rotman and Lea Mauas land their piece ‘Deller Sukkah’ (1840-2017) in solidarity with Reeb. This sukkah – a temporary wooden structure used during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot – was smuggled out of Nazi Germany and brought to Jerusalem. Artists have restored a sign that once had a church added to disguise its Jewish symbolism.

“The decision to go and remove the works was tough for the artists and for the museum, so it was kind of a sacrifice in the name of artistic autonomy,” he said. “We showed that a museum is not just a building: it’s not about space, it’s about the people you work with and the way you work with them.

“I think it shows that ultimately it’s us who have the power, not a mayor who has interfered in a professional business for his own political reasons.”

Several Knesset members are currently working on drafting legislation that would protect the independent decision-making power of curators and artistic directors on their boards.

For now, the Ramat Gan museum, still freshly painted, is dark and empty – a startlingly perfect reflection of what curator Reingold has described as the “intrinsic tension between art and politics”.

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