Four overlapping black and white rectangles make up Israeli artist David Reeb’s painting Jerusalem. On two, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man is portrayed praying at the Western Wall – known also as the Wailing Wall – from two different angles, his hands pressed against the stone. Opposite the images, thick brushstrokes spell out phrases in Hebrew: “Jerusalem of gold”, the title of a nationalistic song – and “Jerusalem of shit”.
The work was among several explicitly political, daring pieces featured in an exhibition that opened in December at the newly renovated Ramat Gan Museum of Israeli Art near Tel Aviv.
Because of its depiction of an ultra-Orthodox man, however, it was the only artwork in the show which drew the ire of the mayor of the city of Ramat Gan. Carmel Shama-Hacohen took to Facebook after visiting the exhibition, posting a picture of Reeb’s piece in which he said he found it racist and antisemitic, and asking his constituents whether they wanted it to be removed. Shama-Hacohen did not respond to the Observer’s requests for an interview.
“It was ridiculous. If I am antisemitic then I’ve picked a strange place to live all my life,” said Reeb. “I didn’t take it too seriously at first. But it progressed from there into something crazy.”
The show, called “The Institution: the museum and Israeliness”, was the first to be held at the museum after a four-year renovation, and the reopening was supposed to celebrate Ramat Gan’s growing reputation as an affluent and thriving city.
Instead, the controversy over Reeb’s piece escalated into a standoff between many of the artists featured in the exhibition and the museum’s board of directors over its decision to take the painting down. The debate instantly turned political, as the deputy of the board is one of the mayor’s political rivals, and several other members are municipality officials on Shama-Hacohen’s payroll.
A district court refused to intervene, and efforts at compromise centring on displaying the piece behind a screen, or only on Saturdays, when ultra-Orthodox Jews would not visit, failed. Fifteen of the other featured artists covered their own work with black cloth in solidarity with Reeb, and after the mediation process broke down, dozens of the group asked for their contributions to be removed.
The museum closed its doors again just a few weeks later, sparking intense debate in Israel over freedom of expression, the role of public art, and who gets to decide whether works are bad or offensive.
Svetlana Reingold, the museum’s chief curator, ended up resigning.
“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 allowed. I did not imagine it would fall victim to local political censorship.”
Reeb, 69, has had his work shown at Tate Modern and Documenta, Germany’s quinquennial exhibition. His art is deeply political, focusing on war and the occupation of the Palestinian territories: he usually works from his photographs taken at the scenes of protests in the West Bank and Jerusalem. The subjectivity of memory, along with a deadpan detachedness from what Reeb sees as an unresolvable conflict, are recurrent themes.
As might be expected, his art has attracted criticism in the past. A piece critical of former prime minister Ariel Sharon was removed from the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in the 2000s, and in the 1980s a series featuring posters in red, black, green and white – the colours of the Palestinian flag – was taken out of the same museum’s catalogue.
Jerusalem, created in 1997, drew on his experiences visiting the old city of Jerusalem for the first time since he was a child, the artist said. On the one hand, it was very moving to see Jewish people freely praying at the Western Wall; on the other, he realised that the access for Jews was possible because the Muslim Mugrabi Quarter, which used to stand next to the Wall, was torn down after the 1967 six-day war.
“I wanted to say something about how the wall is viewed with sentimentality, that the idea of it, the idea of Jerusalem, doesn’t match the reality,” Reeb said.
The piece was exhibited at art spaces in Israel on two occasions before, but did not provoke the same reaction it got in Ramat Gan.
“Art should ask questions, it’s part of what makes any art interesting. I don’t think there are many instances in which art is dangerous. Whether I like something or not doesn’t mean it should be forbidden. Where is the limit if you go down that road?” he asked.
Reeb wonders if the tone of public debate is changing in Israel. “The readiness to use antisemitism as a way to attack anything that challenges nationalistic symbols is new, I think.
“Financing issues means that there can be a tendency to self-censorship. That type of thing happens everywhere, of course. But here there are also questions about the occupation and its broader effects: freedom of expression and art are victims of that. The situation is not about to change anytime soon… I don’t know if Israel can really be a democratic place until then.”
Haaretz, Israel’s leading leftwing newspaper, called the Ramat Gan affair a “turning point for culture in Israel”. Dozens of other Israeli museums and galleries, both 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 a black cloth over his Deller Sukkah installation in protest, the episode also represented an “outstanding example of solidarity, organisation and collective power”.
“The decision to go and take down the works was hard for the artists and for the museum, so it was a type of sacrifice for the sake of artistic autonomy,” he said. “We showed that a museum isn’t just a building: It’s not about the space, it’s the people you work with and how you work with them.
“I think it shows that in the end, we are the ones with the power, not a mayor who intervened in a professional undertaking for his own political reasons.”
Several members of the Knesset are now working towards drafting legislation that would protect the independent decision-making power of curators and artistic directors from their governing boards.
For the time being, the Ramat Gan museum, its paint still fresh, stands dark and empty – an unexpectedly perfect reflection of what the curator, Reingold, described as the “built-in tension between art and politics”.