Lindsey Armstrong | Wikimedia.com
Lindsey Armstrong | Wikimedia.com

When does art cross the line from making a statement or provoking discussion to mocking a person’s faith? That was the question that an Israeli museum is grappling with after a sculpture nicknamed “McJesus” angered Christians in Haifa. The sculpture in question featured a life-sized Ronald McDonald hung on a cross in the same manner as traditional depictions of Jesus. The sculpture sparked violent protests and the Ministry of Culture threatened to defund the museum where it was displayed, the Haifa Museum of Art.

“This work does not belong in a cultural institution supported by state funds,” said Cultural Minister Miri Regev. Regev stated that the sculpture made “a mockery of the crucifix, the most important religious symbol for Christians around the world.”

The debate, however, quickly became more complicated when Israel’s Department of Justice intervened and disagreed with the position of the Ministry of Culture. “It is forbidden to block funding to cultural institutions because of the content they exhibit,” said Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber. Zilber further stated that the government financial support did not give the government leave to censor the artwork displayed in the museum.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel threw its support behind the Department of Justice. “The Minister of Culture seems to have made a quantum leap,” said ACRI legal advisor, Dan Yakir. According to Yakir, the attempt to threaten the museum into removing the piece violated freedom of speech and expression.

The discussion over McJesus comes when nations across the world seem to be moving away from freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of religion in favor of attempting to create the impossible ideal of “freedom from offense.” The reality is, however, that there is no way to insulate people from offense, but that has not stopped governments and courts from overstepping in an attempt to do so. Nissim Tal, the director of the Haifa Museum of Art has made his opinion on such overreach quite clear. He stated that they would be leaving the sculpture on display as a way of “defending freedom of speech, freedom of art and freedom of culture.”

So far, Israel has favored Tal’s position by continuing to display McJesus. Ironically, however, the artist himself is unhappy with the decision to keep his piece in the museum, but for completely different reasons. Jani Leinonen supports a Palestinian group that discourages doing any sort of business with Israel.

What will happen with McJesus is unclear, but it is good to see people holding fast in favor of freedom. Even if they might be better in this case to listen to the artist. It is, after all, his expression that he is asking to be removed.

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