Israelis know how to handle shocking works of art

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All those American Christians who were upset by the Brooklyn Museum of Art's "Sensation" exhibit could learn a lesson from Israel. Their problem, it turns out, is that they protested peacefully. To convince the authorities that you are genuinely upset, you've got to use a bit of arson and vandalism.

Israel's very own equivalent to "Sensation," which made headlines in the United States with a black Virgin Mary smeared with elephant dung, was the "International Triennale." This exhibition, featuring works by 30 artists from Israel and abroad, was this year being held for the first time at the Haifa Museum.

The museum had planned to open it with a unique exhibit by Israeli artist Honi Hama'agal. This exhibit consisted of a nude actress being bound upon a cross while three men in uniform shot paint bullets at her.

An Israeli rabbi affiliated with a fringe non-Orthodox movement in the United States — the New Age movement — would stand at her side reading prayers, while people with torches marched around in the background.

Until two weekends ago, both the Haifa Museum and the city were staunchly behind the exhibit. Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna had publicly expressed his support several times, and even announced that he would personally attend the opening.

Nissim Tal, the curator of the Haifa Museum, explained that the museum had never dreamed Christians might find the exhibit offensive. (It had occurred to him that Orthodox Jews might find it offensive, but that, of course, was not a consideration.)

But a group of Christian Arab youths calling themselves "Sons of the Cross" disabused him of that notion on Oct. 22. The group did not even attempt persuasion. Some of its members requested a meeting with Mitzna's aide that day to ask him to get the mayor to cancel the exhibit. But while the meeting was taking place, other members of the group went to the exhibition site and burned down the cross.

The cross-burning persuaded both Mitzna and the museum that the Christian outrage was real, and they promptly canceled Hama'agal's exhibit.

"There is no justification for hurting the sensibilities of any community in the name of art," the mayor declared in a press statement.

Added Tal, "We had a clear choice. We could destroy our relations with our Christian neighbors or we could take down the exhibit. I'm pleased that it has been taken down."

The truth is that Mitzna and Tal made the right decision. What is sad is that, as in so many other aspects of Israeli life, the authorities in this case were unwilling to take the issue seriously without the spur of violence.

If, as Mitzna and Tal correctly concluded, it is inappropriate for a city to sponsor an event that is liable to offend a sizable community, then it was inappropriate even before a fringe element of that community decided to take the law into its own hands.

What undoubtedly complicated their decision is the fact that the question of what it is appropriate to do with public funds is all too frequently confused with the issue of censorship. Charges of "censorship" were hurled at New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani when he tried to cut public funding for the Brooklyn Museum over its failure to cancel "Sensation," and the same accusation is commonly heard in Israel.

After Haifa canceled his exhibit, Honi Hama'agal declared with disgust that "it is impossible to produce works connected to politics, society or religion in Israel."

Only a few days earlier, film director Haim Tal declared in Ha'aretz that a recent government decision to cut funding for independent television programs constituted "censorship."

But the distinction Giuliani made in response to the censorship charges was exactly the right one. An artist has every right to offend the public as much as he pleases, Giuliani said, but he does not have the right to receive public funding in order to do so.

No one would deny a private organization the right to air controversial programs or sponsor controversial exhibits. And indeed, contrary to Hama'agal's assertion they often do.

The "Sons of the Cross" group cited a classic example: In 1995, hundreds of Christians rioted because the Matav cable television company refused to cancel a screening of "The Last Temptation of Christ."

But there is one enormous difference between these two cases. Matav is a private company, and it therefore has the right to screen whatever it pleases. The Haifa — and Brooklyn — museums are publicly funded.

A publicly funded institution does not "own" the funding it receives; it is merely a trustee, and accountable to the public for how it uses this money. Such an institution has no right at all to grossly violate this trust by using taxpayers' money to insult their most deeply held beliefs.