The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A sculpture of Ronald McDonald on a cross ignites violent clashes in Israel

Finnish artist Jani Leinonen's "McJesus" sculpture is on display as part of the Haifa Museum of Art's "Sacred Goods" exhibit in Haifa, Israel. (Oded Balilty/AP)

Artwork depicting a crucified Ronald McDonald remains on display in Israel despite protests and calls for its removal from the country’s Arab Christian community.

The sculpture, named “McJesus,” was meant to be a critique of society’s capitalistic culture, Haifa Museum of Art officials told the Associated Press. The demonstrations began last week and came as a surprise to museum director Nissim Tal, who indicated that the sculpture had been up for months and shown in other countries without incident.

The AP reports that the protests were sparked by scores of visitors to the museum sharing photos of “McJesus” on social media, upsetting many Arab Christians, who considered the sculpture insensitive to their religion. Tal told the Jerusalem Post that more than 30,000 people have viewed the exhibit featuring “McJesus” since opening night in August.

“This is very offensive, and I cannot consider this art,” Amir Ballan, an artist in Haifa and a Christian, told the AP. “We will continue through peaceful rallies and candle vigils. … We won’t be quiet until we reach a solution.”

But not all of the rallies have been peaceful, officials say. Israeli police said rioters threw a firebomb and stones toward the museum late last week, wounding three officers, according to the AP. Authorities responded with tear gas and stun grenades.

Street signs spray-painted with crosses were still visible Monday as one protester held a sign reading, “Respect religions,” the AP reported. Some of the protests were also captured on social media.

As reported by the Jerusalem Post, one protester told Walla news that he thought the government was ignoring complaints because Arab Christians are in the minority in Israel, making up a small percentage of the country’s population.

“If they put up [a sculpture of] Hitler with a Torah scroll, they would immediately respond,” the protester told the Israeli news outlet.

The museum, however, says that removing the artwork would undermine freedom of expression. It has since hung a curtain over the entrance to the exhibit and put up a sign indicating that the sculpture is not meant to be offensive.

“This is the maximum that we can do,” Tal told the AP. “If we take the art down, the next day we’ll have politicians demanding we take other things down, and we’ll end up only with colorful pictures of flowers in the museum.”

Jani Leinonen, the Finnish artist behind “McJesus,” told the Jerusalem Post that the sculpture was displayed against his wishes. He said he wants it removed from the exhibit because he supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, better known as BDS. The Palestinian-led initiative calls for boycotting Israeli goods and services to pressure Israel to end its occupation.

Israel argues that BDS is anti-Semitic and undermines the nation’s right to exist, and it has banned those associated with the movement from entering the country.

“I joined the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, that upholds the simple principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity,” Leinonen told the Jerusalem Post. “Israel overtly uses culture as a form of propaganda to whitewash or justify its regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid over the Palestinian people. Therefore I do not wish to be part of this exhibition and I asked the museum to take my artwork off the exhibition.”

The museum told the Times of Israel that it condemned the violence that broke out in protest of the sculpture.

“A discourse about art, however complex it may be, must not spill over into violent territory and must be respected — even in charged situations,” the museum said.

Loveday Morris contributed to this report.

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