Controversial 'McJesus' art sculpture defended by Israel

Israel's Department of Justice was forced to intervene Tuesday in the controversy around a sculpture of "McJesus" — Jesus modeled as Ronald McDonald — that angered Christians in the Holy Land.

The Ministry of Culture threatened to defund the Haifa Museum of Art, where "McJesus" is displayed and where violent protests broke out last week.

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"This work does not belong in a cultural institution supported by state funds," Culture Minister Miri Regev wrote in a letter to the museum, adding that the sculpture, which is part of the "Sacred Goods" show that opened in August, makes a “mockery of the crucifix, the most important religious symbol for Christians around the world,” and could not be protected under freedom of speech.

But the Department of Justice disagreed.

“It is forbidden to block funding to cultural institutions because of the content they exhibit,” Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber wrote in a letter to Regev Tuesday, reminding the minister that the government could not interfere with the contents presented at cultural institutions because it provides financial support.

An artwork called "McJesus," which was sculpted by Finnish artist Jani Leinonen and depicts a crucified Ronald McDonald, is seen on display as part of the Haifa museum's "Sacred Goods" exhibit, in Haifa, Israel, Monday, Jan. 14, 2019. Hundreds of Christians calling for the sculpture's removal protested at the museum last week. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

An artwork called "McJesus," which was sculpted by Finnish artist Jani Leinonen and depicts a crucified Ronald McDonald, is seen on display as part of the Haifa museum's "Sacred Goods" exhibit, in Haifa, Israel, Monday, Jan. 14, 2019. Hundreds of Christians calling for the sculpture's removal protested at the museum last week. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel contacted the Department of Justice on behalf of the museum.

“The Minister of Culture seems to have made a quantum leap,” wrote ACRI’s legal advisor, Dan Yakir. He said that while in the past the minister had instructed mayors or other elected officials to prevent cultural events when she did not like their content, it was beyond acceptable bounds to reach out directly to the museum. He said the move violated freedom of speech and expression.

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The sculpture's Finnish artist, Jani Leinonen, wants his artwork removed -- but for a different reason. He supports the pro-Palestinian group, Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, or BDS, which discourages doing business with the Jewish state.

Much to the displeasure of Regev, hundreds of Christians, and Leinonen, "McJesus" isn't going anywhere.

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Nissim Tal, the museum's director, told The Associated Press they "will be defending freedom of speech, freedom of art, and freedom of culture" by keeping the artwork right where it is.