McJesus in Palestine: Using bad art to whitewash Israel’s crimes

On how a Finnish artist’s irreverent artworks helped Israel conceal its ongoing oppression of Palestinian Christians.

An artwork called "McJesus,"
An artwork called 'McJesus,' which depicts a crucified Ronald McDonald, is seen on display as part of the Haifa museum''s 'Sacred Goods' exhibit, in Haifa, Israel [AP/Oded Balilty]

Hundreds of Palestinian Muslims and Christians descended on the Haifa Museum of Art last Friday to protest the display of various artworks that use mass culture merchandise and corporate mascots to depict Christian icons. An online petition has also been launched to demand the removal of Finnish artist Jani Leinonen’s artworks, which included a crucified Ronald McDonald and Mattel dolls – Ken and Barbie – representing Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary.

Although Leinonen made a name for himself as a subversive anti-capitalist protest artist, the artworks he chose to put on display in the Haifa Museum’s “Sacred Goods” exhibition missed the mark.

In irreverent creations such as “McJesus”, the artist offered little more than an uninspiring rehash of the centuries-old critique of the relationship between religion and capitalism. More importantly, he completely ignored the political context in which these artworks are displayed, allowing the Israeli establishment to use the local population’s anger about the offensive exhibition to whitewash the oppression and threats the Palestinian Christians are currently facing.

Capitalism and religion: An old story 

Leinonen’s McJesus, like other artwork in the exhibition, seeks to show how consumer products have become “sacred goods,” merchandise invested with the authority of religious power and symbolism. 

However, there is nothing provocative or refreshing about this critique. The criticism of the sacralisation of capitalism and its obverse notion, the commercialisation of religion, has been ongoing for quite a few centuries now. Already in The Theory of the Moral Sentiments (1759), Adam Smith had used the “invisible hand” metaphor to draw this analogy between capitalism and religion. Ironically, the anachronistic nature of Leinonen’s artwork was also highlighted in the curator’s comment on the exhibition, where it was noted that “Already in the late nineteenth century, writer Emile Zola crowned consumption as the new religion, in which religious rituals in a church have been replaced by purchasing ceremonies at a department store.” 

Recycling the age-old critique of the complicity between religion and capitalism – as banal as it may be – could have still made an impact if Leinonen bothered to take into consideration the context in which these artworks are going to be displayed. 

The local context was clearly on the artist’s mind when he decided to transform a Ken doll into Jesus, as the box he packaged the doll in was emblazoned with the Hebrew word for Jesus (Yeshua). However, there was no commentary offered in any of his artworks about Israel’s realities –  its occupation of Palestinian land and oppression of the Palestinian population.

In the hands of a different artist attuned to the brutal realities of the local context, the image of a crucified McDonalds’ clown could have offered radical commentary on the Palestinian struggle for freedom. It could have easily highlighted the concerted efforts of both American religious institutions, especially evangelicals, and American corporate culture to provide material support and mythical narratives that legitimise the current policies of the authoritarian colonial-capitalist Israeli state.

Leinonen missed this opportunity. But even more importantly, his “bad art” allowed Israeli authorities to opportunistically exploit the indigenous population’s protests about Leinonen’s artworks and use the controversy to conceal the Israeli state’s racist and discriminatory policies and mistreatment of Palestinian Christians.

Whitewashing the ongoing Nakba 

Following protests by Palestinians, Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev spared no time in condemning the art exhibition in the name of “democratic values” and” tolerance for other cultural and religious traditions”. 

In her letter to the museum director, Regev stated: “The values that distinguish us as a Jewish and democratic state oblige us to respect the religious feelings of all citizens of the State of Israel – Muslims, Christians, Druze and others.” She insisted that disrespecting sacred symbols “may affect the delicate fabric of our democratic society, which respects the religious feelings of others as one of its most enlightened foundations.”

This appeal for tolerance is belied not only by the racist, discriminatory and divisive policies of Israel but also by the past actions of Regev herself. In May 2012, for example, Regev received much unwanted public attention after she called Sudanese asylum seekers a “cancer in the nation’s body.” For the record, Regev later apologised to Israeli cancer patients for her offensive remarks about cancer, but never felt the need to apologise to the human beings that she likened to a deadly disease. 

So what was behind the Culture Minister’s uncharacteristic appeal for tolerance and newfound concern for the rights and sentiments of Israel’s indigenous communities?

Regev’s condemnation of the exhibition was an attempt to whitewash the ongoing Nakba and to present Israel as a state that respects the diverse religious identities of all its citizens and residents, including Christians. 

This, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth.

Israel is not a Christian-friendly country

About a year ago, Theophilos III, the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, warned in an op-ed in the Guardian that Israeli policies are driving Palestinian Christians out of the Holy Land. He outlined the efforts of the Israeli Knesset to strip Palestinian Christians of their church lands and property rights through a “church lands” bill that would put an end to the church’s sovereignty over its lands in the old city of Jerusalem.

Theophilos III also pointed out the activities of radical settler groups in and around Jerusalem that are destabilising the status quo regarding “the protection and accessibility” of the holy sites in the city. Many of these radical settlers have been suspected of carrying out “price tag” attacks on churches and other Christian properties, desecrating and vandalising churches, monasteries, and holy sites and spraying hate graffiti on them. In most of these cases, the Israeli authorities did not apprehend any suspects and dismissed the incidents on the grounds of unknown perpetrators.

These attacks on Christian churches and properties, which date back to the Nakba, also target Christians in the West Bank. Israeli forces, for example, have raided a well-known monastery in Bethlehem and attempted to confiscate its land to continue building its apartheid annexation and separation wall in the Cremisan Valley. It is important to note that Israeli military forces aid and abet the radical settlers in their desecration of Christian sites, offering them the protection they need as they raid these sites to perform religious rituals there.

The state’s racist and discriminatory laws, closure policies and the apartheid annexation and separation wall restrict the access of Palestinian Christians to the holy sites in Jerusalem, effectively censuring their religious freedom and hindering them from practising their faith. These policies, as Theophilos III warns, threaten “the very presence of Christians in the Holy Land”.

Re-learn to Fight Capitalism: Decolonise!

Disingenuous calls for tolerance and understanding by Israeli authority figures like Regev should not trick anyone into thinking that the capitalist settler-colony that is Israel cares about the religious sensitivities of Christians or Muslims living in Israel. Needless to say, as Regev was talking about the so-called “democratic fabric” of the Israeli society, Israeli state police was using stun grenades and tear gas to squash and disperse the crowds demonstrating near the museum.

Regev’s letter also exposed a major shortcoming of the Israeli liberal left. Israeli leftists were outraged not only by Regev’s failure to condemn “the violence against the museum,” but also by her threats to cut state funding for such offensive exhibitions. In their eyes, as always, violence was one-sided and perpetrated by the Arabs. They ignored the structural violence of the state in the name of the fight over culture and artistic freedom.  

Leinonen’s McJesus and other artwork in the “Sacred Goods” exhibition is uncharacteristic of his other subversive anti-capitalist protest art and the School of Disobedience he runs. In this exhibition, he misses an important opportunity to critique the more pernicious aspects of capitalist exploitation and fetishisation through a critical engagement with the structures of violence and social inequalities that constitute the authoritarian capitalist-colonial Israeli state. The only way out of the false universality of the corporate capitalist culture that the crucified clown represents and into the truly radical and egalitarian universality for which Jesus stands is the practice of decolonisation.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.