Anti-Israel propaganda in “prestigious” art show
Los Angeles – An art exhibit is not the usual battleground for controversies over anti-Israel propaganda. But when a prestigious art show in Los Angeles recently displayed artwork comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, a local Orthodox rabbi decided the time had come to speak out.
The LA Art Show is an annual five-day event featuring the work of many of the world’s hottest contemporary artists. It attracts tens of thousands of visitors, including Rabbi Shalom Rubanowitz, an attorney, musmach of Bais Medrash Govohah in Lakewood, and spiritual leader of The Shul on the Beach (known to many as the Pacific Jewish Center) in Venice, a beachfront neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Rabbi Rubanowitz, together with his children, visited the show on its final day, January 27, which coincidentally was International Holocaust Remembrance Day (the anniversary of the Allies’ liberation of Auschwitz). “It was supposed to be just a nice outing with my kids,” the rabbi said. “But it turned into something very different, and disturbing.”
As the Rubanowitzes entered the art show building, one of the first pieces of artwork in view depicted a large map. An enormous country in the middle was labeled Israel. Around it were areas labeled with the names of many other countries in the Middle East.
“At first, I thought, ‘Oh, isn’t that nice, an Israeli theme’,” Rabbi Rubanowitz recalled. “But as I looked closer, I realized the size of Israel as depicted was disproportionately large compared to its neighboring countries, which were not placed in any geographically correct manner. Then a friend pointed out to me that the peculiar shapes of the countries were not random. It was a map of Europe, and the area labeled Israel was actually in the shape of Germany. The countries around it all had roughly the same contours as the countries that are around Germany, but they were much smaller in size than in reality. The message of this piece of art is that Israel is the ‘new Germany’, but really the ‘new Nazi Germany,’ because it is clearly portrayed as gigantic and menacing.”
The artist who created the artwork is a German painter and illustrator, Daniel Richter. According to Richter’s web site, his work “conveys current events with an anarchic and energetic punk rock approach” who emphasizes “figures in situations of rebellion, scenes that are both exciting and surreal.”
Matthias Kunz of the Munich-based Gallerie Sabine Knust gallery, which arranged for the Richter piece to be displayed at the LA Art Show, had a booth at the show. Rabbi Runbanowitz approached Kunz to explain his concerns. “He said the purpose of the artwork was to ’stimulate discussion,’” Rubanowitz said.
Rabbi Rubanowitz was not impressed by that argument. He said that the display of the painting is particularly “insensitive and incendiary” at a time of rising antisemitism in the United States. “Imagine a similar piece some by a white artist depicting all African Americans as murderous aggressors seeking to enslave all white people, everyone would be outraged, and the painting would be taken down in a second.”
“Of course we live in a free country and any artist is free share his or her perspective, but gallery owners always use their discretion,” the rabbi noted. “That’s why, for example, they don’t display graphic pornography. Well, this kind of slander against the Jewish state is a kind of political pornography, and decent people are offended by it.”
Moshe Phillips, of the Zionist organization Herut, called the depiction of Israel as Germany “part of the growing trend among cultural elites to smear Israel in every possible arena, art, literature, theater, film. It’s another form of warfare against the Jewish state.”
Phillips is national director of the U.S. section of Herut North America, which follows the teachings of the late Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Other American Jewish and Zionist organizations were contacted by Rabbi Rubanowitz, but none of them have made any statements about the art show.
Asked about the choice of Richter’s Israel-Germany portrait, Heidi Johnson, the media spokesperson for the LA Art Show, responded that “we can’t control or be aware of every piece exhibited in the show,” but “in the future we will keep [the Jewish community’s] concerns in mind.”
Rabbi Rubanowitz is concerned that “Richter’s anti-Israel propaganda, masquerading as art,” may be shown at other shows and galleries around the country in the months ahead. It has already been included in the catalogues that the Gallerie Sabine Knust publishes. The rabbi has created a short video about his visit to the LA Art Show, which he has posted on his Facebook page, and he’s urging national Jewish organizations to be on the lookout. This battle is not over yet.