In 1999, the Brooklyn Museum scheduled the art exhibit “Sensations,” part of British art collector Charles Saatchi’s collection featuring young British artists intent on creating very challenging, shocking artwork. Margaret O’Brien Steinfels of the New York Times wrote at the time that the show included, “dead pigs and sharks preserved in formaldehyde, the bust of a man made from his own frozen blood and a painting of the Virgin Mary smeared with elephant dung.”
It was that last piece, by Chris Ofili that caused the outrage, primarily on the part of New York’s then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He threatened to pull the museum’s funding, a judge blocked the move, the show went on, and the painting was defaced.
But no one died in the making or the hanging of this painting.
I just thought I’d point that out. The incident came to mind in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo slaughter in Paris, where two Muslim terrorists invaded the offices of the French satirical magazine and gunned down 12 members of the cartooning and editorial staff. The ensuring two days put Paris in a state of siege as police sought the killers, and included a second terror attack on a kosher supermarket a heavily Jewish Parisian neighborhood that resulted in the deaths of four Shabbat shoppers.
The bloodbath began with the perpetrators seeking vengeance for the way Charlie Hebdo depicted the Muslim prophet Mohammed. Blasphemous and rude, with an artistic style that reminds me of Mad Magazine or Harvard Lampoon, Charlie Hebdo didn’t seem to find much that was off-limits. The offices had been firebombed before, and its editor Stephane Charbonnier had been threatened and had police protection. Not that it did him much good. The officer assigned to protect him was also slaughtered in the blood bath.
I tried to think of an incident where either Christians or Jews had become so riled up about the way their religious symbols were depicted that the end result was murder and I could think of none. Ofilis Madonna was defaced. Prints of Andres Serrano’s photograph “Piss Christ,” in which he took a photo of a plastic Jesus on a crucifix submerged in his own urine, has been on the receiving end of kicks and hammers. In 2011, employees at Collection Lambert in Avignon, France (no less), where the photo was displayed, were threatened.
But again, no one died. The exhibit closed early and the curators chose to display the smashed photo to show the public the resulting violence.
Try as I might, I cannot remember any, or find examples of Jews who have killed others for making artwork of our God or prophets, serious or otherwise. Did Renaissance Jews object to Michelangelo’s Moses, with the two prominent horns on his head? Or even that he painted a very human-looking God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? And yet the second commandment prohibits the making of images or likenesses that could be worshipped as idols. That prohibition extends to making likenesses of human images, and by extension depicting God in human, or other known form.
There are Jews who protest every chance they get any cartooning they feel is anti-Semitic. Jews protest loudly about images critical of Israel. It seems to me that most objections are over how we, as a people, are portrayed, rather than how our God is depicted. We don’t like hooked noses, references to world dominance, international banking, equating settlers with terrorists, or Israel with colonial power, just to make a short list. Who would? The resulting artwork is usually insulting and plays to some of the most base, anti-Semitic stereotypes out there. And on the high art end, most recently, we objected vociferously to the performance of a Metropolitan opera performance, “Klinghoffer,” because of its humanizing portrayal of the Palestinian terrorists who shot cruise passenger, Leon Klinghoffer, and then threw him over the side of the ship the Achille Lauro.
But I have never heard of anyone getting killed over any of these episodes.
I am not saying that Jews and Christians have not produced terrorists. Baruch Goldstein, who slaughtered Muslims praying in Hebron comes to mind. The Jewish Defense League was listed by the FBI as a terrorist group, and has been responsible over the decades of its operation in this country for killing seven and wounding 22 others. Christian terrorists include the murderer of Dr. Bernard Slepian, a physician targeted by the anti-abortion movement and the bomber of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, to name two. There are others, mostly in the anti-abortion camp.
France’s President Francois Hollande insisted this current violence is not Islam, but why then is it so easy to find examples of Muslim violence directed at free expression? Theo Van Gogh was murdered for a film critical of how Islam treats women. Salman Rushdie lived under a fatwa ordering his death issued by none other than Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then the spiritual leader of Iran, for publishing “The Satanic Verses,” a book he denounced as blasphemous.
The attack on the World Trade Center was not simply an attack on two New York buildings, but rather on one of the most prominent symbols of Western commerce. One plane struck the Pentagon. The thwarted one that crashed in Pennsylvania was headed to the White House. These would include attacks on symbols of military and political power. Perhaps the attack on Charlie wasn’t simply an attack against cartoons that were deemed offensive, but rather one against the Western freedom that allows them to be published at all.
I know there are many millions of Muslims who do not commit these acts. They go to work, they come home, they may or may not go to the mosque. They live their lives; Muslims like Lassana Bathily, who hid several of the shoppers at Hyper Cacher in the freezer before sneaking upstairs to assist police with details.
And yes, Jews commit acts of violence. And yes, Christians can be intolerant. Yet all of us pray to a God, the same God. We all acknowledge the supremacy and greatness of that God when we do so.
Yet why is it that the symbols of Islam need so much protection? Is there really a need to come out guns blazing, every time someone pokes fun at them?