‘He who disdains gifts will live,” it is written in Proverbs. The following is a story about a gift, bestowed to the city by a benefactor, which has become a burden of sorts.

About three years ago, Russian Christian oligarch Andrei Bykov gave a statue of King David playing a harp as a gift to the Holy City. Bykov asked that his statue be displayed at the entrance to the site of the legendary king’s tomb, on Mount Zion, which is also the site of Cenacle, believed to be the location of the Last Supper.

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A statue in Jerusalem is no simple matter, and then-mayor Uri Lupolianski wisely sought out the best kosher stamp of approval, to ensure it would not be considered a graven image. The municipality spokesman then released a statement saying that Rabbi Shalom Elyashiv himself had approved. Today, Yehoshua Pollak, who was deputy mayor at the time, says that Elyashiv’s approval was likely unwritten.

Nevertheless, the statue has been there for the past two and a half years, causing periodic uproar among Jews and Muslims. The statue has suffered repeated vandalism (its nose was broken in its very first month on display) attributed to young yeshiva students, who do not appreciate its presence so close to the revered Jewish holy site. Recently the situation has worsened, and last week the cameras installed at the site caught vandals desecrating the work of art with red paint.

As a result, city council members have stepped into the fray – in predictable ways. Shlomo Rosenstein and Yitzhak Pindrus (representing the haredi front) and David Hadari (on the religious Zionist side) want to relocate the statue, while the secular Left, led by Deputy Mayor Pepe Alalu, insists that the statue stay put, rather than “caving in” to haredi pressure.

This story serves as a reminder that once in a while Jerusalem has to deal with the generosity well-intentioned benefactors who are not always aware of the many sensitivities among the various communities living here. Even among local residents such sensitivity – including religious sensitivity – is not always present.

The Bykov controversy was not the first such case. Some 10 years ago, a decision by the city of Florence to bestow a reproduction of Michelangelo’s famous David sculpture nearly caused a local religious war. The Florentine David is, of course, hauntingly beautiful, but alas, also buck naked, and some Kikar Safra veterans can still recall the sweat that beaded their foreheads upon realizing the significance of the offer.

Eventually, our Italian friends sent another David, sculpted by Verocchio, and this time a clad version. Nevertheless, its arrival and display, at the Tower of David Museum, triggered an uproar among haredi and religious city council members. But that was during Ehud Olmert’s time as mayor, and that particular David did, against all odds, make aliya to the Holy City, where he still dwells, rarely, if ever, disturbed.

This incident perhaps explains why, when Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, on an official visit here four years ago, announced his wish to bestow a present “worthy of the eternal city,” some of Lupolianski’s staffers got a tad nervous – but just for a short time. Delanoe made it clear from the start that what he had in mind was not some biblical figure sculpted in marble or bronze, but a fountain.

The fact that in that particular year (2007) Israel was on the verge of an official drought didn’t bother anyone. Fortunately Delanoe, probably out of Divine inspiration, chose a kosher fountain. The reason for this seemingly miraculous French insight is actually quite prosaic: Delanoe has many Jewish friends, including some whom he consults; a simple way to avoid diplomatic incidents.

And what does the future hold? According to Deputy Mayor David Hadari (Israel Beiteinu), a continuation of the present situation – “some action on the ground.”

As for former deputy mayor Yehoshua Pollack (United Torah Judaism), there is not much that can be done about it.

“It’s a gift, it’s embarrassing, what can we do? Hurt the donor’s feelings? We’re stuck with it.”
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