Monumental dilemma: Jerusalem rages over statues

David, Buddha and Churchill foment charges of idolatry and religious coercion.

Jerusalem traffic circle (illustrative) 311 (photo credit: Nir-Kutz Architects)
Jerusalem traffic circle (illustrative) 311
(photo credit: Nir-Kutz Architects)
King David, Winston Churchill and the Japanese Agon Shu Buddhist Association have all been drawn into the raging battle for the face of Jerusalem, in a dispute over statues, traffic circles, idolatry and religious coercion.
The upcoming meeting of the Jerusalem Municipality’s Sculpting Committee will discuss the relocation of a statue of David a short distance away from its current location at the entrance to David’s Tomb on Mount Zion; the approval of a sculpture of Winston Churchill by Oscar Nemon, which the Churchill family wishes to bestow upon the city; and the proposed design of a traffic circle, courtesy of the Agon Shu.
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Over two years ago, members of the Agon Shu landed in Israel to perform a fire ceremony as part of their efforts to promote peace in the world.
Warmly received by Jerusalem and its residents, the Agon Shu wished to show their gratitude to the city for its hospitality, and were told they could beautify a traffic circle.
A representative in Israel contacted Arie Kutz, a Tel Aviv architect whose office specializes in landscape architecture, and commissioned him to draw up plans for the traffic circle that leads into the Armon Hanatziv neighborhood, just southeast of the Sherover Promenade.
Ahead of the Sculpting Committee meeting – scheduled originally for last Sunday but postponed for reasons unrelated to the volatile agenda – councilman and committee member Yossi Deitsch of United Torah Judaism spoke out strongly against allowing “actual idolatry” in the city’s limits. This sentiment received wide resonance in the religious and haredi media.
“There is a Japanese group that wants to place some sort of Buddha statue in the city. This is actual idolatry. We should not have such things,” Deitsch reiterated to The Jerusalem Post late last week regarding the Agon Shu proposal.
“We appreciate their goodwill to contribute to the State of Israel, but the Jerusalem Municipality should know there are places that shouldn’t accept such gestures,” he said.
There is a distinction to be made between religious symbols such as crosses, and actual forms of idolatry such as this kind of statue, Deitsch continued.
“Religious symbols are not idolatry, but this statue is apparently such that will be bowed to, and offerings will be made to it,” he said. “The presence of churches and mosques are fine; this [proposed statue] is full-fledged idolatry.”
Deitsch added that to the best of his knowledge, the city’s beautification division was also against erecting the statue.
In a later conversation with the Post, Deitsch explained that he was basing his stance on what the municipality’s art adviser David Suzana had written in a letter about the Agon Shu traffic circle. According to Suzana, the proposed design contained religious and ritualistic Buddhist elements, and the art adviser objected to it on those grounds.
“I cannot agree to have Buddhists arrive to conduct religious ceremonies at the site,” asserted Deitsch, who will be seeing the plans for the first time when the committee convenes.
But according to Kutz, there is no Buddha in his design, nor is there “a Buddhist agenda.”
“This is an abstract object, with no human figure,” Kutz, who specialized in Japanese architecture and gardens in his advanced studies there, told the Post.
“We consciously chose not to use religious and/or Buddhist elements in the circle’s design,” he explained. “The shapes are the figment of my creation...
and were not dictated by the client, who gave full freedom of design here.”
Describing the project, Kutz said that “the circle’s design correlates to the four winds, and the ancient Chinese symbolism of the connection between those and the elements of the universe (water, fire, wood, metal, earth). This Chinese symbolism reached Japan some 1,500 years ago and is known there, too.”
But even if Buddhist elements did exist in the planned traffic circle, they needn’t have been a source of concern for those worried about idolatry, according to an expert in Far- Eastern religion.
Kutz’s planned traffic circle, which does not contain such elements, of course “needn’t be considered problematic as far as the Jewish religious principles or feelings go,” Dr. Eviatar Shulman, who teaches Buddhist and Indian philosophy, religion and culture at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University, told the Post in an e-mail correspondence on Monday.
Shulman noted that in cultural- ritual memory of Hinduism – not Buddhism – there is an element of sacrificing to a god or its representation in a statue, and he suggested that this might be the reason people thought offerings to statues were involved. But “the role of Buddhism in India should actually cause joy to those who fear the proposed design – Buddha ruled out the ritual and sacrifices to gods,” he said.
“Buddhism doesn’t take much interest in gods, [but] in Buddha, perceived as a man who reached enlightenment.
This tradition should not be considered idolatry,” he stressed.
Meanwhile, Deputy Mayor and Sculpting Committee head Naomi Tsur said that in the case of the King David statue, which was dedicated during haredi former mayor Uri Lupolianski’s term, the “extreme Left is saying we’ve given in to the haredim.”
But in fact, she continued, the statue was simply not in an appropriate place, and the short move to the entrance of the Mount Zion complex would solve the problem.
“There are Christian sentiments there, too,” Tsur said, noting that in her many visits to the site, Christian tourists had expressed their discomfort with the statue’s proximity to the entrance of the Last Supper room.
“We are trying to do the best for all the different populations; this is not a major decision like allowing people to park near the Old City on Shabbat,” she added – a reference to Mayor Nir Barkat’s decision to open the Karta parking lot on Shabbat.
Tsur also noted the importance of accepting the statue of Churchill, who visited the city 90 years ago. His family wishes that the Nemon statue be placed in the Rose Garden, between the Knesset and the Supreme Court.
Opposition member Pepe Alalu, who is also on the sculpting committee, sees the three artistic elements at hand as part of a larger problem the city is facing.
“It’s a disgrace that in the State of Israel, finally free and Jewish, there are those who complain about symbols of other religions,” Alalu, head of the municipality’s Meretz faction, told the Post on Monday in reference to the Agon Shu circle.
“Doesn’t Chabad put hannukiot all around the world? Everyone would cry anti-Semitism if they were ordered to be removed,” he added.
Regarding the intent to relocate the statue of David, “that is even worse, since it has already has a location, and because of a few hoodlums who vandalized it, they want to move it,” Alalu said.
In March, security cameras showed haredi youth spraying the statue with paint. Deputy Mayor Yitzhak Pindrus (UTJ) recently called the location of the statue “a mistake that should be corrected,” since it was a “desecration, placed in a holy site.” He said the municipality had agreed to his faction’s demand to have it moved.
However, “there was thought put into where that statue would be, the relevant factors spoke with everyone before placing it, developmental work was done,” Alalu continued.
“We know in which kind of states it is common practice to move statues around.”
Alalu claimed that the David statue was set to be moved because of the haredim, who were troubled by the fact that the statue had a face.
“They will also object the Churchill statue; it is the same thing,” he stated.
“To move a statue is a procedure, like naming a street – you don’t just change street names.
There are people here who want to take over the character of life in this city,” Alalu went on. “There can be no compromises on this.”
The sculpting committee has yet to set a new date for its upcoming meeting, which will most likely be at the beginning of January.