Suicide Madonnas are a shock too far for Israeli art enthusiasts

Tel Aviv exhibition recasting holy virgins as female terrorists provokes such outrage it is dismantled before opening night
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At first glance the exhibition which previewed in Tel Aviv this week was a collection of classic and very familiar images of the Madonna and child, with variations on the pious theme executed by Raphael, Botticelli and other Renaissance masters.

Only on closer inspection did it become clear that each of the holy virgins had been reincarnated in the person of the female Palestinian suicide bombers who brought mayhem to Israel during the second intifada.

The effect, as of much modern art, was deliberately shocking. But yesterday, in a sign that in this case it was too much for almost everyone, the exhibition was dismantled before its opening. One of the seven pictures on display depicted Wafa Idris, the first woman suicide bomber of the second intifada, with a halo and wearing the checkered headband of the Fatah movement in which she was an activist. When Idris blew herself up in West Jerusalem in 2002, she killed an 81-year old man and wounded more than 100 Israelis.

Another of the bombers depicted is Hani Jaradat, who blew up a restaurant in Haifa in 2003, killing 21 people.

The exhibition had been due to open at the Israel Journalists Association last night but the association announced at the last minute that it was taking it down. "Our legal adviser determined this could be an offence against the feelings of the public in general and against the families of those harmed by terror in particular," said Yossi Bar-Muha, the association chairman. Politicians from the ruling Likud party and the opposition Kadima party had denounced the pictures – published in the mass circulation Yediot Ahronoth newspaper – as offensive. Relatives of victims filed police complaints against the exhibition.

Ron Kehrmann, whose 17-year-old daughter Tal was killed in a 2003 suicide bombing of a bus in Haifa, said the exhibit was offensive to Christian sensibilities and to parents of victims.

"I'm not a great art expert but I don't see any art here," he said. "Is it art to take a religious icon, use photo shop and make an oval and cut and paste a murderer of innocents?

"Putting the terrorists in the place of the holy mother is saying they are saints. If this was done by the other side I could understand it as propaganda. But Jews doing it? I can't understand it." Mr Kehrmann filed a complaint against the exhibition under an ordinance banning displays that "encourage violence and terrorism".

Bernard Sabella, a Christian member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, said: "Some may argue it is art and anything is allowed, but this is the Holy Land and we have three religious communities living side by side. An artist in this land cannot associate acts that are not accepted by any civilised person with the symbols of world religions."

Speaking before the cancellation, Galina Bleich, one of the artists, said the works were meant to show the horror of women carrying out suicide bombings. "A child in the hands of Madonna is in danger, that's what should concern people. This is not only an Israeli problem, but a worldwide problem, and that is why we chose Madonna, a Christian symbol," she told Israel's Y-net news service.

Bleich said she had the idea for the exhibit after finding herself at the scene of a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. "From then I haven't stopped thinking about it... We are trying to ask how a woman who is intended to love and give birth turned into a source of hatred and murder."