Culture in Israel Is Stronger Than Those Who Would Control It

In the year since the last election, something happened that was unprecedented, at least in my memory — and I’ve been a journalist at the Haaretz Group for 30 years: Cultural issues have grabbed main headlines — the Israel Prize for literature; the conditions for state support of cultural institutions; ideological and political censorship of the literature curriculum and cultural programming in schools; politicians who arrogate to themselves the composition of Army Radio playlists, instead of the station’s music editors; the withdrawal of government funding from an Arab theater over the content of a play.

Clearly the present government places a high priority on policing Israeli culture and its institutions to verify their compliance with “the values of the state,” as specified in the so-called loyalty in culture bill. Some people see in this campaign the expression of a changing of elites. Some see in it a big opportunity for groups that have hitherto had difficulty breaking into the cultural mainstream. And some may see it as an effort to suppress opposition to the Israeli occupation.

Aluf Benn at the Haaretz Culture Conference.
Aluf Benn at the Haaretz Culture Conference.Credit: Moti Milrod

We at Haaretz have dedicated and continue to dedicate ample space to culture in all its forms — in the daily and weekly Galleria sections, in the weekend supplement, in the book supplement and the culture and literature supplement, and over the past year also on the news and politics pages and in the editorials, of course. We are practically the only Hebrew-language media outlet in Israel to report on and review art, dance, classical music and theater and to devote significant editorial content to literature, movies, music and television.

Two principles guide us in writing about culture: quality and freedom. We believe in principled judgment of the quality of the work of art, by professional reviewers who have amassed knowledge and experience in their fields.

This is how we do things at the newspaper, and this is how we feel the cultural institutions and the system that supports them should operate too: with quality artistic management and judgment, and not on the basis of “crowd wisdom” — a euphemism for populism — or in accordance with political representation, along the lines of “We have 30 Knesset members and you have 10, so we get to choose the cultural repertoire.” Knesset elections should determine the composition of the legislative and executive branches, not the ranking of taste in art.

Yes, we know that more Israelis would rather watch “Big Brother” and “Survivor” than go to an art exhibition, watch a play or a dance performance or even read a book. And even among readers, “Fifty Shades of Grey” was a much bigger seller than David Grossman’s last novel or Roy Hassan’s latest book of poems. We do not ignore this. We also write about reality shows and best-sellers and evaluate them critically in accordance with the rules of their genres. We compare “MasterChef” not to a Ravel piano concerto, but to other cooking programs.

Qualitative criticism isn’t perfect. It is vulnerable to complaints of discrimination, to claims that artistic directors, reviewers and judges tend to prefer what is similar to them and under the heading of “quality” merely perpetuate the existing white capitalist order, which around here means preferring the white Ashkenazi secular men who enjoy the biggest slice of the pie — at the expense of women, Mizrahim, Arabs, religious Jews, Russian-speakers and Ethiopian Israelis. We are very aware of this problematic aspect, but to date no better way has been found to propel the wheels of the cultural machine, to borrow a phrase from Benny Ziffer. We must remain cognizant of this issue and find an answer to it, rather than toss the criterion of quality into the political dustbin.

The culture minister spoke about “cultural justice” in the Army Radio playlist, about the need to remedy discrimination against Mizrahi singers. But if we are to follow her logic, why stop at Sarit Hadad and Eyal Golan? If the playlist is supposed to reflect the makeup of the population, or the election results, then, really, 20 percent of airtime should be devoted to Arab music, 15 percent to Hasidic melodies, 15 percent to Russian songs and two hours a week to programming in Amharic. We haven’t heard any such ideas from the Culture Ministry, or from the Defense Ministry.

The idea of cultural freedom poses an even bigger challenge. Governments throughout history have tried to suppress ideas that undermined their methods, that question dogma, that were deemed heretical. Sometimes they succeeded in deflecting the problem, as in the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, and sometimes in retrospect the suppression seems ridiculous and pathetic, as with Galileo’s trial by the Inquisition over his support for heliocentrism or the arrest of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda by the Ottoman authorities in Jerusalem.

The demand that art, literature and culture in Israel should identify with the Zionist revolution and not question its rightness or that of principles such as supporting the Israel Defense Forces, is not new. Nor is the fear that popular culture will hinder government policy. The song “Kushi Kelev Kat” was banned not because of political correctness, but because of concern that it could hurt efforts to improve ties between Israel and African countries. The songs of one of Israel’s greatest singers, Esther Ofarim, were banned from radio because she moved to Germany and made critical comments about Israel there. Yes, it was forbidden to play “Hayu Leilot” and “Tziunyunei Derekh” on Army Radio and other stations. This was the “A Parallel Time” of the mid-1960s. It was only after the Six-Day War that Ofarim was pardoned and restored to the playlist. In 1970, there was a public outcry over Hanoch Levin’s play “Queen of the Bathtub,” with various establishment voices called for productions to be cancelled because of its criticism of the Israeli political establishment. A Haaretz editorial at the time said: “We don’t need anyone shutting people up.” The government has changed since then, and today the right is behaving like Mapai, the precursor of the Labor Party. In the eyes of its leaders, cultural censorship is the expression of “genuine rule, and not just election victories.” Our position hasn’t changed: We still don’t need anyone shutting people up, just as we didn’t need that 50 years ago. Maybe we were mistaken in thinking that democracy and freedom of art and expression all march in the same direction, from being closed to being open, and we didn’t realize this was a struggle that has to be waged each day anew.

I really just don’t get it — What are they afraid of? That support for the rightist government will be shaken? Of criticism about our ruling over millions of Palestinians? That youths who read the novel “Borderlife” will end up assimilating? Am I supposed to believe that the state has feelings and it gets offended whenever it is criticized? And on the other hand, will government funding for obedient cultural works really perpetuate rightist rule? Had we learned from the Mapai example, we would have seen that it didn’t help, that government control of radio and television and putting lackeys in cultural institutions didn’t prevent the great political upset, or block subversive views from right and left. It didn’t even save the totalitarian Soviet Union from internal collapse, because the public didn’t believe the lies it was told with state funding.

Culture is stronger than those who would try to control it, even if they hold the keys to the coffers and to the appointments of artistic directors at the moment. As with Galileo and the Inquisition, the government could at most temporarily hold off the subversive view, perhaps until the next generation. But it won’t disappear or be stifled. It will find new and surprising outlets.

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