Another battle in Israel’s culture war

Tomorrow (Monday) Israel’s Knesset is expected to take the final vote on the so-called “Loyalty in Culture” bill introduced by Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev.

Yes, the name of the proposed law (Hebrew text here), when translated into English, sounds somewhat Orwellian. And its opponents will tell you that it is an attack on freedom of expression worthy of a dictatorial regime, which is what they think Netanyahu’s government aspires to be. So what does it say?

It gives the Culture Minister the right to reduce or remove government funding from artists, theaters, writers, performers – any person or organization that produces or promotes art or entertainment that does one of the following five things:

  1. Denies the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
  2. Incites racism, violence, or terrorism.
  3. Supports armed struggle or terrorism against the State of Israel by an enemy state or a terrorist organization.
  4. Treats Independence Day or the day of the establishment of the state as a day of mourning.
  5. Involves mutilation or disrespect for the flag or symbol of the state.

Regev did not draw these criteria from her imagination. The (heavy) taxes on all citizens of Israel have paid for all of them at one time or another. Well known examples include a theater group producing a play whose protagonist was an Arab terrorist who murdered an IDF soldier, observances of nakba day, “performance art” that included the insertion of our national flag into the anus of the “artist,”* a short film in which another “artist” defecates on the flag, and countless others.

Decisions on what would count as violations of the criteria would be made by a committee drawn from the Ministry of Culture and Sport, plus representatives of the Finance Ministry, and the staff of the government’s legal advisor. The chairperson would be the Minister of Culture and Sport.

Opponents of the measure have called it “censorship” or said that it “introduces politics into art,” but proponents say that it would not censor artistic expression, but only determine what kind of expression the state would pay for.

The fact that such a measure is seriously thought to be needed is an indication of the furious political/culture war that is being waged in Israel today, between a small avant-garde of academics, artists, and media people, and the rest of Israeli society. The avant-garde is characterized by extreme leftist politics – often anti-state and sympathizing with anti-Israel Palestinians, and disdain of religious people (at least, Jewish religious people), and of Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria. Its members believe that they are intellectually superior to the rest of the population, whom they see as stupid, superstitious, racist sheep, manipulated by corrupt right-wing politicians and rabbis.

Although they characterize others as racist, the avant-garde holds Jews from North Africa, Arab countries, and Ethiopia in contempt. They are nevertheless at the forefront of the movement to prevent the repatriation of illegal African migrants, who are destroying the neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv, where they do not set foot.

Despite being a tiny minority, they almost totally dominate Israeli media, especially TV and film. The Israeli film industry is funded primarily by several NGOs set up for that purpose, which receive money from the government and private donations from Israel and abroad. Major productions often “co-produced” with foreign countries. Some one-third of the funds for Israeli films come from abroad, mostly Europe. The product of the film industry is solidly left-wing, even anti-Israel, something which Miri Regev has tried to change as well, and she has met with sharp opposition from the film community.

The intellectual elite views the victory of Menachem Begin in 1977, and the rightward turn of Israeli politics since then as a disaster (I am surprised that they don’t refer to it as a nakba), but the security disasters that were caused by the Oslo process, the abandonment of southern Lebanon, and the withdrawal from Gaza, have eviscerated the political Left, leaving the avant-garde without a political base. Nevertheless, they have continued to keep a tight grip on the intellectual, cultural, and media spheres in Israel, as they become more and more frantic over their loss of political control.

Regev’s attack on the extremist monopoly on culture is paralleled by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s struggle to change the Israeli legal establishment, including the selection methods for Supreme Court justices and the government’s legal advisor, an official who is not publically accountable but has an enormous amount of influence. The opposition of the cultural and legal establishments to the popular will have brought about the situation described recently by Minister of Education Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party, as the public “voting Right but getting Left.”

Both Regev and Shaked are strongly opposed by those who see their self-appointed authority being eroded. They often express this opinion by saying that “Israel’s democracy is threatened.” It’s not unfair to say that these are people who value democracy a great deal in the abstract, but are unhappy with the consequences of applying it.

I don’t know if the Loyalty in Culture bill will pass tomorrow. Thanks to the one-vote majority held by the coalition in the Knesset, the various factions are using every possible issue to extort concessions from each other, often to the detriment of the public good. Everything is held hostage to one “deal” or another.

It’s a shame that principles like those in the bill need to be made explicit. How hard is it to know that a play glorifying a terrorist murderer is inappropriate? How hard is it to understand that placing our national flag in one’s anus is not “art” but simply a childishly offensive display?

It would be better if our creative class didn’t find it necessary to try to force us to commit cultural (and sometimes actual) suicide along with them, and there was no need to restrain them. Unfortunately that isn’t the case. The bill should pass.

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* Some news media reported that Ariel Bronz used a blank white flag in his performance, but at least on one occasion it was clearly seen to be a blue-and-white Israeli flag.

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