Artists and hard-line government clash in Israel
Jerusalem - Israel’s cultural class is increasingly alarmed by what many see as a tightening noose on freedom of expression, as a hard-line government minister seeks to cut funding for artists critical of the state.
The clash highlights a broader battle amid Israel’s rightward lurch after nearly 50 years of occupation of Palestinian lands. As Israel’s dovish camp erodes, a nationalist-religious right is rising that lends more emphasis to Israel’s character as a Jewish state, rather than one that is equally Jewish and democratic.
For Israeli artists, who tend to be politically liberal, the chasm between their viewpoints and those of a growing number of Israelis is deepening. Israel’s cadre of liberal musicians, authors and actors has been among the country’s most vocal critics, headlining rallies and provocative performances that challenge the prevailing orthodoxy.
“The first signs of dictatorship are the elimination of the other,” Ronit Matalon, a fiction writer, told the daily Haaretz. “The oxygen in the air we breathe is getting thinner.”
With Israel mired in a wave of violence with the Palestinians, hard-line lawmakers and activist groups have been stepping up pressure on dovish opponents, primarily rights groups critical of government policies in the West Bank.
Leading that charge has been Im Tirtzu, a nationalist group that launched a fierce video campaign accusing human rights groups of being spies and foreign agents. The video questioned their loyalty because of their international advocacy and because such non-profits tend to rely heavily on donations from European countries.
Im Tirtzu launched a campaign on Facebook branding dozens of singers, actors and authors — including writer Amos Oz, perennially touted as a possible Nobel Prize in Literature laureate — as foreign agents because of their support for rights groups.
“If you are active in a certain organisation, you are not just a cultural figure. You are a political activist,” said Im Tirtzu Chairman Matan Peleg. “It’s important for me that [the Israeli public] know there is a hidden agenda here.”
The artists and their supporters have said the campaign incites violence and demand Im Tirtzu be restrained.
“Have they lost their minds?” asked Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid party. “This campaign of hate and incitement to violence by Im Tirtzu crosses a red line.”
Politicians across the political spectrum, including hardliners in the government, rejected Im Tirtzu’s latest campaign. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said he “opposes using the term ‘traitor’ for those who disagree with me.”.
Still, critics say the campaign is the result of an atmosphere stifling dissent nurtured by Netanyahu’s hawkish government.
Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev recently vowed to press ahead with legislation that would allow her, as minister, to determine which cultural institutions and projects could be denied funding. She would use criteria that could include denigrating the national flag or state symbols, denying Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state or promoting Israel’s independence day as a day of mourning. Much of those criteria affect left-leaning or Arab institutions.
Regev has had a fraught relationship with the cultural community since her appointment in 2015 and has been accused of attempting to bring Israeli artists’ output in line with her political ideology.
Regev froze funding for an Arab theatre in the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Haifa over a play inspired by the prison experience of Walid Daka, an Arab citizen of Israel who abducted, tortured and killed an Israeli soldier in 1984. Critics said the play humanised a killer and disrespected the family of the victim.
Regev threatened to withhold funding for a Tel Aviv cinema hosting a film festival about the Nakba, the term Palestinians use to describe their displacement during the 1948 war that attended Israel’s creation.
She has also tried to meddle in the playlist of Israel’s most popular radio music station, Galgalatz, saying it was snubbing the Mizrahi music popular with her traditional political base in favour of the mainstream pop of Ashkenazi — European-descended — musicians.
“Regev is using all the tools at her disposal in an irresponsible way,” said Stav Shaffir, an opposition legislator. “She is using her authority to suppress art and humanities and not strengthen them.”
Speaking at Israel’s national theatre Habima on January 27th ahead of the debut performance of the musical Evita, Regev was greeted with both applause and boos, a reflection of her divisiveness.
“I will not allow the state to fund — in the name of freedom of expression — activities that undermine the very existence of the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” Regev told the audience in Tel Aviv, Israel’s liberal bastion.
Regev’s supporters say she is preserving Israel’s national dignity in the face of artists who are stretching the limits of freedom of expression.
(The Associated Press)