Artists and hard-line government clash in Israel

Friday 05/02/2016
Branded as “foreign agent”. A file picture shows Israeli writer Amos Oz attending a press conference in Budapest.

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)