Israel’s cultural war with Palestinians scathes Israeli liberals

The “loyalty” bill would restrict freedom of speech not just for Arab Israelis but also for Israeli liberals.
Sunday 04/11/2018
Israeli forces stand guard in front of a mural at the main entrance of the Palestinian city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. (AFP)
War of narratives. Israeli forces stand guard in front of a mural at the main entrance of the Palestinian city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. (AFP)

TUNIS - The Israeli government is pushing for legislation that would cut funding for works of art deemed not “loyal” to the state, reportedly aimed at Israeli citizens of Palestinian origin, but the move was met with concern by the country’s liberals.

The measure, put forward by Israeli Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, proposes to authorise the finance and culture ministries to withdraw funding from art projects that question the official narrative of the country’s founding and Jewishness.

Works of art regarding the experiences of Palestinians during the establishment of Israel in 1948, for example, would fall into that category. Another example is criticism of the recently passed law that defines Israel as a Jewish state, which many say would contradict the democratic nature of the country. Highlighting the plight of Palestinians living under military occupation is another expected no-go area.

The proposed law appears to be part of a war of narratives between Israelis and Palestinians. Palestinians often accuse Israel of appropriating their food and drink cultures and even laying claim to their wine. They say Israel aims to wipe out Palestinian culture by claiming it as its own.

Culture is also a battlefield for the pro-Palestinian campaign known as Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS). The campaign says it uses peaceful means to hold Israel accountable for its alleged crimes. It often compares the plight of Palestinians to that of South Africans under Apartheid, arguing that cultural and academic sanctions can yield results.

BDS boasted of convincing some 20 acts to withdraw from Israel’s Meteor Festival in September. The campaign claimed a semi-victory when the Eurovision contest decided to have its 2019 song competition in Tel Aviv instead of Jerusalem. Israel wanted to be in Jerusalem but BDS campaigners objected to having it anywhere in Israel.

There is a war of narratives over Jerusalem at UNESCO. A resolution in October reiterated that “all legislative and administrative measures and actions taken by Israel, the occupying power, which have altered or purport to alter the character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem… are null and void and must be rescinded forthwith.”

The resolution pleased the Palestinians because, in addition to its stance on Jerusalem, it referred to the Old City of Hebron, which hosts holy Jewish and Muslim sites, as “an integral part of the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

Israel blasted the resolution as an example of anti-Israel bias but it nevertheless claimed to have made a diplomatic achievement by making sure that it was non-binding.

While such battles are against an outside enemy, critics say the “loyalty” bill would restrict freedom of speech not just for Arab Israelis but also for Israeli liberals at a time when artists are exercising self-censorship.

Some 1,000 people, included leading theatre and film personalities, took to the streets to protest the bill but observers said their efforts were not enough.

“Theatre actors, directors and playwrights, whose creations depend on public funding controlled by the government, will not be the salvation of Israel’s dissipating freedom of expression. Nor will salvation come from Israeli audiences trapped in the warm consensus over the right-wing ideological path,” wrote Israeli author Akiva Eldar for Al-Monitor website.

“The masses will only take to the streets on the day that singers and entertainment artists from Israel and around the world decide to stay away from the popular Eurovision song contest or from other performances taking place in countries [that] blindly follow censorship — countries like Israel,” he added.

Some Israeli artists have complained of verbal and physical violence by members of the public unhappy with the political direction of their art.

The government, too, is showing less tolerance of dissenting views.

“In recent years, Israel’s parliament has passed a series of combative, censorial laws, including legislation limiting the funding of human rights organisations,” wrote Marisa Mazria-Katz and Mairav Zonszein in the New York Review of Books.

“The tacit acceptance of pockets of dissent — once touted as proof of Israel’s vibrant democracy and diversity — is vanishing even from this liberal redoubt (Tel Aviv).”

Award-winning Israeli film-maker Shlomi Eldar warned against an increasing right-wing intolerance of the Supreme Court of Israel and of liberal media and organisations.

“You can see the dangerous process taking place in Israel… I think the culture war in Israel [within] Israeli society is more dangerous than any other war that Israel went through,” he told Haaretz.

The cultural war that is affecting Israeli liberals could be a wake-up call for the country’s mainstream.

The more highly educated leaders of Israel’s judiciary, military, universities, business and media, including President Reuven Rivlin, now speak of the need to restore ‘mamlachtiyut,’ which roughly translates as ‘state institutional dignity’,” wrote Israeli author Bernard Avishai in the New Yorker.