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Op-eds

The arts: not yours to fiddle with

  • Geoff
Three weeks ago, Israel approved a draft law giving Culture Minister Miri Regev the authority to cut funding from cultural institutions that “contravene the principles of the state”. This is known as the “loyalty-in-culture bill”.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Nov 08, 2018

Because of Israel’s condition of perpetual threat from its neighbours, politicians argue that the arts must show loyalty to the state and its institutions.

Accordingly, Regev could reduce budgets to arts institutions for denying Israel’s existence as a Jewish, democratic state, incitement to racism, violence or terrorism, and supporting armed struggle or terrorism against Israel. She can also drop budgets for marking Independence Day or the establishment of the state as a day of mourning, desecration of state symbols, and other criteria.

At first reading, it sounds reasonable to a patriotic Israeli or Jew as a way to prevent terrorism or the undermining of the state. But, like everything in politics, motives must be questioned.

Some politicians think she is trying to gag artists from criticising her party, the Likud. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, for example, not regarded as a left-winger, supports the artists’ stand against the legislation. He has pledged to compensate any cultural establishments hurt as a result of her loyalty law.

Historically, powerful people everywhere have tried controlling artists to make them produce works matching their political and cultural views. But for art to thrive, artists must be free to produce beautiful works as well those which make people angry.

The arts have thrived in Israel in music, literature, visual arts, and other genres. Is Regev trying, for political reasons, to rein them in? Many Israeli artists and intellectuals think so. Dozens of respected cultural figures have produced a manifesto against the legislation, including author David Grossman, the celebrated winner of the 2018 Israel Prize for literature.

Artists say Israel is a strong society which depends on being able to conduct multi-faceted discussions embracing wide-ranging views. Public funds, they say, must not be used to prevent varied views in the public space. It’s about politics versus freedom of expression.

Israeli artists are particularly vulnerable compared to colleagues in America, where art is generally not state-funded, but operates in an open market, with artists beholden to wealthy patrons, private individuals, and foundations.

Thus, their work is almost completely uncensored by the state. It is evaluated through appeal to those institutions. In the European and Israeli model, however, artists often receive state funding for certain activities.

Regev’s new bill grants her authority to cut funding to an institution whose politics she doesn’t like, such as one that publicly calls for a boycott of Israel or the settlements.

South African artists are familiar with this issue from historical experience. For decades, severe censorship was imposed by the government on newspapers and literature to make them conform to a particular view. Contrary to Israel, however, the South African government wanted racism, not nation-building. And in many ways, Israeli public debate is freer than it ever was in South Africa. Accordingly, its arts history is very different.

Nevertheless, art is like water, inexorably flowing to the sea. If you try to suppress it in one way, it tends to come out elsewhere. The work of satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys during apartheid is a South African example. Since the 1970s, he’s been unrelenting in lampooning the government with a smile on his face, and its censors on his tail.

So, where should the axe fall? Should Israeli artists capitulate to the security argument? This is an eternal question without a final answer. Ultimately, good art cannot be evaluated for its utilitarian value. It would go against the soul of great art, including Israeli art.

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