The Arts: Not yours to fiddle with

Ahed Tamimi mural

Is any message in art permissible? In July Israel decided to expel two Italian graffiti artists who were painting a mural of Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi, on Israel’s separation barrier at the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Tamimi had been jailed after she was filmed slapping an Israeli soldier

THREE WEEKS ago Israel approved a draft law providing culture minister Miri Regev with authority to cut funding from cultural institutions that “contravene the principles of the state”, known as the “loyalty-in-culture bill.” Because of Israel’s condition of perpetual threat from its neighbours, some 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, supporting armed struggle or terrorism against Israel, 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 Likud. Trying to regulate the arts for such a political motive will be tantamount to forcing artists to march in lockstep, which is the death of real art. The Soviets tried to do this and what came out was dismal, a caricature of art.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, not regarded as a left-winger, supports Israeli artists’ stand against the Regev legislation and 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, celebrated winner of the 2018 Israel Prize for literature.

Artists say Israel is a strong society which depends on being able to conduct multifaceted 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 observes Israel’s Independence Day as a day of mourning, or 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 SA 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 their censors on his tail.

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

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 


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