Ringing With Echoes of McCarthyism

With sponsors canceling events as a result of the artist's political views, artistic freedom could be under threat.

The past week has not been an easy one for the few Israeli artists willing to express controversial political views. The artistic establishment in Israel, whose job it is to support the activities of artists and defend their rights, decided to exercise its authority and impose censorship under the guise of various pretexts. The ability to exert pressure is closely related to economic power. The Council of Culture and Art of Mifal Hapayis State Lottery is an organization with this kind of power; it provides financial support for numerous cultural events and grants prizes as well. Thanks to its financial support, the council has the power to make last-minute program changes - to remove a film from a festival program, for example. The most blatant example of intervention on the part of the artistic establishment in the past week concerns the special tribute planned in honor of Yaffa Yarkoni.

In an interview on Army Radio for Independence Day, Yarkoni spoke out very harshly against the actions of the Israel Defense Forces in the territories and in support of those refusing to serve there. According to Hanan Yovel, the chair of the Israeli Union of Performing Artists (EMI), from the moment Yarkoni voiced her views, scores of people who had purchased tickets for the event at the Rococo box office returned their tickets. The tribute, which was to have taken place on Friday at the Noga theater in Jaffa, was canceled. Yovel says EMI decided to cancel the show because the sponsors canceled their support of the event and ticket holders returned their tickets. He added that he is certain that Yarkoni did not really mean what she said. "I had to defend her honor," he explained yesterday.

Yaffa Yarkoni's daughter, journalist Orit Shohat, takes a very serious view of EMI's reaction. "Artists can state their views and pay the price, but the organization cannot interfere with content," she says. "Hanan Yovel has presented my mother as if she is a poor fool who doesn't know what she is saying. That is both infuriating and irrelevant. She said she supports the rights of those who refuse to serve and that is a legitimate statement. EMI is her professional union and it is supposed to look out for her rights. It is a very serious thing for a professional union to cancel an event." Yossi Peleg, Yarkoni's manager, adds, "Hanan Yovel made a very serious mistake in canceling the event. It will hurt EMI in the long run. If there are not enough people willing to pay to see it, then let the members of EMI fill the hall." Hanan Yovel defends his decision. "If a person wants to make a political statement, that is their right, but I can not put out fires. It is clear that if we could expect a full house, the performance would be held."

In the wake of this incident on Monday, singer Gidi Gov announced he is quitting EMI because "I can not be a member of an organization that is not willing to defend one of Israel's best known performers." On Army Radio's midday newsmagazine, presented by Yael Dan, Gov said he is leaving EMI because "The chair of the organization gave an interview to Razi Barkai on the radio and during the conversation there were all kinds of unpleasant hints about Yarkoni. I do not want to be a member of a union that does not defend its artists." Gov added yesterday, "It is everyone's right to state their opinion, even if he is Ariel Zilber or Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. There is an atmosphere where people do not feel free to say what they think in Israel. Even if a commercial organization removes its sponsorship because of something an artist said - that too is not acceptable to me. Yaffa Yarkoni's comments were taken completely out of proportion."

Another cancelation under similar circumstances occurred in the DocAviv film festival that ended this week. Swedish director Peter Torbiornsson, whose film, "The Lovers of San Fernando," took part in the international competition in the festival, told the director of the festival, Ilana Tzur, that he wanted to withdraw his film from the competition because of the Defensive Shield campaign and the IDF's activities in the territories. When he learned that it was impossible to do so, he demanded that the festival administration read out a letter he wrote before the screening of the film. In the letter, which was read at the two screenings at the weekend, the director expressed his solidarity with the Palestinian people, condemned Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and called on Sharon to return to the negotiating table with Arafat. Following the reading of the letter, the administration of Mifal Hapayis announced it was canceling its sponsorship of the festival. It demanded the organizers return the money Mifal Hapayis gave the festival and Mifal Hapayis chair Avraham Katz-Oz refused to present the first prize. Katz-Oz said yesterday, "We understand art as the artistic expression of the artist. Picasso expressed his views of the Spanish Civil War in Guernica as did Hanoch Levin in `The Queen of the Bath.' There are dozens of examples of artists expressing their views in their art. But the moment they become political correspondents, it is no longer art. The views of an artist should be expressed in his or her work, but he cannot ask to have something read before the film. If that is how it works, then why not let everyone read a letter before their films?"

Katz-Oz demanded that the reading of the letter be halted as soon as he heard about it and he says that he consulted on the matter with Tami Guy, the coordinator of the Council of Culture and Art. "We informed the festival that if they did not halt the reading, there would be no money," says Katz-Oz. The decision triggered furious reactions from local cinema fans, including Avi Mograbi, who wrote to the festival administration. "An event that presents documentary filmmaking but that is unable to allow directors presenting their work to make declarations containing legitimate statements at the event undermines the very foundations of its existence," he wrote.

Did publishing house Sifriya Hadasha, which publishes translations of Portuguese writer Jose Saramago, who compared the situation in the territories to the extermination camps in Nazi Germany, weigh the possibility of discontinuing its publication of Saramago's books? "Not for a single moment did we consider that," says chief editor Menakhem Perry. "Saramago is currently the best writer in the world. His books have a power of their own. Even though I have extreme reservations about his remarks, I never considered imposing sanctions on him."

In contrast, Lyric, a bookstore in Ramat Hasharon, hurried to hang a sign in its window declaring "We do not sell books by Saramago." "I called and told the shop manager that is exactly what was done to books by Jews," says Peri. "The boycott by the shop in Ramat Hasharon did not last more than two days. Saramago has been annoying the Portuguese for 20 years now, but they are able to distinguish between his books and his views. We must also learn to do so." And in yet another example, Mordechai Kirschenbaum was not allowed to participate as a guest interviewer on Channel One's evening newsmagazine, "Half Past Seven" at the instructions of director of news Rafik Halabi. The reason given was his "controversial" opinions. The Israel Broadcasting Authority said the real reason was the attempts by the IBA director-general to accede to the prime minister's request to show more "patriotic" broadcasting. At times like this, it would not do to have a guest interviewer with well-known "leftist" views.

Artist David Tartakover - who was awarded the Israel Prize for design last week by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whom he often attacks in his political posters - says he has encountered numerous attempts in the past to interfere with the content of his work. "For the exhibition in honor of Jerusalem's 3,000th anniversary, I prepared a work that was very political. My colleagues were the ones who were afraid that Sharon, then minister of trade and industry, would rescind his support, and my work was removed from the catalog because of that fear.

"An artist must express his views without any interference," says Tartakover. "After all, the Swedish director did not incite to sedition. He himself did not come for the screening and that was his way of sending his message." Nonetheless, in his view, censorship by the artistic establishment is not common in Israel, but not for the right reasons. "Art is viewed here as something that is not important. People think artists are a little crazy, so what does it matter what they think?"

Mordechai Virshubski, deputy chair of the committee for art and culture of Tel Aviv, believes the recent events in the art world represent the harbingers of McCarthyism. In a letter he sent this week to EMI chair Hanan Yovel, Virshubski wrote, "We are seeing the beginning of a process of McCarthyism on the part of the establishment toward artists, the purpose of which is to prevent them from freely expressing views unacceptable to the government. This process leads to censorship and that will eventually damage artistic freedom. If the State of Israel loses the freedom of Israeli artists, achieved through a great deal of effort, it will undermine one of our foundations as a democratic country. Israeli artists do not have to be the government's puppets." Dr. Danny Gutwein of the department of history at Haifa University said that astonishment with which political statements by artists are received reveals the entertainment-commercial dimension of art in Israel. "The art we are talking about is commercial, mainstream and flattering to the audience. The audience has been corrupted and now we are seeing the results, with the audience unwilling to hear anything that does not flatter it.

"Those who opt for public relations all the way through should not be surprised by what they get in return," says Gutwein. In his view, "The dispute between the various political positions is a false one. The dispute, or confrontation, should be between culture and entertainment that continually flatters the audience. We have to create mechanisms in the public space that are not controlled by the market and entertainment. But that is a long-range thought that involves commitment to an idea, two things that are sorely lacking in this country."