The past three years have been the worst of times for culture budgets in Israel. Each year, the sword of budget cuts was wielded anew, and each year artists and creators and directors of cultural institutions came out to fight and protest. The ground beneath us, it seems, did not shake, nor did the sky fall in. That is what happens to those lofty individuals who cannot see beyond their own little God-given share. As expected, the public responded with absolute apathy.
Just before each vote on the budget, Israel shrinks down to the dimensions of the Tzavta theater hall in Tel Aviv, to which a mere 150 artists and directors of institutions came 10 days ago to carry on the annual ritual: denouncing Benjamin Netanyahu, the finance minister, as "the No. 1 enemy of Israeli culture," and "saluting the honorary invitees for their personal efforts to rescue culture."
Although this annual show must go on, many people in the arts world have simply had their fill of it. It might have been conceived as a comedy of errors, had it not become such a farce. Last year, for instance, Netanyahu himself was supposed to be among the "rescuers of culture," and was even invited to Tzavta to receive the honor guard. But at the last minute he changed his mind, and in so doing, in a sudden and exciting dramatic development - one of the most rapid seen in our cultural and political world - was transformed from savior to foe.
One may also wonder if Netanyahu even merits a salute by Israeli artists for his spectacular production of poverty and unemployment. Leaders of the struggle for culture can tell a thousand times the Chinese story about the two coins that came into the possession of a destitute man, who allocates one to a loaf of bread for physical subsistence and the second to a flower, for aesthetic sustenance.
While the story is quite heart-warming, one may assume that the miserable old man will use the second coin to buying medication, because he is very ill, our Chinese man, and his ailments are numerous, and the medication is not in the government-approved health basket; and maybe he will nevertheless give the second coin to one of his grandchildren, to buy himself a pair of shoes or new school bag, so that he can go to school without being embarrassed. Yet all this takes place in far-off China, and what do we have in common with these unfortunate Chinese? After all, do we have half a billion people living here among us under the poverty line?
And if Benjamin Netanyahu was and still is the "enemy of Israeli culture" - the honorary invitees were and still are the same invitees, headed by Culture Minister Limor Livnat and Justice Minister Yosef Lapid, who like the aged Chinese man, always chooses the flower and embraces it. As far as can be told, artists are intelligent people, and they must realize that these ministers bear collective responsibility for all government decisions, including the economic decrees and cutbacks.
Until they draw the proper conclusions, they are Bibi one and all. What's more, these two supported a budget based on cutbacks, and will be supporting it in the upcoming Knesset vote, as well. The culture minister even bears direct ministerial responsibility.
We can assume that when the struggle is over, through the intervention of the two distinguished ministers, Netanyahu will throw a bone at the culture budget. After all, that's the method: first you uproot a whole row of flowers from the flower beds, and then, at the last minute, you leave a single flower, and issue a shared sigh of relief.
Then, in keeping with the Chinese tradition, you once again gather in a theater and salute the rescuers and saviors, because it is difficult for some of the artists, and especially their sycophantic political operators, to get by in life without a strong governmental hand to kiss with gratitude.
I bear witness before heaven and earth, as well as the artists themselves, that I am a "patron of culture" inside and out, and the cutbacks in this vital section of the budget are made to my deepest distress. But the curtain comes down and goes up each season, and with the casting of cabinet ministers in dual roles in the commedia dell'Arte, the show provokes a measure of repugnance, but not only in me. When the curtain rises and the show begins, there is a strong urge to jeer and hiss.
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