A few hundred people accompanied the songwriter Haim Hefer on Wednesday to his final resting place. Throughout the day his songs were played frequently on the radio, and there were many newspaper articles about him. Hefer symbolized a formative time in the history of the state, and his many songs were for decades a part of Israeli life, in good times and bad. Nevertheless, there was not a single official representative of the government at his funeral. For that matter, in the last years of his life, Hefer was virtually forgotten. It is true that few people were safe from his sharp pen: He was an argumentative man whose writing was often harsh to the point of being hurtful. But Hefer was a true Israeli cultural hero, and the state never properly discharged its debt to him for that.
Hefer was not the only artist whom the state left to his own devices. Israel disregards and turns its back on its artists and intellectuals in their old age. Some are reduced to begging, others live out their remaining days in lonely isolation. Sometimes the state remembers them only when they die, for a day or two and even then artificially. After Hefer's death this week friends of Shoshana Damari recalled how the great singer died penniless; composer Nachum Heiman admitted that he finds it difficult to make ends meet.
That is not how the state should treat the people who contributed so much to its cultural and artistic life. The state is very generous with other superannuated citizens: Former presidents and prime ministers enjoy huge stipends for the rest of their lives, Knesset members and army officers can take early retirement that comes with a golden parachute. The message is clear, and disheartening: Politicians and officers are much more important to the state than its artists and intellectuals, whom the state does not treat kindly in their final years.
This forgetting and abandonment of the artists of old betrays a disrespect for the state's real heritage as well as a frighteningly short cultural memory. The failure to provide appropriately for our artists in order to keep them from ending their lives in penury betrays ungratefulness and tightfistedness. There are countries that do things differently. We would do well to emulate them.
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