The settlement of Ariel is in occupied territory, and future sovereignty over it is a matter of dispute. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hopes, and declares, that "the capital of Samaria" will become part of Israel in any future peace agreement, but even he realizes that Ariel is different. The fact is that his government froze construction in Ariel, not in Haifa or Givatayim.
But even during the settlement freeze, the Netanyahu government has been using symbolic means in an attempt to reinforce an image of Ariel as an integral part of Israel: upgrading the academic status of the Ariel University Center of Samaria and building a new performing arts center in the settlement. That is how the government is trying to blur the Green Line.
Thirty-six actors, directors and screenwriters who disagree with the government's policy published a letter to theater managements in which they announced their refusal to take part in performances in Ariel. The letter expressed the artists' conscientious objection to performing in occupied territory and noted the right to protest in a democratic society. They succeeded in putting the debate about Ariel on the agenda. But their position is unacceptable to Israel's rightist government, which quickly responded with typical aggressiveness. Netanyahu, Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz are all threatening to deny government funding to cultural institutions that refuse to hold performances beyond the Green Line.
Netanyahu is acting like Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin's cultural commissar: He is trying to compel artists to express a government policy that seeks to annex Ariel, by threatening to harm their livelihood. Instead of respecting Israeli citizens' freedom of conscience and right to protest, Netanyahu is treating them like forced laborers mobilized to serve the ideology of the ruling party. Refusing to perform in occupied territory is not delegitimization of the state, as Netanyahu claims, but the expression of a legitimate and worthy position.
Theater actors are not marionettes, and cultural coercion of artists who fear for their livelihood does not befit a freedom-loving country. Cultural and academic institutions that receive budgetary support from the state do not owe it obedience in return. On the contrary, the government should be thankful for the existence of institutions that constitute such a vital interest for Israeli society.
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