"This is further proof of the fact that the minister of education is trying to impose Peace Now's agenda on the school system. The prime minister must prevent the domination of the school system by the extreme left. Parents should supervise their children's education, because it is impossible to trust the political minister of education."
- MK Zevulun Orlev in response to the decision to introduce two plays that deal with the injustices of the occupation - "Project Jabalya" and "Winter in Qalandiyah"- into the school system's "culture basket"
Good for National Religious Party Chair Zevulun Orlev! In a brilliant intelligence coup, he managed to find two "left-wing" plays out of about 1,000 included in the schools' culture basket, and he immediately warned the nation that the souls of Israeli students were being poisoned. It is a good thing that someone is on guard. Nevertheless, Orlev's reaction provokes several questions. First, it is doubtful whether he saw the two plays, which are based on the personal experiences of Eldad Galor (in Jabalya) and Lia Nirgad (at the Qalandiyah checkpoint) before describing them as "extreme left." Second, why did he wake up only now? The plays have been performed for over a year, and even the decision to include them in the culture basket was made several weeks ago. Third, what does he want from the education minister? The decision was made by an independent professional committee of 100 artists and academicians; it is doubtful whether the minister was even aware of it.
One could of course dismiss Orlev's words as another transparent attempt by a politician to make headlines and political capital at the expense of an ideological rival. But the NRP chair represents a broader cultural phenomenon that has been picking up speed lately. He is not alone in the campaign against artists who want to give artistic expression, mainly in the theater and cinema, to the experience of the Israeli occupation as they know it. His declaration is another step in a renewed campaign against the freedom of expression of artists whose work questions the justice of Israeli policy in the territories.
On Tuesday, a District Court began hearing a libel suit by five reserve soldiers against Mohammed Bakri, the director of the film "Jenin, Jenin," who documented conversations with residents of the Jenin refugee camp several days after Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002. The sequence of events in this case is a good illustration of the extent of the battle against works that are incompatible with the prevailing concept of Israeli patriotism.
At first the film was rejected by the Censorship Board for Films and Plays. After a two-year public battle, the High Court of Justice accepted Bakri's petition and allowed the film to be screened commercially ("the board's decision goes too far in undermining freedom of expression ... The council is not authorized to restrict political or ideological statements even if the government or most of the public disagrees with them"). This time, MK Aryeh Eldad was the first to jump in: "The High Court justices are performing a wonderful service for the enemy behind the foolish claim of freedom of expression."
Meanwhile, the five reservists filed a libel suit against Bakri ("We set out to defend the State of Israel in a tough battle that took place in Jenin. When we returned home, we saw the film, which presents us as war criminals," said Yonatan Van Kaspel, one of the plaintiffs). Four and a half years of mediation did not convince the plaintiffs to withdraw their suit. They continue to treat the film as a journalistic document that presumes to reflect the factual situation, instead of seeing it as a subjective work of art that documents the Palestinians' narrative and mood.
A similar fate greeted the play "Hebron," a recently staged co-production of the Habima and Cameri theaters. The play deals with the human dimension of the bloody conflict between Jews and Arabs in the City of the Patriarchs. But for some reason, from the first moment, it was labeled anti-Israeli. Matot Arim, a right-wing organization that supports Jewish settlement in Hebron, quickly organized a series of demonstrations with the slogan "Israeli theater in the service of Hamas," and there was quite an uproar.
If we add in the Yehoshua Rabinowitz Foundation's withdrawal of support for the cinema project "Jaffa" due to the anti-Zionist reputation of the designated director, Eyal Sivan, we get a disturbing picture: Israeli society is showing symptoms of going back 37 years, to the dark days of "The Queen of the Bathtub." The censor's initial decision to reject Hanoch Levin's text (when the board was asked to explain its decision, it backtracked on its rejection) and the tumultuous demonstrations against the play have been seen all these years as a childhood disease of a society suffering from a temporary nationalist virus. But it turns out that the virus was only dormant, and has now reawakened and returned to threaten the emotional health of Israeli democracy.
Orlev, Eldad and those who share their views can claim that artistic freedom of expression is always exploited in the service of the same ideological camp. There is something to that. One can understand why this trend frustrates them: It contradicts their political interest and is seen by them as assisting enemy propaganda. They are incapable of seeing it for what it really is - proof of society's strength and its ability to include skeptical voices. But instead of encouraging creativity in their own camp and joining the marketplace of artistic ideas, they are embarking on a fight to the finish against other artists. If they cannot beat the "leftists," they can at least make their lives miserable.
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