Israel’s Culture Wars: Behind the Scenes of the Latest Scandals

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

As you read this, a culture war is being fought in Israel over freedom of expression and the limits of tolerance, and the battle scene is the country’s social network sites.

The catalysts were two awards − one denied, the other partially conferred − and a bitter ideological argument between a student and her civics teacher, both subsequently setting online forums ablaze.

More than a month ago, it was leaked that the executive committee of the University of Haifa (20 percent of whose students are Arab) had decided not to bestow an honorary doctorate on Prof. Robert (Yisrael) Aumann, the 2005 winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on game theory. An executive committee member said that when the daily Maariv asked Aumann in a 2010 interview “about the ability of Jews and Arabs to live together, he answered that they should build fences around Arab towns. That’s not something the university has to honor with the award of an honorary doctorate.”

The decision drew strong criticism from some 160 University of Haifa faculty members, representing all points on the political spectrum. It also ignited a heated debate in the media and online, focusing mainly on whether such a fate could have befallen someone expressing a similarly radical but diametrically opposite view.

At roughly the same time, a 12th-grade student at an ORT network high school in Kiryat Tivon complained that her civics teacher, Adam Verete, had ridiculed, in class, her statement that “all Arabs should be thrown into the sea.” In a meeting with the principal, Verete apologized for having hurt student Sapir Sabah’s feelings, but she refused to accept his apology.

In a letter to Education Minister Shay Piron, Sabah also complained that “Adam [Verete] makes sure to stress his political views in every class. He explains that he’s an extreme leftist, and from his perspective our state does not belong to the Jews, but to the Palestinians, and that we, the Jews, aren’t meant to be here.”

She complained that Verete “stresses that the Israel Defense Forces acts with unusual brutality and violence,” adding that he says he doubts the statement that the IDF is “the most moral army in the world.”

Former MK Michael Ben Ari (who broke away from the National Union party in 2012 to cofound an ultra-rightist party called Otzma Leyisrael) posted Sabah’s letter on his Facebook page, eliciting numerous vituperative comments and even accusations of treason against Verete. The civics teacher then filed a police complaint, alleging slander, threats and incitement.

The ORT school network promptly suspended Verete and summoned him for a pre-dismissal hearing, saying, “If and to the extent the statements [attributed to Verete with regard to the IDF] were said, they contradict the school network’s values and do not in any way reflect its position.”

The education minister, usually swift in his responses to the media on educational matters, initially kept mum on the issue. He belatedly addressed the subject at the end of last month, noting that “it’s forbidden to fire teachers and educators in the context of ideological tensions, but it’s certainly permitted to reprimand [them].”

Following a second pre-dismissal hearing, Verete was reinstated. It was only then that Piron stated, in an open letter, “We must expand the place and authority of the educator from ‘an agent of transferring knowledge’ to a person who generates deep and lively debate, who confronts his students with existing dilemmas, and who seeks to put meaning and especially responsibility and social involvement into life.”

However, this ringing endorsement of freedom of expression was not unconditional. Piron went on to stress “several areas that are potential cultural flash points that must be avoided: insulting other religions, denying the Holocaust, questioning the legitimacy of the IDF and its being a people’s army that defends our existence in Israel, and [questioning] Israel’s right to exist.”

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat and several Likud MKs openly applauded Sabah’s actions. In the wake of media support for Verete (including Haaretz’s coverage of the affair), it has again been implied that a teacher expressing the opposite political views would not be garnering any such support and would have been sacked on the spot.

Now back to the awards. Also last month, the Israeli Association of Composers, Authors and Publishers of Music (ACUM) decided to present a lifetime achievement award to Ariel Zilber, a one-time bad boy of Israeli pop who “found” far-right Orthodox Judaism over the last decade. He now supports the transfer of Arabs, moved to a Gush Katif settlement shortly before the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, and condemns homosexuals and soldiers. His 2011 song titled “Kahane Was Right” was written to mark the 21st anniversary of the assassination of ultra-nationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was banned in Israel in 1988 as “racist” and “antidemocratic.”

The singer Achinoam Nini (known internationally as Noa) and her onstage partner, guitarist Gil Dor, were due to receive a prize for the dissemination of Israeli music abroad at the same ceremony with Zilber, but announced that they would not accept their prize. “The decision to present Ariel Zilber a lifetime achievement award is turning [ACUM’s] back on public responsibility,” Nini wrote on her Facebook page.

Following another lively discussion in the media and online (Nini was the target of anonymous death threats for allegedly “boycotting” Zilber), ACUM voted to downgrade Zilber’s lifetime achievement award to a “contribution to Israeli music” award. The move both calmed artists concerned about Zilber’s extremist views and inflamed right-wing politicians, who again insisted such treatment would not be meted out to an artist who expresses radically left-wing views.

At first glance, then, it seems that two individuals – an artist and a scientist – had to pay a not-too-heavy public price (a sort of highly visible “snubbing”) for adhering to radical right-wing views, whereas a civics teacher got off relatively lightly (in effect, unscathed) for holding radical left-wing views.

It must be noted, however, that in the cases of both Aumann and Zilber, the accolade in question was not about a particular artistic or academic achievement, but rather an all-round endorsement of the kind meant to allow the awarding organization − usually from the mainstream − to bask in the recipients’ reflected fame.

One person’s fame can be − and often is − another person’s shame, so an all-round endorsement cannot exclude or disregard views that are debatable, or even objectionable, in the public discourse.

With Verete, on the other hand, it was not about fame or fortune. He was in imminent danger of losing his job, and his life was threatened, precisely for working in what even the education minister considers to be the right way (even if the minister also seems quite keen on curbing freedom of discourse in the classroom).

Basically, it is a discourse about the limits of tolerance. In all three instances mentioned here, it seems that one side − termed, for the sake of argument, “left-wing” − seeks to impose limits on the tolerance of certain views − termed, for the sake of argument, “right-wing” − whereas “right-wing” politicians and spokespeople see certain “left-wing” views as dangerous (to the State of Israel, Zionism and/or Judaism) and would like either to impose limits on them, or alternatively − at least, in theory − to extend the same tolerance to all.

The only possible exit from this quandary is described in the writings of the Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper (1902-1994): “Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.

“In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant” (from “The Open Society and its Enemies,” 1945).

I’ll leave to the discerning reader the task of sorting out what type of views bandied about in the public discourse in Israel can be deemed tolerant.

Nobel Prize winner Yisrael Aumann. Should he have been honored?Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ariel Zilber. Is he worthy of the respect shown by ACUM?Credit: Moti Milrod
Adam Verete in his home. February 2, 2014.Credit: Gil Eliyahu