After 22-year Grip on Cultural Services, Bruria Becker Lets Go

Bruria Becker, the chair of the national cultural basket, announced her retirement yesterday after 22 years in the job. Few public servants have become as synonymous with their post as Becker, whose centralized management style produced foes and admirers alike.

An appointments committee will begin seeking candidates for the post.

The national cultural basket is an educational program operating in schools in 120 towns and cities throughout the country, with an annual budget of NIS 40 million.

Over the last few years, a conflict between theater directors and managers and the cultural services basket became almost a summer ritual, focusing around the program's decision to approve or disprove a play or performance for young audiences. Last summer, a children's theater association threatened to go to the High Court of Justice over Becker's decision, and pressure mounted on the Education Ministry to conduct a review of the program's practices.

Natural cultural basket choices have had a decisive influence on the financial success or failure of theaters, producers and directors, as the education system is the country's single greatest consumer of culture.

The basket's future is mired in uncertainty; the treasury wants it privatized, while Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar opposes privatization. In a statement yesterday, Sa'ar said: "Mrs. Becker has contributed greatly to the establishment and the nourishment of this important project, which has given and still gives much important content to school students.

But the opposition to the program's policies never spared Becker of criticism. In 2004, a letter signed by most children's theaters was sent to the education minister, claiming that Becker was "one woman ruling over several committees and deciding what millions of people in Israel will see, which artists will thrive and which will starve, who will live in Israel and who will leave Israel... this appalling, distorted, anachronistic phenomenon known as the national culture basket must be stopped."

Becker relayed her decision to Eitan Mizrachi, director the Association of Community Centers, who thanked her for her long-standing contribution "to society, to education and to culture."

Questions were raised during her reign about whether the program should have the power to vet and filter cultural content for students. Becker herself believed the program was a buffer between schools and the ratings-dominated culture, and that she had an obligation to introduce young people to quality culture.

Becker was not available for comment yesterday, but several months ago she responded to critics in a Haaretz interview. "The personal attacks on me bring the discussion [down] to a level that doesn't merit comment and show the claims come from the embitterment of a handful of commercially motivated producers," she said at the time. "I don't have to defend myself - the appreciation and support I receive from heads of cultural institutions and the education system speak for themselves."