Culture Police in Jerusalem

Not subject to negotiation is that two peoples live in Jerusalem and both must be respected.

The Jerusalem Police District has a new-old target: Palestinian cultural activity in the city's eastern part. The declaration of Jerusalem as the "Palestinian culture capital," under the auspices of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, has again brought police out onto the streets, assaulting world-renowned artists, shutting down readings by authors, preventing children from letting loose balloons and confiscating torches.

Former public security minister Avi Dichter called for this cultural activity to be suppressed "with a firm hand," and his successor, Yitzhak Aharonovitch, is continuing this same foolish struggle, on the grounds that it oversteps the law that prohibits activities by the Palestinian Authority in the capital. The claim that these cultural events go against the Oslo Accords is particularly ridiculous.

The most recent incident happened on May 23. Best-selling Swedish writer Henning Mankell, whose thrillers are read with bated breath all over Europe, and Michael Palin, one of the creators of the legendary Monty Python series, were supposed to take part in the opening event at the Al-Hakawati Theater. But a special police task force dispersed the participants and closed the theater. The organizers tried to hold the event at another site, but there, too, they were "stopped by the forces," according to a police source. A few weeks earlier the police shut down a Palestinian communications center in the capital that was intended for journalists covering the pope's visit.

The shocked Swedish writer urged the hundreds of people who had been prevented from hearing what he had to say: "Do not lose hope." But hope is running out. A police force that prevents cultural and artistic activities from taking place is not a democratic country's police force. A police force that shuts down readings by authors is a thought police force. Jerusalem's future is still subject to negotiation; it will not be determined by men in blue preventing a writer from having his say.

Not subject to negotiation is that two peoples live in Jerusalem and both must be respected. All the police have achieved are reports in foreign newspapers about the embarrassing incident and the depiction of Israel as a cultural storm trooper. Neither the closing of Orient House, once the Palestine Liberation Organization's headquarters, nor the closing of Al-Hakawati today will determine the city's future. In the meantime, these actions are determining the way Israel is perceived in the world and are making it look ridiculous.