Bennett: Education Reform Will Get Rid of Current Cultural Censorship in Israel

Education minister was responding to Haaretz report on Thursday that the ministry was planning a 'blacklist' of unacceptable plays and performances.

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
Avishag Sh'ar-Yeshuv

Education Minister Naftali Bennett said on Friday that the current method of providing students with cultural content – known as the culture basket – "censors hundreds of performances."

The reform on which the ministry is currently working "will provide more cultural works and new genres, like Mizrachi, Jewish, Arab, children's interest and more," Bennett said.

Bennett was responding, on Twitter and Facebook, to an article in Haaretz on Thursday regarding the ministry's plan to change the culture basket.

He did not refer directly to Haaretz's report of a plan to establish a "red track" of plays and performances which will not be allowed into the country's high schools, as described by several people knowledgeable about the plan.

"We can all calm down," Bennett said. "In another week, Haaretz will write a headline that I 'changed my mind' about the reform, which I already denied yesterday."

The culture basket, a joint venture of the ministry, local authorities and the Israel Association of Community Centers, has been operating in schools since the mid-1980s. It seeks to systematically expose pupils to plays, films, music, literature, visual arts exhibits and dance performances recommended by the ministry’s “repertoire committees” made up of experts in the various arts; the program also subsidizes the tickets. The program operates in 120 communities and reaches 35 percent of Israeli pupils.

Haaretz reported that the ministry's new plan will divide artistic works into channels, among them a red channel for those forbidden from schools. Knowledgeable sources said the effect would be to weaken the repertoire committees and reduce the number of professional teams that advise schools about which performances to pick.

No information was available on the criteria according to which performances will be blacklisted or the people who will make the decisions. The ministry declined to answer Haaretz's questions.

"What the minister said was not accurate," one of the officials said about Bennett's response. "Until now, there has not been any censorship on plays and performances. Schools are free to order performances that have not been approved by a repertoire committee.

"The allegation that things are censored today displays a lack of understanding regarding what the repertoire committees do and the complexity of having experts in various cultural fields who decide on the basis of artistic and pedagogical criteria."

"Even Bennett can see on the website of the basket that there's no censorship," another source said. Any performance or work of art that meets the professional criteria can go to the repertoire committees, which primarily block low quality performances

"What the education ministry it trying to do with its declaration of additional genres is reduce the influence of the professional committees as much as possible and to allow the free market to flourish.

"But lifting controls on pricing, along with the weakening of the committees, is liable to create gaps in the consumption of culture between schools in communities of differing financial resources.

One of the alleged reasons for the changes was the confrontation last summer between Bennett and the ministry’s theater committee over the play “A Parallel Time,” by Haifa’s Al-Midan theater.

Bennett believed the play was not suitable for schools. Since then, the sources say, the ministry has been trying to reduce the influence of the ministry’s expert committees for the various arts in favor of the “field,” that is, local community leaders and school principals.

"Without clear criteria and with people directly responsible to the minister or those who want to please him, the red channel is likely to include works that don't match the worldview of Bennett," one official said.