Education Ministry Drafting Cultural 'Blacklist' for Israeli High Schools

Ministry debating whether to require artists to declare loyalty to the state and the national anthem as part of a major reform in 'culture basket,' source says.

File photo: Education Minister Naftali Bennett visits a classroom in Petah Tikva, Israel, May 28, 2015.
Sason Tiram

The Education Ministry is drawing up what critics call a "blacklist" of artistic works it deems politically undesirable for viewing by high school audiences, sources told Haaretz on Thursday.

The plan is part of a major reform to a program, known as the "culture basket," that exposes high schoolers to plays, films, music, literature, visual arts exhibits and dance performances.

According to one official who participated in ministry discussions on the reform, two of the criteria debated for approving artistic works were a declaration of loyalty on the artist's part and a commitment to performing in West Bank settlements. It is unclear whether these requirements will be included in the final plan.

Emil Salman

Various sources say that one of the reasons for the changes was the confrontation last summer between Education Minister Naftali Bennett and the ministry’s theater committee over the play “A Parallel Time,” by Haifa’s Al-Midan theater. 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.

“The evolving plan will be fatal to the culture basket and contravenes art education,” said one source. Another said the ministry claims not only to be “responding to the public’s taste,” but that “teachers and principals know better than culture experts what their pupils need.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at a podium, December 2015.
Ofer Vaknin

The ministry said the plan is still under discussion.

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.

The new plan, sources said, will separate works into three tracks: The green track, including all performances recommended by the various repertoire committees; a blue track for works that were not evaluated, and a red track for works the Education Ministry has evaluated and rejected.

The green track parallels the current culture basket program, although there is still uncertainty about setting prices for the performances. The blue track expands on changes introduced by Bennett’s predecessor, Shay Piron, and allows pupils to attend performances that never sought repertoire committee approval.

From what can be discerned, artists will have little incentive to apply for green-track approval, since if the repertoire committees reject their work, they will not be allowed into the schools.

Source: Move deters artistic risk-taking'

“No one will want to risk possible rejection when the blue track will be open to everyone,” said one source. “Then, in a year or two, the ministry will argue that the number of performances in the green track is so small that there is no more justification for maintaining the expert committees.” Another source disagreed, saying, “I want to believe that many principals would still prefer to request performances that have the imprimatur of the repertoire committees.”

According to a source on one of the repertoire committees, during discussions of the plan, the Education Ministry debated whether artists seeking to enter the blue track would have to “declare loyalty to the state and the national anthem, which will eliminate any chance for an Arab theater or even a Jewish protest work. Another demand would be a commitment to perform in the settlements. The expected result would be the suspension of artistic criticism. The ostensibly free track will actually be overseen based on the content of the works — whether they suit the government ideology.” It is not known, however, whether such demands will actually be part of the plan.

Yet another concern relates to the extent the basket will continue to be subsidized. One source said, “The objective is to create a ‘free market’ in terms of both content and prices. But without price supervision, the likely result is that only economically strong communities will be able to request quality performances that invest more in staging, acting or sets.” This issue, too, remains unclear.

The most significant change, at least as reportedly presented in the ministry’s internal discussions, is the red track. Efforts to ascertain the criteria for inclusion were met with evasion, as were questions on who would make these decisions. Apparently it will not be the repertoire committees but Education Ministry functionaries.

“With no clear criteria and with people who are directly subordinate to the education minister or who seek to please him, the red track is expected to include all works that don’t suit Bennett’s political positions, like those that might be based on the book ‘Borderlife” by Dorit Rabinyan,” said one source, referring to a book about an Arab-Jewish couple’s romance that Bennett removed from the ministry’s recommended reading list last month.

Copy of "Borderlife," by Dorit Rabinyan, at Israeli book store.
Ofer Vaknin

“If this reform is indeed implemented, it will dissolve the essence of a national culture basket that promotes pupils’ encounters with artistic works,” wrote MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) to Bennett. “Establishing a ‘blacklist’ of works that will be included in the red track is McCarthyist persecution and a dangerous step up in the political censorship of artistic freedom, whose aim is to create citizens loyal to the regime and block anything that smacks of criticism. Censoring works of art and culture is the lowest type of attempted political intervention in school content.”

One ministry source warned that the plan is dangerous because under a name the public respects, “new principles are being inserted that contravene the original intent of the culture basket, which stressed a rational engagement with the arts.”

The Education Ministry would not answer questions about the plan. “The issue is in the formulation stage,” it said. “When there is a decision on the matter, it will be publicized.”