Jews Who Dismiss anti-Israel Art Put a Lid on Zionism

My Zionist identity came from engaging with Israel’s critics, especially in the arts, not from denying them a voice.

Israeli-Arab actor Mohammed Bakri is back in the spotlight, after the Zionist organization "Im Tirzu" waged a media war against him last week. Calling him a liar and an inciter over what many see as his depiction of Israel Defense Force soldiers as war criminals in the feature film, "Jenin Jenin", Im Tirzu was determined to draw the curtain on his performance at Tel Aviv's Tzavta theater.

This war against Bakri reminds me of similar attacks on playwright Tony Kushner, filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad, writer Thomas Friedman, and numerous other creative people I have been encouraged to renounce for political reasons. But while it was somewhat easy for me to let go of those other attacks, I find myself clinging to the outspoken group of Bakri-supporters.

Mohammed Bakri - Alina Dekel - 31012012
Alina Dekel

My Zionist identity came from engaging with Israel’s critics, especially in the arts, not from denying them a voice. I therefore feel it essential to justify their cause.

The term Zionist means many things to many people, but these days, most people see it as something political. This understanding of Zionism is an inaccurate and harmful, and it is killing our culture. We forget that the political aspect of the term developed long after its initial goal: to save Jewish and Hebrew culture from certain death in the Diaspora. But if we fail to separate Israeli politics from culture, the definition of our identity is limited to a political idea. And unpopular political ideas can be killed.

Just about every artistic reference to Israel is politically motivated. In the few cases where the artist's motivation is not political, audiences interpret these works as having made political statements. They respond with extreme emotions, labeling the artist “anti-Semitic,” or a “self-hating Jew”, and encourage other Jews not to bother watching or reading the work, because, they claim, "Ingesting media that goes against our ideas is harmful." Israeli culture and the Israeli identity are innately politicized, and Israelis buy into that politicization when they ignore art that criticizes them. But labeling a work of art as inherently anti-Semitic makes it impossible for Jews to benefit from it.

Within the Jewish community, this aversion to critical art amounts to the separation of entire groups of Jews. It has reached a point where Jews are written off as anti-Israel, and thus, they gain the status of self-hating Jews. And so we see Jewish intellectuals being cast out for political considerations. Limiting the Israeli identity to include only Jews with specific political beliefs belittles our culture. Those who refuse to listen to opposing voices within our own nation, or who place them into a category of “self-hating Jews”, are not seeking Israel’s legitimacy. They are seeking an Israel free of opposition to their way of thinking.

Outside of the Jewish community, the reaction to criticism in art is taken as an attack on our right to exist. Different perspectives on the situation, and criticism of political policy are branded “unnecessary for us to consume.” And we often don’t consume it. As a result, we are isolated. When Israelis and Diaspora Jews eschew intellectual opposition to our legitimacy, we accept that there are two mutually exclusive worlds: one where Israel is legitimate, and another one, much larger, where it is not.

As Israelis, we don’t need to agree with anyone’s politics. There are people who will never accept the existence of a national Jewish homeland. But we cannot afford to blacklist an artistic work or its creator based only on political considerations. Israel is a nation within a larger community, whether or not anyone wants to admit it. It is up to us to define our place in that world and, unfortunately, only proving our legitimacy to supportive audiences is insufficient. While it may not be palatable to read ideas that oppose those of our own, it is up to us Jews — in Israel and abroad — to look past political criticisms for the sake of our culture. Only then will we experience growth within Israeli culture, and naturally earn a place in the international community.

The forefathers of Zionism did not create the movement in a vacuum. They invented the most important chapter in Jewish history whilst taking into consideration many perspectives, in a world much more anti-Semitic than ours. It is up to us to let our culture shape our politics, not to let our politics shape our culture.

Nathan Hersh served in a combat unit of the Israel Defense Forces until 2011. He currently studies at the International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation at Tel Aviv University and a contributor to FriendaSoldier.com.