On Totalitarian Democracy

The Israeli union of performing artists (EMI), the court for offenses against state security in Turkey and the association of journalists and writers in Egypt could have signed a twin-brains agreement.

The Israeli union of performing artists (EMI), the court for offenses against state security in Turkey and the association of journalists and writers in Egypt could have signed a twin-brains agreement. The law in Turkey stipulates that no material liable to undercut the unity of the nation may be published; in Egypt, the journalists' association bars the publication of anything that smacks of normalization with Israel; while in Israel, EMI, along with some youth movements, is sanctifying the emergency consensus.

In Turkey, journalists were arrested and writers were tried for daring to write about the plight of the Kurds in the country. The Egyptian writer, Ali Salem, who supports normalization with Israel, was almost expelled from the writers' association twice. On the second occasion, the association demanded his expulsion because he gave an Israeli theater group permission to perform his play "Honeymoon." And in Israel, Yaffa Yarkoni, the singer who performed for Israeli troops in the country's wars beginning in 1948, is currently under attack for criticizing the government's policy with regard to the territories.

In the Israeli case, it is not the content of the remarks voiced by Yaffa Yarkoni in radio interviews that is the heart of the matter - just as Ali Salem's play or articles by courageous journalists in Turkey do not constitute the cause for the attacks on them. No, what these people did wrong was to breach the consensus, disrupt "unity of ranks," and disobey the "national order."

In Egypt, the politics of the arts are dictated by state-controlled professional associations, as is the case in all the other Arab countries, as well as Iran and Turkey. In Israel, the government doesn't even have to intervene: The artistic political consensus is decided by politruks. The term "intellectuals of the state" has taken root in the Arab countries and refers to members of the intelligentsia who toe the government line. Syrian President Bashar Assad defined the intellectual as someone who makes use of his knowledge for the good of the state, meaning for the good of the government. In Israel, toeing the line is a voluntary act, as befits a democratic society. But as soon as the "line" becomes totalitarian, breaching it becomes treason.

"I can quite understand the position taken by the Israeli union of performing artists," an Egyptian writer told Ha'aretz. "Governmental organizations should defend the homeland in a period of war. Artists are national symbols. Ali Salem becomes a traitor to the Arab cause when he collaborates with Israeli artists. An Israeli singer whom you identify with Israel's wars is a national asset. After all, the state made her and she owes a debt to the state's unity."

But EMI was not a governmental organization, I explained. "That is why the organization deserves special honor," the Egyptian writer responded. "It does not owe its existence to a government budget, yet is adopting a disciplined position. Artists who deviate from the line cannot properly serve their national mission."

The nervousness of those in charge of the consensus in both Egypt and Israel is uncalled for. No artist or intellectual in either of these mobilized societies has the ability to scratch the Teflon wall that protects the consensus. When all is said and done, we are talking "only" about one Israeli singer who said she was shocked at the images coming out of Jenin and about "only" one or two Egyptian writers who speak out courageously in favor of normalization with Israel. We could even say that their protests have the effect of reinforcing the consensus.

What, then, is the origin of the fear of the terrible influence that is liable to be wielded by the singer of "Bab el Wad" - the iconic song about the battle for the road to Jerusalem in the 1948 war - who suddenly stepped out of her box in the national archive? What crack in the totalitarianism of thought could be caused by an Egyptian playwright?

There are two possible answers. One is that the phenomenon is not one of an ideological consensus that has been damaged, but rather a challenge to those who have appointed themselves monopolists over the orientation of that consensus - the writers' association in Egypt, the journalists' association in Jordan and, in Israel, EMI, the national leadership of the youth movements, the National Lottery "for the advancement of education" etc. - and no monopolist is ready to put up with a competitor. The second answer is that perhaps national artists possess a threatening power that has so far not been sufficiently exploited.