Coronavirus Lockdowns Are Killing Culture. Israelis Don't Care

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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'The soul or war.' Artists protest the coronavirus lockdown in front of the Finance Ministry, Jerusalem, June 15, 2020.
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

We should look straight into the mirror, without embellishing what looks back: The coronavirus year, which shuffled the deck repeatedly, also showed that culture and the arts in Israel are less important than what they seemed. A year has gone by, culture has died, art almost has, and the sky didn’t fall.

It came down on the culture industry, on the writers and the technicians, the singers and the actors, the dancers and the artists. Their world has been destroyed and their distress is heartbreaking; at the human level it is no more painful than the distress of the owners of small shops or events halls.

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The sky also fell on the cultural institutions that reached their breaking point; some may never re-open. It’s terrible. But alongside the pain, which is expressed by artists, eloquent cultural figures and celebrities, the awareness, no less painful, must also sink in that in Israel 2021, culture doesn’t occupy the key place it seemed to, as we wanted it to, as we pretended it did.

The coronavirus demonstrates the true place of culture in the pyramid: It enriches the soul and the spirit, but it isn’t as essential as we have been repeatedly told. The HMOs are more important than the Cameri Theater, Rami Levy’s supermarket chain is more important than the choreographer Ohad Naharin, the mall is more important than the amphitheater and the airport more important than the Israel Museum. It hurts; it’s infuriating, but that’s the truth.

Cultural figures are angry about the lockdown, but what should infuriate them more is the simple, clear-cut fact that most of the public is indifferent to the closure of the cultural world and has even found replacements for it. Netflix instead of the Cinematheque. The cultural world’s realization that it is less essential than what it had presumed is the most fatal and painful blow it has ever experienced, more so than unemployment and economic distress – and it will be harder to recover from.

Everyone is now quoting Churchill, who said: “then what are we fighting for,” when he was asked to cut funding to the arts. But the war that Churchill fought against Germany was a war for existence, not for the arts, despite his romantic response. Israel certainly isn’t fighting for its culture; it’s not even protesting. Israelis have found plenty of ways to rebel against the lockdown and manipulate it, ordering take-out to a park bench, wearing a mask on the chin and selling masks in a furniture store to enable it to stay open. But people have hardly protested the closure of the cultural industries. In France, they protested the closure of bookstores. In Israel, even when they were open in the lockdown, they were empty.

Cultural figures are furious about the government’s decisions, but these decisions were made so easily because the government also knows that the protest by people of the arts doesn’t have much public traction. It was easy to close down arts and culture because of their weak position.

It was not always like this. Poetry and literature were once more central in the lives of Israelis. Now it seems that they are limited to the “culture and literature” pages of Haaretz. Theater was also once essential. Now you can go to Dubai to hear Omer Adam and downloading the play “Givat Halfon” on the Habima website apparently doesn’t hurt that much. And what a surprise, a year can go by without seeing Shlomo Artzi in Caesarea. It’s sad but true. Synagogues are harder to close in Israel than theaters; ritual baths are harder to close than nightclubs, yeshivas harder than museums. That says something about us, our image and our world.

Maybe the decline of the left wing presaged this. Maybe it’s a side effect of the surge to the right, the transfixion with nationalism, religiosity, vulgarity and thuggery. The arts don’t like thuggery; nationalism and religiosity are less in need of art. There are of course right-wing and religious arts, but less. That’s a fact.

We can continue to say the arts or bust, culture or bust, but the coronavirus has kicked us in the face. It has felled victims not only in the intensive care units. Culture or die? We won’t die. More’s the pity.

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