Abandoning an Artist to Persecution in a Democratic State

You might not like Natali Cohen Vaxberg’s approach, but the fact that someone has been arrested, handcuffed and repeatedly questioned for a work of art is pathetic.

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Natali Cohen Vaxberg in 2014.
Natali Cohen Vaxberg in 2014.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad

The story of the video artist and playwright Natali Cohen Vaxberg might seem amusing because she's an unusual character armed with macabre humor. She creates provocative videos and treats the whole thing with a healthy dose of ridicule.

But actually the issue isn’t funny in the least. For more than a year, the Bat Yam police have been harassing Cohen Vaxberg over her video in which she defecates on the flags of 40 countries, including Israel’s. She has been handcuffed, put in the Tel Aviv lockup for a night and questioned five times, twice in the past month.

Although the police can call her in for questioning over the phone, they prefer to carry out a surprise raid on her home each time and take her in the cruiser as if she were suspected of armed robbery. At the police station, she usually waits for more than four hours, falling prey to the wit of every detective passing by.

Early on, a judge ordered her release after a tough night in custody; the police wanted her to stay in detention for another two days. But that hasn’t kept the cops from wearing her out. The subsequent interrogations haven’t produced any additional information since the ultra-right-wing rapper Yoav Eliasi, known as the Shadow, discovered Cohen Vaxberg’s flag-and-poop video and got the poopball rolling.

The original video is presumably insufficient basis for an indictment, so when they bring Cohen Vaxberg in for questioning they ask her about other issues. One example is an earlier video, filmed at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and archive, even though the investigation was closed years ago. Then there’s another provocative video, one with a teddy bear.

Last week the questions focused on her Facebook fan page, which she doesn’t even operate. On that page and on a second Facebook page that calls for her to be prosecuted, there are many calls for her to die or be raped.

But in their absurdity, the police haven’t called in any of the people behind the incitement, even though they sign their real names. At the end of each interview, Cohen Vaxberg tells the detectives: “It’s sad you’re bothering with me when there are so many murderers and rapists around the country, some of them in the police force.”

Natali Cohen Vaxberg in court, November 2014.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

You might not like Cohen Vaxberg’s art, but the fact that an artist has been arrested, handcuffed and repeatedly questioned over a year for a work of art is a disgrace to the country and a mark of shame for its art scene, which has abandoned her. For Cohen Vaxberg there are no petitions of support, no exhibitions or concerts in her honor and no demonstrations or protest letters from artists’ organizations. And even leftist Knesset members don’t want to be associated with “delusional” artists.

Cohen Vaxberg comes alone to the Bat Yam police station, where she’s harassed. Instead of fighting the Shadow and others who would silence dissent, the response is to hunker down and wait for it to pass. After all, it’s poop and pee.

But the appetite of the McCarthyist right that began with Cohen Vaxberg and moved on to withdrawing state funding for the Al-Midan Theater is now gobbling up the combat soldiers of Breaking the Silence. In the end it will reach the heart of the left and Israeli culture.

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